Iron Men: Fashion in Steel (Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna) 26 March – 26 June [Exhibition review]

Vienna usually spoils visitors with an interest in arms and armour with the Hofjagd und Rustkammer housing one of the best collections of its kind. However, the ‘Iron Men’ exhibition curated by Stefan Krause elevates this experience and offers a unique educational trip on the subject of armour that mainly spans from the 15th to the 16th century. A combination of harnesses, armour parts and art lead the visitor on an amazing journey.

The field armour from the Eagle Garniture of Archduke Ferndinand II by Jorg Seusenhofer makes a stunning first impression on visitors.

The aim of the exhibition is to present the many functions and contexts of armour: a tool for war, a staggering display of power, a diplomatic gift, an inimitable fashion statement and a unique manner in preserving memory. Visitors will be able to see some of the best examples of field and tournament armour made for some of the most renowned princes of their time, armour designed for children and funerary purposes. Armour is discussed as a method of constructing identities, expressing masculinity and martial prowess. The often-overlooked subject of women in martial culture and in relationship to armour is also presented. The owners of armour, with their bodies imprinted in steel, are first presented as larger than life humans, then as everyday people that could afford unique carapaces that served multiple functions and besides power and wealth also often possessed a sense of humour, style, and an interest to the aesthetically pleasing. These qualities shift historical figures from two-dimensional beings to being somewhat relatable. Since fashion is often at the forefront the decorative methods of armour are explored in depth. The use of fabric as a layer underneath or over armour is demonstrated through amazing extant examples, as well as the use of precious metals and stones. The exhibition ends with past reimaginations of armour in previous centuries both as objects as well as in art, demonstrating how as objects they always spurred interest. Armour is presented as a method of interpreting intercultural barriers or a glorified past with examples of armour alla turca and all’antica.

Whereas the strongest part of the exhibition is unquestionably some of the most impressive examples of armour surviving, the texts accompanying are masterfully written and edited to complement the content of the various rooms. The precision, sensitivity and scholarly meticulousness is balanced with simplicity without dumbing down the content -a sin that many modern museums often commit- and sets the standard for exhibitions on the field of arms and armour. Without relying on the overused crutches of modern pop-culture or the conservative displays of previous decades ‘Iron Men’ shatters many of the norms that armour is usually presented in similar exhibitions, captivates the attention of the visitor, and invites them to imagine and learn.

The ‘Iron Men’ exhibition truly raised the bar regarding the presentation of armour both as an object as well as conceptual ideas. It is engaging, thoughtful and often reinvents how the subject is framed and presented, rendering it a useful educational experience for the general audience as well as for specialised scholars. An excellent catalogue was produced for the purposes of the exhibition covering all objects in it as well as featuring numerous essays on various topics related to armour.

Conference Report: Martial Culture in European Towns (1350-1650), University of Bern, 11-13 November 2021

Speakers of the conference. Photo by Laura Bernardazzi.

Thursday, 11 November: Registration, museum visit and keynote lecture

For the start of the event the organizers had arranged a guided tour of the Bern History Museum. Attendants had the opportunity to see unique treasures from the Swiss-Burgundian Wars, lavishly decorated textiles and armaments. During the tour attendants socialized and discussed matters related to material culture.

The conference started with a keynote lecture by Marc Boone (Ghent University), who presented many of the themes investigated in the context of the ‘Martial Culture in Medieval Towns’ research project. He presented a general theoretical and historical framework for the research of martial culture and the town as a producer and promoter of martial activities. The various martial functions and practices of citizens were discussed, as well as the responsibilities and operations of the town from a legal and organizational perspective. Overall, the lecture set the tone for the rest of the conference with various ideas and questions relating to martial culture.

Friday, 12 November: Panels

The second day of the conference included an introduction by the organizers and three panels. Regula Schmid (University of Bern) and Daniel Jaquet (University of Bern) welcomed all speakers and attendants, presented all the practical information needed for the event and spoke about the evolution of the research project that hosted the conference. Regula Schmid gave a brief lecture on the historiographical research of martial culture, which practically introduced many of the papers that followed. She presented towns and urban communities of the late medieval and early modern period, particularly in Central Europe, as hubs of martial culture. The importance of communication between specialists was highlighted in the context of exploring this rich and multifaceted research subject.

Panel I. Military Organization: The Town as Hub of Transregional Martial Culture

Mathijs Roelofsen (University of Bern) discussed the institutional, operational and material aspects of military organization, focusing on the city of Fribourg as an example. The involvement of the city’s citizens in martial matters was addressed, extending the scope of the investigation beyond the context of direct military functions. This was done on multiple levels that included the maintenance and repair of armour according to individual capacity, the role of wealthier families among the city’s elite as occupiers of leading political and military roles, and more.

Andreas Moitzi (University of Vienna) presented Vienna’s military organization and forces, as well as the duties and obligations its citizens had to fulfil. This essay focused on the fifteenth century, but elements of Viennese organization from previous centuries were also provided in order to create a complete image of the city and its military importance.

Panel II. Martial Experts: Production and Circulation of Martial Knowledge

In his paper, Daniel Jaquet (University of Bern) demonstrated the problem of defining martial expertise at the end of the Middle Ages, particularly from the perspective of town authorities. He discussed the perception and the conditions in which someone could be presented as a martial expert, as well as the reception of many of them by the public and local authorities. The importance and problem of the martial expertise definition was presented through multiple documents (charters, accounting and council books, meeting minutes and narratives).

Eric Burkart (University of Trier) discussed how Paulus Hector Mair, an extremely vivid personality of sixteenth-century Augsburg, created his self-image partially through martial arts expertise. He explored Mair’s immersion into martial culture in relation to his social standing in order to reveal a complex and ambitious man that aspired to be part of the humanist and patrician elites. His actions were examined from a socio-cultural perspective to explore the many layers of his constructed identity and how they fitted in his plan for unobtainable social advancement that, however, eventually lead to his execution for embezzlement.

Finally, Jacob Deacon (University of Leeds) analysed the functions and regulations of the Company of Masters of Defence, an organization that resembled a fencing guild in sixteenth-century England. The historical context of martial practice and teaching was presented in order to highlight the need for a body such as the Masters. Practices of this organization such as the examination of its members and the oaths that they had to take were presented in depth. Through them, Deacon demonstrated thoroughly that the Masters of Defence were trying to create a self-image of a serious and structured organization that ensured that its members had to adhere to its high standards.

Panel III. Martial Urban Space: Defending and Guarding City Walls

Elena Magli (University of Bern) examined the structure and operation of guards and watches in late medieval Basel, a town at the periphery of the Holy Roman Empire, but part of a highly active economic area. Through the examination of documents such as ordinances of the city, she discussed the profiles of those joining the night watch, as well as their conduct and practices while on duty, revealing in the process many of the habits of citizens from that period.

Armand Baeriswyl (Archaeological Service of the Canton of Bern) focused on the importance of town fortifications, not only as a military feature but also as an element of how a town presented itself, and how they were affected by economic, legal, social and living conditions. Examples were drawn geographically from Switzerland, and their evolution was discussed from the early Middle Ages onwards, particularly focusing on the thirteenth to the sixteenth century. A number of specific structural elements were discussed and how they compared to evolving building and military technologies.

Karsten Igel (University of Münster) presented urban spaces as places of conflict. He investigated the physical and political landscape of Westphalian cities and towns as one of the factors that propelled turmoil. The volatile political conditions of the region were discussed in depth and raised questions about the involvement of local authorities in instigating violence and conflict.

Saturday, 13 November: Panels, posters, discussion and closing remarks

Panel IV. Weapons: Production, Trade and Exchange

Iason Tzouriadis (Martial Art Museum) addressed the complex subject of staff-weapon typologies. He presented problems in the theoretical framework of creating arms and armour typologies and compared this to systems from other fields and sciences. The importance and relevance of typologies as a research tool were highlighted by the example of toponymical suffixes in staff weapon names. The nomenclature of these objects were presented as often having been affected by their symbolic use in art and as identifying features of cultural identity. The example of the Swiss and the proto-halberd was brought up in order to demonstrate the need for further research.

Catherine Fletcher (Manchester Metropolitan University) discussed the production of firearms at the town of Gardone Val Trompia, north of Brescia, during the period of the Italian Wars (1494-1559). The importance of the town as a gun producer was highlighted under the prism of the fragile relationship of the town with Venice, particularly considering that Gardone was a distant Venetian territory and governed by the equally distant Brescia. The paper explored the dynamics and problems of this commercial and governing relationship between Gardone and Venice and how families of the Brescian elite acted as mediators in the arms industry and local authorities.

Robert W. Jones (Franklin and Marshall College) concluded this panel with a paper on bearing swords in the High and Late Middle Ages. The transfer of authority through presenting swords was discussed and the various cases connected with this practice were presented. The main arguments of this though-provoking paper were that bearing swords are evidence of a nuanced hierarchy of authority and display of power that was affected by the manner they were carried and displayed as well as from their positioning, orientation, decoration and even naming. Interestingly, when used by urban authorities, the symbol of the sword might eventually become entirely disassociated from its martial and military connections and connotations, and turn into a representation of civic authority.

Panel V. Burghers and Fighters: Social Mobility and Urban Martial Culture

Stefanie Rüther (Max-Planck-Institut für Rechtsgeschichte und Rechtstheorie) tackled the interesting subject related to the behaviour and re-integration of soldiers to society when they returned to their non-military lives. The profiles of those that served in military campaigns were examined in as to the duties they were expected to perform. Some of the primary sources presented gave an insight to the mindset and expectations of those that chose the soldier profession in addition to their perception of what followed for them after a war ended. Examples of the lives of famous and infamous personas that served as soldiers such as Niklaus Manuel, Jörg Bräu and Urs Graf highlighted the realities of warfare and the problems that came with it even after the men involved returned to their homes. Problems such as acts of violence and participation in illegal activities were symptoms of the hardships the return to normality posed for some veterans.

Markus Jansen (University of Köln) discussed the constructed identities and practices of the martial elite of Cologne in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries and their attempt to connect to a fabricated historical past and connection in order to elevate their status. The focus was the creation of a corresponding myth of origin that sought to establish them as descendants of imperial Rome. The martial functions and activities of this elite were presented in the various contexts they were active in.

For the last paper of the conference, Jean-Dominique delle Luche painted a vivid image of shooting culture in the Late Middle Ages and the Early Modern Period. The role of shooting societies was highlighted as well as their contribution to the civic identity of their members. The social profiles of members of crossbow and handgun societies were briefly presented next to their involvement in competitions and festivities. Finally, the amusing rivalries between competing shooting societies portrayed a very relatable aspect of martial culture.


Besides lectures, speakers and attendants had the opportunity to read posters presented by three PhD candidates on various aspects of martial culture. The posters were displayed next to a computer that allowed viewers to have an audio commentary on each one of them by the authors.

The three posters can be read on our blog (click on the link):
Maciej Talaga (University of Warsaw), German longswords revisited. Late-medieval south-German sword-makers as brokers of urban martial culture
Miente Pietersma (University of Gröningen), Training skills, acquiring virtues, bodily traits and moral improvement in early printed fencing manuals, 1450-1550
Rémi Demoen (CESR, Tours), Military defense in the royal towns of Touraine during the Wars of Religion: a daily martial culture

Conclusion of the conference

The conference concluded with a collective exercise that required all speakers and attendants to write on paper ideas they got from each session. Then the collection of these ideas were presented and discussed in depth with everyone present contributing to the discussion.

Overall, the conference was a great success and everyone present went away with a lot of information to unpack. Speakers and attendants were incredibly active during the time available for questions, taking advantage of the format in order to allow all speakers, all specialists to their relevant subjects, to shine and further develop points related to their topics. The event was a testament to the fact that the ‘Martial Culture in Medieval Towns’ research project has resoundingly succeeded in its goal of creating and nurturing a research network that discusses all facets of martial culture. The publication of the proceedings of the conference are being currently prepared.

The conference was sponsored by the Swiss National Science Foundation funding, by the Burgergemeinde Bern, the Max und Elsa Beer-Brawand Fonds, and the Historische Institut, Department of Medieval Studies, of the University of Bern.

Conference Review: “Second International Conference on the Military History of the Mediterranean Sea” (Thessaloniki, 16-18 September 2021)

The conference “Second International Conference on the Military History of the Mediterranean Sea” took place on September 16-18, 2021 in Thessaloniki. The event was co-organised by the Byzantine Thessaloniki organization (Βυζαντινή Θεσσαλονίκη) and Ibn-Haldun University (Istanbul). The full programme will be uploaded soon by the organizers on The event was a follow-up to the successful “First International Conference on the Military History of the Mediterranean Sea” held at Fatih University (Istanbul) on 25-28 June 2015. The connecting link was Dr. Georgios Theotokis who oversaw large part of the organization and structure of sessions of both conferences. The aim of both events as established by their respective call for papers was to bring together different networks of researchers in order to explore the vast military history of the Mediterranean over the centuries through the prism of various disciplines such as history, archaeology, history of art and philology.

Thessaloniki, has been one of the most important ports of the Mediterranean for commercial and tactical purposes for two-and-a-half millennia, and provided a perfect backdrop for the conference. The choice of the Military Museum of Thessaloniki for the event venue was an immersive space with great conference facilities. Attendance was unfortunately not open to the public due to strict Covid-19 regulations. Prior to the conference, a guided tour of the museum introduced all those present to a trove of unique objects in an old-fashioned but well-kept collection. Exhibits from the seventeenth century onwards were displayed to highlight the wars of Greece from the Greek War of Independence to the Balkan Wars and the World Wars. Furthermore, the museum features an amazing permanent exhibition on Sophia Vempo, an iconic singer and symbol of resistance for Greece during World War II, as well as room dedicated to the resistance against the Greek dictatorship (1967-74). The conference opened with formal greetings from members of the organizing committee and officials, and the first keynote lecture.

Fig. 1: The Military Museum of Thessaloniki.

Over three days attendees had the opportunity to listen to a wide array of papers and subjects from 42 speakers that ranged from postgraduate students and early career researchers to leading authorities in their respective fields. The conference featured some parallel sessions, which is a testament to its size, however, it can also be a drawback in such specialized events where those attending have a general interest in most presentations. The three keynote speakers Haralambos Papasotiriou (Professor of International Relations and Strategic Studies, Panteion University), Matthe Bennett (Visiting Research Fellow, University of Winchester; formerly Senior Lecturer, Royal Military Academy, Sandhurst) and Georgios Theotokis (Ibn-Haldun University and member of the conferences organizing committee) created a strong theoretical frame tackling key components of military history such as strategy, tactics and leadership.

Sessions were organized either thematically or chronologically in a manner that papers grouped together complemented each other and created opportunities for useful post-presentation discussions. Subjects discussed included military units and their relevant terminologies, army composition, borders and international relationships. Moreover, speakers discussed key subjects that seemingly exist in the peripheries of military history such as religion, divinity and power, sexual violence, masculinity, depictions of martial military and non-military themes, which are however, a necessary part of the greater mosaic we discuss nowadays as martial culture, and are by no means less important than more traditional and well-studied topics. Thematic panels on leadership, martial elites, fortifications and arms and armour painted a larger image that spanned from Late Antiquity to the seventeenth century, focusing at times on important personae or geographical regions, and demonstrated the myriad subjects available for research both in the context of the Mediterranean as well as in the field of military history. Most of the conference papers were Byzantine-themed but this is unsurprising considering that the event was hosted in Greece and particularly Thessaloniki, and yet even in that specific thematic of Mediterranean history, scholars demonstrated a variety of topics and the need for further research. Speakers employed a multitude of methodologies in order to explore the aforementioned themes and discussions focused on their intersections such as leadership, tactics and intercultural influences.

Fig. 2: Detail from the collection of the Military Museum of Thessaloniki exhibiting equipment from World War II.

After nearly two years of online conferences and events it was refreshing seeing once more the value of in-person events with discussions and collaborations brewing after presentations and during breaks. The level of discussion was impressive and even in the case of scholarly disagreement this was always conducted in a manner that demonstrated that learning and advancing was at the core of this event.  

Besides the great variety and high level of the presentations, as well as the great hosting and facilities this is not to say that the event is beyond criticism. The conference clearly favoured traditional historical approaches to military history over more modern interdisciplinary methodologies and this was largely reflected both in the subjects of the keynote lectures as well as in the content of most of the essays presented. Arguably, the only detail that seriously tarnished an overall great event was the presence and lecture of a politician and member of the Greek Parliament Mr. Konstantinos Gkioulekas, who instead of limiting himself to a formal greeting he gave an hour-long lecture, which ended up being a crescendo of obsolete nationalist and populist ideas. With audacity, he instructed all historians present not to “over-analyse primary sources because first-hand accounts are true and provide all information we need”, and amusingly brought as examples nineteenth century newspapers and propaganda pamphlets. This, combined with the moderator of the opening ceremony speaking Greek instead of English to an international audience showed that the priorities of some of the organizers focused on appealing to local political and religious officials rather than catering to the speakers invited.

Overall, the quality of the organization of the academic part of the event and the papers presented was excellent. Even in specialized conferences, it is hard to have so many engaging and interesting topics that generate a continuous stimulating discussion. It would take weeks to even attempt to cover briefly basic subjects drawn from every corner of the Mediterranean, even if the focus was an artificial chronological border such as the last millennium. However, the speakers and the organizers proved that the essays of the conference, acting as research vignettes, could highlight many of the aspects that are currently being studied or that need further research. The Mediterranean was presented as a place of communicating ideas and cultures that affected each other, which resonated to the present and the very essence of the event. Hopefully, a third installation of the conference, and perhaps many more, will keep advancing the field creating the platform for further discussion. As a series of conferences the “International Conference on the Military History of the Mediterranean Sea” is becoming an important event for those researching the Mediterranean and/or military history. A volume with the conference proceedings is planned for publication in the future.

Book review – Miriam Vogelaar, The Mokken Collection: Books and manuscripts on fencing before 1800

(MMIT Publishing, 2020) 208 pp. Price: € 75
ISBN: 978-94-93166-19-6

The book is a laborious and significant contribution to the history of fencing, martial arts and European martial culture. The focus of the book is the fight book collection of Wiebe Mokken, honorary member and former chairman of the Royal Dutch Fencing Association (KNAS). The collection, as presented in this publication, is undoubtedly one of the most important of its kind. Previous catalogues and bibliographical works on fencing, namely by Jacopo Gelli (1895) and Carl Thimm (1896) were published more than a century ago; therefore, Vogelaar’s contribution to this field of study is a welcomed modern scientific update. The author makes one of the largest collections of its kind accessible to the public in the form of a comprehensive lavish catalogue. The book allows a glimpse into a unique treasure that highlights the wealth and depth of material regarding martial culture. By exploring fight books, tangible records of intangible martial traditions, the reader is immersed in the information that these unique objects provide regarding martial cultures, particularly in social-civic environments and not from the usually discussed military perspective.

The structure of the book is straightforward. Wiebe Mokken has provided an emotional preface in English and French, which allows some insight to the psyche of a passionate collector and fencing aficionado. Remarks on the catalogue entries by the author act as a key, an explanation and a de facto clarification on the systematic cataloguing and presentation that follows. The entries, that construct the vast majority of the publication, are arranged alphabetically by the last name of the author. Each entry includes exhaustive technical details on the discussed publication, followed by analytical comments deriving from research on the author or the publication. Finally, bibliographical notes and references to the works used for the bulk of the text are displayed on the end of each entry. One of the most invaluable and unique characteristics of this publication are Vogelaar’s comments in each entry regarding technical observations on the discussed entry as an object such as restoration, watermarks, stains. These additions separate this publication from every else of its kind and highlights the importance of considering the insights of a book expert. After the entries, a supplementary timeline of the books discussed helps contextualize them by placing them in chronological order with a visual snippet of each entry. Besides the aforementioned contextualization, this assists in the instantaneous observation of the changing and fluctuating visual trends of the genre. The publication is completed with a bibliography and with an index of authors, editors and compilers. 

The book comes in a large format (27×21), which certainly benefits a publication that relies on the reader observing detailed images. The hardback format and the linen bound spine facilitate reading the book in full spread without the fear of damaging it. All images are presented in full colour and excellent quality. Two reading ribbons further add to the premium presentation. The technical characteristics of the book complement the content and overall make for an impressive publication.

Perhaps the most notable drawback of the book is its bibliography, which is primarily focused on publications regarding other catalogues and bibliographies. Some modern scholarship on the literary genre of fight books is also included. Whereas the first type of publication is exhaustively included in this part, research on fight books is only fragmentarily represented. This is largely due to the lack of the contextual discussion of the presented publications and because each entry focuses solely on a very strict discussion on each object. An expanded recommended bibliography for further research would benefit readers and would link this catalogue to the current scholarship on the subject of fight books. The publication would also benefit from supporting essays on fight books and their evolving social contexts that created the necessity for their production. Of course, each bibliographical entry is accompanied by the aforementioned dedicated description and discussion, but besides the beautiful and sentimental preface by Wiebe Mokken, there is not body of text that discusses the overall cultural or historical context of the genre. This context is also absent in the book timeline, which presents in chronological order only the material from the collection. However, this is more of a wish from a scholarly perspective rather than a criticism regarding quality, and the exclusion of such essays does not diminish the value of the work as a catalogue. Both of the aforementioned issues stem from the nature of the book as a specialized publication focusing on a single specific and incredibly rich trove of books and manuscripts.

These minor critiques aside, Vogelaar’s book on the Mokken Collection is arguably the best reference work on the subject of the history of fight books. It is a great tool for the book and martial arts scholar, providing quick access to precise bibliographical information and concentrated key details for each entry. Furthermore, it can be a remarkable stimulus for professionals from adjacent disciplines and subjects, as well as for fencing enthusiasts in order to understand better the history of European martial arts and the bibliographical context and wealth of source material available. Vogelaar’s book can ignite interest on the subject for students in an academic context as well as for those practicing in the fencing hall, and it will most certainly assist future librarians and professionals working in the art industry. It is a comprehensive and informative catalogue of the highest quality in both content and production, and it elucidates the cultural production of recorded European martial arts for over three centuries.

“A true son of Mars”: Ascanio della Corgna’s urban duels


Sixteenth century Italy was a place of constant conflict and shifting political and military balances. Men of status such as Prospero Colonna, Francesco Maria I della Rovere and Ferrante Gonzaga, often served as condottieri, hired military commanders, and became renowned for their martial exploits. This was also the case for Ascanio della Corgna, a noble from Perugia and nephew to Pope Julius III. Ascanio became famous serving as a condottiero in numerous battles, for his ingenuity as a tactician and military engineer, and for his competence with arms both in battle as well as in tournaments.[1] His military career earned him the title of the marquis of Castiglione del Lago. An anonymous poet, contemporary to Corgna, referred to him as “vero figluol di Mars”, a true son of Mars, which highlighted his martial prowess and fierceness as a warrior, as well as his recognition as such.[2] His temper also led to his involvement in several judicial duels of honour.[3] Two of them gave and boosted his reputations as a lethal fencer: the first against Ugo di Carpegna and the second against Giovanni Taddei.

Against the Count of Carpegna

Ascanio’s first famous duel was fought against Ugo, Count of Carpegna in the city centre of Bologna. The Count was the general of the military force that Ascanio had served in since 1535. A series of events caused offense to Ascanio, who then challenged his leader. The duel was conducted in the marble-laid yard above the step of the church of San Petronio. The choice of the location served as an elevated platform where the fighters would be visible to the large crowd of city dwellers and soldiers that had gathered at the base of the steps of San Petronio to watch the duel.  The two fighters brought seconds, and Pietro Strozzi, another wealthy commander, acted as a referee to the duel. Both Ascanio and the Count of Carpegna were already experienced, skilled fencers, with the first having the advantage of youth and the latter of further experience. Each duelist fought with a sidesword and a slightly shorter one handed sword. The duel was bloody and lasted several rounds. Strozzi stopped the duel several times, usually because the Count was injured and enquired if satisfaction had been achieved for della Corgna. The duelists exchanged insults, with the Count of Carpegna accusing Ascanio he challenged him to gain fame and that Ascanio’s requests for him to yield were impossible because they were beneath his status. Eventually with the intervention of the referee and their seconds, the two men reached a compromise and the Count apologised. Ascanio had just defeated his commander, a man of notable status and martial fame in front of the town of Bologna.

The “duel of the century”

Ascanio della Corgna’s second duel took place in Pitigliano, near Perugia, on 26 May 1546.[4] The fight was so ferocious and attracted so much attention that was popularized already by contemporary and early modern historians as “il duello del secolo”, the duel of the century. Ascanio challenged one of his military subordinates to a duel, a younger Florentine noble named Giovanni Taddei. The reason behind Ascanio’s challenge was an insult by Taddei, either for refusing to follow an order or for insulting him in front of other officers who afterwards reported it to their leader. Therefore, in many ways this encounter found Ascanio in a reversed role compared to his first famous duel: he had to fight a younger military subordinate of his who was already a skilled fighter and who would make a name for himself if he defeated the seasoned commander, much like in the case of him and the Count of Carpegna. The preparations of the duel lasted two months, during which time officials were appointed and weapons were chosen. This preparation time allowed the news of the duel to spread in the area and reach great publicity. The two combatants would once again fight with two swords each. The Count of Pitigliano that had allowed the duel appointed himself as the referee.

On the day of the duel the crowd of the city and soldiers gathered outside the city walls. Two elevated stages were erected for the more illustrious guests, invited either by the two men or by the city officials, demonstrating the importance of the event as a social spectacle. Weapons were provided for the combatants sealed, most likely in boxes or other wrapping, to ensure that each fought with the same weapon and had no unfair advantage against the other. The combat was ferocious, but in this case Ascanio emerged swiftly as a clear winner. Taddei first received two thrusts to his right arm, which would have hindered the effective use of his sword, and eventually was killed by a third thrust to his torso.

Niccolò Circignani, The duel of Ascanio della Corgna and Giovanni Taddei, fresco, Pallazo della Corgna.

A case of swords

One of the matters worth further discussion in both of Ascanio’s duels is the choice of weapons for each participant: a pair of single handed swords. This is not an instance of sword and dagger, but two similar swords, one longer and one slightly shorter. Considering the period of their use, it is safe to assume that the swords, or at least the longer one, used were what is commonly referred to today as sideswords.[5] In the fresco of the Palazzo della Corgna depicting this duel, the duelists are also seen wearing some type of glove on their left hand. The glove reaches all the way to the elbow, and it is safe to speculate that it would offer partial protection and was therefore made of leather or most likely mail.

In his Opera Nova, arguably the earliest European to record a nearly complete martial arts system and contemporary to the duels discussed here, Achille Marozzo wrote that the use of a case of sideswords is an excellent and strong choice of weapons that few know how to use, and they should not be used by those who do not know how to fence.[6] In his book, Marozzo treated the use of various weapons such as the two-handed sword, the partisan, the spiedo, the bill, and the sidesword alone or paired with the cloak and the dagger. However, nowhere in his exhaustive treatment of these weapons their use becomes abundantly clear as being something as advanced as in his initial statement regarding the use of the paired sideswords. This is a testament to the martial skills particularly of Ascanio, as well as of his opponents. It is safe to assume that besides his military experience and training, Ascanio was taught how to fence with a fencing master because of his status and chosen profession, most likely with a variety of weapons. Della Corgna’s connection to Achille Marozzo extends beyond the geographical and chronological frame and the use of weapons. Ascanio first served under the command of Guido Rangone as a standard bearer and then as a captain.[7] Rangone was mentioned by Marozzo as another student of his own fencing master, Guido Antonio de Lucca, for whose school Marozzo wrote in his dedication that “it produced more warriors than the belly of the Trojan horse”. Finally, it is worth mentioning that in the sketch and fresco depicting his duel with Taddei both combatants are also using a glove on their left hand, most likely with mail exterior.

His success and overwhelming victories in both duels reinforce the profile of a skilled and experienced fencer. This is especially the case considering that in of the duel against Taddei Ascanio was considerably older and that in the cases of both duels discussed here he was missing his right eye (lost in the battle of Casale Monferrato in 1536), a handicap that would normally weigh in in favour of Taddei because of the dexterity needed in the use of weapons and especially paired arms, his feat becomes even greater.    

Achille Marozzo, Opera Nova (Modena: Bergolae, 1536),
cap. 76.

Urban spaces and fame

A common denominator in both of Ascanio’s duels is the crowd that gathered to watch. The bloody, and in the case of the second duel lethal, fights were transformed into a spectacle for the residents of the cities that hosted them. The crowd in the rooftops and balconies around the church of San Petronio in Bologna hosted part of the spectating crowd, and the elevated landing outside the church served as a stage that allowed citizens to observe the violent spectacle.

In the case of the duel against Taddei the fight was conducted outside the city walls of Pitigliano. Crowds from the city was gathered to watch as well as several of Ascanio’s soldiers. Shopkeepers and homeowners with windows and roofs that overlooked the grounds of the duel rented them out.[8] Not many details regarding the space are given in any of the contemporary accounts. However, it is interesting to highlight some of the details in the fresco of the fight. The duelists are depicted fighting in some form of enclosure much like those used in foot combat tournaments. Additionally, a judge is present holding a staff, which also reflects the same tournament practice. These elements match the descriptions of the narratives of the duel but add some extra depth and detail aligned to the trends of the time of the event. The variety in the garments of the crowd present is fascinating, with colours and outfits that hint to people of different statuses and from various life stratas.

A comparison of the descriptions of the ‘duel of the century’ and the duel of Ascanio against the Count of Carpegna leaves the modern reader with the impression that the latter was a far more interesting spectacle, particularly because of the setting. This might be because of the lack of detail on the combat between of Ascanio and Taddei. However, it is worth considering that their duel was so memorable because of the two-month buildup that led to it. Both men were skilled fighters and had both won famous duels prior to their encounter, with Taddei even winning in one with Ascanio acting as his second. This created an intricate and appealing narrative that most likely excited the public in a period that judicial honour duels were not uncommon.[9]


Among other exploits of his illustrious military career, Ascanio fought against the Ottoman Empire in the Siege of Malta (1565), and acted as one of the commanders of the force that defeated the Ottoman navy in Lepanto (1571). Shortly after the Battle of Lepanto, Ascanio died of fever in Rome. Scenes of his life and his victories are celebrated in the frescoes of the Palazzo della Corgna in Castiglione del Lago, including his record as an undefeated swordsman. Ascanio embodied the finest martial qualities of Italian nobility in the sixteenth century, and his skill helped his reputation reach heroic heights during and after his lifetime. The two duels discussed here helped in the creation of his personal myth –perhaps partially justifying the accusations by the Count of Carpegna – and highlight a martial aspect of the civic life of a military man. 

Acknowledgements: I would like to thank Moreno dei Ricci, Jacopo Penso and ‘Opera Nova’ for their bibliographical assistance and help studying Ascanio. Grazie ragazzi.

[1] Guido Lana, Ascanio I della Corgna ed il suo tempo (Castiglione del Lago: Nuova Stampa, 1999), p. 13.

[2] Ettore Calzorale, ‘Ascanio della Corgna, I combattenti umbri e il gran “soccorso” di Malta nella canzone di un anonimo coevo’, Bolletino della Deputazione di storia, Patria per l’Umbria, 94 (1997), 173.

[3] For an overview of the types of duels in sixteenth century Italy as well as of the context that cultivated their practice see Fredrick Bryson, The Sixteenth-Century Italian Duel; a Study in Renaissance Social History (Chicago:  The University of Chicago Press, 1938).

[4] Ariodante Fabretti, Le biografie dei capitani venturieri dell’ Umbria (Montepulciano: Angiolo Fumi, 1842), pp. 603-604.

[5] Roberto Gotti, Daniel Jaquet and Iason-Eleftherios Tzouriadis, Roberto Gotti, Daniel Jaquet and Iason-Eleftherios Tzouriadis, European Martial Arts: From Vulcan’s Forge to the Arts of Mars (Botticino: Gairethinx, 2019), p.218

[6] Achille Marozzo, Opera Nova, ( Modena: Bergolae, 1536), cap. 76.

[7] Giovanni Tarcagnota, Delle historie del mondo, vol. 4 (Venice: Giunti, 1592), pp. 188-189.

[8] Bruce Ware Allen, The Great Siege of Malta: The Epic Battle Between the Ottoman Empire and the Knights of St. John (Lebanon: ForeEdge, 2015), p. 221.

[9] Marco Cavina, Il sangue dell’onore: Storia del duello (Rome: Laterza, 2005).

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