Two Jousting Shields

The Minnesota Chapter

Among the pieces exhibited in the in the Sala Vecchia degli Svizzeri (the Old Hall of the Swiss), the room where new soldiers from Switzerland appeared in front of Pope Julius II, are two exquisite Jousting Shields. These shields are part of a larger set of sixteenth-century armors from the armory of Pope Urban VIII. 

Although art historians are not sure as to whom these Jousting Shields belonged, by analyzing the figures depicted in the shield’s scenes of “The challenge of  Rodomonte and the combat of Gradasso” and “The challenge of Lampedusa with Orlando that kills Gradasso” – both referring to the poem Orlando Furioso by Ludovico Ariosto, it can be concluded that these shields were included in the Armory of Pope Urban VIII as a memento of a remarkable knightly joust that took place in Belvedere Courtyard in the Vatican City on March 5th, 1565. 

The joust was held on the occasion of the marriage between Annibale Altemps and Ortensia Borromeo, who was Pope Pius IV’s granddaughter. Six thousand spectators and twenty-five cardinals watched twenty Spanish and Italian knights compete in various events.

The Two Jousting Shields were also ad pompam vel ostentationem (to be shown and displayed), for they were not only weapons but indicators of the prosperity and importance of their possessor. The shields are indeed real works of art that were often coordinated with other valuable armors and flaunted on special occasions and ceremonies, such as marriages. 

The production of luxurious armor and weaponry began in the fourth decade of the sixteenth century. The decoration of shields was often done by well-known artists, as is the case with the famous Head of Medusa shield by Caravaggio. Artists following the Mannerist style, pupils of Raffaello and Giulio Romano, often decorated shields with images concerning ancient history and classical mythology.