Analysis Milanese cabasset

Iconographical analysis of Milanese cabasset, approx. 1580.
The luxury cabasset (Musée de l’Armée, Paris, inventory number H 224) was made in Milan around 1580. The original is 30 cm high, 24 cm wide and 36 cm long. It is etched and gilded. It is displayed along with a cabasset and two half armours, all three highly decorated with the same techniques. Both sides of the cabasset are identical in decoration. This analysis will therefore be limited to the right side (with the plume holder on the left).
The bottom consists of two decorative horizontal strips running from one end to the other. Above the strips three vertical compartments can be seen: one with a gilded background in the centre flanked on both sides by two compartments with black backgrounds and gilded figures. The cabasset is crowned with a circle of leaves. I will start the analysis with the two horizontal strips, followed by the left and the right vertical compartments, subsequently the vertical compartment with the gilded background in the centre and lastly the top of the helmet.

The lowest horizontal strip depicts typical 16th century decorations, for example the ornamental vase which can often be seen in sculptural form decorating the exterior of a building. It also depicts leave-shaped ornaments, all kinds of helmets, scabbards, an animal-like figure, etcetera. This strip is purely decorative. 
The upper strip shows a more interesting iconography: a repeating motive of a crowned winged figure. In the allegorical art this figure is Victoria: the personification of victory. In Greek and Roman mythology, she was the messenger of the gods, a kind of angel, and descended to earth to crown the victor with a laurel. The figure of Victoria regained its popularity during the Renaissance.

The left and right vertical compartments both show an animal sitting on a helmet, lots of armour parts and weapons. The three depicted animals are a lion and a cock (both as a helmet crest) and a dragon spitting fire or a snake with a long tongue at the bottom of the left compartment. According to Ripa’s Iconologia, the cock is the attribute of vigilance, because he never forgets to announce the new day during the last hour of the night. Vigilance is one of the virtues that a good monarch or leader should possess. The lion is the personification of power. Power or courage is one of the cardinal virtues. Of course power is one of the most essential virtues for a leader, both on the battlefield and during his reign. 
The snake or dragon at the bottom symbolizes one of the cardinal virtues as well: prudence. The snake sometimes takes the shape of a dragon, and the animal depicted at the bottom has characterisations of both. Prudence does not mean being careful in battle, for the humanists it was equal to wisdom because a wise decision was not precipitate, as the consequences could be permanent. In that way, prudence was also an important virtue for a leader to possess because he had to make  many important decisions.
Both left and right compartments show images that are associated with peace. In the left compartment two mirrored images are depicted: a shield with two spears and a torch. This image stands for peace: the torch sets afire the weapons and thus ends the war. The right compartment contains the depiction of a horn with fruits and wheat growing in it. This is the horn of plenty (cornucopia). The horn of plenty originates from the ancient believe that the horns of the bull and goat contained power and fertility. In the allegorical Renaissance art the horn of plenty symbolizes the result of peace, for peace makes a country fertile and as a result its people live an abundant life.  
The right compartment contains some more objects, like the trumpet and banners, that can be associated with victory. The trumpet (below the horn of plenty) is decorated with a banner. The trumpet is blown for celebrating victory and the banner reminds of victory. A cuirass pierced by flags can also be seen. The flags and the trumpet with the banner make a festive impression.

The centre compartment with the gilded background shows a winged figure as was also the case for the upper horizontal strip. This winged figure is Victoria as well, so another reference to victory. The armed man is the most striking element of the cabasset, because the circle around him and the organic ornaments above and below him both emphasize his image.  This man is presumably the victor and the owner of the helmet.
The top of the helmet shows several gilded leaves: a laurel. In antiquity and during the Renaissance and after, Victoria crowned the winner or victor with a laurel. In antiquity the laurel was often gilded, as is the laurel on top of the cabasset.  So the centre compartment of the cabasset shows the owner as a victor, crowned by Victoria.

The cabasset contains iconography referring to peace (marking the end of a war or the result of good governance), victory and three virtues that a good ruler should possess. Presumably the owner of the cabasset fulfilled an important role in the victory of a battle or war, as so many armour parts and weapons are depicted. His virtues as a good ruler helped him achieve this victory which brought peace. The cabasset was presumably worn during ceremonies and parades where the spectators could constantly be reminded of the military achievements of the man who owned this cabasset.

Author: N.R.Valk commissioned by CelticWebMerchant.