Savoyard helmet, c. 1600
alternatively: Todenkopf, death's face or cat faced helmet.
Italy or Germany.
Heigt: 30 cm
Weight: 4.6 kg
Provenance and literature
I. Probably collection Baron Peuker, Berlin, sold at auction in Bruxelles: Le Roy, M. Henri (1854): Catalogue Illustré D’Armes Anciennes Europeennes et
Orientales…, plate II, fig. 21.
II. Collection Bach, Paris.
III. Collection Rutherfurd Stuyvesant at Rutherfurd Hall, New York; published in: Dean,
Bashford (1914): The Collection of Arms and Armor of Rutherfurd Stuyvesant, page. 26, plate XIII.
Rutherfurd Stuyvesant (1843 – 1909) was a trustee of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York from 1870 until his death in 1909. The history of the familiy can
be traced back until 1646 when
became colonial governor of New York (then New Amsterdam). For a discussion of this important collection also see Pyhrr, S. (2012): Of Arms And Men, Arms and Armor at the Metropolitan 1912 – 2012, pp. 6 .
To mark the centennial of the arms and armor department at the Metropolitan[...]
there is currently the special exhibition
Bashford Dean and the
Creation of the Arms and Armor Department on view (2.10.2012 – 29.9 2013).
IV. Collection Frank Andrina , Los Angeles; published in:
Curtis, Howard M. (1977): 2,500 Years of European Helmets, p. 304 f. Frank Andrina was a famous Hollywood actor and producer.
In the course of the sixteenth century firearms had become more and more precise and could even be carried by the cavalry due to the invention of the wheel lock.
As a reaction armourers developed harnesses that were able to protect against contemporary bullets at exposed areas. Because of the required material thickness
the weight of full plate armour increased in a way that its use in combat was limited to the heavy cavalry.
In order to protect the head such a cuirassier was equipped with a close-helmet. A special subspecies is the present so called Todenkopf.
This term arises from the German denotation for skull and emanates from the terrifying appearance of this helmet with its black surface and the visor in the shape
of a stylised face with dark eyeholes.
Being the elite troop of the early 17th century[...]
it was the heavy cavalry of
Charles Emanuel Duke of Savoy who contributed significantly to the
reputation of this type of helmet and led to the denotation savoyard helmet. Back in 1602 Charles Emanuel attempted to besiege the city of Geneva and commanded 3000
combatants to surround the city walls during the night of December 11th. When the ring was closed at 2 o'clock the duke
implemented an interesting maneuver: The 200 members of the heavy cavalry were ordered to dismount and climb the walls in their impressive armours and Todenkopf
helmets. Using the element of surprise the guards should be overmasterd in order to open a city gate for the main forces. However the alarm was raised by a night
watchman and Geneva's militia rose to meet the invaders. The attempted raid was a disastrous failure. 54 Savoyards were killed and many more captured.
Charles Emmanuel's army retreated in a panic and the Savoyard prisoners were executed.
Until the present day the events of Geneva and the successful defense of the city are celebrated each year at the
Escalade de Genève.
Defeating the invaders Geneva's militia captured their plate armour which became a kind of war trophy.
Many of these pieces are on view at Geneva's
Musée d’Art et d’Histoire, others entered the
art market in the course of time. Possibly also the present helmet was once a trophy from this battle. On the other hand the term savoyard helmet being known
since the events of Geneva shall not lead to the conclusion that this type of helmet was exclusively used in the region that is Northern Italy today. It is by
all means possible that comparable helmets were employed in other parts of Europe as well.[...]
The globosely shaped scull is forged in two parts that are firmly attached to each other by flanging the plates in the central comb.
Its surface is kept hammer rough and still shows the original unadulterated blackening. As a visual contrast the comb was polished mirror bright and bears a
For the protection of the neck the armourer formed both plates into a nape-guard and left a band polished on the lower edge, which is finally turned over and corded.
This ornament can also be observed on the front edge of the bevor (covered by the visor), on the gorget plate, the edges of the eyeshades and the frontal rim of
the helmet bowl.
On the nape-guard and frontal brim of the scull you can find several rivets that once held the leather
linen on the inner side and do still enclose remainings of it. The rivet heads were abraded
and blackened like the surrounding surface or polished when located within a blank band. To close the helmet firmly there serves a pivotable hook on the bowl near the upper
part of the neck, which catches a loop on the bevor. A further hook on the lower end of the visor grabs a lug on its frontal part.
Bevor and both parts of the visor all show a hammer rough and blackened surface. Their polished edges are separated from the black zone by a decorative
chamfer and are narrowing to the end, forming an attractive visual contrast to the black parts. The upper visor takes on the comb of the helmet bowl, which tapers
to the lower end.[...]
In the center of the cheek there are two protected ventilation wholes. Above the combatant's mouth there is also a rectangular cut out that not only serves for ventilation purposes,
but together with the eye openings let the helmet look like a stylised face with a terrifying appearance.
The plates of this savoyard helmet were forged in a material thickness that protected against contemporary fire arms. However this meant the weight to
amount 4.6 kilos. Wearing this Todenkopf must have been a severe physical challenge even for the well trained mercenary.
Tower of London, Inv. No. IV.48; Dufty, A. R. (1968): European Armour in the Tower of London, plate CVII.
Higgins Armory Museum, Inv. No. 609.a
Metropolitan Museum of Art, Inv. No. 14.25.512
Art Institute Chicago, Inv. No. 1982.2498
Musée d’Art et d’Histoire de Geneve
Museo Stibbert, Florenz; Lensi, A. (1917): Il museo Stibbert, plate XXX.