Show & Tell: A Mermaid Helmet

The Metropolitan Museum of Art
The Metropolitan Museum of Art / The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Along the crest of this helmet, made by Milanese armorer Filippo Negroli in 1543, lies the body of a half-fish woman, who clutches the snake-hair of the severed head of Medusa in her hands. The helmet is designed so that the wearer would present the dual faces of the conquered monster and the lovely mermaid on his forehead. Circling the helmet are gorgeous nature-inspired embossed designs: “acanthus scrolls inhabited by putti [cherubic child figures], a motif ultimately derived from ancient Roman sculpture and wall paintings,” according to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, which holds the helmet in its collections.

The resonance with Greek and Roman mythology was a carefully cultivated effect: Renaissance-era kings and princes liked to think of themselves as the spiritual and actual descendants of ancient Roman conquerors. “Filippo’s elaborately embellished armors … played a symbolic role, transforming their wearers into the guise of the heroes of ancient history, mythology, or literature,” writes Philippe de Montebello in the foreword to the Met’s 1998 catalog of an exhibition of armor all’antica (or, armor in the ancient style). Clients like the Emperor Charles V (or King Charles I of Spain) and kings Francis I and Henry II of France wore armor like Negroli’s as decorative ornamentation for parades and public events, not expecting it to protect them from actual blows.

Filippo Negroli “did not invent” the fashion of armor all’antica, write Stuart W. Pyhrr and José-A Godoy in the same catalog; “the tradition of wearing classically inspired armor was centuries old by his day.” But unlike his competitors, Negroli made his shields and helmets “from single plates rather than to construct them by means of appliqués,” mastering a much more technically difficult mode of manufacture. Negroli also created his own original designs, rather than copying classical ornamentation wholesale; his armor was a work of art, and he appears to have considered it to be such. “The armorer’s signature, inscribed in Latin and placed in a prominent location [on his finished works], reflects an extraordinary pride and self-assurance without parallel in his profession,” Pyhrr and Godoy write.  

Metropolitan Museum of Art

Metropolitan Museum of Art