Adventures in Bookland: How to Read European Armor by Donald La Rocca

This is a book that’s full of clues and cues to enable the reader to understand armour. As to the book itself, the great clue as to reading it is found by seeing that it is published by the Met – the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York – as the latest in a series of ‘How to Read’ books. Previous volumes include ‘How to read Chinese Paintings’ and ‘How to read Greek Vases’. This is very much a book for the cultured connoisseur of European armour. Indeed, the author, Donald La Rocca, is the curator of the Met’s collection of armour. With its exquisitely reproduced photographs of notable pieces of armour, it’s a book that will reside very well on the most tasteful of coffee tables, but it’s more than just a book with beautiful pictures. The text reveals La Rocca’s deep scholarly appreciation of his field, particularly within the context of arms as art. This is a book for the collector rather than the re-enactor.

Its great virtue is to highlight to the reader the dual function of armour. We all know that armour protected the knight but La Rocca and the illustrations place vividly in front of the reader how the ‘knight in shining armour’ of legend was also a man displaying power and prestige, and no where more so than in the armour of the great and powerful. As befits the Met’s superb collection of armour from the 15th to the 17th centuries, the book focuses on the supreme examples of the armourer’s craft, as revealed in such pieces as the gauntlets of Philip II of Spain or the shield of Henry II of France. In these, the armourer marries form and function to an extraordinary degree, providing both superb protection for the royal personage while also signalling his status to the men around him on the battlefield – for this was still a time when kings were expected to take to the field.

In keeping with the expertise of its writer, the book also reveals to the reader the subtle clues that enable someone like the curator of the Met’s armour collection to tell whether what he is looking at is a genuine example of 16th century armour, a cobbled together collection of disparate pieces of armour hung on to a mannequin, or an actual forgery, most likely made in the latter part of the 19th century when the rebirth of interest in the medieval created a market for fake and forged armour. Although La Rocca reveals what he looks for when assessing armour, this reviewer suspects it would take many years of careful study to arrive at the disciplined aesthetic vision that allows this level of discrimination. This sort of appreciation does not come cheap – it requires years of study. But La Rocca is generous with his dearly bought knowledge and by the end of the book the reader will have a far deeper understanding of the form and function of later European armour.

How to Read European Armor by Donald La Rocca.


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One Response to “Adventures in Bookland: How to Read European Armor by Donald La Rocca”

  1. » Blog Archive » Adventures in Bookland: Arms and Armour of Late Medieval Europe by Robert Woosnam-Savage Says:

    […] In that, it would make an excellent companion volume to another recent book I reviewed recently. How to Read European Armor, which focused on armour as an expression of power and the art of the armourer. Woosnam-Savage is […]

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