Combined Match- and Wheel-lock Gun, North Italian, c. 1620
The fame of Italian craftsmen in the working of steel was already well-established in Europe by the end of the sixteenth century. Certain cities in the north of Italy, noteably Brescia, had long specialised in the ornate chiselling of iron and steel, reflecting demand from the luxury arms trade. This particular weapon is a tour de force in which the genius of the craftman comes to fruition in a single masterpiece combining superlative workmanship, technical excellence, and a startling artistic vision. The graceful curves of the stock are accentuated by lines of inlaid silver wire and enriched with sheet-silver inlays engraved with erotic scenes, reflecting a robust appreciation of human sexuality. Some of the scenes are unashamedly graphic; indeed, as recently as fifty years ago the more explicit inlays were obscured with black tape in order to avoid ‘public offence’ in the galleries of the Wallace Collection.
The love affairs of the Gods and men had long been a favourite subject of painters, engravers and artist-craftsmen generally. In their exuberance it was sometimes the case that classical sources were marginalised in favour of baser human instincts, often combined with humour. For example, the beautifully cast and chased rear-sight of this weapon is formed as the naked body of a woman, lying on her back with her legs apart to form a ‘V’, through which the shooter takes aim.
Another interesting feature of this weapon is its lock, which fires the pan by means of wheel-lock and match-lock mechanisms acting simultaneously. From a practical point of view this double ignition system makes no apparent sense, since the wheel-lock was specifically developed to eliminate the need for a burning length of match.
If, on the other hand, the wheel-lock was seen to be so unreliable as to require a match-lock as a back-up, its presence seems to offer no obvious advantages. It is much more likely that it was conceived as an elegant curiosity, a technical and artistic novelty designed purely for display in a domestic setting.
1 p.m, Thursday 6 October and Thursday 20 October: Tobias Capwell, Curator of Arms and Armour.
- Capwell, Tobias, Masterpieces of European Arms and Armour in the Wallace Collection, London 2011 (published on 10 October 2011)
- Mann, Sir James, Wallace Collection Catalogues: European Arms and Armour (London: The Wallace Collection, 1962)