The Luigi Marzoli Arms Museum, located in the Mastonte Visconteo of Brescia Castle, displays collections of ancient European weapons. The keep – one of the oldest portions of the castle, built by the Visconti in the fourteenth century, and an imposing part of Cidneo Hill’s surviving fortifications – houses the “Luigi Marzoli” Arms Museum, which was inaugurated in 1988 and designed by Carlo Scarpa. This is one of the most important European collections of old armour and weaponry. The ancient Brescian tradition of arms production is illustrated by the 580 swords, firearms and suits of armour on display (selected from the 1090 items bequeathed by the industrialist Luigi Marzoli), together with the history of warfare and artistic expression which these armaments (which are largely from 15th to 18th-century Brescia and Milan) also embody.
This collection is the result of the testamentary legacy of January 26, 1965, with which the businessman Luigi Marzoli of Palazzolo sull’Oglio linked his private collection of ancient weapons to the municipality of Brescia, collected in fifty years of research. The collection is one of those mentioned by Douglas Cooper in his 1963 volume, Great private Collections, alongside the collections of the Rotschild and sir Denis Mahon.
This main collection has been enlarged by further 300 pieces, 19th-century firearms in particular, from the civic collection. The museum’s ten exhibition rooms of artistic craftsmanship start with a presentation of armaments from the fifteenth century, the time of armoured cavalry, when helmets and body armour were strategically important. The rarest pieces include a large Venetian helmet and under-helmet with visor in the shape of a dog’s muzzle; the thirteenth-century sword is the oldest item on show.
The collection includes numerous sixteenth-century arms, which reflect the changes in modes of attack and development of more dynamic battle tactics in this epoch. Lighter and more comfortable armour was required, such as the superb Maximilian-style suit of armour, almost ostentatious with its shiny, curved surfaces. The museum illustrates the aspects of social display and public honour that weapons and armour began to acquire, in addition to their battleground functions, as objects of prestige and admiration at public parades. The reconstruction in the “Elk Room” of a cavalier’s twin escorts, composed of soldiers on foot and on horseback armed with halberds and maces, adds to the striking general effect. The artisan never loses his sense of artistry, which may at times dominate over technical considerations, such as in the case of the two round parade shields exhibited in the Luxury Armour Room; one is initialled and dated 1563. These are genuine works of art: finely embossed with gilt sections and portraying the Triumph of Bacchus.
The historical voyage of discovery of the arms’ secrets includes the evocative history of the sword, which evolved from being an all-purpose sharp-edged weapon into a fine fencing instrument, a process documented by the mid-sixteenth to eighteenth-century examples displayed, which become increasingly functional and offer progressively more protection to the combatant’s hand. Ample space is given to halberds, muskets, pistols and other guns in the museum section dedicated to the extensive firearm collection, featuring pieces made by the most famous gunsmiths, Cominazzo, Chinelli, Dafino and Acquisti.
The arms on display often show originality in the gunpowder sparking mechanisms or decoration, may be of Brescian or foreign manufacture, and constitute an unusual exhibition of craft engineering through the centuries. Those visitors to the Arms Museum interested in historical art and architecture have the opportunity to appreciate frescos from the Visconti era which decorate the rooms of the keep, the only remaining portion of the fourteenth-century fortifications.
The evocative atmosphere of the museum is further increased by the presence of the remains of an underlying 1st century AD Roman temple; the edges of the foundation and a wide staircase are visible. This is the sole survivor of a group of temples which once stood on Cidneo Hill, an impressive acropolis in the Roman period.
The Duranti-Marzoli Palace
Palazzo Duranti-Marzoli is a two-storey Renaissance building from the 16th century, formerly the home of the Duranti counts and acquired in 1920 by the entrepreneur Luigi Marzoli.
The building has an architectural structure consisting of two buildings joined orthogonally to L on the north-west corner and which enclose, with the portico delimited by Sarnico stone columns, a delightful garden.
The porch leads to the ground floor where the hall and hall are located, both with frescoes from 1770 – 1780. The weapons of the collection are exhibited in these and other rooms on the ground floor.
In the external west facade two bullets are stuck resulting from a cannonade of 1705 between the French and Austrian troops on the occasion of the Spanish succession war.
The external facade, on the royal road that connects Brescia with Bergamo and Milan, is equipped with an access portal in gray sandstone of Sarnico surmounted by a balcony delimited by a frame of the same material and style as the portal. The opening of the balcony is crowned by a broken gable.
The Luigi Marzoli collection
Brescia’s Arms Museum was established after the donation of the collection of Luigi Marzoli, Cavaliere del Lavoro and successful businessman, after whom it is named. During his life Marzoli acquired a large collection of weapons and armour, which came to be one of the most important private collections in the world. In his will he left this precious collection to the town, which undertook to set up an arms museum in the Viscontean keep of the town castle.
The importance of Marzoli’s collection, to which the weapons and armour already present in the civic collection were added, is due not only to the quantity and quality of the pieces, but also to their selection. The Cavaliere del Lavoro’s intention was not just to gather together the best and rarest items on sale, but to obtain examples of the important traditional weapons productions from Brescia’s hinterland, and also elsewhere in Lombardy.
They are weapons built in the period from the fifteenth to the seventeenth century for the white ones and up to the eighteenth for the firearms, an expression of the ability and skill of mainly Lombard craftsmen. The exhibition consists of armor and parts of armor, mainly defensive, of the XV-XVII century, of short and long white fist and auction weapons of the XV-XVII century and of short and long firearms including 15 cannons of the XV- XVIII century.
From the defensive function, swords, blade, stalks, daggers and clubs that are clearly offensive are exposed. There are complete knight armor, both for war and parade.
Numerous short offensive weapons among which the two-handed swords are distinguished by originality, and the cinquedee, species of short and wide swords. These are flanked by a series of arms at auction, such as falcioni and halberds of various shapes and types, some artistically engraved.
The firearms seventeenth-century flintlock ignition are represented both in the short version that long, which flintlocks, pistols, terzette, Mazzagatti for the first and muskets, rifles, muskets, trumpets and guns for the second.
In the production of firearms excelled, with regard to ‘ Italy, the artisans of Brescia Valtrompia, particularly the district Gardone Val Trompia, where the availability of raw materials, the water required for the operation of hydraulic machines combined with a capacity technique refined in centuries of gun production made a tradition possible.
Military helmet (Half of 15th century AD)
This helmet – made in Germany, and one of only 3 known specimens – is a good example of Cavaliere Marzoli’s project to collect rare, high quality objects.
Venetian Great Bascinet (15th century AD)
An example of an extremely rare Lombard piece is this bascinet, discovered in Chalcis Castle in Euboea. At the sale, Luigi Marzoli was in competition with the New York Metropolitan Museum of Art, which holds all the other finds from Chalcis. This specimen testifies to a specific period of this Lombard – probably Milanese – production, as indicated by the crowned P symbol, similar to those found on the oldest surviving plate armour (kept in Castel Coira) and on a basin from a well in the Palazzo Comunale of San Gimignano, traditionally attributed to Pietro Missaglia. This helmet type, which represents an elaboration with respect to other contemporary examples, was made for the Venetian market and issued to local garrisons, or – as in this case – overseas forces.
Armour for Tilt (about 1560-1570)
This armour was found together with another similar piece in a castle in the province of Brescia; both were bought by Marzoli, but only one belongs to the civic collection. This armour was made for jousting, a tournament competition between two horsemen allowed freedom of movement, who could strike their opponent from any direction. This called for particularly effective protection and extra components were added to the armour to protect the areas most at risk, giving the jouster a strangely asymmetrical appearance.
Half Armour for foot combact (about 1590-1600)
One of the most important items in the collection is this armour for foot combat which probably belonged to Charles Emmanuel I of Savoy, or one of his sons. It is one of the finest pieces of armour made in a Milan workshop in the late 16th century and bears the stamp of Maestro del Castello a Tre Torri, an anonymous armour manufacturer who produced numerous high quality pieces that are renowned even today for their perfection and refinement. Together with Pompeo della Cesa, the Maestro del Castello introduced new methods of armour forging and decoration in the late 16th and early 17th century, as the Brescia specimen shows: it is forged using thick, solid plates, with near-perfect limb articulations. Half armour for foot combat was the strongest, since the type of combat was particularly bloody: two teams of knights on foot fought using all types of weapons, but they were separated by a barrier which meant that it was not necessary to protect the legs. The winners were those who managed to put all their opponents out of action. The refined strip decoration, made by etching and gold leaf application, features the Savoy knot, emblem of the House of Savoy.
Half Armour (about 1570-1580)
Roman-style foot-combat armour from the Brescia civic collection, which probably belonged to one of the Martinengo family who commanded Venetian troops. This half armour – etched, engraved with a burin and gilded – was a piece of high quality ornamental armour.
Parade Shield (1563)
This shield, dated 1563, is splendidly decorated with the mythological scene of the Triumph of Bacchus in Italian mannerist style. The engraving of this shield shows great skill and artistry.
Knights on horseback
The display includes wooden carvings of a number of knights on horseback; the horses too wear body armour and trappings of the period.
Chaffron (about 1560-1570)
This horse’s head armour with the Medinaceli monogram is one of the most finely made. The importance of this chaffron – apart from its splendid workmanship and the owner’s importance – is due to the fact that all the other components survive, in various armouries throughout the world. The Armeria Reale in Turin has the knight’s armour and part of the barding, Konopiste Castle armoury the buckler shield, and the Philadelphia Museum of Art the helmet with visor. On the chaffron is inscribed the monogram MEDINACELI, a reference to Juan della Cerda, fourth duke of Medinaceli and governor of Sicily from 1557.
Cuirassier Armour (about 1640)
In the 17th century horsemen’s armour underwent radical change. It became lighter, and the thighs were covered by multi-plate cuisses that came down to the knees, leaving the lower legs free for large boots. It was worn by soldiers armed with a pair of wheellock pistols; the row directly in front of the enemy lines fired at their opponents, and its members then retired to the back of the column to reload, leaving the next row to fire so as to produce a continual onslaught. This typical 17th century armour is completely covered with incisions referring to a battle against the Turks.
Firearms are still the flagship of Brescia’s arms production today. In the 17th and 18th centuries the gun barrels produced mainly by craftsmen of Gardone Val Trompia were renowned all over the world and some weapon-manufacturing dynasties became extremely famous. A prominent example was Cominazzo, whose usual trademark was Lazarino Cominazzo, who were so well known for their gun barrels (“canne lazarine”) that their trademark was forged on goods from the East.
Pair of wheellock pistols (about 1640)
Pair of pistols with a wheel-based firing mechanism bearing the name Giovanni Antonio Gavacciolo, dating to 1640; the barrels with the name Giovanni Lazarino Cominazzo date to circa 1660.
Wheel-lock rifle (about 1650)
A wheel-lock rifle made by Brescian master craftsmen. The name on the barrel is Jacomo di Fortunato Cominazzi, born in 1606; it was produced in about 1640. The decoration of bone dots is not typical of Brescian production, but was added to firearms destined for the Balkans or the East.
Match-lock musket with three rotating barrels (First half of sixteenth century)
Another important firearm of great rarity is this musket; only one other similar piece is known, a matchlock pistol with three rotating barrels kept in the armoury of Palazzo Ducale in Venice. It is likely that they were military weapons, probably for naval warfare. This musket is important for its rarity; the only other similar weapon known is a pistol with the same firing mechanism kept in the armoury of Palazzo Ducale in Venice.
Rapier (First quarter of the seventeenth century)
This rapier, with a magnificent blade from Toledo bearing the name of Pedro de La Velmonte mounted on a gilt and damascened hilt, was probably made in Milan. During the 17th century Spanish dominion Toledo blades with hilts decorated by Lombard craftsmen – who boasted a long tradition of producing high quality hilts – were much in demand.
Rapier (about 1490-1520)
The collection includes this finely made thrusting sword made in north Italy between about 1490 and 1520. The pommel is decorated with plaques depicting the Judgement of Paris on one side, and Ariadne on Naxos on the other, the work of goldsmith and sculptor Giovanni di Fondulino Fonduli.
The castle of Brescia is a medieval fortress perched on Cidneo, near the historic city of Brescia. The castle stands on Cidneo Hill, which constitutes an important park area within the city. It is one of the most interesting fortified complexes in Italy, in which signs of the various periods of domination are still evident.
The central keep, the impressive battlemented walls and the tower were built by the Visconti, whereas the massive ramparts and monumental entrance with drawbridge bear witness to the power of the Venetian Republic, which sustained the city for more than four centuries.
Once focus of Brescia’s famous “Dieci Giornate” rebellion, the castle has now abandoned all belligerence and instead offers visitors the opportunity to stroll on its rolling slopes. The hilltop can be reached from the centre of the old city centre, Piazzetta Tito Speri, by means of Contrada Sant’Urbano. The castle is full of unexpected paths and hidden rooms and provides a marvellous panorama of the entire city centre, nearby hills and valleys.
The encircling towers and the “Strada del soccorso”, an escape route of Viscontean age, have participated in the numerous sieges which the city has known. Following the paths, you can also discover the castle’s balanced eclecticism; one of the city’s oldest and most prized vineyards, on a slope of the hill, coexists naturally with Roman remains, such as a group of olive oil tanks, medieval bastions and a 1909 railway locomotive, the “Prigioniera del Falco d’Italia”, for the enjoyment of younger visitors.