Peter Finer

A German or Italian Silver-Encrusted Rapier, c. 1600-30

Item Ref: 2989 Price on application

2989 3
2989 2
2989 5
2989 7

Germany or Italy. Steel, silver and wood.


Private collection, Europe
Private collection, USA

This rapier is an attractive and well-preserved example of a kind fashionable in Northern Europe during the first third of the 17th century. The maker’s signature, occurring on its blade and the form of its hilt point to its having been made in Germany about 1620-30.

Giles Duwes, in his English-French dictionary of 1532/3 translated the French word rapiere as ‘the Spannyshe sworde’. There seems little doubt that it was in 15th century Spain that the rapier had its origins. Spanish documents of 1468 and 1503 refer to it as the espada ropera or ‘robe sword’, suggesting that it was from the outset seen as a weapon intended for wear with civilian costume.  By 1475 the Spanish term had entered the French language as espee rapiere which was in due course abbreviated to rapiere.  The earliest reference to the weapon in the English language occurs in an account of 1505 recording the ‘binding of...ane rappyer...with cordis of silk’ for James IV of Scotland.

By the mid-16th century the term ‘rapier’ had come to refer a sword equipped with a long, slender blade intended primarily for thrusting, and possessed of a more or less elaborately-constructed hilt designed to provide protection to the unarmoured hand of the civilian.  The hilt of the rapier under discussion is of the classic “swept” form which tended to increase in complexity through the years. 

With its long, horizontal quillons and its inclined upper side-ring issuing from the base of the arms and linked by an outer loop-guard to the knuckle-guard, the hilt of the rapier under discussion, can be placed within Norman’s type 58, thought by him to have been in use from possibly about 1560 to about 1635.  However, apart from a single extant example that he saw as exhibiting characteristics suggestive of a date not much later than about 1560, and one shown from the inside in a Dutch portrait of 1593 all the evidence that Norman was able to present for the use of the type comes from after 1600. 

The earliest dateable example of it is that found on a sword in the Historisches Museum, Dresden, given by Carlo Emanuel I, Duke of Savoy, to the Elector Christian II of Saxony in 1605, while another, also in Dresden, occurs on a sword given to the same elector by the Emperor Rudolph II in 1610. The latter was decorated in the workshop of Daniel Sadeler of Munich, as was another of the same fashion in the Deutsches Historisches Museum, Berlin, bearing the arms of Albrecht von Wallenstein as lord of Friedland before he was created Duke, almost certainly indicating a date in the period 1622-5. A fourth dateable hilt of this type, once again in the Historisches Museum, Dresden, is recorded as having been given to the Elector Johann Georg I by his father in 1628. Numerous dated or dateable portraits and paintings of the first three decades of the 17th century show hilts of the same type. 

The inner guard of the rapier under discussion is of a form classified by Norman as his type 30 and recorded by him in portraits and paintings dating from between 1577 and about 1615-18.  

Viewed collectively, the various lines of evidence considered above suggest that the rapier under discussion dates from within the first three decades of the 17th century, and most likely the later part of that period. The style of its silver-encrusted ornament would be consistent with such a date.

Decoration of that fashion was widely popular in Northern Europe during the first thirty years of the 17th century, being variously found on swords with German, French, English, Dutch, Scandinavian, Finish and Swiss provenances. 

Of particular interest are three rapiers in the Wallace Collection, London which have silver-encrusted decoration of a similar character to that occurring on the rapier under discussion.  While not of Norman’s type 58, they are of his closely related type 69 which differs from it only in having no link between the middle of its upper side-ring and the lower end its forward arm. Norman’s survey of contemporary portraits show this type of hilt – leaving aside one early Spanish record of in 1567 – to have been in use from 1596 to 1633 and to have enjoyed the same widespread popularity as his type 58.  

Although hilts possessing the kind of silver-encrusted decoration found on the rapier under discussion have been described by some earlier writers as Italian of the late 16th century, it seems clear from the evidence presented by Norman that they represent a Northern European fashion of the first third of the 17th century.  It is likely that Germany, as a major centre of European arms-production at that time, would have been their chief centre of production.

A sword in the Deutsches Historisches Museum, Berlin with very similar decoration to that under discussion bears on its blade the signature of the Solingen maker Clemens Horn (1586-1630). Its hilt is of Norman’s type 60, but differs from his type 58 only in having an additional loop-guard linking the root of its rear quillon to the knuckle-guard. Norman notes that the type is found mainly in the early 17th century.

Although the blade of the sword under discussion is stuck on its ricasso with a maker’s mark of a form commonly associated with the products of Italy and Spain, the maker’s signature, IOHANNES, struck in its fullers, shows it to have been made in Germany.  

In an age when the copyright protection of maker’s marks was only enforceable at a local level, the marks of the most celebrated sword-cutlers of Toledo and Milan were commonly I,itated in style and even exact detail by their foreign rivals. The Munich sword-cutler Wolfgang Stantler (1554-1622), for example, used a mark that though it incorporated his initials, was configured in the southern European fashion  at practice was a common one in the internationally renowned sword-making city of Solingen in North Rhine-Westphalia.

In any event, the signature on the blade of the sword under discussion together with the form and decoration of its hilt leave little doubt that it is was made in Germany about 1620-30 and certainly within the first third of the 17th century.         

It is in excellent condition with no more than moderate wear to its silver encrusted decoration and some overall patination of its blade.  The wear and patination are of a natural character throughout.

A. V. B. Norman, The Rapier and the Small-Sword 1460-1820, London, 1980

The narrow blade is formed proximally with a ricasso struck on each of its faces with a maker’s mark comprising a tall crowned escutcheon enclosing the letters Z over A. Beyond the ricasso, the blade tapers gently and uniformly to within a short distance of its point where its edges then converge more rapidly. It is of flattened hexagonal section and formed at the forte with a medial fuller struck on each face with the maker’s signature + IOHANNES + MEFECIT +.  

The hilt is formed of blackened iron. Its spherical pommel is strongly waisted at the base and surmounted by a large prolate spheroid button. Forming the foundation on which the guards are constructed are a pair of long, straight quillons of circular section with terminals of similar spheroid form, each accompanied by a moulding at its base. Issuing upwards from the root of the forward quillon is a knuckle-guard that extends all the way to the pommel where it terminates in a spheroid and accompanying moulding that matches the terminals of the quillons. Descending from the roots of the quillons are a pair of semi-circular arms that are linked to one another at the outside of the hilt by an oval side-ring. Projecting upwards and outwards from the roots of this side-ring is as larger side-ring, the apex of which rises above the level of the quillons and is linked by a diagonal loop-guard to the mid-point of the knuckle-guard. The inner guard is formed of three curved loop-guards that diverge downwards from the mid-point of the inside of the knuckle guard: one to the lower end of the forward arm, and the other two to the lower end of the rear arm of the hilt.  The centre of the knuckle-guard, the centre of the lower side-ring, the centre of the forward half of the upper side-ring and the junction of the centre of the upper-side-ring with the forward diagonal loop-guard are in each case formed with a prolate spheroid and accompanying moulding that matches the terminals of the quillons and knuckle-guard.

The hilt is finely decorated overall, expect on its inner guard, with encrusted and chased silver, formed as running symmetrical interlace accompanied by, and to a large extent enclosing scrolls, quatrefoils and pellets.

The wooden grip, which tapers slightly to its upper end, is helically bound between Turk’s heads of twisted silver wire with alternating groups of coarsely twisted and finely twisted silver wire.

The rapier is in excellent condition with no more than moderate wear to its silver encrusted decoration and some overall patination of its blade.

Size: Length 123 cm / 48.4 in; Blade 107 cm / 42 in