It’s long been a dream of mine to look upon Cesare Borgia’s sword and the scabbard that went with it. And when I found out that the scabbard was on display at the Victoria & Albert museum in London, I knew I had to go. Yesterday morning, after three and a half hours sleep, I got up and dragged myself and my partner off to London. Let me tell you now, wandering around London on just three and a half hours of sleep isn’t a good idea, I was completely exhausted and could barely keep my eyes open. But then, when we got to the Victoria & Albert and saw the scabbard; everything was worth it.
When I saw it, I will admit that I squeaked rather loudly. I’d say it was embarrassing but really, I honestly didn’t care. And it seemed to amuse the gallery attendant as I knelt in front of the case examining this beautiful artifact and wiped away my tears. Now I know you’ll all think me incredibly sad but sitting in front of this beautiful piece of leather work made me really emotional – the thought that this had been made for Cesare Borgia, and that he had likely held it in his hands was just completely overwhelming. Some will wonder why I get so emotional over a man who had been so ruthless, but having studied him and his family for so long I have the utmost respect for the man who was so ruthless that he took over the whole of the Romagna with ease, yet loved his family more than life itself (But not in THAT way!). And seeing it there, something that was his, something that belonged to a man who I have found interesting for so long and read so much about, it was just simply amazing.
The scabbard itself is beautifully decorated:
Image from the Victoria & Albert Museum
On the front there are a number of images. At the top you can see a triumphal arch, under which a group of worshippers sacrifice a ram to either Venus or the Goddess of Peace. At the top of the Triumphal Arch there is an inscription in Latin: “Materium Superabit Opus” which means “Toil will tame the material” – a motto which really fits Cesare, the man who overtook the Romagna with ease, and tamed the people of each city he took over by being both ruthless and fair (Read The Prince by Machiavelli to understand exactly how this worked with Cesare). Beneath this you can see an Imperial Eagle, flanked with scrolls. This points back to Cesare’s respect and love for his namesake Caesar (Julius Caesar). The Imperial decoration continues and you can see where it was marked out however this was unfinished. On the reverse, not easily seen in the museum, there are the monograms of Caesar as well as groups of three flames which was the personal impressa of Cesare. There is also a damaged coat of arms (very likely the Borgia coat of arms) flanked by cupids and the Goddess of Peace.
Image from the Victoria & Albert Museum
The symbolism on the scabbard blew me away. Each image would have been placed there to reflect the mindset of its owner, that mindset being of the ruthless Cesare Borgia. I was completely stunned by the amount of Imperial imagery on the sword, reflecting the personal motto of Cesare; “Aut Caesar, Aut Nihil” – he had the utmost respect for Julius Caesar, and it seems almost hero worshipped him; from all my readings on Cesare it really seems as though he aspired to the same level of brilliance as Caesar.
I wish I could have spent more time with the scabbard, examining it in detail. Unfortunately, due to how fragile the piece is it would have been impossible to handle it (and I did ask when I emailed the museum a few months back). You can really see how fragile it is when you look at it, the back is split, as is the top, and this is likely why it was unfinished. During my research I found something interesting – after it was brought by the museum in 1869 it was described in a report to the Science and Art board as the “finest piece of art in leather ever known” and I can really see now how true that is. I don’t think I’ve seen such a beautiful piece of leather work! Alas, due to what is likely a defect in the leather (the splits in the back) it never would have been worn by Cesare – had it been, it would have been a ceremonial scabbard. As he was a nobleman, Cesare would have worn a sword at most times (his sword, inscribed with his motto is currently in Rome), and such lavishly decorated scabbards would have been a usual sight in the noble courts of Rome. What’s funny about this though is that the scabbard suits the shorter blade of the Cinquedea sword, which was a sword much more suited to combat – and indeed his sword is a short bladed Cinquedea. Is this Cesare once more showing the people that he’s not a man to be messed with in any situation? It’s certainly interesting to think about, I only wish that I could have found a little more information on this piece in the museum book shop. Alas, I could find nothing – I’ll have to keep trawling online!
Looking a little emotional there…
After tearing myself away, ever so emotional, we decided to head to the British Museum for the afternoon. After a rather nice lunch in the little pub just opposite the museum we headed over there, and as we were walking in we spotted musician Gareth Malone! I think I might have scared him a little when I squeaked “It’s that bloke from the telly!” – we didn’t stop him, instead I stuck my head down and shuffled past embarrassed. Oops.
Below are a few photos of my favourite pieces from the British Museum:
The Rosetta Stone – I spent a while stood here, explaining to my partner just how important this artifact is.
This beautiful statue of Venus once belonged to Sir Peter Lely (court painter of Charles II)
This isn’t a very good picture, but this is basically a carved piece of Ivory dating to the thirteenth century. It shows images of the Passion, and Christ’s crucifixion.
These are little reliquary boxes dating to the C13/14 – build to hold tiny relics such as sherd’s of the True Cross, or a Holy Thorn.
The famous image of Christ from Hinton St Mary. Behind him you can see the Chi-Ro symbol, an early symbol of Christianity.
Ginger, the predynastic mummy. I love this guy, having spent a lot of time researching him at University. He’s basically a natural mummy, the heat of the sand from his grave naturally dessicating his skin and giving him remarkable preservation.
Pieces from the Sutton Hoo ship burial.
Turquoise snake from the Aztec exhibition.
All in all, a fantastic day. And I might have spent a fortune in the B.M book shop. Oops!
Cesare’s scabbard is currently on display in Room 62 of the Victoria & Albert Museum, South Kensington, London.