Royal Collection Trust/© Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2014
Parade shield ('The Cellini Shield')
The superb quality of this embossed and chased iron shield gave rise to its traditional attribution to Benvenuto Cellini (1500-71), and to the further supposition that it must have been a gift to Henry VIII from the French patron of the great Florentine goldsmith, Francis I. However, since at least 1862 - when the shield was exhibited at the South Kensington Museum - it has been recognised that, for all his versatility in various arts, Cellini did not in fact make any armour.
The shield is embossed with four episodes from the life of Julius Caesar: 1. The Battle of Dyrrachium: Caesar's armour-bearer cuts off the arm of his assailant; 2. The defilement of Caesar's robe by the blood of the sacrifice; 3. (?)The Battle of Pharsalus and death of one of Pompey's generals; and 4. The head and ring of Pompey brought to Caesar on his arrival in Egypt. The long inscription applied in gold around the edge attributes the fall of both Pompey and Caesar to ambition, 'than which there is no more weighty evil'. Further episodes featuring the same protagonists were embossed on an armour made for the French King Henry II (reigned 1547-59) now in the Louvre and on another shield in the Deutsches Historisches Museum, Berlin, both of which bear the French King's emblems and monogram. These are thought to have been made in Antwerp by Eliseus Libaerts, who sold a similar group of armour between 1561 and 1563 to Erik XIV of Sweden (now in the Livrustkammer of the royal palace in Stockholm). Libaerts was a goldsmith who also made medals, and there remains an element of doubt as to whether he was responsible for fashioning the armours or for decorating and supplying them. The design of these armours has been associated convincingly with a large group of drawings by Etienne Delaune (1518/19-83), medallist, draughtsman and engraver to the court of Henry II of France.
The first mention of the shield in England dates from 1783, when Horace Walpole noticed it at Buckingham House, hanging over a chimneypiece in the Marine Gallery - the second-floor library room in which George III kept his drawings, coins and medals, in addition to models of ships. Walpole described it as 'a shield of bronze and Silver exhibiting the battle of Pharsalia excellently executed by Benvenuto Cellini. It was a present from the Lord Bute'. However, there is no other record of the shield in the possession of John Stuart, third Earl of Bute (1713-92), who had been appointed Preceptor to the young George III in 1755 and was the King's first Prime Minister. As the sole example of Renaissance parade armour in the Royal Collection at this date, the shield was probably valued more as a piece of histoire métallique of a kind that both Edward Gibbon and Dr Johnson, who are known to have used the King's libraries, would also have appreciated.
Inscribed +Ambitus hic minimvs magnam capit ambitionem • Qvae regna evertit destrvit imperia • Svstvlit e medio magni vitamqve decvsqve • Pompeii evexit caesaris imperivm • Caesaris in coelvm mitis clementia fertvr • Qvae tamen hvic tandem perniciosa fvit • Annvlvs excit ei lachrymas cervixqve resecta • Pompeii hinc patvit qvam probvs ille foret • In sacris docvit vestis conspersa crvore • Hvic praesaga mali talia fata fore • Si vires igitvr spectavens [sic] ambitionis • Non gravivs videas ambitione malvm (This circuit, though very small, holds great ambition, which overturns kingdoms and destroys empires. It took from sight the life and glory of Great Pompey, and raised up the Empire of Caesar. The mild clemency of Caesar is famed to the heavens, but in the end it brought about his destruction. The ring and severed neck of Pompey aroused his tears: from this it became clear how virtuous he was. The clothing sprinkled with blood at the sacrifice taught him that such a fate would be prophetic of evil. If therefore you consider the power of ambition, you may see that there is no more weighty evil)
Catalogue entry from Royal Treasures, A Golden Jubilee Celebration, London 2002
Previously attributed to Benvenuto Cellini (1500-70) (metalworker)