The shield is of blued steel, convex to the front and formed with a three-piece central boss terminating in a conical spike. The turned edge is counterfeit damascened in gold with fleur-de-lis in ‘basket handles’ (anse de panier). The edge is followed by forty-eight brass lining-rivets with domed heads. Decorated with concentric bands of exceptionally crisp embossing and very delicate counterfeit-damascening of silver and gold.
The second and fourth bands are each embossed on a matted ground with a series of radiating oval ‘mirrors’ framing central bosses and linked to one another by a pair of parallel lines framing a radial rectangle. Each boss is counterfeit damascened with silver and gold in a central quatrefoil flanked by symmetrical arabesques. There are forty-eight bosses in the second band and twenty-four in the fourth. The colours of the metal are counter-changed in alternate bosses.
The third and widest band is embossed with four panels of equal size divided by four radiating herms, each flanked by two S-scrolls of strapwork. Two of the herms are female with foliate arms and two are male, their arms confined by the strapwork. The four scenes, which are crowded with realistically proportioned people exceptionally well rendered, represent four episodes from the life of Julius Caesar: the Battle of Dyrrachium when Caesar's armour-bearer cuts off the arm of his assailant; the defilement of Caesar's robe by the blood of the sacrifice; the Battle of Pharsalus and death of one of Pompey's generals; and the head and ring of Pompey brought to Caesar on his arrival in Egypt.
The long inscription, applied in gold around the outer band edge, attributes the fall of both Pompey and Caesar to ambition, 'than which there is no more weighty evil'. The inscription, in gold counterfeit damascening, states '+ AMBITVS HIC MINIMVZ 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 CERVIXQUE 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 for SPECTAVERIS) AMBITIONIS./ NON GRAVIVS VIDEAS AMBITIONE MALVM +' (‘This tiny boundary holds boundless ambition which overthrows kingdoms and destroys empires. It destroyed both the life and the glory of Pompey the Great. It elevated the power of Caesar. The gentle clemency of Caesar is lauded to the sky, though in the end it was fatal to him. The ring and the severed neck of Pompey brought tears to Caesar’s eyes. From this it was clear how good a man Pompey was. The robe, spattered with blood during sacrifice, presaging evil for him, revealed that such would be Caesar’s fate. If, then, you look at the strength of ambition you would see no more terrible evil than ambition’.)
The fifth band, which forms the base of the central boss, is decorated with silver strapwork against a background of very fine gold arabesques.
The spike is decorated proximally, in gold and silver, with rays diverging from the centre, alternately flaming and straight tipped with fleurons, and all on a gold-dotted ground. The rim of the spike and the turned edge are decorated in gold with fleurons in ‘basket handles’ (anses de panier). The narrow bands separating the main bands are all delicately counterfeit.
The rear of the shield is covered with red plush over felt and fitted with four later iron rings for the attachment of brases, set in gilt-iron quatrefoil washers.
Tests undertaken by Dr Alan Williams show its microhardness to vary in the range 117-46 VPH. It is formed of an extremely soft iron with some slag-inclusions but almost no carbon content.
Measurements: diameter 58.4 cm, depth to point of boss 19.1 cm. Weight: 3.700 kg.
Text adapted from the forthcoming publication 'Arms and Armour in the Collection of Her Majesty The Queen. Volume I: European Armour'
ProvenanceThe 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.
Episodes featuring the same protagonists as those illustrated on the shield 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 a goldsmith. 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 and 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, 3rd 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.
Included in the Pictorial Inventory of 1827-33 – RCIN 934917. The inventory was originally created as a record of the clocks, vases, candelabra and other miscellaneous items from Carlton House, as well as selected items from the stores at Buckingham House, the Royal Pavilion, Brighton, Hampton Court and Kensington Palace for consideration in the refurbishment of Windsor Castle.
Item 2033 in the North Corridor Catalogue which records the arrangement of and changes to displays in the North Corridor at Windsor Castle.
Attributed to Eliseus Libaerts (active 1561-1569) (goldsmith)
Previously attributed to Benvenuto Cellini (1500-70) (metalworker)
After Etienne Delaune (1518-83) (designer)
Antwerp [Belgium] (place of production)
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The 'Cellini' Shield
Large round parade target
Named the 'Cellini Shield', but not made by him. Previously thought to be given by Francis I to Henry VIII in 1520. [See Laking No 71 for details]. Possibly John Stuart, 3rd Earl of Bute; by whom given to George III, by 1783. Royal Collection