In the shifting political landscape of late 15th century Italy, war was a good profession to be in. Since the middle ages, the Italian city-states of Venice, Florence and Genoa had relied on contracting foreign mercenaries to defend their wealth from jealous neighbors. These mercenary companies increased in size and effectiveness, and before long, gained a reputation for driving hard bargains on their hapless employers. The condottieri who lead these professional military companies became fabulously wealthy, many of whom entered politics ostensibly to give their former employers an even harder time.
Gian Giacomo Trivulzio was an exemplar captain of fortune; he fought for the Florentines, the French, the Neapolitans, the French again, and ended his illustrious career as the Governor of Milan. Towards the end of his life he commissioned one Leonardo Da Vinci to make a statue of him which was never completed, and his brief Wikipedia page mentions that his “behavior as governor caused him to fall in disgrace”. That’s an invitation for juicy gossip if I ever saw one, but the details unfortunately still elude me.
While his misbehaviors seem to have been forgotten, he did leave behind a stunning example of a renaissance arming sword. I have never seen the sword in person, but the sheer craftsmanship of the piece is unmistakable. A scene involving a band of satyrs from classical mythology plays out in a fine layer of gold applied at the base of the blade. The hilt furniture has similarly been gilded; panels of golden foliage run down the grip and blossom into a garden of flowers adorning the face of the pommel. The blade is broad, designed for great cleaving strokes, with two expansive fullers running down the length towards a lethal point. Unlike some of the less modest swords residing at the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna, its simple profile betrays deadly intent; this was a soldier’s weapon and it was made to kill.
To recreate this sword, I started by re-purposing an old type XVI model made by the swordsmith Angus Trim. Early on in his profession, Gus spent significant time at various museums taking measurements of antique swords. He collected a wealth of data which he drew from over the years of his prolific career, and developed an acute understanding of how a sword should “feel” in the hand. The XVI is rather petite in comparison to the broad profile of the Trivulzio sword, and while it would have lacked the ferocious cutting power of the latter, it compensates for it with its nimble nature. The blade has a liveliness to it (as Gus is fond of saying) and moves with eager confidence, responding instantly to its wielder’s intent. There is also an intuitive sense of location when controlling the point in a thrust; your hand is almost guided by the sword as it follows behind its deadly tip. It might not cleave through the heavy padding of a battlefield combatant, but it would have been more than sufficient for civilian self-defense or settling matters of honour.
Gus is widely known for crafting perfectly balanced swords, but not particularly for giving them an immaculate finish. Polishing a sword is a time-consuming labor of patience, and its importance varies among different sword makers. Many of Gus’ swords, (mainly his earlier models) are affectionately described as “munition grade” and would have made proud sidearms for seasoned grunts. “Munition grade” however, wouldn’t cut it for the princely stature of the sword I had in mind. I started with 120 grit sandpaper and progressively moved up to 600 grit, before deciding I needed to start over from scratch. It took me another attempt and roughly twenty hours before I found the right technique for an acceptably smooth uniform polish. As with most efforts done by hand, the result wasn’t perfect (and likely wouldn’t impress a governor of Milan), but it was as close as I could personally manage.
For the hilt furniture, cast bronze was the only option (gilded steel was out of the question :|). While bronze was a common material for sword pommels, it was rarely used for the crossguard of a sword. The job of the crossguard is to protect the sword hand, and bronze (being much softer than iron and steel) would have held up poorly in combat. However since I’m happily not in the habit of getting into sword fights, this wasn’t a big issue for me. I’d worked with Artcast Inc in Canada before where they did a wonderful job on a previous hilt set, and I was eager to work with them again. They’re one of a handful of foundries that take a customer’s 3d model, print it in resin and directly cast the printed original. Normally as a first step, the foundry would make a silicone mould of the original part to produce wax copies. Afterwards, the actual casting process begins with the wax parts being dipped in a ceramic slurry, baked in an oven to burn out the wax and create a cavity, and finally pouring bronze into the cavity to create a perfect bronze copy of the original. The expensive first step can be skipped when you can directly cast the original part, which is excellent for projects where you don’t need multiple copies (and don’t mind destroying the 3d printed original). There are some drawbacks, I’ve heard of castable resin failing if the burn-out temperature and schedule aren’t just right, but Artcast seems to have it figured out. The grip panels were cast by Shapeways (also from 3d models I designed); they happen to be more cost-effective with smaller parts. I find that the slight difference in tone between the two sets of bronze provides a pleasing contrast in the hilt.
I had originally planned to carve the grip from camel bone, but found myself woefully ill equipped for such an undertaking (both in tools and skill). It occurred to me that a better alternative would be a composite grip consisting of a 3d printed core with mother of pearl panels glued betwen the bronze panels. Luckily the option to design the core in 3d afforded me the precision I wasn’t able to achieve by hand.
Once everything else was ready, it was time to glue together all the bronze parts and assemble the hilt! I unwisely started doing this without wearing gloves (despite the label on the epoxy tube insisting I should) but thankfully things weren’t too messy. Epoxy is a very very strong glue, but it also takes a long time to set allowing me to avoid the hilarity of gluing my hand to a sword. Once the hilt is in place and the glue is set, the final step is to hammer the end of the tang over the pommel to permanently pin the hilt into place. This can take several minutes of gentle tapping, but taking it slow was definitely preferable to accidentally hitting the pommel and bruising it.
And there you have it! This has one of the most ambitious projects I’ve ever undertaken and while I’m immensely proud of the result, the journey has been a humbling one. I set out to create a masterpiece, but in the process found myself a long way before being a master of the craft. There are still many miles ahead and I look forward to sharing my progress along the way. Thanks for reading!