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Distinguishing Characteristics of Medieval Italian Heraldry

©1997 Louis Mendola

This presentation presumes the reader's prior knowledge of the historical development, principles and practices of early heraldry as regards the escutcheon, and particularly composition (the parts of the shield), blazon, ordinaries, subordinaries, charges and tinctures.

Were the observer to view the oldest Italian coats of arms depicted in medieval rolls and seals, or engraved in relief on the walls of castles and other structures during the Middle Ages, he would encounter designs remarkably simpler than the ornate Renaissance and Baroque imagery identified with Italian armory today. During the Longobard, Norman, Swabian and Angevin domination of much of what is now Italy, Italian coats of arms were not too different from those encountered in France, England or elsewhere. Something resembling the "heater" shield, as opposed to the squarish escutcheon (scudo sannitico) seen in most Italian achievements today, was usually employed in these early representations, and most of the charges were not rendered too differently from those seen in the coat armor in use outside Italy. None of this is surprising or unexpected if one considers the origins of the peoples who ruled Italy when heraldry was introduced.

Although there is evidence to indicate that armorial heraldry was introduced into Norman Sicily some decades following its introduction into Norman England (1), the contrary is suggested by the early use of certain heraldic symbols, namely the lion passant guardant or of the Norman Kings of England and the golden fleurs-de-lis on an azure field, later identified with the Angevins, by Sicily's Norman kings. Dating from the early part of the twelfth century, these representations are readily accessible to anybody who ventures to Palermo to visit the Palatine Chapel, the Cathedral, and the church known as The Martorana (2).

In view of these factors, what is it, precisely, that truly distinguishes medieval Italian heraldry from the armory of other places? Devoid of the ornamentation that later came to typify the full achievement, the coats of arms of medieval Italy are distinguished by the particular use of charges and tinctures.

The majority of fields in Italian blazons are gules or azure; the metals are far less frequently employed as fields, purpure and vert even less so. Some particular medieval patterns, such as "squamoso" (akin to the French term "ecaille" meaning "scaly"), resembling the "escallopy" pattern of "fur proper," though unique to Italian heraldry, are rarely encountered. In practice, there exists little difference between what some medieval Italian heraldists refer to as "steel" and what is more often identified as "argent," while the Italians' infrequent "copper" is obviously a specific metal rendered with a reddish hue. Almost without exception, natural charges, such as fauna and flora, are rendered "proper."

The Rule of Tincture is rigorously respected. In rare cases where it is not adhered to, terms such as "per inchiesta" are mentioned in the blazon to indicate that the herald who recorded the arms knew this to be an exceptional violation rather than an error in blazoning.

Ordinaries are commonplace, but their use differs from that of English and French blazon. Although the composition of an Italian blazon may be based on an ordinary or subordinary, this is not likely to be the only feature of the escutcheon.

Except for use of the label early on, charges were rarely employed as marks of cadency. Indeed, except for occasional changes of tincture, indications of cadency are all but unknown in early Italian armory, and a unified system of cadency never developed.

Various chiefs of allegiance were introduced during the thirteenth century. These were chiefs displayed as "augmentations" in the arms of families allied with certain parties. The two best-known of these chiefs are the Capo dell'Impero and the Capo d'Angio. The Capo dell'Impero (Chief of the Holy Roman Empire), blazoned "or an eagle displayed sable," sometimes featured a double-headed eagle and came to be associated with the Ghibellines. The Capo d'Angio (Chief of Anjou), blazoned "azure three fleurs-de-lis or between a label gules," sometimes "azure seme-de-lis or a label gules," was associated with the Guelphs. Both chiefs were much in evidence at the Battle of Benevento in 1266.

Certain charges are much more frequent than others. Stars and comets abound. These are usually presumed to be of six rays unless the blazon indicates otherwise. Most often, comets and stars are rendered in a metal, usually or.

When towers, castles and churches are depicted, these are normally proper, rendered in a brownish hue.

The flora of Italian armory is rich and distinctive. This results from the wide variety of agricultural charges canted for surnames. Grape vines, cane and fern are quite common, but the greater wealth of plant charges includes trees: oaks, palms, olives, stone pines, almonds, chestnuts. These are inferred to be depicted eradicated unless the blazon specifies otherwise. Many of these charges are canted. The Moroni of Milan bear a mulberry tree canted for "moro," the medieval term for this fruit.

One encounters the usual collection of beasts, a few of which are specific to Italian blazon. The buglio, for example, is a Mediterranean fish similar to a small cod. Many freshwater species of fish found in Italy during the Middle Ages, and therefore mentioned in armorial blazons, are now extinct. The lion is certainly the most common heraldic creature, usually depicted rampant, and the eagle is nearly as commonplace, usually rendered displayed.

The greyhound, hare, Neapolitan mastiff and serpent occur with regularity in Italian armory. The gecko lizard appears in some coats of arms, especially in Sicily, where this reptile may be seen during the Summer months.

A charge blazoned simply as a "dog" (It. cane) is normally rendered as agreyhound unless it is blazoned a mastino (mastiff). Originally, the generic dog was inferred to be the Norman deerhound. Now extinct, this breed was somewhat heavier than the greyhound and not quite as high. It was usually brown or tan and had long pointed ears. The deerhound was probably supplanted in heraldry by the greyhound because the former might appear too similar to a wolf in a crude armorial representation. For the most part, Italian beasts are genuine species rather than mythological or uniquely heraldic creatures, and the demise of the deerhound as a breed (and consequently its disappearance as a heraldic charge) probably coincided with the extinction of the deer population in Sicily and the South, while greyhounds continued in their role of hunting hare and other small game.

The ibex and the deer are met with occasionally, as is the boar. One naturally expects to encounter the ibex in the arms of families from Alpine regions such as Aosta and Trentino. Strangely, however, it is not as frequent there as one might think.

Some arms bearing beasts are canted for surnames. The lion seen in the arms of various Leone families is an obvious example. The Rondinelli family of Ferrara bears or "six swallows sable close beneath a Chief of Anjou" the swallows (rondini) canted for the name. As we have observed, fantastic or mythological beasts are generally lacking in Italian armory, an irony in view of Italy's classical Greek and Roman past. The occasional dragon and seahorse are seen, but even the unicorn is rare.

Natural (human) arms issuant, usually bearing weapons, occur in some blazons. In the arms of Mazzolani of Ravenna (azure an arm issuant from dexter bearinga mace in pale all proper) the arm grasps a mace, canted for the Italian mazza.

Natural objects also occur. The trimount, a stylised hillock of three mounds in base, was probably rendered in the earliest coats of arms as a natural mountain having three summits.

The rendering of Italian charges has always been quite realistic compared to the representational depictions of the charges in English coats of arms. An orange tree, for example, is not rendered as an unnatural plant having enlarged foliage and fruit supported by a short trunk, but as a natural tree of realistic proportions.

The composition of many Italian coats of arms is almost pictorial. A common composition is a tree to the dexter or sinister of which is attached a rampant lion or dog by a chain. Another common composition is a tower or tree at the top of which sits a small bird such as a martlet.

Until the middle of the fourteenth century, Italian armorial heraldry existed in its purest form, unencumbered by subsequent developments. Some may well consider the modern era to have influenced heraldry for the better, but in the Middle Ages heraldry existed for pragmatic ends--to identify a knight or feudal lord by his shield, surcoat or shield. While we can appreciate the complexities of heraldry as it exists today, the fundamental roots of armory, with their focus on the escutcheon, provide a keen insight into another age.

1) Among enfeoffed knights, armorial heraldry may not have been establishedin Sicily, the most prosperous of the Italian realms of its era and that having the most contact with other countries, until after 1175. The shields of the Norman knight figures in the cloister at Monreale Abbey were carvedduring this period, but these splendid relief figures, which might be considered Italy's "Bayeux Tapestry," feature no personal heraldic insignia, although two Saracen shields in the same series bear the lion passant guardant. This work was created at a time when there was much contact between the Siculo and Anglo Normans; a mosaic of Thomas Becket elsewhere in the abbey is the first known image of this saint known to exist anyplace, and William II of Sicily wed Joan, daughter of Henry II of England, in 1177. See "English and Italian Legacy of the Norman Knight Figures of Monreale," by Louis Mendola, in The Coat of Arms, published by The Heraldry Society (London), Summer 1994.

2) The mosaic in The Martorana depicting King Roger II of Sicily, wearing a robe azure seme-de-lis or as he is crowned by Christ, was executed at some time between 1130 and 1155. Even if it were rendered closer to 1155, it nevertheless depicts one of the actual robes that Roger is believed to have worn at his coronation. A mosaic rendered at Monreale in 1188 depicts William II, Roger's grandson, wearing a robe bearing a similar design, which may indicate the use of this symbol as a hereditary badge of the de Hauteville dynasty of Sicily. The lion passant guardant appears in various places; the renderings of it in the Palatine Chapel completed before 1143 antedate this symbol's presumed use by the King of England. See "Pre-Armorial Use of the Lion Passant Guardant and the Fleur-de-lis as Heraldic Badges in NormanSicily," by Louis Mendola, in The Coat of Arms, Spring 1994.

Certain portions of this article first appeared in "DistinguishingCharacteristics of Early Italian Heraldry" in The New Zealand Armiger, June 1995.


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