MetCollects | Episode 1 / 2019


MetCollects is an online feature that highlights works of art new to the Museum's collection through the fresh eyes of photographers and the enthusiastic voices of leading scholars and artists. Discover a new work each month.

Cannon (Bastard Culverin) made for Henry II, King of France. French, ca. 1550

Cast for King Henry II of France (r. 1547–1559), this is one of very few royal pieces of ordnance surviving from the French Renaissance, and among them it is one of the largest and most profusely decorated examples.

The rich ornamentation of this cannon with royal emblems—the fleurs de lys of France, the initials of Henry and his wife, Catherine de' Medici, and the king's personal device—cast and chased in low relief proudly proclaims the principle asserted by the French crown that it alone had the authority to commission artillery. It also demonstrates the creative possibilities that the adoption of bronze casting opened up. Until the fourteenth century, cannons were typically forged from strips of wrought iron and undecorated. The casting process, by contrast, relied on the use of clay models that could be liberally tooled and sculpted, and faithfully reproduced in metal. The founders who mastered the technique often cast bells, statues, and other works of monumental sculpture. Conversely, prominent Renaissance sculptors often took great pride in their skills at casting cannons. The heraldic arms of the French city of Reims, which are represented on the breech, suggest that this piece was either made there or intended for the defense of the place.

Marking the apogee of a style that appears to have first emerged under Louis XII (r. 1498–1515), the decoration of this cannon includes cryptic emblems that were so typical of Renaissance court culture and very much favored in France. As Henry's reign ended in tragedy––the king was fatally wounded in a tournament––and France entered a long period of unrest and civil war, French royal ordnance would not be as fancy again until Louis XIV's reign (1643–1715).

This piece owes its survival to the fact that it became the property of the Dutch East India Company (established 1602), whose mark is engraved on the breech. Although originally intended for land warfare, it was apparently reused for the protection of a ship and sank with it, only to be recovered in modern times below the sea.

Pierre Terjanian
Arthur Ochs Sulzberger Curator in Charge
Department of Arms and Armor



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