From medieval knights to Iron Man, warriors and superheroes all want to come home in one piece. For thousands of years, people have made armour to protect against lethal weapons — and sometimes to show a little personality. This summer at the Canadian War Museum, compare Renaissance battle armour to a contemporary combat uniform. Check out NHL game helmets and an Oscar-winning battle-ready costume covered in bullets. Time to suit up — whether it’s on the ice, the big screen, or the battlefield.
Zone 1: Battle Armour
Over the centuries, medieval and Renaissance armour protected against swords, daggers, crossbows, and even early gunpowder weapons. But as weaponry improved, the armourer’s skill needed to embrace new technologies. See exquisite suits of armour next to modern Kevlar vests — a material five times stronger than steel.
Zone 2: Sports Armour
Ever hear a sports match described like a battle? It’s no surprise then that even friendly competitions require body armour, as was the case in medieval jousts, where participants were often ornately clad. The Kevlar, plastic, carbon and titanium in modern sports gear is meant to keep players safe, whether it’s in the net, on the gridiron, or on a bike.
Zone 3: A Status Symbol
Arms and armour reflect social status even today. Ceremonial maces and dress swords are examples of this. In the past, a decorative gorget indicated an officer’s rank — or an Indigenous–British alliance. Even a samurai’s armour said a lot about the warrior’s prowess and power.
Zone 4: From Battlefield to Popular Culture
The knight in shining armour still soldiers on. Films, books and video games all invent and re-invent armour as a status symbol, and for game-playing advantage. Try to picture Iron Man without his suit or the post-apocalyptic world of Mad Max without hyped-up warrior costumes. Even when the need for it has passed, a champion’s armour lives on.
An exhibition developed by Contemporanea Progetti in collaboration with the Museo Stibbert (Florence, Italy) and the Canadian War Museum.
The Anatomy of Armour
A full suit of armour usually had 12 to 14 components, and weighed between 18 and 20 kilograms. This is less than the weight of the protective gear worn by today’s firefighters and soldiers.
A fully armoured person could still jump, run and fight freely, thanks to the many articulations, hinges and straps that made the suit flexible where it counted.
Although it may look heavy, the average medieval sword weighed only 1 to 1.5 kilograms — about as much as a large bunch of bananas, and less than a Chihuahua.
Sallets in Space
What inspired the helmets worn by Darth Vader and other villains in George Lucas’ Star Wars movies? The ancient samurai kabuto? The 20th century German Stahlhelm (steel helmet)? Maybe the sallet, a battle helmet that originated in Italy during the early 1400s? These styles all curve outwards to protect the neck, and the Stahlhelm, originally developed for trench warfare in the First World War, was based on the medieval sallet.
Armour for Animals
Protective armour for horses dates back thousands of years, but did you know it was also used to protect elephants and dogs?
Armour From Animals
Turtles, porcupines, armadillos, snails, rhinoceros, beetles and crocodiles are among the many animal species with built-in defences that have served as inspiration for armour. But scientists and engineers have also studied fish scales, sea sponges, snakes and butterflies while working on the next generation of lightweight armour.
Kevlar, the tough but lightweight synthetic fibre in bulletproof vests, is also used in bicycle tires, canoes, table-tennis paddles, archery bow strings, woodwind reeds, brake pads, sails, wind turbines and more.
Relieving yourself is probably not top-of-mind in the heat of battle, but at any other time, it would be like having to go when you’re wearing a snowsuit — you’d have to remove a few layers first!
Mark your calendar
About Frederick Stibbert and the Museo Stibbert
Frederick Stibbert was an Anglo-Italian collector born in Florence, Italy in 1838. An inheritance from his grandfather, who was Commander-in-Chief of the British East India Company’s private army, allowed him to pursue his passion for art, armour, weaponry, the restoration of artifacts, and the organization of medieval and Renaissance re-enactments.
Stibbert ultimately transformed his hillside villa and park into the Museo Stibbert. Its collection of nearly 50,000 items — with special emphasis on European, Islamic and Japanese arms and armour from the 15th to 19th centuries — also includes paintings, ceramics, costumes, tapestries, furniture and other decorative arts, as well as archaeological items, musical instruments and liturgical objects. When he died in 1906, Stibbert left the museum to the Municipality of Florence, to improve public knowledge of history for the benefit of future generations.