This dagger is a unicum among the few remaining objects of the war equipment owned by King Francis I of France. However, the objects which we are sure were owned by Francis I are two only: a refined steel iron stirrup, likely manufactured in Milan in the second decade of the XVI century (held in the Musèe de l’Armè in Paris), and the marvellous composite sword (also in the collection of the Parisian Museum) retrieved by Murat in Spain on Napoleon’s order, after it had been stolen as part of the war booty following the defeat in the city of Pavia in 1525.
The sword, defined as composite because of its blade being a previous manufacture, attributed to the workmanship of Mastro Cataldo- armourer from Villa Basilica, in the Lucca plain, who had worked in late fifteenth-century Milan- that can be dated around the last twenty years of the XV century. By examining this object, it is possible to infer that it was matched with a steel hilt with vermeil engravings and enamellings and that this combination was prepared for sure earlier than the 25th of January 1515, day when Francis of Valois-Angouleme’s coat of arms was decorated with the Anjou dynasty’s lilied crown, symbol of French royalty. Both the stirrup, and the pommel of the dagger carry the personal Valois’ coat of arms, with the added symbol of the acquired French kingship.
The symbol in the coat of arms of the Valois dynast is a salamander which spits flames (or walks between the flames in the background or foreground, in an alternative version of the symbology). This symbol can be frequently found in Francis of Valois’ castles and estates by the Loire. In the medieval imagery, the belief was that salamanders would not be affected by fire; they were imagined to live in the workshops of blacksmiths, close to the hot-work; that stood also as a metaphor for a human nature not inclined to irrational ardours but rather of great bravery and invulnerability.
The type of dagger is said ‘a rondelle’ (roundel dagger) because of the kind of guard of the grip (simple roundels to protect, little by little, the hand, without protruding elements such as crossguards) and was very popular in the German areas, in the Flanders and partly in France between the XV and the beginning of the XVI century. Although it was less diffused in the Italian peninsula, this type of dagger was also produced in the Milanese and Venetian workshops to be exported to areas where it was in higher demand.
The model of the blade is very close to the one called ‘quadrelli sfondagiaco’ (armour piercing dague, which was a kind of blade used to penetrate steel patches as well as chain mail) and was characterised by the profiles of the four sides with slightly concave fullers. This model was intended to cause severe injuries, which were difficult to heal; it is therefore likely that it was used during battles, rather than for private display.
Nevertheless, the blade is thoroughly decorated with a continuous goldwire work, which gives shape to floral decorations interconnected with three tondos representing busts of men, portrayed with flat caps typical in the raffigurations of Francis I. He himself is represented in profile on one of the largest sides of the blade.
This decoration technique, although rather limited in rendering acute angles, is one of the most difficult ones, requiring a great ability at engraving grooves in the already polished steel blade as well as filling them with a golden thread. Such technique is different from the one that was more diffused at the time. This latter technique, which became almost standard for high-quality armours and arms in the first twenty-five years of the XVI century, was characterised by the process of engraving with acids, followed by gilding.
The choice to use the former technique in the production of Francis I’s dagger is maybe revealing of an attempt of the artisan to adapt his expertise to the requests of a prestigious customer such as the king. Such hypothesis might be confirmed by the signature of the artisan, a copper inlay in the shape of a goldsmith’s crowned hammer. This symbol, probably handcrafted in Milan (the little crown looks like the seal which the armourers in the Duchy of Milan used to stamp on exportable goods) is very similar to the one which referred to an armourer who belonged to Bruxells guild, as described by Blair.
Basing on current knowledge and publications on this topic, it seems that no other dagger with an analogously personalised decoration survived up to now. The coat of arms did not symbolise a role such as the royal one, but rather true or alleged qualities of the person it belonged to. It was also used as a decoration on the objects which belonged directly to the seigneur, while it cannot be found on objects or gifts of his retinue.
The materials which have been used in the production of the dagger are: steelish iron which does not show marks of oxidation, but only some sign of wear on the blade’s edge, vermeil silver (exception made for a iron button which was added during restoration and can be located between the neck and the body of the salamander on the coat of arms), walrus fang for the handle and golden thread for the decoration of the blade. These materials are all revealing of the high social level of the client and reflect, at the same time, the refined technical ability of the maker (an ability that is also conveyed by the presence of a punched stamp, at the end of the forte.)
It is therefore very likely that this object was part of Frances I’s battlefield equipment, which had been manufactured either in Milan or in the Flanders roughly around 1525, or- to be more precise- from a time which can be estimated between 1515 and 1525. This latter date could be maybe postponed up to 1530, but not later, given that this kind of weapon disappeared even from the equipments of mercenaries after the Italian Wars. In support of this hypothesis stands the fact that the three/four sided ‘quadrelli’ had been banned from being used in battlefields. They were in fact considered inhumane, because they would produce not healable wounds.
All the parts described above are represented below in a complete image of the dagger, which shows the technical refinement that stands behind both its shape and function.
Gabriele Pratesi (translation L.Maddaluno)