The Kunsthistorisches Museum or Museum of Art History in Vienna is one of the most important of its kind in the world. It houses significant collections of art, archaeology, numismatics, and applied arts, including the imperial treasury and the most outstanding collection of works by Rubens, Velázquez, Dürer, Caravaggio, Brueghel, and many others. It also has some exceptional pieces for various reasons. One example could be the famous salt cellar made by Cellini for Francis I, which was involved in a famous theft; another, and what interests us here, is the unprecedented laterneschild or lantern shield, preserved in the extensive section of weapons, armor, and uniforms.

The name, which obviously means lantern shield, is not metaphorical but literal; it is a small circular shield, more like a buckler, about twelve inches in diameter and with a rather cluttered appearance due to what we will discuss below, which owes its name to the fact that it has a hook intended to hang a lantern from it. An unusual design conceived for use at night and in urban settings when traveling the streets late at night could be dangerous.

Let’s set the context. In the 16th century, the Renaissance brought a revolution in warfare by popularizing the use of firearms (shotguns, muskets, rifles, cannons… the pistol would still have to wait until the 17th century), but bladed weapons were still used. However, certain weapons from the previous century gained prominence, such as the montante or the mano-and-half sword, while round shields and targes remained in use. The scudo-lanterna was almost a combination of all these.

It is not cited in Italian for no reason. The Renaissance originated in Italy, and although its cultural image predominates, it must be noted that the city-states of that peninsula had spent the Middle Ages fighting among themselves and continued to do so, sometimes on their own, sometimes integrated into alliances with Spain, France, or the Holy Roman Empire. The scudo-lanterna probably originated a little earlier, in the 15th century (the Quattrocento), although it continued to be used in the following century.

By then, the city had begun to regain its position as the center of life, the same one it had lost with the fall of the Roman Empire and the onset of a predominantly rural Middle Ages. It can be considered a classic scene: the citizen who is assaulted at night while walking through poorly lit alleys, as well as the thugs and ruffians, troublemakers who meet in nocturnal duels to settle scores, taking advantage of the darkness to avoid patrols.

It is true that the latter is usually iconographically associated more with the 17th century (Dumas’ Three Musketeers and Pérez-Reverte’s Captain Alatriste are obvious references that represent a whole literary-cinematographic genre, that of cloak and dagger), but it was something that already happened a century earlier (and there is Hernán Cortés himself growing a beard strategically to cover a scar on his face suffered in one of those brawls, in those years he lived “at the flower of the watercress” between Salamanca and America).

Well, that’s the context of the lantern shield. It is not clear whether its purpose was really to use it as a weapon in fights or if it was rather a deterrent, in the sense that an assailant who saw its user carrying it would think twice and prefer to seek another potential victim. That is, its defensive and offensive qualities would be joined by its deterrent qualities. Because the appearance of that contraption is not exactly reassuring. Several specimens are preserved, all in a similar style with slight differences: in the Royal Armoury of the Tower of London, in the Musée de l’Armée in Paris, etc., although the most spectacular is the one in Vienna, dated around 1540.

As we mentioned before, it is a circular buckler where the lantern was attached, which according to some would serve to dazzle the opponent and according to others only to illuminate and deter. In the first case, there are bibliographic illustrations showing the user fighting with the contraption in one hand and the lantern, previously removed, in the other, keeping it on his back. However, the idea was to leave it hanging from the hook and covered with a leather or metal cover that, at a certain moment in the duel, could be lifted to blind or confuse the enemy.

Of course, to intimidate, it had other complementary elements that also seem to have great psychological effectiveness: the lantern shield was, in practice, a kind of Swiss army knife full of gadgets, among which can be highlighted a gauntlet to hold it with serrated blades like Degenbrecher (to break the opponent’s weapon), a long double-edged blade that remained parallel to the forearm extending it and making it an offensive weapon, a blade protruding outward from the umbo… Sometimes, the edge of the shield itself was serrated.

These types of shields characterized Mannerist Renaissance and were not limited to the Italian peninsula, as other similar models are the Russian tarch and the Indian pata. The first, developed from the 15th century in the Principality of Moscow (also known as the Grand Duchy of Moscow or Muscovy, a state that existed between the 13th and 16th centuries until it was integrated into the Russian Tsardom in 1548), was a steel targe with a gauntlet protruding from its umbo, sometimes ending with a dagger or sword blade, making it a hybrid weapon, for attack and defense.

As for the Indian pata, it was a little different because it lacked the shield part: it consisted of a gauntlet with a sword developed by Maratha warriors, especially to face cavalry in the context of Mongol invasions. Its name was probably given by the Portuguese, and the inspiration for its design should be sought in the katar, a wide-bladed weapon used by the kshatriyas (a Hindu caste of Persian origin) and which has an H-shaped hilt that allowed it to be held on the forearm, as it was attached to a glove that wrapped around it.

With all this, it seems plausible that an aggressor would choose to avoid risks, which is why it does not seem likely that the scudo-lanterna became a weapon of daily use. However, there is an account of a nocturnal combat fought in Madrid in 1623 between Spanish and English swordsmen. It tells how Sir Kenelm Digby, a typical Renaissance man, cultured and political but also a warrior, visited the town that summer. One night, after dining at his uncle’s house, the Earl of Bristol (who was the English ambassador at the time), he refused to return to his home escorted by torch-bearing servants, since it was a full moon and the weather was pleasant.

Accompanied by his cousin and a friend, they walked through the empty streets when they approached to listen to a woman singing on a balcony, falling into what was actually an ambush by several assailants. The transcription of the narration was made in the 19th century and changes the names of the protagonists and places to others of a classical nature, placing the action in Alexandria, considering the Spanish assailants as Egyptians and calling Sir Kenelm Theagenes. Suffice it to say that he defended himself using a lantern shield:

Then Theagenes found himself in great perplexity, for having withdrawn to a narrow place in the street, in order to keep all his assailants in front of him, the hanging lanterns deprived him of the moonlight, and his enemies, having on the tops of their buckles artificial lanterns, whose light projected forward being made with a sheet of iron on the side of their bearers, so that their bodies remained in darkness, not only had the advantage of seeing him when he could not see them, but also dazzled and offended his eyes with the many lights nearby, which made him confuse those objects that he discerned dimly.

In any case, if a historical militaria enthusiast feels an irresistible curiosity and is not satisfied with photographs, they can go to the Ringstraße, the avenue that encircles the historic center of Vienna, and enter the palace crowned by a statue of Athena that serves as the headquarters of the Kunsthistorisches. It faces another similar building that was inaugurated in parallel in 1891 by Emperor Franz Joseph I and which houses the Naturhistorisches Museum (Natural History Museum).

This article was first published on our Spanish Edition on December 4, 2018. Puedes leer la versión en español en El escudo-linterna, un gadget renacentista para combatir de noche y deslumbrar al adversario


Paul Kirchner, The Extraordinary Street Fight of Sir Kenelm Digby | John O’Bryan, A History of Weapons: Crossbows, Caltrops, Catapults & Lots of Other Things Tha Can Seriously Mess You Up | Syed Ramsey, Tools of War: History of Weapons in Early Modern Times | David Nicolle y Viacheslav Shpakovsky, Medieval Russian Army 1250-1500 | Richard F. Burton, The Book of the Sword | Lord Egerton of Tatton, Indian and Oriental arms and armor | Wikipedia

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