Everyone who visits Albania has seen an image of the helmet of Gjergj Kastrioti, Albania’s national hero, more usually known as Scanderbeg. You don’t even have to visit a museum or see a statue to see the helmet as one of the most common brand of gas stations, Kastrati, uses the helmet as their logo.
The helmet itself is not actually in Albania, but in the Kunthistorisches Museum in Vienna, Austria. Skanderbeg (Lord Alexander) lived from 1405 to 1468, a time when the Ottomans occupied the lands that are now modern-day Albania. Uniting several of the leading feudal families, he led a twenty five year resistance against the Turks. He was an outstanding military leader, and was named ‘Athlete (Champion) of Christ’ by four Popes, repeatedly defeating much larger Ottoman forces.
Following Skanderbeg’s death, his wife and son crossed the Adriatic to settle in Italy. It is said that they took the helmet and arms with them, and the helmet and two swords eventually entered the Kunsthistorisches Museum, thanks to a collection made in the 16th century by Archduke Ferdinand II of Tirol.
Skanderbeg in the ‘Armamentarium Heroicum’
Archduke Ferdinand inherited Ambras Castle in Innsbruck and started to restore it in 1567. The Archduke was a great collector of art, and one of the collections he amassed was of artefacts relating to outstanding military figures of the period. Families and heirs were approached in order to acquire objects for the armoury. A letter dated 15 October 1578 from the Duke of Urbino to Archduke Ferdinand mentions the helmet and a sword of Skanderbeg and says that they will be sent to Ambras Castle. It is not known for certain how, when or from whom the arms were acquired by the Duke of Urbino.
In 1605, Ambras Castle was sold to the Austrian Emperor, and in 1806 the arms were transferred to Belvedere castle. Finally, in 1888, to the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna. In recent years the arms have been the subject of study by the Kunsthistorisches Museum’s Dr Matthias Pfaffenbichler.
The iron helmet
The iron helmet (Inv no. HJRK_A_127) is of Italian origin, made around 1460. The lower part of the helmet and the neck protection are missing, and cracks in the steel have been covered by a sewn leather band under which are traces of the original silk. A copper band with gold plated border is decorated with six rosettes, most of which are 16th century restorations, though the one at the back dates to the 15th century. Between the rosettes an inscription in a particular type of Gothic miniscule on a hatched ground reads ‘in/per/ra/to/re/bt’.
Skender Anamali has proposed that the decorative band with the inscription and rosettes was added by Skanderbeg’s descendants. The initials of the inscription are usually rendered as Jezus Nazarenus /Principi Emathie /Regi Albaniae * Terrori Osmanorum * Regi Epirotarum * Benedictat Te translated as Jesus of Nazareth Blesses Thee Prince of Emathia, King (or Kingdom) of Albania, Terror of the Ottomans, King (or Kingdom) of Epirus. As far as we know, these titles were not used during Skanderbeg’s lifetime.
Pfaffenbichler’s close inspection of the inscription confirms the view that it was added to the helmet after Skanderbeg’s lifetime. The transverse part of the letter ‘t’ is from a calligraphic font called ‘Fraktur’, developed by Wolfgang Spitzberg, the scribe of the Chancellery, and used for the first time around 1500. Fraktur only appeared in wider use from 1517, thus about 50 years after the death of Skanderbeg. This appears to confirm that the decorative band with inscription is not original – though one of the rosettes is dated to the 15th century so it may possibly have been a replacement of an original fitting.
Goat’s head crest
The helmet is famous for its goat’s head crest. There are a number of theories about the association of the goat’s head with Skanderbeg. One is that it is relates to the rams’ horns, symbol of Zeus Ammon, worn by Alexander the Great. Alexander was Epirote by descent via his mother Olympias. Pyrrhus, the famous King of Epirus, also wore a helmet that had, according to Plutarch, a “towering crest and …. goat’s horns”.
In addition, we hear that on one occasion in a night engagement against the Ottomans, Skanderbeg used the ruse of tying flaming torches to goats in order to confuse and then outflank the opposing forces. Other associations are that Skanderbeg’s men, with their knowledge of mountain passes and guerrilla warfare considered the goat as a kind of ‘mascot’. There are more variants cited by Dorian Koci in the articles referenced below.
The goat’s head is made of beaten copper, engraved and gold plated. The eye sockets that today are empty would have been inlaid. The shape of the crest hole of the top of the helmet does not exactly match the shape needed for the goat head crest so the two parts may not originally have gone together. In any event, the goat’s head is too associated with Epirus (and not with Italy) for the goat’s crest not to be something commissioned for a helmet of Skanderbeg.
The sword that accompanied the helmet into Archduke Ferdinand’s collection (Inv no. HJRK_A_550) was made in the Middle East and dates to around 1460. It has a double-edged iron blade 88.5cm long with a gold inlaid section near the handle featuring Arabic pseudo-calligraphy and foliate designs. The black leather handle is dated to later than the blade, as is the scabbard, which has a black fish-skin cover with tooled knot designs.
We don’t have a complete history of the helmet and sword. Though it is possible that one day archives will fill in the gaps. But what is absolutely clear is how important these artefacts, with their connection to Gjergj Kastrioti, Skanderbeg, are to the Albanian people. Replicas of the helmet and sword can see in the Museum of Skanderbeg at Kruja. The originals were returned to Albania in November 2012 for the 100th Anniversary of Independence. When they were displayed in the National History Museum.
Detail of sword: https://www.khm.at/objektdb/detail/372961/?offset=0&lv=list
References and Further Reading
Anamali, Skender. Historia e popullit shqiptar në katër vëllime, , Botimet Toena 2002)
Koci, Dorian, Armët e Skënderbeut dhe Ndërgjegjia Kombëtare
Koci, Dorian, Shpata që iu dhurua Skënderbeut në Krishtlindjen e vitit 1466
Përkrenarja dhe shpata e Gjergj Kastriotit, të quajtur Skënderbe
Palaver 4 n.s. (2015), n. 1, 29-52
Carolyn P. Perry