[Report:] Heraldry in the Medieval City: The Case of Italy in the European Context, Rome 5-7 May 2015

Group photo of participants of the workshop 'Heraldry in the medieval city'

Group photo of participants of the workshop ‘Heraldry in the medieval city’

On 5-7 May the École française de Rome was home to the fifth workshop in the conference series Journées Héraldiques. This time the conference was dedicated to the topic of ‘Heraldry in the Medieval City’. The event was opened by the organizers LAURENT HABLOT and TORSTEN HILTMANN, who introduced the key points of this workshop. Heraldry is often exclusively perceived as part of an aristocratic culture. Traditionally, cities and their inhabitants are regarded as the opposite of this aristocratic culture and their use of heraldry is little studied, and if it is mentioned, it is often perceived as a (false) imitation of aristocratic heraldry. Criticism on this traditional view has not led to a change of perspective. To change this, this entire workshop is dedicated to the heraldic practice in the city.

The medieval city is an interesting case, since it holds a large public of various social groups within a limited space. And in this space heraldry was ubiquitous. Therefore the neglected city might actually prove to be one of the most interesting places to study the practice of heraldry. Studying heraldry in the urban space might provide valuable insights on the use of coats of arms as a means of expression and communication in the Middle Ages. The case of the Italian cities has received some attention in the last decade, for example in the works of Christoph Weber, but in this workshop a broader collaborate perspective will be applied; through various case studies of different cities on the continent the Italian case will be placed in a broader European context. The expectation is that this will pave the road towards a new understanding of medieval heraldry.

The opening paper was presented by CHRISTOPH DARTMANN (Hamburg), who discussed heraldry as an element of visual culture in Italian medieval cities. Dartmann touched on several topics that returned in many papers during this workshop. He emphasized that heraldry was an important element of visual culture in the city, though not the only one. Townspeople had many visual strategies at their command. He noted that cities were places of internal and external competition and that tensions led to aggressive use of visual representation. Communes used heraldry for self-representation and display of their authority, and it appears there was a development in the use of heraldry in the High and Late Middle Ages, which was often the result of political dynamics and new forms of government.

Social-Cultural Approaches

A main motivation of this conference was the notion that traditional heraldry is preoccupied with the design and identification of coats of arms, and that new approaches are needed to understand the variety and use of heraldry. One such approach was offered by MARC VON DER HÖH (Bochum). He used an explicit social approach to heraldry, perceiving coats of arms as historical objects that were a part of social interaction and generated social relations. In a case study he discussed the Haus zu Mühlen in the city centre of Cologne. This house is interesting for many reasons. First, the interior contains a ceiling with coats of arms. These coats of arms clearly represent a certain relation between the bearers, but the specific character thereof is open for multiple interpretations. Further, the house was owned by an artisan who made artefacts with coats of arms on various supports. Von der Höh demonstrated with this case study how groups of coats of arms could represent and establish social relations and furthermore he emphasized the intermediality of heraldic expressions.

LUISA GENTILE (Turin) gave an overview of the use of heraldry by various groups in the towns of Lombardy to position themselves socially and culturally. In the 13th century there was a certain degree of pluriformity of heraldic display of the cities, since they were represented with a variety of banners, but in the 14th century everything was absorbed by the commune. Further, Gentile showed how various families used coats of arms to present certain social relations. For example, some families put their coats of arms in the same shields to demonstrate their connection. According to Gentile, to understand the use of heraldry in the Lombardian cities, it should be studied in the context of chivalric culture, since many coats of arms featured knights on horses. She also emphasized that this Lombardian case did not develop in a vacuum. Influence from northern and western Europe, in the form of achievements above the coats of arms, was visible. In the 15th century, the cities came under princely control. This presence of a new social group was the cause of a development of the use of coats of arms in the city. The urban heraldry did not cease to exist, but was now subjected to princely heraldry.

ANDREAS REHBERG (Rome) also applied a socio-cultural approach, in this case to study the role of heraldry in Roman society from the 13th to the 16th century. Rehberg identified various social groups that applied heraldry in Rome. This pluriform framework, Rehberg argued, represented the social mingling in this city. Rehberg, Gentile and Von der Höh are just a couple of examples of new approaches to heraldry that were presented at this workshop. Many participants approached heraldry from a different perspective by studying the practical use of heraldry in its historical, topographical, social and communicative context.

Lost Heraldry

Armes de Jean de Berry. Poitiers, enceinte urbaine, remparts méridionaux (boulevard sous Blossac).

Armes de Jean de Berry. Poitiers, enceinte urbaine, remparts méridionaux (boulevard sous Blossac).

One of the problems of studying medieval heraldry is the fact that much evidence is lost. History has been cruel to coats of arms in the city and therefore not many have survived. The participants presented various ways to reconstruct the presence of heraldry on the city. MATTEO FERRARI (Poitiers) discussed heraldry in the urban spaces of medieval Poitou. Few coats of arms can be seen today, but through evidence in documents and archives Ferrari could show various examples of the presence of coats of arms in public spaces in the city, for example on towers and gates, and he demonstrated how the coats of arms could indicate the function of the buildings. By identifying the coats of arms, Ferrari was also able to examine who applied this heraldry on the buildings of Poitou, and it appears that the arms of the mayor were omnipresent. PAUL-FRANÇOIS BROUCKE (Amiens) and EMILLIANO BOULTRINI (Rome) were also able to identify scarcely visible coats of arms on buildings and archeological finds. This strengthens the assumption that heraldry was indeed ubiquitous in the medieval city; it was a heavily used and constantly present element of visual culture.

A Variety of Statements in a Variety of Contexts

Coats of arms had important communicative functions in the medieval city. The papers presented many examples of the messages that could be conveyed through heraldry. It appears that heraldry in the space of the city could be used by various social groups to convey a great variety of statements.

PHILIPPA WOODCOCK (Warwick) studied heraldry in the Trivulzio Chapel at San Nazaro in Milan in the early 16th century. Trivulzio was a Milanese mercenary in French service, who played an important part in the French seizure of Milan. His most significant commission concerns the Trivulzio Chapel. Woodcock demonstrated that the use of heraldry on the exterior of this chapel represented his important position in Milan and his (military) achievements for the French. However, on the inside the heraldry provoked the French and represented his estrangement from the French rule later in his career. So the various heraldic programmes on places allowed Trivulzio to convey multiple identities.

Another Italian case that demonstrated how heraldry was used to communicate ideas was provided by LUIGI TUFANO (Turin). In his paper on the use of coats of arms in the commissions of Count Diomede Carafa in the 15th century, Tufano showed that the coats of arms not only demonstrated Carafa’s service to the Crown, but also represented his ideas on the important political value of fidelitas that characterized the righteous nobleman.

The façade of the Cordon Palace after 1473.

The façade of the Cordon Palace after 1473.

Since in this workshop the Italian case was meant to be placed in a European context, various participants presented examples from other regions. And indeed heraldry was used to make strong statements there as well. MARCO BOGADE (Potsdam) discussed two heraldic programmes of Emperor Charles IV in 15th century Prague. The first case study concerned the Old Town Bridge in Prague, in which the collections of coats of arms represented the territorial authority of the House of Luxemburg, but also connected the Emperor to Saint Wenceslaus and thus to the kingdom of Bohemia. The second example concerned the eastern choir of the St. Vitus chapel in the same city and here a similar idea was conveyed, but now in a more private space. The collection of coats of arms presented a genealogy of the Luxemburgian predecessors of Charles IV, but also included some key members of the Bohemian Přemyslid dynasty. So in both heraldic programmes the message is twofold: one the one hand glorification of the Emperor’s rule and family under the protection of the Bohemian patron saints.

ELENA PAULINO MONTERO (Florence/Madrid) and ALICIA INÉS MONTERO MÁLAGA (Madrid) presented a Spanish example of powerful heraldic communication. They studied the use of coats of arms by the Velasco family on the Casa de Cordon, their family palace in Burgos, in the mid-15th century. The heraldic programme on the architecture was not only a glorification of the Velasco, but also represented the complex relations between this family and the city, as well as the relations of the family to the kings.

These cases show that heraldry was capable of conveying complex messages, sometimes multilayered, and that this form of communication was used in different contexts.


Montero and Málaga demonstrated that the heraldry on the Velasco Casa de Cordon was particularly powerful because their palace was located in the middle of the city of Burgos. Here, the main roads crossed and this central location made the Valesco’s heraldic message unavoidable. In studying heraldry in the medieval city, it is not only the message that is important, but also the manner in which this message was transmitted. The location is a crucial part of that. This often neglected element of heraldic communication, its topography, was a main theme of this workshop.

Topography of heraldry was one of the central elements in Emiliano Bultrini’s paper. Medieval Rome was surrounded by the 20 kilometer long Aurelian wall, but the city had relatively few inhabitants. Within the walls were therefore many empty spaces and these were filled by Roman baronial families, who established fortified structures in these areas and used heraldry to demarcate their territories. Heraldry thus functioned as a means of topographic control.

In processions heraldry were very present at a great variety of locations. This was pointed out by LAURENT HÉRY (Brest), who discussed the report by Pierre Choque on the entries of Anne de Foix, the future wife of King Vladislaus II of Hungary, in several Italian cities. Choque described the heraldic decorations of various cities during these entries in a report in which a great number of coats of arms were painted. The coats of arms appeared everywhere: at the gates of the city, at the tableware during the banquets, at the dais, on the trumpets, etc.; heraldry was omnipresent at many locations during these ceremonies.

In two French cases topography also played an important part. TANIA LÉVY (Brest) demonstrated the use of coat of arms of Lyon in the spaces of the city around 1500. As with the case of Poitou in Matteo Ferrari’s paper, the physical evidence are scarce so Lévy studied archival records in order to reconstruct the presence of coats of arms in Lyon. They appeared at several places. The coats of arms were attached to the Hotel de Ville and the bridges that formed the important entrances into the city. Their appearance probably should be seen in relation with the entry of the French king. So the coats of arms of Lyon were placed on the main strategic positions in the city and acknowledgement of these locations is crucial for the interpretation of the way they communicated.

JEAN-CHRISTOPHE BLANCHARD (Nancy) presented an overview of the buildings and places where the patriciate of the city of Metz displayed their coats of arms in the Middle Ages. This included their city estates, churches and bridges. Blanchard presented a map which showed the locations of the coats arms in the city. The coats of arms were present all over the city in such an extent that Blanchard referred to Metz as an urban theatre for heraldry.

The realization of the importance of topography of heraldry increased the consciousness of the impact that heraldic communication could have in the medieval city. Coats of arms appeared on many different spaces in the city, but were not randomly put in some place. Their location was well thought over and is a crucial element of the manner in which they communicated.

Religious Spaces

With regard to topographies of heraldry in the city, the religious space is an important and interesting case which was dealt with in multiple papers. Churches were central points in the urban society, but within the space of the churches the location of coats of arms mattered as well.

LAURA CIRRI (Florence) studied the use of heraldry in the sacred spaces in Florence in the 13th and 14th centuries, focusing on the private places in the public spaces of the church: the family chapels. Through various examples of Florentine churches Cirri showed how families applied their coats of arms in these spaces, which could be on ceilings, tombs, sculptures and in the architecture. In the Santa Maria del Fiore it was however forbidden for families to place their coats of arms, since it was a church of the whole commune, and therefore this church only featured the coats of arms of the city. Later, in the 15th century, some powerful families managed to place their coats of arms on the exterior of the churches of Florence, or in the case of Santa Maria Novella, very prominently on the façade.

KATJA PUTZER (Nuremberg) studied heraldic communication in religious spaces on a very specific support: the memorial shields. These shields with coats of arms commemorated the deceased and were preferably placed in the vicinity of his grave (although later this became practically impossible). Only men, mostly patricians and wealthy of the city, were allowed to place such a memorial shields, in which sometimes a small coat of arms of their spouse was added. These shields did not only had a commemorative function, but a representative function as well. They were a form of prestige for the families concerned: every family had a particular space in the church and the more memorial shields it contained the more prominent was their appearance. So memorial shields with the coats of arms had a complex function where religion and representation was combined.

Les armes de Clément VI (armoiries des Roger) sur la Porte Champeaux. (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

Les armes de Clément VI (armoiries des Roger) sur la Porte Champeaux. (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

Another space that has a close connection to sacred spheres is the papal state. EDOUARD BOUYÉ (Dijon) gave an overview of the use of coats of arms by popes in the cities in their state. In Avignon the popes did materialize their presence through heraldic displays in the city, but this occurred on a small scale and was mainly limited to ephemeral coats of arms. In Rome in the mid-15th century this changed. The popes were almost obsessed with heraldry as a means to manifest themselves. Their coats of arms often appeared on churches and in processions and heraldry played an important part in papal competition.

PAUL-FRANÇOIS BROUCKE discussed in his paper the special case of Brittany. Here, coats of arms almost exclusively appeared on religious buildings. At least, that is where the evidence is concentrated. Churches, not only in cities but in villages as well, were subjected to a very lively heraldic display.

Urban organization

That heraldry did not appear much in other spaces of the city, was according to Broucke the consequence of the specific political structure of Brittany, where the Duke had a strong authority over the cities. In several papers the influence of the urban organization on the practice of heraldry was touched on.

For example in Katja Putzer’s paper on memorial shields in the churches of Nuremberg. Until the late 15th century, the memorial shields were round, with the coats of arms and achievements coming out of the shield, thus creating an impressively embellished 3D display. In 1495 the Nuremberg city council decided that there was no place in the churches for such ostentatiously decorated armorials shields, since the various elements on these shields (decoration and crowns) highlighted an undesirable inequality between the families. From then on memorial shields were to be sober, rectangular and without distinctive elements such as crowns. Although some families evaded these rules, this decision of the city council had a major influence on the heraldic display through memorial shields in the churches of Nuremberg.

The relation with the city and the influence of urban organization was also an aspect in the paper of EMMANUEL DE BOOS (Paris). Armorials are often associated with kings and high nobility, but they were also made and used in cities, often in the context of urban administrative documents. De Boos presented two examples or urban armorials: the tablets of Siena and a manuscript from Toulouse. Although both works are not related, they do have several things in common, such as the content (both focusing on the city) and the layout (every page consists of texts with images and coats of arms at the top). De Boos argued that the organization of both cities, with a sense of pride for their statutes and an idea of urban unity, were a prerequisite for these kinds of urban armorials.

Heraldry of the City

Arms of Lisbon (1360), Arroios Fountain. Presently in the Lisbon City Museum, nº inv. MC.ESC.415.

Arms of Lisbon (1360), Arroios Fountain. Presently in the Lisbon City Museum, nº inv. MC.ESC.415.

Though most papers dealt with various practices of heraldry in the city, some contributors dedicatd their paper on the interesting theme of heraldry of the city itself. MARTA GOMES DOS SANTOS (Coimbra) discussed the coats of arms of the cities in medieval Portugal. Through various examples she demonstrated the evolution of the municipal coats of arms, which sometimes became more complex with multiple elements in the field which represented the town’s identity. In many cases the royal coats of arms were added. Although similar developments occurred in other places of Europe, the Portuguese case appears to be unique in the fact that the coats of arms represented the centralized royal power.

VITTORIA CAMELITTI (Udine) studied the use of heraldry in the urban iconography, where the cities are depicted with their walls, city gates and buildings. In these images coats of arms could be used to identify them or to represent their political orientation. Sometimes coats of arms were used to characterize imaginary cities and in other cases coats of arms were remarkably absent. Camelitti’s study showed that coats of arms were not the only means to represent a city. Together with names and images they formed one of the possible tools for urban representation in the Middle Ages. This illustrates the point made by several contributors that heraldry should be seen in the wider context of visual culture of the medieval city.

New Perspectives and European Context

By focusing on the medieval city, this workshop rebutted the idea that heraldry was only used by kings and feudal nobility. Heraldry was omnipresent in the city. But the papers did much more than that. The various disciplinary backgrounds of the participants, ranging from art historians to heraldists and historians, resulted in various approaches to heraldic sources, such as the focus on the use of coats of arms, their topography in the city, the influence of political changes or familial competition, the relation between office and persons and the place of coats of arms in the wider context of visual culture. It also demonstrated its value for other themes in historical research. For example, for the use of heraldry in the city there was no clear distinction between nobility and non-nobility, so maybe in this context it is better to speak of elites instead of nobility. Also the complex topic of public and private spaces was touched on in various papers, and it appears that for the use of heraldry such a distinction cannot be made. With such observations heraldry might provide interesting contributions to several historical discussions.

Heraldry was used by various groups as a manner of communication and the great variety of ideas and messages it could convey was determined by its context, location and time. So to understand how and what the coat of arms communicated, not only the content of the coat of arms should be studied, but it should also be considered who placed it at what location at what time and circumstances. Further, the case of Italy was placed in a wider European context, and although heraldry seems to be a phenomenon found in all of Europe’s cities, it became clear that its use differed considerably from region to region. Finally, heraldry was not a static phenomenon, but its use developed and change throughout the Middle Ages.

This was the first time that the theme of heraldry in the city was the topic of an entire workshop and it proved to be a promising subject which can provide new insights on heraldry as well as urban history and other fields of historical research. With its interdisciplinary and comparative approach and focus on the social, topographical, communicative, regional and chronological variety of heraldry, this workshop has set a path for future research to follow.


Jean-Christophe Blanchard (Nancy)

Marco Bogade (Potsdam)

Emmanuel de Boos (AIH)

Edouard Bouyé (Dijon)

Paul-François Broucke (Amiens)

Emiliano Bultrini (Rome)

Vittoria Camelliti (Udine)

Laura Cirri (Florence)

Christoph Dartmann (Hamburg/Münster)

Laurent Hablot (Rome/Poitiers)

Torsten Hiltmann (Münster)

Matteo Ferrari (Poitiers)

Luisa Gentile (Turin)

Marc von der Höh (Bochum)

Marta Santos (Coimbra)

Laurent Héry (Brest)

Tania Lévy (Brest)

Alicia Inés Montero Málaga (Madrid):

Elena Paulino Montero (Florence/Madrid)

Katja Putzer (Nuremberg):

Andreas Rehberg (Rome)

Luigi Tufano (Turin)

Philippa Woodcock (Warwick)

For a full programme of the conference see http://heraldica.hypotheses.org/2869

The workshop was sponsored by the Centre d’Etudes Supérieures de Civilisation Médiévale (CESM), University of Poitiers; Research Project ‘The Performance of Coats of Arms’ (VolkswagenFoundation), University of Münster; International Research Universities Network (IRUN); Ecole française de Rome; German Historical Institute Rome (DHI); Académie de France à Rome.



OpenEdition suggests that you cite this post as follows:
Elmar Hofman (June 22, 2015). [Report:] Heraldry in the Medieval City: The Case of Italy in the European Context, Rome 5-7 May 2015. Heraldica Nova. Retrieved July 13, 2024 from https://doi.org/10.58079/phxh

1 Response

  1. Dear Elmar Hofman, thank you very much for this concise report of the workshop. And great thanks also to all the participants to the workshop for their very stimulating papers and the very fruitful discussions! I’ve learned a lot those days and I am looking forward to reading the written versions of your papers (details will follow).

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