Italy, after Napoleon’s final defeat in 1815, was a divided peninsula. A variety of states existed within its geography—some independent and some with prominent French, Austrian or Papal influences. A unified Italy would eventually arrive in 1861 but it would need the Kingdom of Sardinia and its Savoyard kings to provide the impulsion, with many setbacks, sacrifices and desperate battles along the way. Upon unification, the Kingdom of Sardinia’s regulation weaponry was used as a blueprint for the arming of the newly born Royal Italian Army and so understanding the Sardinian swords of the 1800s provides an important foundation of knowledge for the collector. Perhaps the most iconic of the Sardinian models that were in use during this turbulent period (called in Italy the Risorgimento) was the Model 1833 Infantry Officers’ Sword.
Nicknamed the Albertina in honour of King Carlo Alberto I, this was one of the four regulation swords newly introduced on the 25th of June, 1833. A host of new directives were ushered in at this time, partly to reorganise the Army’s large array of accoutrements but also to prevent the wallets of the officers from having “to keep up with the capricious innovations of fashion”. In general, it was a well regarded weapon that seemed to satisfy most officers’ requirements and it would stay in service with the infantry for over two decades with only minor adaptations needed
(A note here: this Model is sometimes referred to in literature as the spada per abito lungo which means the sword for long dress. This is because the 1833 regulation introduced a primary uniform for the infantry’s officers which included a tunic with two long, turned-up tails at the rear—hence the ‘long dress’.)
The sword’s hilt is easily recognisable, and was made from gilded brass or bronze (and sometimes plated with silver). It has a prominent quillon in the form of a tapering cylinder that sweeps across a boat-shell guard before curling around to join with a spherical pommel by means of a screw—this screw being the key to taking the sword apart. A ‘wax seal’-shaped finial tops the pommel and can occasionally be found decorated with coats of arms, initials and other personalisations. The grips are all wooden-cored and were thickly wrapped with silver or gilt-brass wire while a large finger ring projects upwards from the guard, running alongside the grip before curving around to meet the knucklebow. This finger ring was large enough to admit one or two fingers, theoretically affording the swordsman a greater control of the sword’s tip.
Although the 81.5cm-long regulation blade was meant to be stiff, single-edged and ‘flat’ with a triangular cross-section its incarnations ended up including a considerable variety of blade-types: pipe-backed, fullered, single-edged, double-edged, slim, robust—and even smallsword and other blades from the 1700s were used. Furthermore, despite the articles clearly stating that the Albertina’s blade should be straight, curved blades can also be encountered although these are amongst the rarest embodiments. Whatever the blade-type, its connection with the hilt was always to be hidden by means of a red felt washer—the red colour being associated with the Army’s infantry component.
The healthy appetite that Sardinian (and Italian officers) had for personalising their swords also extended to such minor considerations as the placement of a sword knot (or dragona)—or whether to have one at all. Enlisted men also joined in with this flair for independence, with non-commissioned officers, should their wages allow it, being permitted to modify their swords’ handles and grips “to make them more similar to those of the officers”. In some cases, the commissioning by officers of swords with non-regulation features was actively encouraged by commanding officers, perhaps as an exercise in esprit d’corps.
Quite unclouded by such decorative inconsistencies, the Albertina’s scabbard was more or less left untampered with and is rather helpful as it can be used to narrow down the date of its sword’s manufacture. It was initially made of black leather, varnished and supplied with a gilt-brass locket and chape, and an elongated frog stud. In 1843, this frog stud was removed and replaced with two suspension rings secured to the scabbard by means of gilt-brass fittings. The leather scabbard was deemed unsuitable entirely by 1846 and the 6th of April that year saw it being removed from service with a far more robust steel version brought in to take its place. This was completely painted black except for its brass mounts which were to be left gilded. Higher ranking officers’ steel scabbards were unpainted and polished to a bright finish.
The year 1846 also saw a change to the Model’s hilt with the grip’s abundant wire wrappings being eschewed in favour of a sheet metal covering (actually two conical sleeves that meet in the middle over the wooden core). This incorporated a ribbed design and impressed motifs that mirrored the earlier twist-wire. Often, these later hilts were a little reduced in dimensions and weight, with the spherical pommel in particular being noticeably smaller.
As for decorations, Albertinas were almost as profusely embellished as their owner’s wealth allowed, and this was especially true for the men of greater rank. Generously blued and gilded blades, frost-etching, dedications and mottos, and ornate hilt devices abounded. With such a high degree of customisation, it is easy to see why it is rare to find two Albertinas that look exactly the same.
In 1855, a clipped-point sabre officially replaced the Albertina but it continued to linger in service with some officers for many years due to sentimental or financial reasons.
Researching and identifying Italian swords can be a frustrating task. Little is written in English about them and much of the information that can be found online is contradictory or unsupported. Even in Italy, many of the main reference books that the collector would look to for reliable information are out of print and expensive to obtain once found. This less than satisfactory situation is something I want to change and for the past two years I’ve been steadily compiling notes on the makers, markings and models that I’ve encountered. If you’re interested in helping my research please get in touch with me via this website’s contact form.
Armamento Individuale dell’Esercito Piemontese e Italiano by Alfredo Bartocci and Salvatici Luciano. Edibase, Firenze, 1987.