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7 – Biennais’s Golden Sword for the Duke of San Carlos (go to lot)


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Golden pommel enriched with two golden medallions on a background of lapis lazuli representing Paris’s profile with a Phrygian bonnet.  The whole is completed with palm leaves and floral motifs.

Button chiseled with water leafs. Grip with lapis lazuli plaquettes, surrounded by two rings decorated with friezes with stylized laurels, reinforced on the sides by two golden bands chiseled with palmettes and a six petal flower, bordered by a suite of stars. The reverse and the underside of the grip are ornamented with different motifs in engraved, chiseled and indented gold representing “Heracles and the skinning of the Nemean lion”.
The rain guard consists of a single branch with a curved arm in tanned gold ornamented with floral motifs in mat gold.  The jointures of the rain guard to the pommel are chiseled with acanthus leaves.Bivalve shell in pink gold, ornamented with six round lapis lazuli medallions representing:

  • In the center, on one side, the portrait of Diana and on the other side the portrait of Neptune.The portraits are crowned by two winged victories resting on two laying lions that look respectively towards a horn of plenty or cornucopia and a caduceus.
  • In the angles, the profiles of Mars and Minerva looking at each other.
  • The underneath of the shell is chiseled and engraved on a mat background, a frieze of foliage, scrollwork with foliage and flowers, enriched with a fine engraving of laurel leafs.
The rain guard is chiseled with water leafs. The blade is superbly and finely engraved, gilded and turned blue in part, decorated as follows: 
  • On each symmetrical side, pedestals with foliage trophies, crowned with laurels and joined medallions surmounted by owls.
  • On the back, a pedestal crowned by a laurel, winged lightning and foliage, followed by a golden legend that reads “ Le Duc de San Carlos au Comte Charles de l’Espine” (“The Duke of San Carlos to the Count Charles de l’Épine”).
The sheath is made of wood and recovered in white shagreen, with three splendid gold embellishments:
  • The rain guard is chiseled with guilloche patterns, with palms and flowers on a mat background, carrying on the side an olive piton with a ring.
  • The back is embroidered with a mat string.
  • The chappe button is a shield with a horse head surmounted by a flower.
  • The bracelet is chiseled with a winged lightning enriched with thunderbolts.The joint back is embroidered with a mat string that carries on its side an olive piton with a ring.
  • The snap, chiseled with a diamond with a radiant sun, then palmettes, flowers, urns and arrows on a mat background.
  • Dart in silver, in the form of a ball.

Hallmarks and marks

Signed « Biennais » in cursive letters on the upper part of the chappe.

  • Biennais’s hallmark on the chappe and on the bracelet.
  • Try-out hallmark known as “Tête de bébé 2” (baby’s head 2) (1798-1838) on the chappe and on the bracelet.This hallmark, not being official, was used by Parisian craftsmen on their second title gold productions.We can find them in the Austerlitz sword and on the big necklace of the Second type Legion of Honor.
  • Parisian warrant hallmark (1809-1819) known as “Tête de coq hurlant” (crying cock’s head) on the chappe and on the bracelet.
  • Parisian small re-census hallmark on the chappe button (1819-1838).

Measures and weight

Sword’s length (with the sheath):
39 inches.
Net weight with the sheath: 1 pound 50 ounces.
Net weight without the sheath: 1 pound 0.5 ounces.
Good state.  Period: First Empire – Restauration (1809-1819).

Nota bene

Real jewel in the form of a sword, of the biggest quality; this is one of the pieces of exception produced by master craftsman Martin Guillaume Biennais, whose gold and silver swords are of an extreme rarity.  This sword is conserved and presented in its original wooden case, recovered in red Levant and decorated “au petit fer”, with interlaced gold friezes, palmettes enriched with flowers, laurel leafs and pearled friezes.  Sheathed in the insidewith green velvet, it closes with three silver hooks decorated with flowers.

Length of the case: 40 inches
Width of the case: 4.7 inches
Height of the case: 2.7 inches


  • Offered by the Duke of San Carlos to the Count Charles de l’Épine.
  • Conserved by succession in the L’Épine family.


If it is common to read that Biennais’s documentation is kept in the NationalArchives, this is only partially true: in the National Archives only therequests made by the Emperor and the King’s House to the famous craftsman havebeen safeguarded.  Even if thecircumstances of the request of our sword are unknown to us, we can advance twohypothesis:  
The Duke of San Carlos probably received thissword in 1814.  1814 is in fact a crucialyear for the Duke and for his King, Ferdinand VII of Spain: it corresponds tothe year the King’s captivity ended and that he recovered the throne ofSpain.  The Duke of San Carlos was namedrepresentative of the King in the secret negotiations of Valençay, negotiationsthat ended with the restitution of the King to the Spanish throne.

From his return, as a demonstration of gratitude, the King of Spain invests deDuke of San Carlos with the Order of the Golden Fleece.  He was made 864th knight of thisorder.  The following knights would bethe Emperor of Russia, the King of Prussia, the Prince of Wales and CharlesMaurice de Tayllerand-Périgord.  Thefirst hypothesis: the king could have accompanied this honor with the gift ofthis magnificent sword.  This royal giftwould extend the knightly symbol.  Thesecond hypothesis: May 3rd of the same year, San Carlos is namedFirst Minister of State.  He thus becomesthe second strong man in the Kingdom.  Ishe granted a gift in recognition at this point by a foreign monarch? It isknown that, in fact, the King of Prussia sent him the Great Cross of the RedEagle and the Great Cross of the Black Eagle, and that the King of Naples senthim the Order of Saint-Januarius, the latter as a thank you present for hiscontribution to the reestablishment of his throne. 

First painter of the Royal Chambers, Francisco de Goya paints in 1814 twoportraits of Ferdinand VII that are today conserved in the Prado Museum.  The following year he portraits SanCarlos.  This great oil painting is todayconserved in the Museum of Zaragoza and will be exceptionally lent to theNational Gallery of London during the autumn of 2015.  The Duke is represented standing, posing witha black uniform, with the insignia of the Golden Fleece on his chest.  A sword can be made out.  The swords guard is golden, like is the caseof ours, and a bivalve shell can be seen. The scabbard is beige, as is our shagreen.  However, the very spirited style of theSpanish master does not allow for a further analysis.  In any case it is very likely that, if theDuke received this sword at the end of 1814, beginning of 1815, he decided tobe portrayed with it in this painting.
The golden raisings on the blade were donelater.  Very likely in 1823, when Charlesde l’Épine, who would marry the Duke’s daughter, inherited the title of Countfrom his father, and in 1828, year of the Duke’s death.  This gift has been devotedly kept in theL’Épine family since then.

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The sword of the Duke of San Carlos corresponds to an ornamental repertory ofBiennais’s production under the Empire.  Thisproduction, extremely limited, was almost exclusively destined for the Emperor,his family and his high dignitaries.  This explains why the similarities between oursword and other historical pieces are many.

For the guard

If we look into the Emperor’s sword known as the“sword of the Corals” kept at Fontainebleau (Figure 1), and someother projects with miniature incrustations, the guard of our sword is quiteexceptional, notably regarding the work in lapis lazuli.  Only one other sword with a similar work isknown.  Guarded in private hands, it isfurnished with similar ornaments, particularly depicting the profile of JoachimMurat, King of Naples, carrying the crown of the Lombards. 
For the design of the guard’s branch and theshell, our sword finds its inspiration in a project thought by Biennais for a Frenchcourt sword for the Emperor.  Thedenomination was thought by Biennais himself, in opposition to the « clavier »swords.  Conserved in the Museum ofDecorative Arts, this project, which we had the chance to look into, has thesame decoration on the guard’s branch and some similarities with the pommel,the grip and the shell, decorated with winged victories crowning cartridgesornamented with an “N”.  As is the casein the immense majority of the designs carried out by Biennais, our sword’sdecoration was probably effected by Charles Percier, or more rarely by thelatter’s pupil, Labas (Figure 6).
Minister and ambassador of the King of Spain,who was later deposed and held in captivity in Valençay, San Carlos could nottolerate Napoleonic evocations.  Allreminders of the Empire are removed from our sword and are replaced bymythological figures, which are notwithstanding not devoid ofimplications.  The Emperor’s Austerlitzsword is also furnished with a profile of Heracles and the Nemean lion (Figure 3).  In San Carlos’s sword one can also note thepresence of divinities: notably Diana and Athena, as well as Neptune, Heraclesand Prince Paris, crowned with a Phrygian bonnet, a thing that should of coursenot be taken as a Republican allegory.
For the blade
We can find, in the majority of the swords createdby Biennais, the same work of symmetry on both sides of the blade.  The inscription found in the Austerlitz swordis located in the exact same place as the inscription on our sword.
For the chappe
Our sword’s chappe is identical to other goldswords fabricated by Biennais, and is very closely similar to a fourth one: theEmperor’s sword, known as the Austerlitz sword, conserved in the Museum of theArmy in Paris.  The one offered byNapoleon the 1st to the Grand Duke Konstantin of Russia, kept at the Castle ofFontainebleau.  One of the threescabbards of this sword is furnished with the same chappe (Figure 4). The onemade for King Murat (private collection). Emperor Napoleons sword, known as the «sword of the Corals» (keptat Fontainebleau) is also furnished of a very similar chappe, with the onlydifference that in this case the chappe button has been replaced by a piece ofcoral. 

For thebracelet

Our sword’s bracelet is identical to the Gladius sword of Emperor Napoleon,created by Biennais in 1806, and used during the « Champ de Mai »ceremony of June 1815 (Figure 5). One of thescabbards of the sword offered to the Grand Duke Konstantin (Fontainebleau) isequally furnished with the same bracelet.

For the snap

The snap is very similar to the Emperor’s Gladius sword and of one of thescabbards of the sword offered to the Grand Duke Konstantin.  We find an almost identical snap in a projectcarried out by Percier for the Emperor that is conserved in the Museum ofDecorative Arts, ornamented with a beaming sun in a diamond (Inventory: 11721 Ato F) and a silver dart.

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José Miguel de Carvajal, Duke of San Carlos (Lima, 1771 – Paris, 1828)

José Miguel de Carvajal, duke of San Carlos, was born in Lima, Peru, in1771.  His family had been hereditarilynamed Correo Mayor in the Peruvian Viceroyalty. He was an important figure during the reign of King Ferdinand VII ofSpain.  In May 1808, having gained theKing’s trust, he was chosen to represent Spain in the Bayonnenegotiations.  In December 1813 henegotiated for Spain the treaty of Valençay. In October 1815 he was named ambassador to Vienna, and later toLondon.  Finally, in 1823, he becameSpanish Ambassador to Paris.  Afterhaving served as Viceroy in Navarre, he came back to Paris as ambassador in1827.  He died there in July of thefollowing year, suite to indigestion for the consumption of lobster.
The duke ofSan Carlos was knight of the Golden Fleece, Great Cross of the Order of theHoly Spirit, First Minister, Major-domo and Minister of Ferdinand VII, as wellas Ambassador to various European nations. He was perpetual director of the Royal Academy of Spain.  In 1815 he was portrayed by Goya.

Martin Guillaume Biennais (La Cochère, 1764 – Paris, 1843)
Master tabletierin 1788, Martin Guillaume Biennais buys the business of Anciaux, another tabletier.  With the end of corporations, Biennais isforced to diversify his activities.  Hisworkshop, where more than 150 people worked, specialized in cabinetmaking, jewelryand, later, the production of luxury arms. His business is profitable, but then an incident would further favorhim: he accepts to produce silverware for Napoleon, who had just returned from hisEgyptian campaign, on credit.  Onceturned into Consul, Napoleon would not forget him.  The craftsman would then be charged ofproducing the Regalia for Napoleon’s consecration in Milan in 1805.  Afterwards, he would work for almost allEuropean courts: Bavaria, Russia, Wurttemberg… He is granted exclusivity asfurnisher of Imperial table services: silverware, tea services, etc.  In 1806 he earns a medal at the IndustrialProducts Exposition.  He equally producesthe luxury arms and the chivalry orders destined for the Emperor, the ImperialFamily and high dignitaries, both French and foreign.
Restoration, even if it marks the end of therelations between Biennais and the power, does not eclipse his prestige beforeforeign courts: he goes on to produce Nicholas Pavlovitch’s table service  and Catherine de Wurttemberg’s toiletteservice in 1818.  Biennais finally sellshis business to Cahier in 1821.  He isgranted the Legion of Honor in 1831, which proves that the July Monarchy didnot forget the Empire’s glories.

On Biennais and his swords

  • H. Defontaine, « Biennais, Nitot et fils et les épées de Napoléon», Le Passepoil, 9th year, n°3, pages 49 to 69.
  • A. Dion-Tenebaum, « L’orfèvre de Napoléon Martin Guillaume Biennais », RMN, 2003.
  • E. Robbe et J.M. Haussadis (dir.), « Napoléon et les Invalides »,La Revue Napoléon, 2010, pages 96-97.
  • C. Buttin, « L’épée d’Austerlitz et les armes de Napoléon », Bulletin de la SAMA, December 1923, pages 13 et al.
  • Museum of Decorative Arts, Paris.Various sword projects started by Biennais and designed by Percier are available for consultation on the Internet site. Particularly do note inventory numbers 11721 A to F, 11723 and 11729.
  • Grobet Labadié Museum in Marseilles. Another part of Biennais’s projects, found in his apartments after his death, is conserved in the Grobet Labadié Museum in Marseilles, which was at the moment closed for works. We unfortunately did not have access to these projects.

Biographical sources
  • Archives nationales, « Inventaire après décès du Comte Pierre Charles de L’Espine », minutes du notaire Charles Denis de Villiers, December 1821, Côte MC/ET/XXIX/870 and 871.
  • « Bibliographie universelle, ancienne et moderne », Volume 81, Paris, 1847, Notice « SAN CARLOS ».
  • « Dictionnaire des familles françaises anciennes ou notables à la fin du XIXe siècle », Volume 16, 1918, page 216.
  • Louis François baron Le Jeune, « Souvenirs d’un officier de l’Empire », Paris, 1851.
  • Achille-Etna Michallon, « Michallon et la famille de L’Espine », catalogue of the exhibit at the Louvre Museum, Pavillon de Flore, March 10 1994, RMN, 1994, page 81 et al.

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