November 8, 2011

Royal Coin, Francis I. Sample Teston

This gold sample teston (16th-century French silver coin) representing the King Francis I (1494–1547; reigned, 1515–47) of France is one of the most characteristic monetary expressions of the Renaissance. The realistic portrait, classical inspiration, significant relief, and weight of the piece are all features that represent a break from the money of medieval times. The 19th-century numismatist, Henri de La Tour, showed that this 1529 coin was the work of Matteo del Nassaro (circa 1490–1547), an Italian artist from Verona who first entered the service of Francis I in 1515. Nassaro’s authorship is known to historians through an account statement that shows he was paid 112 livres Tournois (Tours pounds), 15 sous, of which ten livres, five sous were “for the gold he gave and used in a medal that he struck on the corner of these testons.” The gold specimen shown here is almost certainly this unique medal.

Throne of Dagobert

This cast and chiseled bronze and partially gilded throne from the art collections of the National Library of France belonged to Dagobert I (circa 603–39), king of the Franks 629–34, considered the last powerful Merovingian king. Four protomes of panthers form the feet and legs; the armrests consist of two carved and perforated panels, decorated with rosettes (bottom) and plant motifs (upper register). The back, triangular in shape, is decorated with three rings and foliage. The seat, originally folding, is a work of the seventh century, or a Carolingian replica. The date of some of the elements is quite controversial. Comparable thrones, with wild cat foreparts, are found in Carolingian illuminations. The back and arm rests can be dated to the second half of the ninth century. The foliage on the armrests has similarities to the ivory decorations or illuminations made in the workshops of Charles the Bald (823–77). The throne’s presence in the Abbey of Saint Denis was attested to from the middle of the 12th century by Suger, who was abbot there circa 1122–51. In 1625, Dom Jacques Doublet, historian of the abbey, reported that the priest who celebrated the mass at the high altar sat in the throne. The throne was confiscated during the French Revolution, transported to the National Library in 1791, but was used again by Napoleon in 1804 on the occasion of the creation of the Legion of Honor.

Great Cameo of France

The Grand Camée de France (Great cameo of France), the largest cameo sculpture to survive from the ancient world, contains 24 engraved figures arrayed in three registers. The general meaning and the political goals of this commissioned work are clear: its aim is to assert the dynastic continuity and legitimacy of the Julio-Claudian emperors of the Roman Empire (the first five emperors: Augustus, Tiberius, Caligula, Claudius, and Nero). The dead are placed in the upper part, while the middle register represents the world of the living. In the lowest register are Parthian and Germanic captives. Emperor Augustus can be recognized in the upper register, with his head veiled and encircled by a radiant crown; he is surrounded by Germanicus, mounted on a winged horse, and the son of the Emperor Tiberius, Drusus Julius Caesar. The floating figure with Eastern-style dress, carrying a globe in his hands, could be Aeneas. The center of the gem is reserved for Tiberius, sitting on his throne with his mother Livia. He presides over a solemn ceremony that is believed to be the appointment of Nero (standing armed before him) as Prince of Youth in 23 AD. This five-layered sardonyx cameo was made at around that date.

The Most Fearsome Life of the Great Gargantua, Father of Pantagruel

François Rabelais (circa 1494–1553) published his comic masterpiece Pantagruel, most likely in 1532, under the pseudonym Alcofribas Nasier (an anagram of the author’s real name). Prompted by the immediate success of this work, Rabelais went on to write the life and adventures of Pantagruel’s father, Gargantua. The events of the later book thus take place before those narrated in the first book. The character of Gargantua was already known in popular literature, but Rabelais composed a new tale that reworked the themes of Pantagruel. Through the story of these good-natured and farcical giants, Rabelais celebrated the fight for humanism and the recovery of ancient knowledge. Although written shortly after Pantagruel, Gargantua nevertheless marked a clear evolution in the thought and writing of Rabelais, as he renounced erudite and comic obscurity and clearly asserted his ideal of Christian humanism. The first edition, hastily printed in 1534, contained inconsistencies, in particular typographic inconsistencies, which Rabelais corrected in this edition, which is expressly dated 1535 in the title and which, like the previous edition, was published by François Juste of Lyon. The title contains another pseudonym used by Rabelais, l'abstracteur de quinte essence (the abstractor of the quintessence).

The Master of Arms, or the Exercise of the Sword, Alone in Its Perfection

The first attempts to codify the art of fencing were writings by Renaissance Italians, which then influenced later French works. These included the 1573 Traicté contenant les secrets du premier livre sur l’espée seule (Treatise containing the secrets of the first book on the sword alone) by the Provençal Henri de Saint-Didier and the 1628 L'Académie de l’épée (The school of the sword) by Girard Thibault of Antwerp. Le Maistre d'armes, ou l'Exercice de l'épée seule, dans sa perfection (The master of arms, or the exercise of the sword, alone in its perfection) follows in this tradition. André Wernesson, Sieur de Liancour (died 1732), published his book in 1686, and it remained the standard treatise on the smallsword for most of the next century. The plates of the work highlight the main fencing techniques and poses in different settings, some of which are bucolic and others more somber. They depict, for example, fortresses under siege, naval battles, and burned villages that served as reminders that Europe was at war and that the handling of the sword was a skill not reserved for duels alone.

The Defense and Illustration of the French Language

Joachim Du Bellay was born in Anjou, western France, in about 1522. In 1549, he published l'Olive (The olive), his first collection of sonnets and the first cycle of love sonnets in the French vernacular. That same year, he put forward his ideas on the French language and poetic practices in this work, La Deffence, et illustration de la langue francoyse (The defense and illustration of the French language). Du Bellay shared his essay with friends, who later formed the group of 16th-century poets known as the Pleiades. His text, which was part of a broader debate on the art of poetry, became the manifesto of the new literary school. In it, Du Bellay defended the use of the French language against those, notably the Renaissance humanists, who preferred the classical languages of Greek and Latin. Du Bellay accompanied his attack on the humanists with a critique of the old French poets. He argued that it was necessary to renew French language and syntax and to create new literary genres. Together, Du Bellay, Pierre de Ronsard (1524–85), Jean-Antoine de Baïf (1532–89), Étienne Jodelle (1532–73), and others would adopt the new approach to poetry. Du Bellay was in poor health for much of his life and died in Paris in 1560.