“The Gods Were Moved to Laughter” or the Other Face of Sigismund Augustus’ Medal
Acta Academiae Artium Vilnensis
Keywords:Renaissance medal, iconography, remake, translation, gesture, laughter, Sigismund Augustus, Barbara Radziwill, Giovanni Giacomo Caraglio, Paris Bordone, Virgil, Ovid, Reposianus, Dido, Aeneas, Venus, Mars, Vulcan
This enquiry focuses on the portrait medal of King Sigismund Augustus attributed to the goldsmith Giovanni Giacomo Caraglio; the medal and its remake are kept in the Ashmolean Museum of the University of Oxford. The medal features in Caraglio’s portrait painted by Paris Bordone in 1553, and is therefore also dated to the same year. The obscure occasion for which the medal was cast prompts reconsidering the relation between its obverse and reverse. The obverse features the bust of the king in profile facing left, while the reverse depicts the figure of Faith encircled with the quote from Virgil’s Aeneid: “DVM SPIRITVS HOS REGET ARTVS” (“As long as the spirit directs these limbs”, IV, 336).
Avigdor W.G. Posèq has convincingly argued that the left-facing orientation of the profile coincides with the direction towards the past and is often used when representing humanists, females, minors, and clergy- men rather than kings and politicians who are responsible for shaping the future. What is the message behind the medal that depicts the king looking towards the past in combination with the personification of Faith and Aeneas’ promise to remember Dido? This essay argues that this combination acknowledges Sigismund Augustus’ acceptance of his royal duties and his resolution to remain faithful to the Catholic creed of his ancestors in the wake of the death of his beloved spouse Queen Barbara Radziwill (1523–1551). Although, due to Virgil’s authority and the privileged genre of medal art, this item has been regarded as high art, the association between the queens Barbara and Dido bore significant misogynist and erotic undertones. The latter have been exploited in the remake of the medal as its bronze aftercast was adjoined to a former pendant featuring Venus and Mars surprised by Vulcan and Olympian gods mocking them. Due to the identification of the hitherto obscured iconography of the reverse as well as the references to the Reposianus’ epyllion together with Ovid’s Metamorphoses and Ars Amatoria as its literary sources, this unique medallic remake comes across as a humorous gesture. The paper argues that the reverse being fixed to the obverse along the horizontal axis allowed the viewers to reveal the erotic reputation of the king and, by doing so, turn the image of Augustus (meaning, literally, “the elevated one”) head upside down. This way, by a mere twist of fingers, the contradictory combination of reverse and obverse of this medallic remake allowed the erudite and powerful onlookers to join the Olympian gods in their laughter.