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Condolences to the people of Thailand. Today (October 13, 2016) we bid farewell to world’s longest reigning king, Bhumibol Adulyadej of Thailand, also known as Rama IX.  Born in 1927 in Cambridge, Massachusetts, Bhumibol became king in June of 1946 and has continuously reigned since then.

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Ferrebeekeeper blogged about the king of Thailand before.  He was the richest and most powerful monarch in the world (with the possible exceptions of the king of Saudi Arabia or Vladimir Putin).  His subjects treated him as a living bodhisattva or god and he lived in vast palaces and rode on huge golden dragon barges. To a citizen of a Republic, it seems obscene for one man to personally control so much of a kingdom’s wealth (although frankly America has been falling short on our own austere Republican virtues these days).  It is strange to think that all of this power and wealth was going to go to Bhumibol’s brother, King Ananda Mahidol —before Ananda was murdered by being shot in the forehead. Fortunately a privy court hanged some random low-status servants after a shabby show trial—thus laying any questions about the exceedingly mysterious events to rest forever.

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King Bhumibol was a very loyal friend to America for 7 decades.  It startles me how swiftly the Cold War is passing from everyone’s memories, but Bhumibol helped the Western Democracies to win it.  His intelligence, forbearance, and natural political savvy helped Thailand stabilize South East Asia and prevent communism from spreading there (it also made Thailand the preeminent regional power). Bhumibol, a constitutional monarch eschewed direct levers of power. He was tremendously beloved by his subjects, which has always been difficult for a leader and is even more difficult in today’s wired world..  People who met him praised him as warm and sincere.

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Rereading this obituary I realize it sounds like a backhanded compliment.  It isn’t meant to be.  The papers today are full of claptrap which obscure Bhomibal’s political skill, his adroit ability to run Thailand from the shadows while ministers and generals came and went, and–above all–his iron will. He will truly be missed.  It will be majestic to see the Great Crown of Victory come out of its vault so that the playboy Crown Prince Maha Vajiralongkorn can set it upon his own brow (for nobody else has sufficient status to grant the throne of Thailand to him) and become the new king. However it is sad to bid farewell to such a stalwart ally, gifted political player, and interesting man.  It also raises worries about the stability of Thailand once a period of national mourning has passed.

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Emperor Dom Pedro I at age 35, 1834

One of the founding fathers of Brazil’s democracy was, somewhat ironically, a king and a colonial emperor.   Born in 1798, Dom Pedro I was the fourth son of King Dom João VI of Portugal and Queen Carlota Joaquina.  When Portugal was invaded by the French in 1807, the royal family fled to the wealthy and vast Portuguese colony of Brazil.   Young Pedro thus grew up on the vast estates of South America.  The prince particularly enjoyed physical and artistic pursuits such as hunting, building, music, furniture making, and horseback riding (although he tended to neglect his academic pursuits and studies in statecraft).  When he reached adolescence he pursued other physical pursuits as well, and his romantic dalliances were a lifelong problem for his government and his wife, Maria Leopoldina, an Austrian Princess.

In 1821, revolution in Portugal compelled Dom João VI to return to Lisbon.  The king left his son Pedro as regent…he also left some valuable advice: if revolution were to come also to Brazil (a certainty in those days of colonial independence), Pedro should join it, rebel against his father and co-opt the movement for himself.  This is exactly what Pedro did in 1822.  On the 1st of December, 1822, Pedro became Pedro I, the first Emperor of Brazil.   By 1824 the huge South American nation had made a clean break from Portugal and was well and truly independent.

Independence_of_Brazil_1888Declaration of Brazil’s independence by Prince Pedro on 7 September 1822

Alas, Pedro’s constitutional empire was ridden with secessionists. Brazil swiftly began to rip apart into separate nations.  First he was forced to quash the Confederation of the Equator, a secession bid in Brazil’s northeast.  Then he had to fight the Cisplatine War, an Argentine land grab which ultimately lead to an independent Uruguay being carved out of Brazil’s southernmost province.

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Pedro I was the heir apparent to the Portuguese throne (which he rebelled against back up in paragraph 2).  When his father died in 1826, he briefly became king of Portugal before abdicating that throne in favor of his daughter, Dona Maria II.  Unfortunately his scheming younger brother, the traditionalist Dom Miguel, stole the throne from his niece (Dom Pedro had toyed with the idea of marrying them in order to prevent exactly such an outcome). Weary of secession attempts, and recognizing that he was needed back in Portugal, Pedro I abdicated in favor of his 5 year old son Pedro II.  He joined forces with the Portuguese liberals and defeated his brother in an Iberian civil war, but just as this “War of Restoration” was finished he keeled over from tuberculosis.

Among all of those revolutions, counter-revolutions, abdications, and trans-Atlantic crossings, it is easy to lose sight of how remarkable Pedro I was.  In an age of bondage, he despised slavery.  Unable to convince the slaveholding landowners of the Brazilian national assembly to enact a gradual process for ending slavery, he decided to lead by example and freed all of his slaves.  He then granted lands from his estate at Santa Cruz to these manumitted bondsmen.

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He possessed an understanding of people’s shared humanity. This is rare enough among everyone but especially unusual among those who are born to immense privilege.  When adoring Brazilians once unyoked the horses of his carriage and began pulling it themselves, he promptly stopped them and proclaimed “It grieves me to see my fellow humans giving a man tributes appropriate for the divinity, I know that my blood is the same color as that of the Negroes.”

After Dom Pedro’s day, Brazil has sometimes flirted with absolutism (always to its detriment), however the delightfully heterogeneous and chaotic modern democracy owes its real character to this king who was always willing to set aside his own power, prestige, and privilege in order to advance the betterment of all.

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*Also, apparently, his grooming was immaculate.  It is a footnote, but everything I have read mentions it.

Corona votiva de Recesvinto. Parte del Tesoro de Guarrazar. Museo Arqueológico Nacional de España, Madrid.

Behold! This is the votive crown of the Visigoth King Reccesuinth. It is the finest piece from the fabled “Treasure of Guarrazar” a collection of 27 votive crowns, numerous hanging crosses, and various gold buckles and brooches which was discovered in a Spanish orchard in the 1850s. The treasure was manufactured by master jewelers and goldsmiths of the Visigoths during the 7th century AD. The pieces display a breathtaking combination of Byzantine and Germanic style. Nobody knows how they ended up in the orchard (which may have once been a graveyard or a fallen Roman ruin), although some people have speculated they were hidden there from the Moors. Although much of the treasure has vanished over the years (including an almost equally fine votive crown of King Suinthila) what remains is extraordinary—even after many of the pieces have vanished, the Treasure of Guarrazar is still the finest collection of early medieval votive crowns.

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Speaking of which, a votive crown is not meant to be worn. It is a treasure in the shape of a crown given to the church by a sovereign (or some other entity rich enough to be handing out jeweled crowns). These were hung above the altar of a church. In a way I is a sort of hanging sculpture–as is further illustrated by the “pendilla” the dangling ornaments hanging beneath the crown (a style which was also used in the medieval Crown of Saint Stephen). The letters among the pendilla spell out “RECCESVINTHVS REX OFFERET“ (King Reccesuinth gave this). The dark blue stones are sapphires from Ceylon (now Sri Lanka), which illustrates that, even in the 7th century, trade was a global affair.

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There are four great masterpieces of classical Chinese literature (or possibly five, if you count erotic fiction…but that is a story for another day). The most fantastical and supernatural of these four masterpieces is The Journey to the West…and the indelible hero of The Journey to the West is a monkey, Sun Wukong AKA the Great Sage equal to Heaven AKA Pilgrim Sun AKA the Monkey King (classical Chinese literature has a lot of sobriquets).

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At the beginning of the story a vast round stone boulder sits atop the Mountain of Flowers and Fruit (a paradisiacal mountain island off the coast of China). Warmed by the sun and caressed by the wind since the beginning of time, the granite egg cracks open and Sun Wukong emerges, a fierce clever monkey made of obdurate stone. Immediately after emerging from this egg, golden beams shoot from his eyes which are visible throughout the firmament (a harbinger of the monkey’s future).

Sun devotes himself to mastering Taoist magic (eating sacred fruits, drinking elixers, collecting magical items and learning spells). He becomes king of the monkeys and starts to participate in the wider affairs of the world…but as a demonic monster who eats people and kills for fun. When he learns of the splendors of heaven and the power of the Jade Emperor (the Celestial monarch at the center of a vast spiritual bureaucracy) he decides to make himself into a deity and hilarious, horrifying chaos ensues.

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But all of that is backstory. In the story proper, Sun has grown up. His attempt to overthrow the cosmic order is behind him…mostly…and he has devoted himself to self-mastery. With a bit of (coercive) help from Kuan Yin he has transformed his personality. The chaotic animal demon who killed innumerable people with dark magic has become an ascetic Buddhist monk and he has a difficult assignment: take care of a pathetic weakling (human) monk in a seemingly endless journey across monster-haunted wilds of mythical Asia. Along the way the monk (the spirit) and the monkey (the mind) are joined by a pig god (the appetites) and Sandy, a river monster (???). It’s like a twisted cross between Kung Fu, Pixa, and Homer.

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That is a sort of book-report blurb about an epic which is really an allegory of Buddhist virtues. The monkey king’s Taoist powers mirror the intellect: he has godlike powers of transformation, apprehension, and trickery, but these are of no use without more subtle virtues. The search for these elusive strengths is the real Journey to the West. The story has shaped Chinese cosmology and mythology ever since the book came out in the Ming Dynasty. Since then Monkey has been kind of an actual religious figure…but one who has moments where he is more like Bugs Bunny or Charlie Chaplin than like Jesus or Kuan Yin.

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This all sounds ridiculous—and it is. The juxtaposition of high-minded religious philosophy and low comic hijinks has made the Monkey King universally known in China. There is a deeper reason for this popularity: reality itself is a ridiculous mix of cerebral, noble, and profane elements. The monkey king is a fine mirror for our own madcap primate attempts to reconcile these incompatible impulses.

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I write about crowns to highlight the multitudinous absurd stories of history. The bizarre tales of treachery and murder and greed through which these fancy hats change heads (and ultimately wind up melted down or gathering dust in museums) lay bare the machinations of power and reveal the intricate vicissitudes of fate which bind cultures and people together over the long centuries. I, uh, also write about crowns when it has been a long day at work, and I can’t think of anything to write about. Each one is like a little pre-made soap-opera tale from world history…or so it has been for many years. But I have been writing for a long time, and I am now getting down to some real scrub crowns, like today’s specimen: the Karađorđević crown, which was made for the coronation of King Peter of Serbia in 1904.

Serbia lies at the crossroads of the Eastern and Southern Europe (and of the Balkans, Central Europe, and Asia Minor). Many Serbian kingdom states and empires rose and fell. For centuries, Serbia was part of the Ottoman Empire. King Peter had been educated in Western Europe. He came to the throne as a liberal reformer who believed in a parliamentary monarchy. This combination of a ragged history and a humane king, meant that money was not lavished on the crown, which was made of bronze by a Parisian jeweler.

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The most remarkable aspects of the crown are the big melting two-headed eagles (white two-headed eagles have been the heraldic symbol of Serbia since the Byzantine dynasty) interspersed with aqua colored flowers (fleur-de-lis?).  Additionally, this is a crown with smaller crowns on it. Each of the two headed eagles is somehow wearing a single crown—which are jewel-like ornaments on the larger crown. All of this sounds like I am having a Biblical epiphany or a hallucinogenic stroke. Just look at the crown up there at the top.

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Sadly Serbia’s historical turmoil soon reasserted itself after the brief era of Peter. The First and Second World Wars occurred and Serbia wound up on the wrong side of the iron curtain. However, the Karađorđević crown somehow endured and today it is the only historical crown kept in the Serbian Republic (in a museum, gathering dust). It may not be as ancient or valuable as other crowns, but its cool appearance and heavy-metal eagles have ensured its continued low-grade success as an object of interest.

A Map of the Kingdom of Oudh

A Map of the Kingdom of Oudh

The region which was once Oudh is a fertile portion of Northern India located in the contemporary province of Uttar Pradesh. The name is an anglicisation of the name “Awadh” which in turn is derived from the older name “Ayodhya,” the quasi-mythical capital city of Lord Rama (eponymous hero of the Ramayana).   During the age of the Mughals, Awadh was an important province run by different Nawabs (governors) on behalf of the Mughal emperor. In the 18th century, the authority of the Mughals waned and the position of Nawab became a hereditary feudal one.  The Nawabs of Awadh were a Persian Shia Muslim dynasty from Nishapur and they were renowned for their wealth and culture, however their (real) power was short-lived. In the latter half of the 18th century, the East India Company manipulated Oudh into serving as a buffer state against the Mughals and a de-facto treasury for their projects and adventures in northern India.

Portrait of Ghazi-ud-din Haidar, King of Oudh (Robert Home, ca. 1819, oil on canvas)

Portrait of Ghazi-ud-din Haidar, King of Oudh (Robert Home, ca. 1819, oil on canvas)

In 1819 the East India Company granted the Nawabs of Oudh permission to rule as independent kings. Anyone interested in power should immediately be able to spot the problem with that sentence: real authority was in the hands of the East India Company. However the delighted new king had a royal crown created for himself (designed by a British artist, Robert Home who painted portraits in the various courts of India). Here then is the crown of Oudh. Although it was a real object made of actual gold and jewels (unlike say, the Dutch crown, made of foil and fish paste) the crown of Oudh was a British stage prop meant to further disconnect Oudh from the last of the Mughals. By 1856, these theatrical machinations became too much for the British, and they dispensed with the Nawabs in order to rule the region directly.  Yet the stagecraft of politics are a funny business—by annexing Oudh outright instead of running it through decadent puppet kings, the British precipitated the Indian Rebellion of 1857 (A.K.A. the First Indian War of Independence).

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The crown of the King of Finland and Karelia, Duke of Åland, Grand Prince of Lapland, Lord of Kaleva and the North

The crown of the King of Finland and Karelia, Duke of Åland, Grand Prince of Lapland, Lord of Kaleva and the North

This awful-looking thing appears to be a bad prop left over from the Lord of the Rings movies, but it turns out to be the “actual” crown of the Kingdom of Finland. Further research revealed that it isn’t even as real as a movie prop and it has a horrible history to boot.

At some point Imperial Russia swallowed Finland—a fate which often happens to neighbors of that aggressive nation. The Finns chafed under the incompetent rule of the Tsars (also common) and when the Bolshevik revolution came in 1918, Finland quickly proclaimed independence. Suddenly though there was a problem: the Finnish parliament could not determine whether the new state should be a republic or a monarchy. These choices were politically tied to the ongoing First World War and the Russian Revolution. The conflict for the future of the Finnish state devolved into a short but entirely vicious civil war between “Reds” (Russian-backed social democrats, largely based in Finland’s southern cities) and “Whites” aristocrats and farmers based in the North who favored monarchy and Germany. The civil war lasted from January to May of 1918. Both sides relied heavily on terror acts and death squads. Defeated enemies who were not killed were held in deadly prison camps. One percent of the population perished in the war (including an oversize chunk of the 14 to 25 year-old men). In May of 1918, the white faction decisively won and Finland entered the German Empire’s sphere of power. Enthusiastic monarchists designed a bold crown for the new Finnish king. In October of 1918 they picked out a German prince Frederick Charles Louis Constantine of Hesse for the job. Finland had essentially been annexed by Germany.

Tampere's in ruins after the Finnish civil war.

Tampere’s in ruins after the Finnish civil war.

In November of 1918, Germany lost the First World War and the German Empire was dissolved. Finland had been destroyed from within by civil war and poor choices. The king of Finland renounced his throne without ever arriving in Finland, much less assuming the throne or taking the crown (which was never even made). It was a complete and utter disaster. In the resulting power vacuum, both Germany and Russia were too busy with their own problems to pursue their proxy conflict in Finland (which sort of by default and weariness became a stable moderate democracy).

So what is that monstrosity up at the top? How do we have a photo of a crown that was never made for a king who never ruled? Apparently in the 1990s a Finnish goldsmith Teuvo Ypyä crafted the crown as a novelty item based on the original drawings from 1918. The crown is made out of silver gilt and enamel (i.e. tinfoil and spray paint) and is kept in a museum in Kepi, where you can visit it to this day. What a proud and heroic historical object!

Oba Adémuwagun Adésida II ( photo taken in 1959)

Oba Adémuwagun Adésida II ( photo taken in 1959)

Hey! Have you in any way been affiliated with or interacted with the internet in the last two decades? If so, you have probably received a heartfelt plea for assistance from a deposed/dispossessed/dispirited Nigerian prince.  This famous email scam requested a small amount of money upfront in exchange for a big chunk of the royal treasury once the hapless royal heir ascended to his (grammatically shaky) throne.  Since Nigeria is a federated republic (and since this was, to reiterate, a scam), nobody ever received the royal payola.  However there is a kernel of historical truth within the confidence trick: Nigeria was once an assortment of kingdoms, emirates, and tribal lands which was annealed together by the British.  Each of these principalities (or state-like entities) had a ruler, and, although they were stripped of legal power during the colonial era, the various eclectic potentates have held onto ceremonial, spiritual, and cultural authority.

Yoruba Ade

Yoruba Ade

All of which is to say, there are no Nigerian princes, but there are prince-like beings, each of whom has a different set of royal regalia.   These “crown jewels” take the form of thrones, statues, “magical” items, and royal outfits…including sacred headdresses.  The Yoruba people (who constitute the majority of Nigeria’s ever-increasing population) vested particular authority in ceremonial “crowns” known as ades.  An ade is a conical beaded cap usually decorated with beads and faces.  The kings of the Yoruba people styled themselves as “obas” (an oba being a sort of combination of king, high priest, and chief).  The symbol of the oba’s authority was his ade—his crown (or for a high obas–the “adenla” which means “great crown”).

Beaded Crown "Ade" (ca. 20th Century; Glass beads, cloth, thread, and basketry)

Beaded Crown “Ade”
(ca. 20th Century; Glass beads, cloth, thread, and basketry)

Obas were the powerful rulers of the Yoruba and their ades were the ceremonial font of their authority.  This power was connected to the numinous world of spirits, gods, and orishas (which this blog has glanced upon in talking about voodoo—the syncretic new world religion based on Yoruba spiritual concepts). To quote the British Museum’s culturally suspect (but nicely written) website:

Beaded and veiled crowns…are traditionally worn by those kings who could trace their ancestry to Ododua, the mythic founder and first king of the Yoruba people. The crown is called an orisha, a deity, and is placed upon the king’s head by his female attendant. Powerful medicines are placed at the top of the crown to protect the king’s head and thus his future. The veil that covers the king’s face hides his individuality and increases attention on the crown itself, the real centre of power. The birds decorating the crown represent the royal bird, okin.

Originally ades had long beaded veils to conceal the faces of their wearers, but European ideas about royal headwear influenced the makers, and many more recent examples of the craft resemble European crowns.  The beautiful beadwork and impressive otherworldly artistry of ades has made them popular—so some of these examples may be constructed for the tourist trade.  Nevertheless, the Yoruba ade is a very impressive sort of crown.  Here is a little gallery of online images of ades.

Yoruba Ade Oba (by ÌMÒ DÁRA)

Yoruba Ade Oba (by ÌMÒ DÁRA)

Yoruba Beaded Ade (Oba's Crown) from Southwest Nigeria (Barakat Gallery)

Yoruba Beaded Ade (Oba’s Crown) from Southwest Nigeria (Barakat Gallery)

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Ade Olójúmérìndilógún, (with 16 faces) from Formação da Cultura Yoruba

Ade Olójúmérìndilógún, (with 16 faces) from Formação da Cultura Yoruba

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Chief's hat from the Yoruba tribe in Nigeria (ca. 1940)

Chief’s hat from the Yoruba tribe in Nigeria (ca. 1940)

 

King Cake (Wayne Ferrebee, 2012, oil on canvas)

King Cake (Wayne Ferrebee, 2012, oil on canvas)

In the Northern hemisphere today is the summer solstice—the longest day of the year. Here in Brooklyn, the Saturday closest to the solstice (which, this year, happens to also be the solstice) is the occasion of the Mermaid Parade, a great festival to Neptune, the Roman god of the ocean. Revelers gather in Coney Island which is a famous beach by the Atlantic Ocean. Artists, mummers, and lovers of the ocean dress as sea creatures, mermaids, and oceanic beings and parade down Surf Avenue before proceeding through Luna Park and to the beach. As a Brooklynite, I thought I should likewise celebrate Neptune and the glorious beginning of summer—which I am doing by showing one of my paintings. The title of this work is “King Cake” and everything you see is some sort of king. There is King Neptune, a king salmon, the king of herring, a king vulture, and a princely crown. The colorful torus-shaped cake is known as a king cake, which is eaten down south during carnival season. When the cake is consumed, the person who receives the piece with the baby baked inside is given a golden coin…or maybe sacrificed to the ancient gods (depending on one’s denomination and traditions). Carnival and Mardi Gras are not celebrated in Brooklyn: instead we have the mermaid parade on the summer solstice! Hail Poseidon! Hail summer!

What will the world do without him?

What will the world do without him?

The King of Spain, Juan Carlos I, has officially announced his intention to abdicate his throne and crown so that his son, the Crown Prince Felipe can take over. Juan Carlos assumed the throne on November 22, 1975, two days after the death of life dictator Franco. Spain has been a constitutional monarchy ever since with the king commanding largely ceremonial powers (with real power held by elected officials). The Spanish monarchy however has deep roots which reach back to the Visigothic kingdoms of the 5th century which fought the Reconquista to regain the Iberian Peninsula from the Umayyad Caliphate (those Goths end up everywhere).

Crown of of Alfonso of Spain

Crown of of Alfonso of Spain

Despite the King’s popularity, many people argue about the relevance of monarchy to modern Spain (an argument which took on new relevance after the King’s unpopular decision to murder an elephant as part of a canned hunt during the height of the Great Recession). Whether decrepit and largely superfluous monarchs should be allowed to leach off of the public coffers is, however, not the concern of this blog. Instead we concentrate on the actual crown of Spain, known as the crown of Alfonso of Spain. This is less simple than it sounds since the crown of Alfonso does not actually exist as such, but is instead a heraldic conceit. It appears above and is a magnificent confabulation of rubies, emeralds, and pearls surmounted by a blue orb with a cross. The jpeg above is as real as the crown gets—it is purely notional.

Spain's “Corona Tumular” (originally the funeral crown of Elisabeth Farnese, Queen consort of Philip V)

Spain’s “Corona Tumular” (originally the funeral crown of Elisabeth Farnese, Queen consort of Philip V)

After the conquest of the new world, Spain was, for a time, the richest kingdom in Europe, and the Spanish crown jewels were very fancy indeed, but these lavish treasures vanished during the time of Napoleon when the Iberian peninsula was plunged into war and chaos. The Spanish monarchy, likewise, declined in importance and majesty since those days. The crown used at official royal proclamations (seen above) is a funeral crown from the 18th century (and is essentially what was found left over in the Spanish monarchy’s attic, after the Napoleonic wars). It was made of silver with gold plating for the funeral of Elisabeth Farnese, Queen consort of Philip V.  Yet even this not-very-good crown has not been seen in public since 1981 (so Spanish prop-makers might be busy in coming months).

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