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Behold!  Here is the Tiara of Saitaferne, a crown of gold acquired by the Louvre in 1896.  The crown is wrought from a gold sheet and features gorgeous Greek youths surrounded by vines and birds.  A Greek inscription on the headdress reads “The council and citizens of Olbia honour the great and invincible King Saitapharnes.” According to classical lore, Saitapharnes was a Scythian king who menaced the Greek colony of Olbia (on the northern tip of Sardinia).  The colonists had to bribe him to leave with precious tribute, including this crown.  The crown was a sensation in France (and greater Western Europe) when it was purchased for 200,000 gold francs and precipitated much admiration for the matchless craftsmanship of antiquity.

Except…the object is a complete forgery.  It was made in 1894 by Israel Rouchomovsky, a master goldsmith from Odessa, on commission from antiquities dealers Schapschelle & Leiba Hochmann.  They told Rouchomovsky that the object was for a friend who was a classical archaeologist and they provided Rouchomovsky with detailed instructions as to how to make the tiara.

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Israel Rouchomovsky

When Rouchomovsky learned about the deceptive sale to the Louvre, he was aghast and he traveled to France to explain what had happened.  Museum experts refused to believe that he had wrought the crown, until he incontrovertibly proved that he was the responsible goldsmith.  The revelation led to disgrace for the Louvre’s experts but it made Rouchomovsky a sensation and he became an esteemed art nouveau jeweler in Europe.

The crown itself is now held in the Louvre’s secret archives of shame and and disgrace, but it makes periodic reappearances at exhibitions of famous forgeries.  Like the Meidum Geese (which snookered Ferrebeekeeper), the Tiara of Saitaferne raises difficult questions about the meaning of artworks and how their value is contingent on when and by whom they are made.  Such questions are becoming more prominent in contemporary art (which has become deeply fixated on political questions of identity and diversity) but, as you can see, the underlying issues are ancient.

"Palo" Diadem (Hellenic artisans ca. 3rd century BC; gold, enamel, glass beads)

“Palo” Diadem (Hellenic artisans ca. 3rd century BC; gold, enamel, glass beads)

Here is the so-called “Palo diadem” a golden diadem manufactured by Greek goldsmiths who worked in Taranto in southern Italy (in Apulia–Italy’s “bootheel”) in the 3rd century BC.  The wreath was probably discovered in one of the Lacrasta tombs—noted burial sites from Hellenic Apulia.  The piece entered the Louvre collection when it was purchased by the second emperor of the French, Napoleon III, nephew and heir of Napoleon Bonaparte—so its modern history is every bit as interesting as its ancient creation.

This sort of diadem was worn in Hellenic society by women only, and served a purely decorative purpose.  Numerous examples have been found from across the Greek world during the time of Macedonian ascension, however this little crown is especially finely made and well-preserved.  The headdress is a masterpiece of the goldsmith’s art and consists of extremely fine gold filigree–wire twisted into the shape of intertwined vines, rosettes, and flowers like metal lace. The floral highlights are painted in blue enamel and there are little glass berries made from green, blue, and white pâte de verre.

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The goldsmiths of Taranto were the master jewelers of their time.  Their work was exported around the Hellenic world, but this diadem seems to have stayed close to home until Napoleon III purchased it.  The piece inspired a resurgence of gold filigree work among the 19th century jewelers of Italy and France.

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Most of the crowns of history are gone. Long ago they were lost or broken or stolen. Kingdoms fall. Raiders and thieves carry off the crown jewels which are then picked apart and melted down for gold. Famous national symbols like crowns are also deliberately destroyed for political reasons. This blog has told the story of many such missing crowns—for example the crown of the Tudors, the crown of the kings of France, the crown of the arrogant little banker-prince of Liechtenstein, and the crown of Poland. Such is life—silly hats cannot last forever, no matter how precious their manufacture or how blood-sodden their history. Considering this, it is strange that we have the crown of one of history’s most controversial monarchs—and that said infamous crown is somehow relatively obscure.

The Crown of Napoleon

The Crown of Napoleon

Napoleon Bonaparte was one of history’s greatest conquerors. He needs no introduction, but I am going to give him a short biography anyway (ha). Bonaparte was a gifted soldier and political manipulator who rode the chaos of the French Revolution to national power at the end of the 18th century. As dictator of France from 1799 onward he proceeded to conquer most of Europe until he was defeated and permanently deposed in 1815. As ruler of France, Napoleon initially styled himself as “First Consul” but as his authority grew, he adopted the more nakedly authoritarian title of “Emperor of the French in 1804. For his coronation ceremony at Notre Dame, he needed an appropriate crown (since the traditional crown jewels of France had largely vanished during the revolution). Napoleon opted to use two crowns for the ceremony: the first was a plain gold laurel meant to evoke the imperial grandeur of ancient Rome. The second crown, however, was specially made for Bonaparte and it is this crown which still survives at the Louvre.

The Coronation of Napoleon (Jacques-Louis David, ca. 1807, oil on canvas)

The Coronation of Napoleon (Jacques-Louis David, ca. 1807, oil on canvas)

The crown of Napoleon was made in mock-medieval style with eight half arches holding up a gold globe with a cross. The reason the crown is still intact and was not sold by the French state (or stolen by Prussians or Germans) is that the precious stones in the crown are not really that precious.   Instead of diamonds, rubies, and emeralds, the crown of Napoleon was set with shell cameos and carved carnelians. These carved pieces evoked the grandeur of ancient Rome (and followed the fashion of French empire) but did not compare with the huge gaudy gems which were popular for European crowns later in the 19th century.   When Napoleon went to Saint Helena, his crown stayed in Paris, but subsequent Bourbon monarchs (and even Napoleon III) eschewed the crown for other royal symbols.

The Crown of Napoleon

The Crown of Napoleon

History’s thieves, plunderers, and auctioneers all likewise ignored the crown regarding it as a fishpaste and gilt style prop rather than an actual precious relic. It can still be found in the Louvre, a bit threadbare but not substantially the worse for wear thanks to its handicraft “Etsy” aesthetic!

Many of the greatest medieval artists are anonymous.  Their actual names and personalities have been lost in the swirl of time and only their works remain.  In such cases the unknown masters come to be named after their region, or a distinctive trademark, or (as in this case) one famous painting.  This is how today’s featured gothic artist came to share a title with Lucifer himself.  The trecento Siennese master who painted this panel is known by two surviving works (which are both at the Louvre).  The more influential and dramatic of the pair is The Fall of the Rebel Angels which was painted between 1340 and 1345 AD.  The painter is therefore called the “Master of the Rebel Angels”.  Here is the best digital image I could find of the painting—itself a portion of a long lost poyptych (the other surviving portion is a picture of Saint Martin, the patron saint of France—which suggests the work was made for a French buyer).  This work had a deep influence on French Art and was often copied or imitated—most notably by the Limbourg brothers for the illuminated manuscript Les Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry.

The Fall of the Rebel Angels (The Master of the Rebel Angels, ca. 1340, tempera and gold on panel)

In a world without quicksilver mirrors, abundant cheap plate glass, or artificial lighting there was only one substance that conveyed divine luster in a lasting manner—actual gold.  The majority of the The Fall of the Rebel Angels is pure elemental gold flattened out into sheets and affixed directly to the panel.  This precious but inhuman metallic background provides a perfect setting for the larger than life metaphysical battle portrayed in the painting. The story behind this artwork is immediately comprehensible to anyone who chafes under rules: the rebel angels come to believe they would be better off running their own affairs instead of submitting to the hegemony of heaven.  God and his hosts of loyal angels learn of their disloyalty and cast them down.  Without the naturalistic conventions of Renaissance art (which would come later) the war in heaven takes on an otherworldly almost science-fiction aspect.  The glowing armored hosts of heaven guard the welkin. Above them are the enthroned ranks of saints.  God towers at the pinnacle of the composition, serene on a living throne of flame-like angel wings.

The rebel angels have lost their heavenly beauty and their effulgence.  Blackened and monstrous, unable to bear their weight on corrupted wings, they fall from the skies and are swallowed by a mysterious drab gray orb. This dull circle represents life and the affairs of the world.  The artist meant us to understand that we too are its inhabitants, fallen like the rebel angels and cut off from what is numinous and ineffable. The painting starkly conveys the hierarchical philosophical outlook of the times, but strangely it also makes the rebel angels sympathetic.  They are the subjects of the work: their mutilation and defeat provides the drama. Christian art reversed the conventions of Greco/Roman art: the victim or acted-upon party is the protagonist (rather than the victorious aggressor).  I can’t imagine the Master of the Rebel Angels intended such a result, but, somehow he painted a work where the monsters are the protagonists and their transformation is the dominant mystery.

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