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A consular diptych, inscribed in latin, on ivory
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An ivory plaque, 345mm. by 119mm. by 8mm. thick, a recessed central compartment mostly within a double border 320mm. by 103mm., with a central image of a half-length full-face clean-shaven figure holding a 'mappa' in his right hand and in his left hand a staff of office surmounted by a cross, wearing elaborately ornamented robes, within a circular wreath formed of fronds and bunches of fruit tied by ribbons which dangle down below the wreath with trefoil terminals, above and below the central image two pairs of large rosettes, at the top an inscription in tall contracted and compressed capitals within an oblong border with decorative finials at each end, inscribed "v[ir] c[larissimus] et inl[ustris] ex c[omite] d[omesticorum] cons[ul] ord[inarius]", the verso smooth with a single line deeply scored around three sides, three oblong recesses for hinges about 85mm. apart in the thickness of the left-hand edge of the plaque, each formed from two drilled holes joined together, some wear, 4 holes drilled in the plaque probably for later attachment to a binding or similar, some flaking in the grain of the ivory, a small unobtrusive piece split from the left-hand frame, the centre of the letter 'D' in the middle of the inscription fallen out, a small chip missing at the lower edge of the verso, some stains on verso where the plaque has probably been glued to wood, generally in remarkable condition for an artefact of such antiquity, in a fitted padded case\nConsular diptychs\nThis was one cover of a hinged pair of ivory leaves which formed a writing-tablet.   The inner side would originally either have been coated with wax or would have faced a second wax-coated tablet or (just possibly, given the date) a sheet of vellum.   The wax could be inscribed and erased, as appropriate; vellum could be inscribed and replaced as required.   In origin, Roman diptychs or even polyptychs are the earliest form of manuscript in codex format, with hinged pages.   It would be possible, without too much stretch of credibility, to call these the oldest known book-bindings.   By the late Roman empire, diptychs were commissioned for each of the two new consuls, or consules ordinarii, on their appointment each year.   In an edict of 384 the emperor Theodosius enacted that ivory might only be used for consular diptychs and for no others.   They were described as "diptycha ex ebore".   The inscription on the present tablet translates, approximately, 'the consul ordinarius, the most distinguished and illustrious man and from the domestic aristocracy'.   The portrait below shows the consul himself, with his badges of office.   By this date the empire was divided into two parts, and pairs of consuls were appointed both in the eastern and western empires, and all four annual appointees were supplied with diptychs, two in Rome and two in Constantinople.   The offices of consul were finally abolished in Rome in 534 and finally by Justinian in Constantinople in 541.  Western diptychs were intended to be opened from the back, as in a Hebrew or Arabic book today, whereas Byzantine diptychs opened from the front, like a modern European book. The present tablet, with its hinges on the left, is western, and this was therefore its lower cover.\nThe purpose of the diptychs is controversial.    It was once supposed that they enshrined the official instructions of the consular office, but all diptychs from at least 487 show the consul holding a 'mappa'.   This was the rolled cloth used as a starting signal for Roman races.  It became the emblem of the public games and festivities given and paid for by the new consul on his inauguration on 1 January, and it may well be that the diptychs were presented that day to the consuls for the public reading of the lists of competitors and performers at the celebrations (cf., for example, P. Needham, Twelve Centuries of Bookbindings, 400-1600, 1979, pp.21-22; A. Cameron, 'Consular Diptychs and their Social Context: New Eastern Evidence', Journal of Roman Archaeology, XI, 1998, pp.384-403; and K. Bowes, 'Ivory Lists: Christian Appropriation and Polemics of Time in Late Antiquity', Art History, XXIV, 2001, pp.338-57.)\nThe standard text on consular diptychs is still Richard Delbrueck, Die Consulardiptychen und Verwandte Denkmäler, Berlin and Leipzig, 1929 (Studien zur Spätantiken Kunstgeschichte im Auftrage des Deutschen Archäologischen Instituts, 2).   He describes 44 extant consular diptychs, including the present example, his no.41.   The list is refined by W.F. Volbach, Elfenbeinarbeiten der Spätantike und Frühen Mittelalters, Mainz, 1976 (Römisch-Germanisches Zentralmuseum zu Mainz, Forschungsinstitut für Vor- und Frühgechichte, Kataloge, Vor- und Frühgeschichter Altertümer, 7). There are two lost eastern diptychs, not seen since the early nineteenth century (nos.16-17) and one lost western diptych, destroyed in the Second World War (no.34), and there several which are now regarded as later medieval copies (listed under no.24bis).    Excluding those, then, there are 41 recorded authentic consular diptychs extant.   17 of these originally belonged to consuls of the western Roman empire and 24 to those from the eastern empire.   There are 12 consular diptychs each now in public collections in Italy and France.   There are five in England, four in Germany, three in the United States (Metropolitan Museum and Dumbarton Oaks, both eastern, and the Walters Art Museum), two in Russia, and one each in Switzerland, Austria and the Czech Republic.   Most are in national museums or cathedral treasuries.   The present example is the only consular diptych known to be in private hands, and probably the last that could ever come to the open market.\ndate\nThe oldest known consular diptych dates from 406 (Volbach no.1) and the latest is probably from the second quarter of the sixth century.   The present panel does not include the consul's name and so it can be dated only on style.  Delbrueck and Volbach originally ascribed it to the late fifth century, but it belongs more comfortably in the first decades of the sixth.   Cutler (Byzantion, 1984) compared the similar restrained compositions between pairs of rosettes which occur in Volbach nos.25-27, datable to 521.   Half-length portrait busts within circles occur also in Volbach's nos.12-13 (506), 28 (525), 32-33 (539-40) and 42 (first half of the sixth century).  The portrait itself probably has its closest parallels in no.15 (513).   There is one feature of the present image which is remarkable and potentially hugely significant.   The consul's staff of office is surmounted by a Christian cross, instead of the imperial bust. This is known in only one other consular diptych, that of a Basilius, whom Delbrueck and Volbach assumed to be the consul in 480 (Volbach no.6) but which Cameron and Schauer now (Journal of Roman Studies, 1982) suggest may be a second Basilius, the last western consul in 541.   The important point is that the owner of the present diptych was demonstrably Christian.\nhypothetical earlier provenance\nThere were a very finite number of consuls in the early sixth century, and the present panel was certainly made for one of them.   The high quality of workmanship and the originality of design suggest a consul of some wealth and the fact that he made an explicit Christian statement in his staff of office is notable.   The consuls in Rome in the early sixth were mostly undistinguished, but two names stand out at exactly the right period. Both are immensely important.   One is Boethius (c.480-c.524), author of the De Consolatione Philosophiae, who was consul in 510.   The other is Cassiodorus (c.485-c.580), probably the greatest late Roman Christian writer and philosopher, the author of the De Anima, the Institutiones Divinarum et Secularium Litterarum, etc., who was sole consul in 514. Could the present diptych actually have belonged to either?   On the face of it, there is no reason why not, to judge from quality, Christian symbolism and date.   We can probably exclude Boethius.   His father was also consul (and his diptych does survive, Volbach no.6) but the more famous younger Boethius fell foul of the authorities, his goods were sequestered, and Boethius died in prison.   This is not the case with Cassiodorus.   He was of noble descent (the inscription on the present ivory says this too).   He was quaestor in 507, consul in 514, head of the civil service (magister officium) by 526 and praetorian prefect in 533. Furthermore, his art collection was preserved intact after his death at the Vivarium, near Naples.  Cassiodorus describes attaching handsome covers to his manuscripts, the earliest such reference known (Institutiones, I, 30:1, Mynors ed., p.77).   The present plaque has almost certainly survived by having been applied to a bookbinding, to judge from the holes, stains on the verso, and the common practice of the period (the earliest ivory plaque from a binding is in the  cathedral treasury of Milan, second half of the fifth century).\nThe Vivarium ('fish pond', named after a water feature in the grounds) was a kind of Christian cultural centre outfitted by Cassiodorus at his family estate.   Its fate is unclear but it is apparent that at least some of its books, including the so-called Codex Grandior, were acquired in Italy by an Englishman, Benedict Biscop (d.690), who brought them back to Northumbria, where they were used by Bede (c.673-735) and they became the exemplars of the Codex Amiatinus, the oldest complete Latin Bible, finished before 716.   Any ivories attached to bindings in the library of Cassiodorus could easily have come north to the twin monastery of Wearmouth-Jarrow.   If the present ivory was among them, we might hope to find reflections of it in Northumbrian art.   Compare the seated figure of Christ in majesty in a huge circle in the Codex Amiatinus, fol.796v, which is remarkably close to the portrait here, with the same nose, staring eyes and the robe stretched over the left shoulder leaving the right arm free (J.J.G. Alexander, Insular Manuscripts, 6th to 9th Century, 1978, fig.26). There is even a general parallel in the portrait of Saint John in the Lindisfarne Gospels (B.L., Cotton MS. Nero D.IV, fol.209v).   It may not be provable, but it really is historically possible that this was the original model.   In the eighth century, however, missionaries from Northumbria departed for the Rhineland, certainly taking with them manuscripts which had been acquired in Italy, including the sixth-century Gospel Book now Würzburg, Universitätsbibliothek, Cod. M.p.th.f.68, and probably the copy of Acts, now Bodleian MS. Laud Gr.35.  The iconography travelled too.  Valenciennes ms.99 is an early ninth-century Apocalypse, probably made in Mainz but certainly based on Northumbrian models derived from Italian sources (Alexander, p.82): it includes a half-length full-face Christ in majesty within a circle, so close to the present image that one must suppose that something like this was its prototype (ibid, fig.304).\nIn the sixteenth century the elector Ottheinrich gathered some 3500 manuscripts from the ancient and Anglo-Saxon monasteries of the Rhineland to form the great Palatine Library, which in 1622 was looted in the 30 Years' War by Maximilian of Bavaria and presented in 1623 to Pope Gregory XV.   It was the principal source of the early manuscripts, and their bindings, in the library of Cardinal Francesco Barberini (1597-1679), probable owner of the present ivory.\n\nThis, then, provides a possible and credible line of descent which includes Cassiodorus and Bede, no less, and which would make this probably the only late antique work of art with a more-or-less unbroken line of provenance, above ground.
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literature

B. Borgesi, Oeuvres complètes, VII, Paris, 1872, p.51. W. Meyer, 'Zwei antike Elfenbeintafeln der Kgl. Staatsbibliothek in München', Abhandlungen der Königlichen Bayerischen Akademie der Wissenschaften, phil.-hist. Klasse, XV, 1879, no.33, pp.12, 31, 75-6 and pl.1. H. Graeven, 'Entstelle Consulardiptychen', Römische Mitteilungen, VII, 1892, p.216. O. Hirschfeld and C. Zangermeister, Corpus Inscriptionum Latinorum, XIII (Inscriptiones Galliarum et Germaniarum Latinae), 2, ii, Berlin, 1906, no.10032. W. Froehner, Collection de la Comtesse R. de Béarn, Paris, 1909, iii, pl.XIV. R. Delbrueck, Die Consulardiptychen, Berlin, 1929, no.41, pp.172-4. H. Peirce and R. Tyler, L'art byzantin, I, Paris, 1932, fig.166b. Byzantine Art, Masterpieces, exhibition, Edinburgh, 1958, no.45. W.F. Volbach, Elfenbeinarbeiten der Spätantike und des frühen Mittelalters, Mainz, 1976, no.41, pl.22. A. Cameron and D. Schauer, 'The Last Consul: Basilius and his Diptych', Journal of Roman Studies, LXXII, 1982, p.136. A. Cutler, 'The Making of the Justinian Diptychs', Byzantion, LIV, 1984, pp.111-2 and fig.18 (the article reprinted in his Late Antique and Byzantine Ivory Carving, 1998, pp.75-115).

provenance

(1) From the Barberini library in Rome.  It was recorded there by Bartolomeo Borgesi in October 1834, describing it as "da me veduta in Roma nella biblioteca Barberini" (Borgesi, p.51).  It was still there when it was first fully published in 1879.   It is very likely that it had entered the Barberini collections through Cardinal Francesco Barberini (1597-1679), nephew of Urban VIII, who formed an extraordinary collection of medieval art.   If it was in re-use as a book-binding, it may have come attached to one of the manuscripts from the ancient Palatine Library from Heidelberg, many of which were given to Cardinal Francesco by his uncle.   Another supreme late antique ivory, the so-called 'Barberini Ivory' now in the Louvre, was given to Francesco Barberini in 1625 by the scientist and humanist, the Abbé Nicolas Peiresc (1580-1637); cf A. Cutler, 'Barberiniana, Notes on the Making, Content, and Provenance of Louvre, OA.9063', Tesserae, Festschrift für Joseph Engemann, 1991, p.337.   That too is a possible source. (2) The Louvre Barberini ivory was sold in 1899, and the present item doubtless also came to France at that time.   By 1909 it was in the collection of Martine, Comtesse de Béhague (Countess René de Béarn), and it passed by descent to Jean-Louis, Marquis de Ganay; his sale in our Monaco rooms, 5 December 1987, lot 156, acquired then by the present owner.


*Note that the price is not recalculated to the current value, but refers to the actual final price at the time the product was sold.

*Note that the price is not recalculated to the current value, but refers to the actual final price at the time the product was sold.


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