The many lives of Louis XIV prints and medals

Art historians working on histories of global exchange in the early modern period are often faced with the challenge of writing histories of travelling objects without the objects themselves, as they are so often lost or destroyed. The multiple copies produced of Louis XIV prints and medals that I’m working on has saved me from that fate, but they have presented me with other interesting conundrums. These objects don’t just have one life, but many lives accrued through the various itineraries that each different copy made around the world.

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The surviving examples of these prints and medals rarely bear physical marks of experience. It’s almost impossible to tell which particular print or medal went where and when and who they once belonged to. But I would like to argue all of the accumulated lives of travelling multiples transfer, at least conceptually, onto each and every copy of the prints from the same plates and medals from the same dies that do survive.

The problem of the ‘histories of belonging’ has been raised by Avinoam Shalem in relation to things with histories shared by many cultures. As Shalem points out, in the discipline of art history we tend to take a positivist approach to travelling objects that focusses on their physical and material transformations. “Questions of alteration and adaptation, and even destruction, are linked to the object’s corporal characteristics,” he rightly observes. But how do we account for changes that happen on the level of an object’s ‘anima’ to use Shalem’s term. Or as he puts it: “The thoughts that objects carry with them, not only physical, tangible evidence but… ideas and memories.”

The solution, Shalem suggests, is to view the object not just in terms of its place on a two-dimensional grid (imagine an object going from point a to point b on the map above), but to see it within a many layered series of connections that can account for simultaneous meanings across a variety of contexts.

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The diagram above is my first attempt to create a layered schema for a networked study of Louis XIV multiples. Here I have located the medal and print album at its origin point in France, I have then linked the different geographical locations via intermediaries who conveyed the gifts (in red). The recipients of gifts are indicated with a representative thumbnail of the gift that they received. If the gift was received in France, they are connected to both their place of origin, and the site of reception.

I admit, that this layered diagram doesn’t quite answer Shalem’s call for a multi-dimensional model for the networked study of objects. While perhaps a little more advanced than the route plotted on a map, is still underpinned by a positivist tendency for empirical data: the who, what, where and when of the object exchange.

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The diagram above is my attempt to capture the multivalence that we need for our histories of travelling objects. The intangible experiences that an object undergoes throughout its life – the ‘ideas and memories’ of those through whose hands it passes – are not erased with each subsequent experience but accrued. The object does not cease to be French, and to mark the lives of members of its ruling family when a copy of this medal was gifted to the Amerindian warrior Nescambiouit. Nor should we forget that it once was given to an African man who played at being a Prince at the French Court. The extraordinary journey of an object just like that one that went to Persia only adds to its appeal as a symbol of global networks of exchange in the early modern world.

Following James Clifford’s call in his 1997 study, Routes: Travel and Translation in the Late Twentieth Centuryfor an examination of the transitions, contact zones, and networks of people, I have not expressed world views in my layered diagram in terms of cultures, but of individual actors.

Each of the agents named here led an exceptional life. Louis XIV and Shah Sultan Hosayn enjoyed extraordinary privilege, but neither of them left the lands over which they were sovereign. Aniaba and Nescambiouit became extraordinary through their experience of travel to the Court of France – a great rarity for people native to Africa and Canada at that time.

The kind of networked study of travelling objects that I would like to propose, is not one that makes broad generalising claims about cultural contexts, but one that explores the individual agents and networks involved in the exchange of diplomatic gifts.

Sadly, many, if not all of the travelling objects that I am working on have likely suffered the ultimate transformation. They have been lost and they are presumed destroyed. There are only two examples of the Gold Famille Royale medal presented with a loop that survive to my knowledge.

BnF copy

One of those medals (above) is held in the collection of the Bibliothèque national de France. It was recently lent to château de Versailles for the Visiteurs de Versailles exhibition (also travelling to the Met this April). At the Versailles exhibition, this object was displayed as a place holder for the many the copies of this object that once travelled the world, even though this particular copy never left France.

fam royale installation

What fascinates me is the potential for extant copies of these medals to bear the burden of the histories of their sister objects that didn’t make it. Just as Clifford argued that travelling people bring back ideas from the outside world to their place of origin to create a networked culture, I’d like to propose that each and every multiple from a set takes a share in the many thoughts and ideas that were accumulated by other copies of the same object. This metaphysical network imbues these objects with a simultaneous plurality of meanings. And yet these objects sit mute in our collections, patiently waiting for us to tell the extraordinary stories of the life-changing travels of their siblings.

Robert Wellington, February 2018.

This post is an extract from a paper to be delivered at the CAA annual conference, 2018 in Los Angeles as part of the panel: Travel, Diplomacy, and Networks of Global Exchange in the Early Modern Period, part 1. (Wednesday 21 February, 10:30-12:00, room 404A)

Notes from the field: A Louis XV jeton for Martinique, not Canada.

Jeton, Louis XV, Sub Omni Sidere Crescunt, 1751. Collection: The American Numismatic Society.

Today I became aware of a fascinating jeton (a small medal-like token) from the reign of Louis XV. The reverse carries the image of what was thought be a First Nations Person of New France (Canada). This ‘Amerindian’ has plumes in his hair, he carries a bow, and gazes over his shoulder to look at an crop of giant lilies (the fleur de lys of France). The inscription—Sub Omni Sidere Crescunt [under every constellation they grow]—a reference to the lilies of France (her colonies) that grow simultaneously in lands across the globe.

I was excited to find another numismatic image of what I believed to be an indigenous warrior from New France. The only other numismatic representation of that kind is found on the Honos et Virtus [honour and virtue] medal awarded to Amerindian warriors who collaborated with the French colonists.

honon et virtus

That medal depicts the First Nations warrior in classical garb, wearing the toga of an ancient Roman, and in a comparative state of undress compared to the centurion-like figure (the representative of France) with whom he shakes hands.

In comparison, the figure from the jeton is dressed in what appears to be traditional costume. It is, nevertheless, a rather generic and fictionalised version of what an indigenous person from the New World ought to look like.

Numismatic society of america

The exergue beneath the feet of our warrior bears the words Col. Franc. De LAM. 1751. Numismatists, have assumed that this text is a contraction of ‘Le colonies françaises de l’Amerique’ [French colonies in America]. This is the meaning given by Charles Wyllys Betts, whose catalogue American Colonial History Illustrated by Contemporary Medals (1894) is the standard text for citations of medals that relate to the history of North America and Canada:

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Betts took his reading, it seems, from a notice published in the American Numismatic Journal in 1879:

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George Parsons wrote a longer article for the American Numismatic Journal on the ‘Colonial Jetons of Louis XV’ in 1884. He makes the following interpretation of the jeton in question:

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That jeton, with its wonderfully evocative image of a native in the colonies gazing upon the lilies of France, is indeed ripe for such an interpretation. In the copy of the jeton described by Parsons there’s even an alligator climbing from the water – presumably a reference to the native fauna found in the southern parts of the French territories in the New World.

Sadly, it seems that these worthy American numismatists of the nineteenth century had not found any contemporary French descriptions of that jeton. Had they done so, they would have learnt that it was, in fact, intended to celebrate the French colony in Martinique, as a description from the Mercure Galant of April 1751 confirms.

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In an article title ‘Devises pour les jettons du premier de janvier 1751’ [Devises for the jetons of the first of january 1751], our jeton is described as:

“Une Sauvage, & des Lys plantés auprès de lui. Légende: Sub omni sidere crescunt; ils croissent dans tous les climats. Exergue, Colonies Françoises de la Martinique, 1751.”

[A savage, & some lilies planted next to him. Legend: sub omni sidere crescunt; they grow in every climate. Exergue, French colonies of Martinique, 1751.]

So it seems that this image of a First Nations warrior from Canada was intended to be an indigenous man of Martinique. There is something to be said here about the generic way in which native people of colonised territories were depicted in the ancien-régime. It is true that this image of a ‘noble savage’ among the lilies could just as easily have represented any number of the many peoples whose lands were occupied by Europeans in the early modern period.

This is an example of the kinds of misconceptions that have been passed down from nineteenth-century descriptions of coins, medals, and jetons that have been take up uncritically by the dealers and collectors of American numismatics who have sought them out. To be sure, a connection with the colonial history of America and Canada has made this jeton highly collectible in those countries. Where an average Louis XV jeton might be sold for US$50-100, copies of this piece have sold for over US$1,000.

Contracted inscriptions can lead to confusion and lasting misconceptions. This was the very opposite of what the designers of medals and jetons had intended. These miniature monuments carried inscriptions that were supposed to preserve historical information for posterity – to provide clarity about historical details that might otherwise be lost.

For me, this is a timely reminder to return to the archive, and to render my own readings of artefacts from the ancien-régime, rather than relying on what has come before.

Robert Wellington.

8 February 2018.