Médailles sur les principaux événements du règne de Louis le Grand

Medals and books:
what binds them?
The medallion on the cover of the most decorative bindings
Humanists as collectors
Portraits on medals (Pisanello, 1395-c. 1455)
In antiquity, portraits on coins, sarcophagi, steles
The first numismatic books:
G. Budé, De asse et partibus eius (1514)
A. Fulvio, Illustrium imagines (1517)
The first numismatic books
Budé’s De asse emphasizes weights and measures, as well as
the philological dimension of the study of coins; there are no
Fulvio’s Illustrium imagines provides portraits, about onethird of which are taken from ancient sources, but the
majority of which are imaginary. The illustrious persons are
chosen for their exemplary, heroic conduct. The book has a
didactic function, but its aesthetic dimension is at least of
equal interest.
At mid-century, books of medals were commissioned by
families like the Medici for self promotion.
The book of medals, at the intersection of history, art and literature
In 1602, Rascas de Bigarris proposes a medallic history to
Henri IV.
In 1663, J. Chapelain agrees with minister Colbert that
medals represent the best way to glorify the young Louis
XIV: metal endures, and its truth claims are solid.
In 1689, the Jesuit Claude-François Menestrier publishes an
Histoire de Louis le Grand par les médailles – a book considered
defective by Louis’s ministers, lacking in quality and
coherence. Only the crown would (legally) strike medals of
Louis XIV from that time.
What was the function of history for
the early modern era?
For humanists, an instrument for reflecting on public affairs
and political power. The monarch is in particular need of the
wisdom of history. (See for example Jean Bodin, Methodus ad
facilem historiarum cognitionem, 1566.)
For several 17th-century writers: an instrument for
uncovering the mechanisms of political power. (See for
example Amelot de la Houssaye, Histoire du gouvernement de
Venise, 1676.)
For the majority, it was a school of virtue. (See for example
René Rapin, Instructions pour l’histoire, 1677.)
The majority view
Events recounted by history should be important:
Events recounted by history should be worthy of public
About major figures (e.g. monarchs and generals; few women)
About major events (not everyday life)
Morally uplifting
Esthetically pleasing: the style must be noble, pure, beautiful
In 1677, Jean Racine and Nicolas Boileau-Despréaux are
named Royal Historiographers. The tradition of men of
letters as the Monarch’s historians dates from the time of
Style and taste
By 1677, hyperbole in praise of Louis XIV dominated
discourse about the King. But hyperbole was increasingly
considered in bad taste in “classical” style.
The Petite Académie, founded in 1663, had the control of
discourse about the King as its principal goal, with only
praise (encomium) permitted. Racine and Boileau wrote
little, seemingly paralyzed by the tension between singing
the King’s glory and maintaining standards of taste.
In 1991, the Petite Académie became the Académie Royale
des Inscriptions. The history in medals became their sole
project in 1692; Racine and Boileau were members.
Médailles sur les principaux événements du
règne de
Louis le Grand
First edition, 1702: 286 medals reproduced in print; last
edition, 1723: 316.
The only complete history of the reign published during the
reign of Louis XIV (1661-1715).
A new method for a new project: no previous examples
were worthy of the Academy’s attention as men of letters.
A traditional goal: to please and to instruct, according to
Horace’s dictum.
On the medal, equal attention to design, to image and to
Ainsi les Lecteurs auront plus d’un plaisir
à la fois ; ils verront l’image du grand
évenement ; ils liront le détail abregé ; ils
jugeront du tour ingénieux que l’invention
de la Médaille présente à l’esprit ; ils
trouveront de la diversité dans les
desseins & dans les Légendes, & pourront
tout ensemble s’amuser & s’instruire.
Préface, de l’Abbé Paul Tallement
(suppressed for second prinitng, 1702)
Reading and interpretation
The image is a puzzle, a riddle.
To understand them takes time and effort, which will be
rewarded when the reader unlocks the meaning.
The reader must continually switch between image and text,
taking in the page layout, the border, the title, the design of
the obverse and the reverse of each medal, the text of the
legend on the medal, and the textual description of the
medal. Reading is inevitably non-linear.
First impressions don’t count:
Peut-estre, qu’à la veuë de plusieurs de nos
Médailles, fort simples, & en apparence si
aisées à trouver, on se figurera qu’elles ne
demandent pas de grands efforts
d’imagination. Cependant si les Lecteurs
veulent bien se souvenir, qu’en tout genre
d’ecrire rien ne vaut la noble simplicité, et
ne couste tant que le tour naturel, ils
désavoueront leur jugement précipité, &
pourront enfin remarquer, ce que le
premier coup d’œil n’apperçoit pas

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