A Marriage, a Medal & a Painter

With the Wedding Dresses exhibition about to close, this seems an apt time to draw attention to a medal going into the Europe Galleries, struck to celebrate an important marriage 205 years ago.

This bronze medal celebrates Napoleon’s second marriage to Marie Louise, daughter of Francis I of Austria, in 1810 (following Napoleon’s divorce from Josephine de Beauharnais).

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Marriage of Napoleon I and Marie Louise, bronze medal, Luigi Manfredini, Italy, 1810. V&A A.21-1983

Commemoration

As I mentioned in a previous post, commemorative medals combine portraiture with designs that memorialise their subjects’ principal deeds or associated events. In the 18th century, medallists were inspired by Roman coins, with their portraits of rulers on the obverse and sometimes allegorical representations on the reverse.

Often cast in bronze or lead, but sometimes struck in silver or even gold, medals were used as gifts and mementoes and eagerly collected. As Metalwork Curator Alicia Robinson has explained, the portrait medal format proved ideal for this type of personal and intimate object.

This medal features a double portrait of Napoleon, wearing the iron crown of Italy, and his second wife Marie Louise.

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Motives for Marriage

A number of factors had motivated their marriage; these included Napoleon’s desire for an heir to solidify his Empire (which his first wife Josephine had been unable to bear for him). He also wished to marry into one of the leading royal families of Europe to help validate and legitimise his position as ruler of France.

Napoleon was initially interested in marrying Grand Duchess Anna, the sister of Tsar Alexander I of Russia. However, Emperor Francis to the Count of Narbonne suggested Marie Louise as a potential spouse. Having grown increasingly frustrated by delays in marriage negotiations with the Russians, in January 1810 Napoleon rescinded his proposal to the Grand Duchess Anna and instead initiated negotiations with the Austrian ambassador to marry Marie Louise.

Portrait of Empress Marie-Louise, Jean-Baptiste Isabey, 1810. Kunsthistorisches Museum

Portrait of Empress Marie-Louise, Jean-Baptiste Isabey, 1810. Kunsthistorisches Museum

Marie Louise was the daughter of Maria Theresa of Naples and Sicily and Archduke Francis of Austria (who became Holy Roman Emperor the following year). Through her father’s side, she was a great granddaughter of Empress Maria Theresa and so a great niece of Marie Antoinette. Interestingly this meant that through their marriage, Napoleon became the great-nephew of Louis XVI and Marie-Antoinette.

Another medallic portrait of Empress Marie-Louise, this time commemorating her visit to the Paris Mint, Andrieu and Brenet, French, 1813. V&A A.19-2005

Another medallic portrait of Empress Marie-Louise, this time commemorating her visit to the Paris Mint, Andrieu and Brenet, French, 1813. V&A A.19-2005

Building up to the Big Day

I had quite a choice of dates with which to link this blog post to as there are four key dates in the course of confirming their marriage.

The marriage contract was first signed by the Austrian ambassador, the Prince of Schwarzenberg, on 7th February.

Marie Louise was then married by proxy to Napoleon on 11th March (205 years today!) at the Augustinian Church, Vienna, by which she became Empress of the French and Queen of Italy.

She departed Vienna on 13th March and met her husband for the first time on 27th March – when she is rumoured to have commented that he looked much better in the flesh than in his portrait.

The ‘big day’ finally came on the 1st of April with the civil wedding between the couple taking place at St. Joseph’s Church (apparently without a care for any idea of April’s Fools!).

Marriage of Napoleon, Emperor of France, and Archduchess Marie Louise of Austria, eldest daughter of Holy Roman Emperor Franz II. (later Emperor Franz I. of Austria), Georges Rouget, 1810

Marriage of Napoleon, Emperor of France, and Archduchess Marie Louise of Austria, eldest daughter of Holy Roman Emperor Franz II. (later Emperor Franz I. of Austria), Georges Rouget, 1810

The God of Weddings

Like the medal commemorating the Pas de Suze, it is the reverse of this medal that primarily grabs my interest. It depicts, with great detail, Hymen (Hymenaeus, the God of Weddings from Greek mythology) holding a wedding veil in his left hand and using his torch to drive away Mars (the God of War). Mars is fully armoured but flinches from the flame and holds an inverted spear. This scene of ‘Weddings defeating War’ is an obvious and deeply symbolical message to accompany their matrimony.

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Manfredini the Medallist

This medal was struck at the Milan Mint by the leading Italian medallist and metalworker at the time, Luigi Manfredini.

Manfredini was born in Bologna but had moved by 1798 to Milan, where he worked at the Mint until his death in 1840. He became head engraver in 1808, producing numerous medals for Napoleon, established a reputation as the leading Italian medallist of the first half of the 19th century.

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Manfredini’s name on the medal, beneath Napoleon and Marie Louise

Manfredini also produced works at a much larger scale, including a magnificent gilt bronze and lapis lazulae tripod and basin, which was considered to be the most accurate reproduction and adaptation of the  antique tripod which was excavated in Herculaneum on 18 July 1748. As Metalwork Curator Alicia Robinson explains, Manfredini’s tripod represented ‘the quest for archaeological authenticity of the purest classical revival style favoured by Napoleon and typical of decorative art of the French Empire.’

You can read more about Manfredini in the Search the Collections record for this medal here.

 

Appiani the Painter

This design for the medal was created by Andrea Appiani (1754- 1817), a leading Neoclassical painter in Italy who worked in the Neo-Greek style.

Bust of Andrea Appiani on the facade of the Palazzo Brentani, Milan. Photograph by Giovanni Dall'Orto.

Bust of Andrea Appiani on the facade of the Palazzo Brentani, Milan. Photograph by Giovanni Dall’Orto. I thought this depiction in a roundel particularly appropriate when considering a medal.

During his period as ‘court painter’ to Napoleon, Appiani produced a number of portraits of Napoleon and the key figures of his regime.

Allegoria della pace di Pressburgo, Adrea Appiani, 1808. Pushkin Museum

Allegoria della pace di Pressburgo, Andrea Appiani, 1808. Pushkin Museum

I was interested to read that Appiani’s inspiration and appreciation of aesthetics was apparently stimulated by the works of the Italian satirist and neoclassical poet Giuseppe Parini, Increasing the associations with Napoleon’s regime – during the French occupation of Milan, Parini was appointed magistrate by Napoleon, but quickly retired to resume his literary work.

Apotheosis of Napoleon, a fresco by Andrea Appiani, Palazzo Reale, Milan, 1807. The Yorck Project: 10.000 Meisterwerke der Malerei. DVD-ROM, 2002

Apotheosis of Napoleon, a fresco by Andrea Appiani, Palazzo Reale, Milan, 1807. The Yorck Project: 10.000 Meisterwerke der Malerei. DVD-ROM, 2002

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