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There is no question, I think, but the same reflection may extend itself to antique pictures: for I doubt not but in the designs of several Greek medals in particular, one might often see the hand of an Apelles or Protogenes, were we as well acquainted with their works as we are with Titian's or Vandyke's. I might here make a much greater show of the usefulness of medals, if I would take the method of others,
and prove to you that all arts and sciences receive a con
siderable illustration from this study. I must, however, tell you, that medals and the civil law, as we are assured by those who are well read in both, give a considerable light to each other, and that several old coins are like so many maps for explaining of the ancient geography. But, besides the more solid parts of learning, there are several little intimations to be met with on medals, that are very pleasant to such as are conversant in this kind of study. Should I tell you gravely, that without the help of coins we should never have known which was the first of the emperors that wore a beard, or rode in stirrups, I might turn my science into ridicule. Yet it is certain there are a thousand little impertinences of this nature that are very gratifying to curiosity, though, perhaps, not very improving to the understanding. To see the dress. that such an empress delighted to be drawn in, the titles that were most agreeable to such an emperor, the flatteries that he lay most open to, the honours that he paid to his children, wives, predecessors, friends, or colleagues, with the like particularities, only to be met with on medals, are certainly not a little pleasing to that inquisitive temper which is so natural to the mind of man.
I declare to you, says Cynthio, you have astonished me with the several parts of knowledge that you have discovered on medals. I could never fancy, before this evening, that a coin could have any nobler use in it than to pay a reckoning.
You have not heard all yet, says Philander, there is still an advantage to be drawn from medals, which I am sure will heighten your esteem for them. It is, indeed, an use that nobody has hitherto dwelt upon. If any of the antiquaries have touched upon it, they have immediately quitted it, without considering it in its full latitude, light, and extent. Not to keep you in suspense, I think there is a great affinity between coins and poetry, and that your medallist and critic
are much nearer related than the world generally imagines. A reverse often clears up the passage of an old poet, as the poet often serves to unriddle a reverse. I could be longer on this head, but I fear I have already tired you. Nay, says Eugenius, since you have gone so far with us, we must beg you to finish your lecture, especially since you are on a subject that I dare promise you will be very agreeable to Cynthio, who is so professed an admirer of the ancient poets. I must only warn you, that you do not charge your coins with more uses than they can bear. It is generally the method of such as are in love with any particular science, to discover all others in it. Who would imagine, for example, that architecture should comprehend the knowledge of history, ethics, music, astronomy, natural philosophy, physic, and the civil law? Yet Vitruvius will give you his reasons, such as they are, why a good architect is master of these several arts and sciences. Sure, says Cynthio, Martial had never read Vitruvius when he threw the crier and the architect into the same class:
Duri si puer ingeni videtur
If of dull parts the stripling you suspect,
But to give you an instance out of a very celebrated discourse on poetry, because we are on that subject, of an author's finding out imaginary beauties in his own art.1 "I have observed," says he, speaking of the natural propension that all men have to numbers and harmony, "that my barber has often combed my head in dactyls and spondees, that is, with two short strokes and a long one, or with two long ones successively. Nay," says he, "I have known him sometimes run even into pyrrhichiuses and anapestuses." This you will think, perhaps, a very extravagant fancy, but, I must own, I should as soon expect to find the prosodia in a comb, as poetry in a medal. Before I endeavour to convince you of it, says Philander, I must confess to you that this science has its visionaries, as well as all others. There are several, for example, that will find a mystery in every tooth of Neptune's trident, and are amazed at the wisdom of the ancients, that represented a thunder-bolt with three forks, i Vossius de Viribus Rythmi.
since, they will tell you, nothing could have better explained its triple quality of piercing, burning, and melting. I have seen a long discourse on the figure and nature of horn, to show it was impossible to have found out a fitter emblem for plenty than the cornu-copiæ. These are a sort of authors who scorn to take up with appearances, and fancy an interpretation vulgar when it is natural. What could have been more proper to show the beauty and friendship of the three Graces, than to represent them naked, and knit together in a kind of dance? It is thus they always appear in ancient sculpture, whether on medals or in marble, as I doubt not but Horace alludes to designs of this nature, when he describes them after the same manner :
-Segnesque nodum solvere Gratiæ.
The sister Graces hand in hand
Several of your medallists will be here again astonished at the wisdom of the ancients, that knew how to couch such excellent precepts of morality under visible objects. The nature of gratitude, they will tell you, is better illustrated by this single device, than by Seneca's whole book de Beneficiis. The three Graces teach us three things. 1. To remark the doing of a courtesy. 2. The return of it from the receiver. 3. The obligation of the receiver to acknowledge it. The three Graces are always hand in hand, to show us that these three duties should never be separated. They are naked, to admonish us that gratitude should be returned with a free and open heart; and dancing, to show us that no virtue is more active than gratitude. May not we here
with Lucretius ?
Quæ bene et eximie quanquam disposta ferantur,
It is an easy thing, says Eugenius, to find out designs that never entered into the thoughts of the sculptor or the coiner. I dare say, the same gentlemen who have fixed this piece of morality on the three naked sisters, dancing hand in hand, would have found out as good a one for them, had there been four of them sitting at a distance from each other, and covered from head to foot. It is here, therefore, says
Philander, that the old poets step in to the assistance of the medallist, when they give us the same thought in words as the masters of the Roman mint have done in figures. A man may see a metaphor or an allegory in a picture, as well as read them in a description. When, therefore, I confront a medal with a verse, I only show you the same design executed by different hands, and appeal from one master to another of the same age and taste. This is certainly a much surer way than to build on the interpretations of an author who does not consider how the ancients used to think, but will be still inventing mysteries and applications out of his own fancy. To make myself more intelligible, I find a shield on the reverse of an emperor's coin, designed as a compliment to him from the senate of Rome. I meet with the same metaphor in ancient poets to express protection or defence. I conclude, therefore, that this medal compliments the emperor in the same sense as the old Romans did their dictator, Fabius, when they called him the buckler of Rome. Put this reverse now, if you please, into the hands of a mystical antiquary: he shall tell you that the use of the shield being to defend the body from the weapons of an enemy, it very aptly shadows out to us the resolution or continence of the emperor, which made him proof to all the attacks of fortune or of pleasure. In the next place, the figure of the shield being round, it is an emblem of perfection; for Aristotle has said the round figure is the most perfect. It may likewise signify the immortal reputation that the emperor has acquired by his great actions, rotundity being an emblem of eternity, that has neither beginning nor end. After this I dare not answer for the shield's convexity, that it does not cover a mystery; nay, there shall not be the least wrinkle or flourish upon it which will not turn to some account. In this case, therefore,1 poetry being in some respects an art of designing as well as painting or sculpture, they may serve as comments on each other. I am very well satisfied, says Eugenius, by what you have said on this subject, that the poets may contribute to the explication of such reverses as are purely emblematical, or when the persons are of that shadowy, allegorical nature you have before mentioned; but I suppose there are many other reverses that represent things and persons of a more real existence. In this case too, says 1 Poema est pictura loquax.
Philander, a poet lets you into the knowledge of a device better than a prose-writer, as his descriptions are often more diffuse, his story more naturally circumstanced, and his language enriched with a greater variety of epithets so that you often meet with little hints and suggestions in a poet that give a great illustration to the customs, actions, ornaments, and all kinds of antiquities that are to be met with on ancient coins. I fancy, says Cynthio, there is nothing more ridiculous than an antiquary's reading the Greek or Latin poets. He never thinks of the beauty of the thought or language, but is for searching into what he calls the erudition of the author. He will turn you over all Virgil to find out the figure of an old rostrum, and has the greatest esteem imaginable for Homer, because he has given us the fashion of a Greek sceptre. It is, indeed, odd enough to consider how all kinds of readers find their account in the old poets. Not only your men of the more refined or solid parts of learning, but even your alchymist and fortuneteller will discover the secrets of their art in Homer and Virgil. This, says Eugenius, is a prejudice of a very ancient standing. Read but Plutarch's discourse on Homer, and you will see that the Iliad contains the whole circle of arts, and that Thales and Pythagoras stole all their philosophy out of this poet's works. One would be amazed to see what pains he takes to prove that Homer understood all the figures in rhetoric, before they were invented. I do not question, says Philander, were it possible for Homer to read his praises in this author, but he would be as much surprised as ever Monsieur Jourdain was, when he found he had talked prose all his life-time, without ever knowing what it was. But to finish the task you have set me, we may observe, that not only the virtues, and the like imaginary persons, but all the heathen divinities, appear generally in the same dress among the poets that they wear in medals. I must confess, I believe both the one and the other took the mode from the ancient Greek statuaries. It will not, perhaps, be an improper transition to pass from the heathen gods to the several monsters of antiquity, as chimeras, gorgons, sphinxes, and many others that make the same figure in verse as on coins. It often happens, too, that the poet and the senate of Rome have both chosen the same topic to flatter their emperor upon, and have sometimes fallen upon the same thought. It