ROUNDING off a sale of Western Manuscripts and Miniatures at Sotheby’s on June 22 was what, at first glance, must have seemed an unusual inclusion in a manuscript sale – a 13 1/2in (35cm) high carved ivory plaque featuring a figure of a Roman Consul.
But these pieces, known as consular diptychs, do have a
bibliographic signficance. The diptychs came as hinged pairs that
were lined with wax to form writing tablets.
In the Late Roman and early Byzantine period should you be awarded
the high honour of being one of the two consuls elected annually to
the two parts of the Empire (centred at Rome and Constantinople)
you were issued with a diptych.
Prior to this period a scroll would have been used which makes
these the earliest form of manuscript in codex format with hinged
pages. As such they can be regarded as the oldest book
In AD 384 the emperor Theodosius enacted that precious ivory could
only be used for these diptychs (diptycha ex ebore) and no others.
It was once supposed that they were used to enshrine the official
instructions of consular office. However, from at least 487, the
figure of the consul is shown, as here, holding a mappa, the rolled
cloth used as a starting signal for Roman races, and it has been
suggested that such diptychs were presented to consuls at their
inauguration and used during the public reading of the list of
competitors and performers at the celebrations.
The offices of Consul were abolished in Rome in 534 and, finally,
by Justinian in Constantinople in 541.
Sotheby's put forward a fascinating if hypothetical early
provenance for this particular diptych as the property of Boethius
and/or of Cassiodorus who were consuls in 510 and 514 respectively.
Both these men were major figures in early Christian history who
wrote books which are still occasionally read today.
A further hypothesis is that the diptych could have been owned by
Benedict Biscop who brought some of Cassiodorus' manuscripts back
to Northumbria where they could have passed through the hands of
the Venerable Bede (d.735).
This makes the interesting point that not all antiquities are
necessarily excavated - some have remained above ground since the
day that they were made.
As to its more recent provenance, Sotheby's ivory was in the
Barberini Library until the end of the 19th century and may have
entered the Barberini collections through Cardinal Francesco
Barberini (1597-1679) who had an extraordinary medieval art
collection. By 1909 it was in the collection of the Comtesse de
Béhague and featured in the Béhague sale in Sotheby's Monaco rooms
in 1987 when it was sold to a French private collector for the then
French Franc equivalent of £180,000.
These are rare pieces. Only 41 are known to have survived and
(with the exception of two recorded in the 19th century whose
whereabouts are now unknown) this was the only one known to be in
private hands. Now this diptych leaf is also in the amiable
captivity of an institution having been bought at Sotheby's sale
for £680,000 (plus premium) by the Spanish Ministry of
It may safely be assumed that it will soon grace the Museo
Arquelógico Nacional in Madrid. This, I may add, is one of the most
magnificent museums anywhere and is not as celebrated as it should
be. Go there!
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