A conjurer’s face – Girolamo Scoto

Posted: July 10, 2011 in collecting, magic, tokens
Tags: , , , ,

Time is an ephemeral concept: by the time we have realized what it is, it is gone. When you will have finished reading this phrase, your time will already be gone, this exact moment will be in the past. Time can be measured: past can be just a few seconds ago, or it may be some centuries ago. As collectors, we are keepers of time, holding, in the present and – hopefully – preserving for the future, items and memories of a time long gone. Magic is a performing art, it exists only when someone performs a magic act for others to enjoy: magic itself cannot be preserved and, once the magic performance is finished, magic is already in the past, leaving just a memory but, sometimes, an ephemeral item too.

In my previous posts, I have been discussing about a past that is not so far, being only slightly more than one hundred years ago. In this post, I would like to go way back, presenting what – at the moment – is the oldest item in my small collection: the medal with the image of Girolamo Scoto, the first magician whose effigy is known to us…

It was on page 14 of The Sphinx, vol. 36, n. 1 (March 1937) where Girolamo Scoto was first presented to the conjuring fraternity with an article by Ottokar Fischer who presented the Austrian documentation on Scoto he had been able to find and a portrait from the Austrian National Library. However, in vol. 47 n. 2 (April 1948) of the same magazine, an article by magic tokens collector Edgar Heyl titled New Light on the Renaissance Master provided much more information about this magician. Some of the information has since been proved inaccurate and, more importantly, much more information on this conjurer has since emerged: some of it has been published, some has still to be published. Heyl was the first to publish a photo of the Scoto’s medal this post is about.

Gerolamo Scoto

Picture from the National Archive of Austria - click to see the image (one of four) from their collection

Girolamo Scoto was an entertainer, an Italian “magician and juggler” active in the last half of the XVI century (there are records on his activity from 1569 to circa 1610) who travelled Europe and dabbled with many crowned heads: diplomat, adventurer, alchemist… Apparently, Scoto performed magic for Queen Elizabeth I of England on 12 May 1602 (according to E. Dawes) and he is mentioned in Daemonologie (1599) by King James I (if you open the link provided for the book, search for the word “Scoto” and you will find it on page 22). When I say “apparently”, this is due to the fact that in the same period, there are various, conflicting reports of various characters called “Scoto”, or a variation thereof, around Europe, so it is not always clear which is which and, especially, which one is the one in the picture. What we know without a doubt is that Scoto was from Piacenza, a large city in the North of Italy, and that the medal is a true likeness of him.

The name is also a source of confusion: on the Austrian portrait and on the medal is spelt Hieronimi Scotti which would translate in current Italian as Girolamo Scotti, not “Scotto”. The Scotti name is a fairly common one in Italy and is not clear why it should have been translated as Scoto (or Scotto). Various names have been attributed to this conjurer: Hieronymus Scotto, Geronimo Scotto, Jérôme Scot, L’Escot, etc. However, as the name “Scoto” is the one accepted in magic history, I will continue to refer to this conjurer with that name, rather than what I believe was the correct one.

Edgar Heyl published further notes about the token in J. B. Findlay’s Third Collectors Annual in 1951 providing a list of variations of the medal. The medal was produced by the Milanese sculptor Antonio Abondio in 1580 (thus dated in some copies – alas, not mine!), but the medal was still being minted in the first years of the XVII century, from a mould that was starting to wear down. Later copies of the token have therefore part of the name faded. Two different variations of the medal exist: one with a plain verso (back), another with the image of a hand holding some snakes. The same image is visible in the inset of the image from the National Archive of Austria. My copy of the medal has a plain verso, as most of the copies that come for sale in the past few years. The medal was designed and made when both Scoto and Abondio were at the court of Rudolph II of Bohemia and it’s evident that Scoto made large use of the medal, probably for advertisement.

Hieronimo Scotti Piacentino (click for larger image)

What is interesting to remember is that Scoto used a gold version of this medallion for a trick: at a gathering of notables in Konisberg before the King of Prussia, Scoto took a piece of bread and fashioned it in a model of the medal. After some magical passes, the bread turned into a gold medal bearing his effigy; Scoto then donated the medal to the Chancellor of Prussia (and that medal has since been lost – it may have been melted down).

The acquisition of my copy of this medal was quite fortuitous: in the Summer 2010, the Auction House Baldwin’s of London disposed the Michael Hall’s medal collection, in three large auctions. In Mr. Hall’s collection there were three Scoto’s medals! This is something quite peculiar and not something that happens that often. I was able to buy one of the medals, the one I felt was in better conditions, but I sadly missed out on the other two copies (two medals were offered for sale in the first auction, the last one was offered in the third auction). I have in my possession lot 183: this link will open the (PDF) section of the catalog about this medal. The coin is in bronze and measures 61.5 x 51 mm: according to Heyl’s list, this is item nr. 5, whose size was unknown to Heyl. The picture below shows how the medal compares to a deck of playing cards.

Scoto's medal compared to a deck of playing cards

This medal was struck between 1580 and the first years of the XVII century: it would have been already relatively old at the time of the Great Fire of London (1666) and may have already been circulating at the time of the death of Queen Elizabeth I (1603). It is now more than four hundred years old and it is still in great conditions, being the link to the first magician whose portrait is known. Maybe, the medal was in somebody’s collection at the time Reginald Scot published The Discoverie of Witchcraft (1584) – who knows?

As a collector, my duty is to preserve the medal for some years, keeping the link to Girolamo Scoto alive: according to the records, Scoto was performing the same card and mental tricks still performed by many conjurers today. I feel a sort of closeness to this magician, who is there, looking at me from his bronze memento, when I practice the transformation of a piece of bread into a shiny coin…

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Comments
  1. Angelo Mitri says:

    Gieronimo Scoto
    Ad integrazione del tuo articolo, voglio inserire parte di una mia ricerca già pubblicata su Magia Moderna (CMI),n.4 2010, sperando che possa contribuire alla costruzione del puzzle sulla vita di questo artista enigmatico. Con le mie ricerche nell’Aprile 2010 ho trovato un sonetto dedicato a Scoto che è rimasto nell’oblio per più di quattro secoli. A mio modo di vedere rappresenta un’altra prova inconfutabile della sua esistenza in vita tra la metà del XVI sec. e l’inizio del XVII, alla pari delle medaglie (di cui una è quella che fa parte della tua collezione) e dell’ unica copia del libricino “Secreti di natura meravigliosi, del Sig. Gieronimo Scotto piasentino” della collezione Roxy. Il sonetto è inserito in un volume intitolato “Rime” di Celio Magno e Orsatto Giustiniano, Venezia, presso Andrea Muschio, 1600. Orsatto Giustiniano patrizio veneziano (1538-1603) dedica un sonetto “Al Sig. Gieronimo Scoto Piacentino, sopra le cose meravigliose da lui fatte con le carte da giuocare, e con altro”. Il poeta ha assistito ai prodigi di Scoto nella seconda metà del XVI e ne è rimasto affascinato a tal punto da esaltarne la bravura in questo sonetto. Descrive un effetto di divinazione con le carte, trasformazione di una carta nelle mani di uno spettatore. Descrive anche la sensazione dell’illusione e della falsa via percepita dallo spettatore e se vogliamo, anche della sospensione dell’incredulità. Formato da quattordici versi endecasillabi, la struttura ritmica delle rime segue lo schema ABBA-ABBA (rime incrociate nelle due quartine) e CDC-DCD (rime alternate nelle due terzine).

    Troui ( e chi fià , ch’ a tal miracol fede
    Pre∫ti ? e pur il vid’ io) tra mille foglie
    Quella , che’ l mio pen∫ier tacendo toglie ,
    Com’ huom , ch’ in sè con l’altrui mente vede.
    Che più ? cangi in che stampa altri ti chiede
    Carta , ch’ ei prima vista in man raccoglie :
    E mentre di ∫ua forma i corpi ∫poglie ,
    Fai , ch’ a ∫e ∫te∫∫o il ver dubbio non crede .
    Arte , o natura in van tanto pre∫ume :
    E , s’ intelletto human la via ne tenta ,
    Nel mezzo del volar perde le piume .
    Però ∫tupido ogn’ un t’ ami: e con∫enta ,
    Che quando corre più , ∫ta fermo un fiume ;
    E che marmo la cera al sol diuenta .

    Angelo Mitri

  2. MPMagic says:

    Indeed: thank you, Angelo, yours was one of the researches I was mentioning in my post.

    I cannot find a full copy of the sonnett on the Internet, but I can find only this:http://books.google.com/books?id=KK9dAAAAMAAJ&dq=Rime+inauthor%3AMagno+inauthor%3AGiustiniano&q=scoto#search_anchor if somebody is interested in researching the matter further.

    Thank you, grazie mille!

  3. Dear Marco and Angelo,

    during the last two years I’ve been gathering a lot of unpublished material (books and copies of original letters) about Scotto. (I live close to Piacenza, so I felt somehow obliged to do a thorough research).
    I mainly worked on Italian and foreign documents of the period (1500s-1600s).
    I will soon publish the results of my study: I’ll keep you updated.

    Marco, if you want I can send you a digital picture of the original sonnet.

  4. MPMagic says:

    Dear Riccardo,

    Many thanks for your note: I’m looking forward to your publication on Scoto – let me know when it’s ready and I will give it a mention here.

    I would be grateful if you could send me a digital copy of the sonnet: grazie mille in anticipo!

  5. […] that some spies had a public or, more often, private attraction to the Art of Magic. I have already mentioned Hieronimo Scoto as a spy for the Duke of Parma in the European courts of the XVI century, but only recently I […]

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