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.
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.
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.
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…