A blushing bard

cobbeportraitThis rosy-cheeked fellow is almost certainly an authentic image of Shakespeare made during his life, Stanley Wells announced today. The portrait has been in the collection of the Cobbe family for years, but it was not until Alec Cobbe visited the Searching for Shakespeare exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery in 2006 that he realised he might have Shakespeare on his wall.

In London, he saw the Folger portrait of Shakespeare and recognised the face. He contacted Stanley Wells, and in the past three years the painting was subjected to all kinds of tests, from tree-ring-dating to infrared reflectography. It appears to date from around 1610, and could well be the original of the portrait that is now in the Folger library. Interestingly, since the Cobbe collection belonged to the Earl of Southampton it may have been Henry Wriothesly, the dedicatee of Shakespeare’s sonnets, who commissioned the painting.

The Shakespeare Birthplace Trust quotes its chairman Stanley Wells:

The evidence that it represents Shakespeare and that is was done from life, though it is circumstantial, is in my view overwhelming, I feel in little doubt that this is a portrait of Shakespeare, done from life and commissioned by the Earl of Southampton and believe it could certainly be the basis for the engraving seen in the First Folio.

None of the English newspapers I have read so far explain the words “Principum amicitias!” written in gold above the bard’s head. I googled and discovered they derive from Horace’s Carmen Saeculare Odes, book 2, ode 1 (here’s the Latin, and here an English translation). Then I found this passage in the German Frankfürter Allgemeine:

Besonders reizvoll erscheint ihm [Wells] die Aufschrift „Principum amicitias!“ aus einer Ode des Horaz, die den römischen Dichter und Geschichtsschreiber Gaius Asinius Pollio warnt, sich bei der Darstellung politischer Intrigen seiner Zeit ja vorzusehen – eine Ermahnung, die auch auf Shakespeare gemünzt sein könne, zumal der katholische Graf von Southampton wegen seiner Verwicklung in den geplanten Umsturz der Protestantin Elisabeth I. im Tower einsaß.

In the ode, Horace warns the Roman poet and historian Gaius Asinius Pollio to be careful in his depiction of political intrigue, and apparently — according to this newspaper — Wells suggested that this might be a warning that could also be directed at Shakespeare, especially since the Catholic Earl of Southampton was involved in Essex’s rebellion. I haven’t been able to find any other sources that report this remark, and I don’t know what to think of it. Why would Southampton include secret messages about the Essex rebellion in a portrait seven years after his release from prison and his restoration to the court of James I? And does Wells agree with Hildegard Hammerschmidt-Hummel that Southampton was a Catholic? Perhaps my German has let me down — or perhaps the reporter’s own imagination takes over after the dash in that quotation.

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9 thoughts on “A blushing bard

  1. I think it’s just a comment about Shakespeare, not so much a warning. After all, he was a noted author of exactly the same kind of plays Horace was talking about, all those Wars of the Roses-era historical pieces. It could have been a kind of in-joke about how Southhampton’s politics could threaten his friends. Shakespeare had long since completed most of the historical plays by 1610, though it is possible that he was working on Henry VIII at the time.

  2. Ben, that makes sense – I like the idea of an in-joke better than that of a secret warning. And of course, the legendary request for a performance of Richard II on the eve of Essex’s rebellion could have meant trouble for Shakespeare and his players.

    Michael, I almost spammed your comment, but then realised “important alliances” is a translation of “principum amicitias” – the “great confederate in disasterous leagues” as the English translation of Horace’s ode (link in post) puts it. Well yes, the Essex rebellion could be termed disasterous, in hindsight.

  3. Pingback: Serendipities » Blog Archive » Cobbe Shakespeare portrait

  4. Hi Deborah,

    Of course I don’t object to a link to my blog, or to Ben’s comment.

    If anyone who reads this specializes in the classics, and would like to elaborate on the origins of the quotation in Horace’s ode, I would welcome a guest post!

  5. The phrase ‘principum amicitias’ ‘the friendships of rulers’ does not come from Horace’s Carmen Saeculare but from the first stanza of the first poem in Book II of his Odes. It refers to the alliance formed by Caesar, Pompey and Crassus known as the First Triumvirate,which was established in 60 B.C., the year in which Metellus Celer was consul.

    The poet describes the relationships as ‘graves’
    ‘ruinous’ because their inherent rivalries led to civil war. The phrase is the object of the verb ‘tractas’
    ‘you are handling’ or ‘dealing with’ which has been rightly identified as a reference to C. Asinius Pollio’s recently begun history of that war.
    The original does not therefore contain a word meaning ‘beware of’ or something similar, but it is true that the whole tone of the opening seems to be advising caution. The history is described as
    ‘periculosae plenum opus aleae’ ‘a work full of dangerous risk’ and the historian is warned that he is walking over embers that are still smouldering.

    Quite what all this has to do with Shakespeare is far from clear. In the original the phrase on the painting
    means friendships between rulers whereas in Shakespeare’s case it would have to mean friendships with rulers or masters. In that case it could refer to his relationship with his patron, the Earl of Southampton but that is a matter I shall leave to Shakespearean scholars.

  6. Thank you Alan for your explanation of the literal meaning of the Latin phrase and the context in which it occurs in Horace. That really makes things clear. In the mean time, Shakespeare scholars as well as art historians doubt whether this is in fact the Bard — I also read somewhere that the inscription was perhaps added much later, since its size is out of proportion with the portrait.

  7. Pingback: “New” Cobbe Shakespeare Portrait | Art Shapes Life

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