A World in Counterfeit
After they mastered their territories, rulers wanted to master crafts, too.
Ivory is tough and strong. It glows like silk, it glows in rings, and it glows when held up to the light. It can be scraped to translucent thinness, but the machining processes of turning and carving push the material to its limits. If you go too far, it simply breaks.
From the late 16th to the early 18th century, though, the princes of Europe were obsessed with it. They, and their artisans, worked ivory to its limits, like the nested geometric solids in ivory shown here. One of these pieces was produced by Egidius Lobenigk, a court turner to the Electors of Saxony in the 1580s. Some of his works, more exuberant than the poised examples pictured, resemble something out of science fiction—they are deliberately warped and smeared, a form of early modern glitch art.
There was a particular term for these pieces: contrefait in French or contraffatto in Italian. Literally, it means counterfeit, forgery, or imitation, suggesting the purpose of the art—to imitate the process of creation itself. Princes could become creators in miniature, orderers of their own reality.
The geometric solids in Lobenigk’s work sent a deliberate message: The five Platonic solids—the dice-like images of mathematically satisfying forms, where each face is the same regular polygon and the same number of faces meet at each vertex—have been associated with the concept of the universe as a rationally ordered whole since ancient times, when Plato coined the term in the Timaeus. In the late 16th century, the German astronomer Johannes Kepler found that the ratios among a set of spheres inscribed around the Platonic solids corresponded to the ratios among the orbits of the six then-known planets. Crafting the Platonic solids was a sign of mastery over nature.
There are two reasons why turning ivory became a suitable hobby for princes: It entailed the triumph of technique over a valuable raw material, and it meant the imitation of God as creator with the shaping of a miniature cosmos in the form of a contrefait sphere. As the architect Noam Andrews put it, “These princely enterprises, as whimsical as they might appear today, were calculated rehearsals of the skills needed for just and successful rule.” Ivory contrefaits asserted that the physical world was a world of laws.
But in my research into the 17th century, I found one other, much rarer use of the term contrefait: in the deposition of a 17th-century lieutenant colonel in the Spanish army, from what is now Belgium. His wife, by his account, had been cheating on him as they campaigned in the Low Countries and Switzerland. (At the time, women would travel with their male partners in armies.) He accused her of carrying “her boyfriend’s cannterfert”—literally, his image—“with her at all times, except in Switzerland she went to Faci … and scraped it out with an itty-bitty knife.” Men were not supposed to know about this, he said. In this context, cannterfert probably means fetus: I believe he was referring to a surgical abortion.
In the 1620s, this operation would have been performed with rudimentary anesthetics at best and with no antiseptics or artificial light. The woman survived the alleged operation. But the lieutenant colonel stabbed her 12 times in 1626 because, he said, she had slept with other men. His statement came as he was on trial for her murder. Despite his obvious guilt, he was acquitted; his colonel believed he was essential to the regiment.
At the same time as this woman’s supposed abortion, princes far above her were working their own counterfeits. At least two contrefaits from this period combine nested ivory shapes and the human image: One piece has a tiny portrait within its complex fretted spheres and a mechanism that allows you to open and close its tiny inward cage.
The juxtaposition of well-ordered ideals and the cruel, painful, and sordid is a familiar one. The ability of early modern European heads of state to project power was comparatively limited. Many of their laws were ineffective if not outright unworkable. There was a term for them in German: Gesetze, die nicht durchgesetzt werden—“rules that don’t rule,” to keep the pun in English. They projected an image of control more than actually changing anything.
Yet for early modern heads of state, promulgating laws was worthwhile in itself. By mandating right and forbidding wrong, they proclaimed good order—whether or not any of it was carried out. Like nested Platonic solids in ivory, these laws invoked an ordered cosmos of which the bloody, challenging world was only one element.
This story appears in the Fall 2020 print issue.