Who is this diva?

This little identification mystery began when a patron called and said she acquired a button 3 inches in diameter with a portrait of a young woman in fancy, old-fashioned dress on it.   The text around the edge said, “DIVA IVLIA ASTALLIA.”

Naturally, she figured it was what we usually think of as a diva: a female opera singer.  I agreed and immediately began searching for some 18th or 19th century opera star named Julia Astallia in books such as Women in Music: An Encyclopedic Biobibliography and Baker’s Biographical Encyclopedia of Musicians and online biographical indexes such as Biography and Genealogy Master Index.  I didn’t find her in any of those.

Well, long story short, the young woman pictured on the button is not an opera singer at all.  The button is a reproduction of a Renaissance medal from 16th century Italy.  (Opera came later with such works as Claudio Monteverdi’s Orfeo in the early 17th century.)  Renaissance medals were somewhat like coins but their function was commemorative and decorative instead of for currency.

from G.F. Hill's Medals of the Renaissance (Oxford Press, 1920)

And who is being commemorated on this particular medal?  It’s not entirely clear but G.F. Hill speculates that it is connected to a character named Giulia from a novel by Matteo Bandello (1485-1561).  In the novel, young Giulia is violated by a servant of the Bishop of Mantua and then drowns herself.  The medal of Giulia is from Mantua and the inscription on the back says she is an “example of chastity and courage.”

As for the word diva, before it became almost exclusively attributed to female singers, its Italian and Latin roots meant a female divinity.  Giulia the non-singing diva has indeed been immortalized: in the Bandello novel, the Mantuan medal, our nice library patron’s button, and deep in our collection of reference books.  I was happy to go on a treasure hunt for her.

— Tim

Leave a comment on today’s post for a chance at today’s prize in the 29 Gifts giveaway.  Daily winners will be contacted by e-mail.


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7 responses to “Who is this diva?

  1. Charlotte

    The story of the search for Julia Astallia was very interesting, but if you don’t mind, I’d like to take this opportunity to talk about opera in Pittsburgh. We have a wonderful opera series, but the cost is too high for younger folk and older folk. Is the audience expected to be only middle-aged? And the hall for the opera is so impossibly large, that if one can afford a seat in the upper stacks (I once sat in the last row!), the singers onstage look like little dressed up ants. Come on, you corporate patrons of the arts, get together and put up the money to put on at least a dress rehearsal at rates that could bring a large and different audience to the spectacle. Perhaps the Julia Astallia diva button might be the road to overcoming the odds to this challenge. The event could even be called the Julia Astallia performance of . . . . Perhaps the backstage jobs could be distributed to volunteers. I know I would volunteer to help achieve such a special performance.

    • Thanks for reading and commenting, Charlotte.

      Luckily for Pittsburgh, we have a couple small opera companies that play in small venues for affordable prices. One is Undercroft Opera which gives aspiring talent a chance to perform and audiences a chance to check out opera at a reasonable price. Their Puccini performances this month have $15 seats for students and seniors. Another company is The Microscopic Opera Company which focuses more on new and underperformed works. Their tickets run about $20. In addition, the Pittsburgh Opera also offers free recitals and brown bag lunch concerts.

      I once volunteered in the Pittsburgh Opera’s costume shop and another time was an usher for a performance of Donizetti’s Don Pasquale. Information on volunteering for them can be found here.

      Of course, we also have hundreds of opera DVDs and thousands of opera CDs that you can check out for free from the Music Department at the library.

      Thanks again and we hope to see you either at the library or at the opera.

      — Tim

    • deb

      Hi Charlotte,
      Pittsburgh Opera offers $10 tickets to every mainstage performance at the Benedum Center. $10 tickets are located on the main floor and in the balcony. They do sell out quickly, though! Call the box office at 412-456-6666 for availability. Groups of 6 or more also get very generous discounts. Call Randy at 412-281-0912 x 213 for more information.
      – Debra Bell, Pittsburgh Opera

  2. Rebekah

    Thanks for the shout out about Undercroft Opera, Tim!
    Rebekah Hill, Head of Music, Undercroft Opera

  3. My wife is a devoted collector of clothing buttons, and she had me look this up because she has a button with the engraving on it.

    • Dear Snowbrush,

      I didn’t see your comment earlier, but I’m glad I just did. The main reason I created this post was so that someone else would have an easier time identifying this button/medal. Glad it helped!


      • Dear Tim, Yes thank you so much. I also am an avid clothing button collector. Your information has helped me identify a button also. Just wish I could contact the other button collectors that started your research in the first place. Would love to share buttons with them

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