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.
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.
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