Statuette de Daphné
The statuette is set atop a circular base upon which alternating angels’ heads and lions’ muzzles are placed, and a concentric groove in which fragments of metamorphic rocks composed of quartz and sulphide have been fixed. The figure of Daphne stands on top of it, the right left bent and placed slightly in front, dressed in a draped gown revealing the thigh and the right leg as well as the tip of the left foot. The flesh is silvery-white while the clothing and hair are gilded. It is at the belt, decorated with motifs inspired by jewellery making, that the statuette opens, the bottom part of which, equipped with a large internal band, fits together with the upper part. The bust is covered with a bodice far from the neck, decorated with an angel head. The short pleated sleeves tightened by a ribbon reveal a large part of the arms. The forearms are lifted vertically on either side of the face and stop at the wrists where branches of coral are affixed. The head leans slightly to the left, the gaze is oriented in the same direction, toward the left arm and the branches of coral. This elegant face with classical features and a straight nose has an expression of resigned softness, if not melancholy. The earlobes bear the traces of earrings that have vanished, the golden hair, decorated with a jewel above the forehead, are gathered on the top of the head, whose skull is hollowed out to receive the main branch of coral. The statuette was consolidated by twelve silver rings of basic craftsmanship where garnet and turquoise cabochons have been mounted into the joints. Eight delicate silver branches of laurel foliage painted green and polished, affixed to the extremities of certain branches are all that remain of the original foliage.
In The Metamorphoses Ovid tells the story of the nymph Daphne who, to escape the ardour of Apollo, was transformed into a laurel tree through her father’s will. The silver and coral statuette shows her as being petrified, caught at the very moment of her vegetal transformation. This dramatic and striking vision that boldly blends the reference to antique sculpture with exoticism of the marine world of antipodes was conceived of in the workshop of Wenzel Jamnitzer, the greatest goldsmith of Nuremberg (1507/08-1585). A later version exists, taken up by Abraham Jamnitzer, Wenzel’s son, based on his father’s models, which was part of the former collections of the Electors of Saxony, today kept at the Grünes Gewölbe Museum in Dresden.
For his Daphne, Jamnitzer pushed plastic interpretation of the anthropomorphic drinking jug, which was common in German goldsmithery, to the extreme, but its use here is irrelevant. What was the actual function of the Daphne? For a long time the presence of the coral, to which contemporaries of Jamnitzer ascribed prophylactic virtues, led to the interpretation of the statuette as a “tongue holder”, one of the Medieval table utensils built in the shape of a tree with multiple branches where one would hang “serpents’ tongues” (fossilised shark teeth) reputed as being able to detect poison. But this hypothesis is contradicted by the oldest inventory of the Kunstkammer (Cabinet of Wonders) of Saxony (1587) in which the Daphne by Abraham Jamnitzer is only described as a “figure of a young woman holding a great branch of coral”. Perhaps the Daphne was meant to embellish the centre of a table, or more likely, to enrich the armoires of the Kunstkammer of a German prince who was a collector and lover of naturalia. In fact, far from keeping to the facts of the metamorphosis narration of the nymph, for his Daphne Jamnitzer preferred to evoke natural mutations of Nature: this is how his choice of metamorphic rocks for the base and the coral branches should be understood, that his contemporaries considered as a strange species, neither completely vegetal nor completely mineral. Through this, he went beyond evoking the mythological metamorphosis and met with the preoccupations of the savants of his time who were trying hard at the time to identify and classify all of the natural species. This red coral, gathered from great depths in the Mediterranean, notably off the coasts of Sicily in the Trapani region, gave rise to a rebirth of numerous artistic creations. Without a doubt such a large branch of coral, both rare and costly, was considered alone as one of the most sought-after mirabilia by collectors.