The Jewellery of Tomás de Iriarte

Joaquín Inza 1736, Ágreda, Soria – 1811, Madrid / Portrait of Tomás de Iriarte c.1780–85 / Oil on canvas / Collection: Museo Nacional del Prado / © Photographic Archive, Museo Nacional del Prado, Madrid

The poet, playwright and composer Tomás de Iriarte (1750–91) who appears to be around 35 in this portrait wears a hard stone cameo on his little finger — two centuries on from Clara Eugenia’s symbol of dynastic continuity this would have a different reading. People are tired now of the bizarre flourishes of the Rococo Period which have come to represent everything excessive about the ancient regime and are drawn to the clarity of Classical Antiquity after the excavations of Pompei in the mid 1700’s and the subsequent illustrations in literature describing travel to classical sites. After all, the values of the enlightenment were partly drawn from Roman History — virtue, tolerance, freedom equality and brotherhood. The classical heroes often depicted in these carved gems embodied these ideals.

Tomás de Iriarte, the moralist, satirist and the intellectual wears an emblem of Neo-Classicism and declares a love of humanist ideals here on his little finger, the lovers finger.

In this painting ‘he sports a greyish wig with a ponytail that can be seen in shadow, falling down his back, and wears a navy blue coat and red waistcoat in which he hides his right hand as was fashionable at the time. Both garments are trimmed with a palmate motif in gold, and his shirt is adorned with lace ruffles on the front and at the wrists. This is the uniform corresponding to his post as the archivist of the Supreme Council of War, a position he held from 1776. In the lower left-hand corner is a table on which an inkwell with two pens, a folded sheet of paper and a book are placed, attributes that allude to his vocation as a translator, poet and playwright. His great passion for music is indicated by the book he holds upright with his left hand, the title of which is legible on the spine: La música, poema (Music, a poem), a didactic work in verse Iriarte published in 1779 and which led to immediate international recognition. Likewise, the ring on his pinkie finger bearing a cameo may possibly refer to his nickname, Camafeo (‘cameo’) with which his friend the Marquis of Manca, Don Manuel Delitala, christened him, owing to a gesture that Iriarte made when he played the violin.’ 1

Barbara Heath is a Brisbane-based jewellery designer

1 You can read more about Tomás de Iriarte by Virginia Albarrán Martín in the exhibition catalogue Portrait of Spain: Masterpieces from the Prado.

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Specially curated for the Queensland Art Gallery by the Museo Nacional del Prado, Madrid, ‘Portrait of Spain: Masterpieces from the Prado’ is the largest and most significant international loan the Prado has ever undertaken, and the first exhibition from their collection to be shown in the Southern Hemisphere / Queensland Art Gallery / 21 July – 4 November 2012