Dr Clare Rowan discusses the ancient coins, produced in Syracuse, that inspired the Spring/Summer 2013 catwalk show of the fashion house Dolce & Gabbana. What's the history behind these coins?
In September 2013 Dolce & Gabbana revealed their summer 2014 collection, presenting designs heavily inspired by the ancient world and, in particular, by ancient coinage. Although the use of money in their designs might be interpreted as a comment on their current tax problems, it is clear that the fashion that graced the catwalk was inspired more generally by antiquity and, particularly, ancient Sicily.
Columns, temples and other objects from the ancient world are referenced in the collection but it is coinage that predominates. Since the Renaissance, coinage has been one of the main media through which we can access the ancient world and so, in this sense, Dolce & Gabbana’s collection is the latest product of a much longer tradition.
One of the ancient coins that inspired the designers, used for the design of the large gold belts, is a coin type of Syracuse from the fifth and fourth centuries BC. Syracuse was one of the most powerful states in ancient Sicily and its power manifested itself in the production of spectacular coin designs, which were struck onto very large pieces of silver (the piece shown below weighs 43.26g, and is of solid silver); one side of the coin shows a charioteer being crowned by Nike, while the other (appropriated by Dolce & Gabbana) shows the nymph Arethusa surrounded by dolphins. In mythology Arethusa was associated with a spring near Syracuse. That these coins were made and seen as pieces of art as well as pieces of currency is suggested by the fact that the die engravers often signed their work.
Dolce & Gabanna are not the first to find inspiration in these coins; even in antiquity the coins of Syracuse were objects that inspired imitation and this particular imagery of Arethusa appears on vases and other objects in the ancient world. Many other cities adopted this artistic vision of Arethusa on their coinage; the example shown below comes from Neapolis (modern day Naples) and is dated to c. 300 BC (the other side of the coin shows a man-headed bull crowned by Nike, a reference to a local river). The image was, and remains, powerful: even today, coin collectors and scholars see the coinage of Syracuse as one of the great artistic products of antiquity.
In using coinage as a fashion statement, Dolce & Gabbana are part of a much longer tradition: coins, particularly gold coins, were often incorporated into rings, bracelets and necklaces in antiquity. Similar to today, wearing money in the ancient world was a display of status and wealth, with reference to a broader political context.
Dr Clare Rowan is a Research Fellow in numismatics and a member of the Department of Classics and Ancient History. After completing her doctorate on the Severans in 2009 at Macquarie University, Sydney, she became the Macquarie Gale Scholar at the British School at Rome, where she worked on the Severan transformation of the city. Clare has worked as a postdoctoral researcher at the Goethe University in Frankfurt, where she worked on the project Coinage and the Dynamics of Power: the Western Mediterranean 500-100 BC, and was an associated postdoctoral researcher in the Research Training Group Value and Equivalence: the Genesis and Transformation of Values from an Archaeological and Anthropological Perspective.
Coin mages reproduced courtesy of Classical Numismatic Group Inc., (Triton XV, lot 1075, and Electronic Auction 139, lot 14)
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