This Elizabethan portrait miniature with the motto Attici Amoris Ergo is an example of baffling written and visual Elizabethan code. The portrait is by Nicholas Hilliard and has two versions, one in the Victoria & Albert Museum, London and the other in a private collection. The face shows some sign of damage, but overall, this portrait is in good condition. There has been much speculation focusing on the translation of the motto and on the significance of the female hand from the sky.
I would remind you of the small size of the original portraits. The on screen images are much larger than the originals, which were devised to be held in the hand and are therefore very intimate objects and the key at the bottom of this image reminds us that this is just under 2 inches wide by just over 2 inches high. Often they were given as love tokens and we know from the Memoirs of James Melvil of Halhill, representative of Mary Queen of Scots, that in 1564 Queen Elizabeth showed him a miniature portrait of Robert Dudley in the privacy of her private apartments. In that instance, the artist of that image would probably have been either Susannah Horenbout or Levina Teerlinc because Hilliard was still apprenticed to the goldsmith Robert Brandon and not yet working as a limner.
A straight translation of the motto from the Latin is Therefore, by, with, from or through the love of Atticus, which makes no apparent sense. Why refer to Atticus? There has been speculation about this being a reference to Athenian love – a Victorian euphemism for homosexuality? If so, why the overtly female hand coming from a cloud? Why not a more androgynous hand? Why the reference of being ‘therefore, by, with, from or through any love at all? This motto clearly had relevance to the recipient, or recipients because there are two versions of this portrait from the same period.
The poet, Richard Burns, was inspired by this portrait and within my correspondence with him he said how he thought it was perhaps a son who was the product of an adulterous relationship, hence the cloud hiding the identity of his mother.
A curly headed man with russet beard
And swishly banded feathered fine-brimmed hat
Clasps a heaven-hid woman’s hand descending
Out of a sleeve of cloud. Prevailing space
Means we can’t see her body, arm or face.
Hold on. Hold on to love descending as
A hand from nowhere. Here comes poetry.
Out of her spongy light-flecked cloud she’ll tender
far finer guidance than a mother will
And more than all your hope and longing fill.
New Poem No. 2 for Kevin Nolan: © Richard Burns, September 2009.
Like the poet, I am puzzled by the relationship clearly depicted in the miniature. The sitter is dressed fashionably and expensively. The colours set off his russet beard and hair and his fair complexion. Black and white are the colours of the Elizabeth’s livery, but this may be mere coincidence. Is he a spy? Perhaps he is one of Sir Francis Walsingham’s agents and this is a declaration of his loyalty to the queen? Being a spy might explain the hidden hand, but does not explain the motto.
Whoever devised this apparently nonsensical phrase was educated. Had he read the works of Cicero, which were required reading by any educated man in the Renaissance period? Evidently Sir William Cecil had a copy of Cicero’s book on friendship in his pocket at all times.(See note below) Had this sitter studied Roman society?
So who was Atticus? There are several possibilities. Firstly, perhaps it refers to ‘a man of Attica‘, therefore this individual might be saying he is a product of a relationship with a Greek man. Somehow the sitter’s colouring makes this difficult to believe since his sandy hair and eye colouring suggests a different gene pool. Or, that he is in love with another man, but if so, then the phrase becomes even more nonsensical. How could he be by, with, from or through any such relationship? Maybe he had been adopted and his mother is unknown.
There is Titus Pomponius Atticus who was a Roman citizen and great friend of the orator and politician, Marcus Tullius Cicero. Cicero’s surviving letters are a record of their deep and abiding friendship. Atticus later moved to Athens as he had become an Epicurean – a form of Greek philosophy. He may have had other sexual reasons than his desire of following a particular philosophy, hence the Victorian suggestion this motto is a very oblique reference to homosexuality.
Perhaps this is a reference to Herodes Atticus (101-170AD), a distinguished Athenian who claimed to be descended from two kings of Athens – Theseus and Cecrops, King Aeceus – a mythological king, and Zeus, the leader of the Greek gods. If so, then clearly this young man is seeking to associate himself with both kingship and the divine. If it is a reference to Herodes Atticus, with his claims of royal and godly ancestry, it suggests that the sitter may have had aspirations of claiming a similar lineage.
Perhaps the reference to Atticus is more subtle and includes a reference to rank within Roman society? If it is to Titus Pomponius Atticus then what do we know of his lineage?
Atticus came from a level of Roman society that had evolved from the ancient Roman Eques, which meant his family were equestrian knights. Has this rank been conflated by the devisor of the motto into a reference to the post of The Master of the Queen’s Horse? In reality, the Roman Master of Horse was the specific rank of eques, but perhaps we should not be looking for literal specifics. If this is the case, then perhaps the reference to Atticus may be an amalgamation of the two concepts?
Because of the apparent nonsensical translation, we can deduce the meaning is supposed to be exceedingly subtle. Therefore, who devised it? Clearly someone with a classical education and a good knowledge of Roman society. Perhaps this sitter gave this motto to Hilliard and knew about the positions in society held by Titus Pomponius Atticus; perhaps Hilliard had been let into a secret and he devised this motto as a puzzle piece, the meaning of which was known only to three people. It was not uncommon for the mottoes on miniatures to be only understood by the giver and the receiver and if the artist were asked to concoct a motto, they would be the third person.
If this motto is referencing either Atticus’s position within society and comparing it to someone in the 16th century, we can speculate who that person might have been – with the proviso that this is speculation?
The Court position of Master of the Queen’s Horse was one of the first positions handed out by the new Queen in November 1558. The position Elizabeth I gave to one Robert Dudley, who held the post until 1587 when his stepson, The Earl of Essex, succeeded to the title. This young man is not Robert Devereux – Roy Strong has suggested that another Hilliard miniature, Man Amongst Roses (also in the Victoria & Albert Museum) as being of him, plus there are other Hilliard miniatures that resemble the man held fast by the white eglantine rose. The white rose being both the York emblem and one of the medieval symbols of the Virgin Mary, hence it being associated with England’s Virgin Queen.
So who might the man in this Hilliard miniature be and whose hand is he holding? Perhaps the motto is a reference to the sitter’s own parentage being similar in rank to his father. Is this young man telling us that he is in some way related to this unidentified woman and a Master of Horse? Now the colour of his clothes take on more significance. Is the hand that of a member of Elizabeth’s household, hence the black and white cuff, or more daringly, is it the hand of the Queen who was famous for her long fingers and beautiful white hands?
Dr Paul Doherty has found papers in the Escorial archives which he published in his book, The Secret Life of Elizabeth I. In the BBC 2 documentary of the same name screened on 14th June 2006, Doherty tells of his finding the documentary evidence regarding the identity of a young man who had been shipwrecked on the Spanish coast. This young man was taken to the Spanish Court because he claimed his name was not Arthur Southron as appeared on his papers, but one Arthur Dudley. He claimed he was the illegitimate son of Queen Elizabeth of England and her favourite, Robert Dudley and was taken to Madrid where he was questioned by the Spanish king. Philip II accepted his story and the young man was given a generous allowance and a place at the Spanish Court. In reality this young man became a bird in a gilded cage.
This is where the date on the miniature perhaps takes on more significance.
1588 was the year Philip II of Spain’s great Armada was destroyed by a combination of weather, chance and the English fleet. Given the opportunity to wreak vengeance on the English queen for the destruction of his great fleet, Philip would have had no compunction about murdering the man claiming to be the heir to the English throne (albeit illegitimate).
Whether Arthur Dudley was or was not who he claimed to be, there was now no point in having an expensive English ‘guest’ at court. According to the papers in the Escorial, the young, fit Arthur Dudley/Southron died in his sleep in 1588.
Whether he was the illegitimate son of Elizabeth I, or someone who thought he could cash in on the strong rumours and gossip about a royal illegitimate child, we will never really know.
All we can do is compare portrait miniatures painted by Nicholas Hilliard.
Is it possible this is the illegitimate son of England’s Virgin Queen and her close friend Robert Dudley? The portraits of this young man, Elizabeth I and Robert Dudley are all done by the same artist.
Do they look alike?
The choice is yours.
I am currently working on a book setting out my research behind my novel, The Truth of the Line, (see the Books page) which goes into much more detail regarding symbolism, the biographies and work of the artists the queen valued, the way imagery was used to promote status and will present more visual evidence for consideration.
©MVT 2012 and 2019.
Note. BBC Radio 4: In our Time discussion on Sir William Cecil. March 2019. Guests: Sir Professor Diarmaid MacCulloch, Professor Susan Doran, Dr John Guy, Fellow of Clare College Cambridge. Sir William was a master of rhetoric, we would call it the ‘art of persuasion’ and Cicero’s books on rhetoric were the basis for the teaching of rhetoric in the Renaissance. Educated at St John’s College, Cambridge he was Queen Elizabeth’s devoted minister for forty years. If you get the opportunity, this programme is a wonderful insight into the great man who steered the country during her reign.
Ripa Cesare; Iconologia or Moral Emblems; By the Care and Chrge of P. Tempest; printed by Benj Motte MDCCIX (this is the English Translation from the original Italian)
The Memoires of Sir James Melville of Halhill; published from the original manuscript by George Scott Gent; 3rd edition corrected; printed by Robert Urie, Glasgow; MDCCLI (see pages 46 – 48 for Melville’s description of his encounter with Robert Dudley’s miniature held in Queen Elizabeth’s cabinet).
Doherty, Paul: The Secret Life of Elizabeth I; Greenwich Exchange, 2005
Hearn, Karen, Nicholas Hilliard; Unicorn Press, London 2004
Strong, Roy. Artists of the Tudor Court: the Portrait Miniature Rediscovered 1520-1620.. London: The Victoria and Albert Museum, 1983.
Strong, Roy; The Cult of Elizabeth: Elizabethan Portraiture & Pagentry, Pimlico , 1999.
Walker, Richard: Minatures: National Portrait Gallery, London.