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  • The Crescent, the Cross, and the Golden Apple:Staging Icons of Empire in the Opera Il Pomo d’Oro
  • Elizabeth Coen (bio)

When the Austrian archduke Leopold I (1640–1705) assumed the crown of Holy Roman Emperor in 1658, he inherited an empire facing extinction. A century earlier, Leopold’s ancestor Charles V had claimed most of Europe; his domain stretched from Spain to modern-day Turkey and included territories in Italy and the coast of North Africa. Yet with the passing of time, other sovereign powers had asserted themselves with still greater force. To the east of Austria, Leopold confronted a long-standing dynastic enemy, the Ottoman Turks, whose failure to seize the imperial capital of Vienna in 1529 fueled their desire for victory and European conquest.1 To the west, he struggled to thwart the imperial interests of his cousin Louis XIV, who made no secret of vying for the Habsburg throne in Spain. Leopold’s enemies nevertheless perceived him as weak. The secretary to the Ottoman envoy Kara Mehmed Pasha wrote of Leopold, “I doubt if the Lord God ever created a man less endowed with Allah’s gifts.”2 Visibly feeble and effeminate, Leopold could not boast the military authority nor the conquests of his ancestors. Instead, he cultivated another persona—that of a baroque prince. As the subject of baroque art, he wore the garb of victor without ever stepping onto a field of battle; such costuming, however, was characteristic of numerous rulers in the seventeenth century. Naturally, Leopold, like other patrons of the baroque, also used the theatre to bolster his militaristic persona, though his productions were unique in their depiction of his enemies. The young emperor employed the theatre to not only goad his adversaries but also forecast war and victory before their very eyes.

Leopold was particularly fond of opera and evidence suggests that he attended more than four hundred operatic performances during his lifetime.3 Following a tradition of musical education peculiar to the Habsburg family, he played and composed music, oversaw rehearsals, and even participated in operatic productions; the painter Jan Thomas famously captured him as Acis in Pietro Andrea Ziani and Antonio Draghi’s opera La Galatea (1667).4 Such composers expected generous commissions from Leopold, and they were not disappointed. Among all of the operas presented during his reign, however, Antonio Cesti and Francesco Sbarra’s Il pomo d’oro [The Golden Apple] proved the most spectacular. Conceived as a baroque fantasia, the opera’s production depicted Leopold as both a gifted military leader and the dynastic heir–protector of European Christendom. [End Page 77]

Although theatrical stagings of conquest, intellectual prowess, and dynastic longevity were commonplace in the seventeenth century, their creators constructed and dedicated them to European aristocracies. With few exceptions, scholars have viewed baroque performance as a European practice.5 Therefore, in an effort to widen and reframe this critical analysis, I consider how Leopold I spoke across Europe’s eastern borders using the opera Il pomo d’oro. Drawing evidence from both European and Ottoman sources, I argue that the imperial icons employed in the inaugural performance were not only seen but well understood by an Ottoman audience. Il pomo d’oro was not the first, nor was it the last, theatrical spectacle to fuel a contest for empire—one that lasted more than four centuries.


The historian T. C. W. Blanning has argued that for the prince lacking a large and capable military in the seventeenth century, “the main currency of imperial competition was cultural achievement”; as a result, representational displays such as fireworks, pageants, ballets, and operas substantiated “a constitutive element of power itself.”6 Furthermore, scholars of the Renaissance and baroque arts have demonstrated that these spectacles were not abstract, nor symbolically imprecise.7 Artists commissioned to represent the spectacular powers of their princes consulted publications such as Cesare Ripa’s Iconologia, a “dictionary of allegory” that cemented a semiotic standard for communicating abstract ideas such as Truth, Victory, and Fame.8 This tradition of iconography, practiced in courts across Europe, offered a system of codes for the European spectator to find meaning in both the static and performing arts...


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