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Character Witnesses

The Currency of Fame: Portrait Medals of the Renaissance

edited by Stephen K. Scher, photography by John Bigelow Taylor
Abrams/The Frick Collection, 424 pp., $95.00

Sometimes the peculiar union of miniature portrait and metal disk can still bewitch us: when the insertion of a twenty-dollar bill into a vending machine brings forth a clattering rain of Susan B. Anthonys in change, or when Abraham Lincolns fall out of a piggy bank, or a good look at the face of a quarter makes us realize that George Washington, the father of his country, is probably wearing nothing more than a periwig and a hair ribbon.

In the Renaissance, when both people and metals were in shorter supply than they are today, the magic of metallurgy and the force of personality exerted a particularly strong enchantment when they combined to create a new art form: the portrait medal. A recent exhibit of Renaissance portrait medals from between 1400 and 1650, mounted by the National Gallery in Washington and The Frick Collection in New York, and on view at the National Gallery of Scotland until January 8, brought this distinctive genre into the public eye. Works so small and detailed demand intimate scrutiny, and long, intimate scrutiny is just what the exhibit’s lavish catalog provides.

The magical qualities of portrait medals to the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries can hardly be underestimated; they were believed to promote moral uplift in their viewers, and they were tossed into the foundations of buildings for good luck. They were cast to announce weddings, funerals, and vows of friendship, although more jaded souls might pass them around as if they were so many job résumés, as did the perpetual gadfly Pietro Aretino in the mid-sixteenth century, regaling 167 potential customers for his verse with brazen images of his jaded mug. (Another of his medals has as its reverse a knot of writhing phallic snakes.)

The component elements of the portrait medal go back to the earliest stages of Etrusco-Roman antiquity, yet the art form itself is uniquely an artifact of the Renaissance. The portrait medal, moreover, comes from a less regionalized and more universal Renaissance culture than that to which we may be accustomed, for as a group, the makers of these small, topical items traveled more widely than most of their contemporaries in their perpetual search for employment. While organized first by country, and then in roughly chronological order by artist, The Currency of Fame shows repeatedly that each of these distinctions may be an utterly unreliable guide to what we see.

Indeed, as befits a genre dedicated to preserving human quirkiness, the medals themselves resist any and all schemes of classification. They are commissioned by royals, nobles, churchmen, burghers, and scholars to be executed by painters, goldsmiths, architects, cannon-founders, mint masters, or interested amateurs. Virtually always, however, the quality of their design and execution is extraordinary, the more impressively so because the reasons for quality are themselves so diverse, from the starkly simple geometric compositions of Pisanello, father of the art, to the busily intricate layering of Hans Reinhart’s Trinity, a triple portrait of God too gloriously crowded to leave room for geometry, and from the forbidding, barely mortal, golden mask of Nicholas Hilliard’s Elizabeth I to the plump, homely mamma, Dea Contarini.

Some of the people portrayed wear ridiculous things on their heads—crazy hats and male hair nets—yet wear them with consummate dignity; others, male and female alike, wear nothing at all with an insouciance our supposedly unconstrained age might well envy. In their own formal way, these medals, whatever their conventions and stylization, remain intensely personal creations, and the catalog entries are most satisfactory where we know something about the sitters’ lives, or the lives of the artists who portrayed them. Then they fix history and mores with documentary certitude, breathe forth the life of prosperous towns and insidious courtiers, glittering with the allure of jewels as they gossip.

Certainly medals bear unusually vivid witness to a character like Sigismondo Malatesta, relegated to Hell by a special decree of Pope Pius II in which the litany of Sigismondo’s sins competes in lubricious ruthlessness with what Machiavelli would later ascribe to Cesare Borgia, or with René de Birague, the Italian-born mastermind of the St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre, a French courtier with the soul of Torquemada. Matteo de’ Pasti conveys Malatesta’s magnetic sexuality in large bold forms: the upright back, the half-closed eye, and the bouncy pageboy coiffure, whereas the medalist Germain Pilon, a century later, contrasts the cruel set of Birague’s mouth with the soft nap of his cropped hair and fur collar, exploiting the deadness of the metallic surface to rob the minister’s eye of every emotion. The most amusing entry of all concerns Guillaume Dupré’s 1630 portrait of a French dandy, whose sprightly goatee and spiky spray of mustache diabolically accentuate the sagging jowl and crow’s feet they are meant to disguise. A medal not shown here performs much the same service for Michelangelo’s noble Roman friend, Vittoria Colonna, whose hatchet profile and lordly air make an odd contrast with her emphatically rocketing breasts.

A quite different challenge is posed by the likes of Cecilia Gonzaga, a woman of almost otherworldly elegance and iron will, who rode to the hunt with her father and otherwise devoted herself to scholarship, rejecting the dynastic marriage to which she had been destined and getting away with it. Fortunately for her and for us, the sinuous grace of Pisanello was on hand to capture her essence in drawings and in her portrait medal. Here her exiguous figure and slightly hunched shoulders strike an accurate balance between scholar’s slump and the gentle sway of a Gothic Virgin Mary. She was a tall woman; Pisanello suggests as much in the medal portrait by an unusually long bust, really a torso, and upswept hair.

The medalists themselves are no less interesting than their subjects: the art historian Mark Jones describes Cardinal Richelieu’s portraitist Jean Warin as “ruthless and dishonest, talented and ambitious”—truly a match made in Heaven between artist and sitter. The first German portrait medals were cast in early sixteenth-century Nuremberg by the brilliant Italophile Albrecht Dürer, whose own image here, by Hans Schwarz (see page 28), shows the long-locked artist luxuriating in his big fur coat like some opulent prophet; only in middle age would he finally adopt the Prince Valiant hairstyle favored by most of his contemporaries. The disconcerting resemblance to Jesus Christ that is evident in his painted full-face self-portrait of the same period crops up again in this profile image. Dürer’s mode of self-presentation obviously transcends any medium.

Indeed, one of the real revelations of the book is its glimpse of Renaissance Germany through its medals of no longer youthful husband-and-wife pairs. The reverses of these medals from Nuremberg and Augsburg usually present a coat of arms and/or a passage from the Bible, no riddles or emblems in the Italian style, but only an injunction to Protestant piety or a heraldic symbol of family pride. Yet the sober, sturdy middle-aged couples on the obverses are anything but joyless. They have clearly eaten well and often, and, one suspects, cannot have loved either their faith or each other without a devotion of equally physical intensity. While their churches may have been filled with the gaunt, tormented icons of Grünewald and Riemenschneider, those same churches were also filled with an outpouring of new hymns, by such as Martin Luther and Hans Sachs.

The contours of one jolly looking fellow nearly conform to the circular form of his medal; we learn that he was invited to the court of Charles V in Augsburg to join the shortest man in Europe and the tallest man in Europe as the fattest man in Europe. Once there, he fell in love with a local maiden and whiled away his time by standing on a river bank with a small band of minstrels, singing serenades. She accepted her whimsical suitor’s hand.

As a genre, portrait medals drew significant inspiration from Roman coinage, but Roman coins are only part of the story. For all its veneration of Classical antiquity, the Renaissance was equally committed to its present: to the voyages made possible by the magnetic compass, the higher mathematics made possible by the “nine signs of the Indians” introduced to Europe by Leonardo Fibonacci in 1202, the artistic culture made possible by engraving, the literary culture made possible by printing. Many of these innovations depend no less than the portrait medal upon masterful metalwork. It is no accident that this was the age in which metallurgy had a new vogue, as the spread of gunpowder technology spurred the invention and development of artillery. The Renaissance arms race kept many a medalist alive in between commissions, like the Italian whose nickname “Bombarda” gives a clue as to his real profession.

In fact, the first metallurgical treatise to see print derives its title from its author’s ability to play with fire. De la Pirotecnia, written by Vannoccio Biringucci before his death in 1539 and first published in 1540, revels in its author’s ability to forge, cast, refine, alembicate, and explode the earth’s bounty, reserving nothing but contempt for the imprecision of alchemy:

But to be sure, I do not deceive myself about this: the mothers, by whom [the alchemists] want to bring their offspring to term, have glass wombs, and the materials they use for sperm are random compounds, and similarly the sources of heat that they use are inconsistent, unregulated fires, quite unlike those of nature, because they lack a certain proportion of nutritive and augmentative substance, and the same thing happens to their timing, the measures and weights necessary for such results…

How could people ever know how to distribute elemental substances by art alone, or in the necessary quantities and proper proportions to each other, and, finally, bring it all to perfection, as Nature does, and make metals?1

For Vannoccio, metals are magic, but they are magic in a nearly scientific sense; he relishes the precision of his control over them along with their latent danger. Yet something of the alchemical mystery still pervades those metals that have been cast into human portraits. The Italian portrait medals in particular, with their hieroglyphics on the reverse sides, may have enjoyed a reputation for talismanic powers. (Tamino’s reaction to Pamina’s portrait in Mozart’s Magic Flute—“Dies Bildnis ist bezaubernd schön“—captures the idea.) A surprising number of portrait medals have been discovered in the foundation trenches of buildings, where they were thrown before the cornerstone was laid; in the survival of an old mason’s practice, pennies can be found performing the same service underneath old American houses. The practice of placing coins in foundations may be as ancient as Rome itself; the very romanitas of the act explains why Cardinal Pietro Barbo put portrait medals under his Palazzo Venezia in 1455, and why his posthumous biographer Platina reviles him as a pagan for having done so.2

  1. 1

    Vannoccio Biringucci, De la Pirotecnia (Venice: Venturino Rossinello for Curino Navo e fratelli, 1540), 1.1 (p. 5 verso).

  2. 2

    Bartolommeo Sacchi, alias Platina, Life of Paul H, cited in G.F. Hill, “Classical Influences on the Italian Medal,” The Burlington Magazine, Vol. 18 (1911), p. 267.

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