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…

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