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


The practice of fixing faces on metal disks was first devised for ancient coinage. Appropriately, Renaissance portrait medals allow us to see the people of the fifteenth and sixteenth century much as they themselves saw the ancient Greeks, Romans, and Etruscans from whom they derived the medallic art: up close, one on one. For two thousand years, ancient coins have popped forth from Tuscan furrows, Tiburtine olive groves, and Trasteverine cellars, along with tiny bronze statues, cups, and buckles, cameos, gems, and clay pots. Combining their scrutiny of these intimate artifacts with their scrutiny of the texts of ancient authors, antiquarians in fifteenth- and sixteenth-century Italy developed a highly physical feeling for the world of antiquity. The closeness of their rapport with the past induced them to deal with the honored dead as if they were still living, and portraits of the ancients helped their imaginations along—Petrarch, who addressed letters to ancient authors alongside his living friends, also treasured the Roman coins he had purchased on visits to the Eternal City.

The Siennese chronicler Sigismondo Ticci (1458–1528) prized a large Etruscan bronze coin as the souvenir of an archaeological field trip to Chiusi, convinced that its legend bore the magical Hebrew incantation ORI SELA “forever lofty”; like many of his contemporaries, he believed that the Etruscan language, with its right-to-left script, was a variant form of Hebrew. (The coin actually said VELATHRI, the Etruscan name for Volterra, the city where it had been minted.) Ticci’s beloved coin also serves as a pointed reminder that the Italian Renaissance view of antiquity included the Etruscans alongside the Romans and Greeks.

To the Etruscans, in fact, both Roman coins and Renaissance portrait medals owe a huge debt: they gave the Romans their concept of warts-and-all facial portraiture, along with a word to express it: phersu, which became the Latin word for dramatic mask, persona, as well as our own word for person. Centuries after Etruscan warriors had adorned their houses and their coffins with masks, Roman patricians still prided themselves on the death masks, or imagines, of their ancestors. They displayed these waxen faces to either side of their atriums at home, and brought them out to be worn at funerals.

The idea of imagines and all they implied was firmly fixed in the minds of the makers of Roman coins, minted at first with images of consuls and then of emperors. Die makers became expert at the noble art of describing a personality through a profile portrait. At the same time, they manipulated the conventions of physical appearance to establish dynastic lines: the successors of Augustus, from Tiberius to Nero, ape the hairstyle of the Princeps who made it all possible; bull-necked Vespasian lives on in the portrayal of his two bull-necked sons, Titus and Domitian. Pockmarked Hadrian grew a beard and his successors followed suit no matter what the state of their complexions.

Artists of the Renaissance, themselves avid collectors of Roman coins, became no less expert than the Romans at the exacting science of portraiture: plotting the progress of the hideous Habsburg mandible through the bloodlines of Europe, they staked out symbolic kingdoms, much as coin images of Roman emperors had once staked out the borders of empire. The Renaissance, however, was the creature of merchants more than emperors, and its “currency of fame” reflects this distinctive social composition when it comes to the choice and rendering of subjects. Roman coins, issued by the state, portrayed the state’s chief magistrates: consuls and emperors or members of their immediate family. Renaissance portrait medal-lions originate from private commissions and therefore, as we have seen, portray a far greater variety of people. Modern sensibilities might applaud this sort of inclusiveness, but in 1506, the erudite curmudgeon Raffaele Maffei would rail against it:

Now the medals that we see in everyone’s possession today used to be distributed by the followers of Roman emperors, and in subsequent periods by illustrious men, on account of their merits, but gradually this means of currying favor spread down to the working classes, and what is by far more detestable, to priests, for whom the picture of a cross or some other religious image would have been more appropriate. But what less befits a man dedicated to religion and doctrine than to present half-animals or little squares or lines or balls or other trifles like this in meaningless imitation of his ancestors’ stupidity?3

Roman coins were struck from dies, and are hence much smaller than most portrait medals, which were normally cast from wax or stone models. Casting and chasing permits greater control over a work’s ultimate appearance, as we can see from the intricate layering of Hans Reinhart’s Trinity, comparable for its craftsmanship only to the minutely observed (and contemporary) etchings of Dürer.

Because coins, by definition, have direct exchange value, they are more prized when minted in silver and gold than when they are made of bronze. Presentation copies of many of the medals shown here were often cast in more precious metals; the spectacular miniature of Elizabeth I by Nicholas Hilliard is of gold, and includes a suspension ring for a chain along with three rings to hold pearl drops. For the most part, however, these examples, precisely because of the metal’s inherent value, are less likely to survive than bronze or leaden casts. Making a virtue of durability, the Emilian engraver and numismatist Enea Vico reversed this aesthetic in his 1555 study of Roman coins, which, interestingly enough, he does not distinguish from medals:

These were made…not without excellent judgment, in bronze, in silver, and in gold, but especially in bronze, for the reason that this is the most reliable, most truthful material, and preserves the renown and memory of the past more eternally than the pen does. For medals are figures of bodies, and a history that keeps silence, yet reveals the truth. Word are images and speaking pictures of the soul, and they say what they please. Thus medals were made by public decree and the will of the Senate, and in those days they were made to the honor and glory of Princes, but words were spoken and written at the will of individuals.

One cannot deny that more art was put into [the working of] copper than the other metals, because they well knew that the medals of bronze were bound to last longer than those of gold and silver.4

Other kinds of readily accessible antiquities may also have had some part in shaping the genre of the portrait medal: large-scale Etrusco-Roman cast coinage, like the “ORI SELA” coins of Volterra, and Roman medals with portraits of emperors. Both were certainly known to Renaissance collectors. But for the idea of a personal “currency of fame,” we might also look carefully at the cheap metal tokens called casting counters, or or jettons, minted by medieval banks to use as markers for their abacus tables.5 (Roman numerals were still in use in most of Europe well into the sixteenth century.) These tokens were normally embossed with the symbols of the individual bank where they would be put to use. Ornamental casting counters enjoyed a great vogue from the fourteenth through the sixteenth century in most of Europe—except in Italy, where they had already dropped out of use by that time.

Italian casting counters disappeared because the Hindu-Arabic numeration introduced by Leonardo Fibonacci of Pisa at the beginning of the thirteenth century had caught on more quickly among his neighbors in the merchant communes of Central Italy than elsewhere. By the fourteenth century, pen and paper had by and large supplanted the abacus as a calculating tool in Italian banks. At the same time, however, Italian merchant culture, with its cultivation of hard work and sober virtues, its emphasis on individual entrepreneurship, and its considerable local pride, continued to cultivate a veneration of Classical aesthetics, Vergilian poetry, and Ciceronian virtue that had really begun with the rise of capitalism in the twelfth century. The casting counter disappeared from Italy, in other words, shortly before the portrait medal made its first appearance. Both originated among rather similar sorts of people, and both use an emblematic personal sign to identify a person or institution, for the distinctive trait of the Italian Renaissance portrait medal, seldom mimicked in the rest of Europe, is the teasing private imagery of its reverses. In a sense, Italian portrait medals might be regarded as Roman coins welded to the fronts of high medieval casting counters.

However, the imagery employed on the reverse side of Italian medals differs completely from the imagery of the Italian casting counters known to us; neither, until the career of the appropriately nicknamed “Antico,” does it imitate the imagery of Roman coins. There is no clearer proof of the resolute difference between the Renaissance and the Classical past than the strikingly chivalric slant of the first Renaissance portrait medals, the invention of that most chivalric of all Italian artists, Pisanello. The men he represents with such chiseled neo-Roman profiles are clad in functional contemporary armor and, to judge from their personal symbolism, they seem to have peopled their imaginative life with the exploits of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table; the reverse of Cecilia Gonzaga’s medal shows a virgin with a goatlike unicorn in her lap (see page 27).

In her study of Pisanello’s paintings for the Gonzaga palace in Mantua, Joanna Woods-Marsden has shown in surprising detail how deeply Francophile the courts of Northern Italy remained throughout the fifteenth century, the Gonzagas especially.6 The veneration of Classical antiquity coexists with the veneration of Camelot, and for good reason. Knightly virtues had great suggestive value for the small-time warlords or condottieri of Milan, Mantua, Ferrara, Rimini, and Urbino, who derived their pretensions to power from vassal relationships to the French monarchy or the Holy Roman Empire; even a merchant prince like Lorenzo de Medici aped the jousts described in Provençal lays. And Pisanello was attuned to this sensibility as were few other artists of his time.

Still, Pisanello’s is a chivalry imbued with the spirit of humanism; he had grown up among the imposing Roman ruins of Verona, and was a friend of that city’s great Classics teacher, Guarino Guarini. Like Leonardo after him, Pisanello was also an attentive student of nature. We can see his vaunted skill at rendering animals on the reverse of his very first portrait medal, an awestruck likeness, cast in Ferrara, of the decorative visiting Byzantine Emperor John VIII Paleologus. The reverse is remarkable for its foreshortened horse, and for the close observation of the Emperor’s mount, probably itself a portrait of a Renaissance Bucephalus.

Perhaps the most charming of all Pisanello’s reverses combines all the strains so far mentioned of his artistic persona, a reverse made for his most congenial patron, the cultivated Leonello D’Este of Ferrara. A lion, in punning reference to Leonello’s name, is being taught to sing by a chubby all’antica Cupid from a legible musical score. There is no kittenish quality to this lion (in marked contrast to another of Pisanello’s reverse images for this patron, where a blindfolded lynx perches on a pillow like a pampered Persian housecat); its taut muscles and powerful paws are still deadly weapons, and it concentrates on its singing lesson with the keen attention of a born predator.

If Pisanello invented the Renaissance portrait medal, Leon Battista Alberti’s bronze self-portraying plaquette is the genre’s immediate predecessor, but a predecessor of radically different mettle (see page 30). As angular as Pisanello is serpentine, Alberti’s edgy line comes from the merchant republic of Florence, in the heart of Tuscany, and comes just after a sojourn in Rome. Chivalry is not Alberti’s thing. Antiquity is, but the nature of that antiquity is exceedingly difficult to assess. Alberti was a proud Tuscan who felt an exaggerated sense of the extent to which Graeco-Roman culture was the brainchild of Etruria. He nurtured no doubts that the Etruscans had invented temples, stonemasonry, and sculpture. His knowledge of ancient bronze work would have come in significant measure from Etruscan bronzes, with which this plaquette shares a quality of raw vigor, but his analysis of what was and was not Etruscan would have been quite different from the way in which Etruscan art is understood today.

Alberti’s emblem of the winged eye makes his self-portrait all the more enigmatic, and points up the extent to which the inspiration for many of the images we see on portrait medallions may have been textual. The first decades of the fifteenth century were marked by the “rediscovery” (which often simply meant the attentive re-reading) of a stirring succession of ancient books, not only the great authors still taught in Classics departments, but also a spate of curious products of Late Antiquity to which the readers of the early Renaissance attributed a value they have subsequently lost, texts like the pseudo-Egyptian wisdom treatises of Hermes Trismegistus, mistakenly believed to be anterior to the time of Christ, and the syncretic commonplaces of the Hellenized Jew, Philo of Alexandria, who was once sent as an envoy to the emperor Caligula.

The characteristic reverse sides of portrait medals might have drawn inspiration, for example, from a curious Late Antique work called the Notitia Dignitatum, preserved in combination with a fanciful treatise on war machines, De Rebus Bellicis, which illustrated some of the badges awarded by the Roman army: emblematic symbols enclosed within a circular field. While in Rome, Alberti seems to have become familiar with a piece of fifth century (AD) Egyptomania that surfaced, like the Notitia Dignitatum, at the beginning of the fifteenth-century: the Hieroglyphica of Horapollo, a hodgepodge attempt to unravel Egyptian writing that spurred generations of Renaissance artists to play with inventing their own languages without letters. Alberti’s personal symbol, a thunder-casting eye with raptor’s wing, is a sort of personal hieroglyph that has yet to find its Rosetta Stone. We can guess at the meaning of its components, but if the range of meanings is anywhere near the range of his knowledge or his talents, we will do no better than guess. Anyone with the personal motto “What next?” (Quid tum) is bound to have kept a surprise or two in reserve.

In view of the importance of texts to the formulation of the imagery on the reverses of Renaissance portrait medals, and of verbal legends to the interpretation of obverses and reverses alike, the exhibit should have made certain that all of these had been recorded and interpreted accurately by the contributors. There are some mistakes, none glaring, but the study of medals is, after all, the study of details. Otherwise, The Currency of Fame is by far the most beautiful book of portrait medals extant, with descriptions that aim to concentrate on the people involved in the production of these images and put on record, for better or worse, in the images themselves. As such, the catalog is a welcome change from the sententious connoisseurship that characterized work on the subject at the beginning of this century. These evocative works of the Renaissance spirit never stray too far from their very human setting, and we might as well succumb to the quite basic terms of their siren call: “Look at me!”

This Issue

December 1, 1994