Coins continue to fascinate me. As a young boy, I’d look at the intricacies of United States currency, with all the symbolism of eagles, arrows of war, laurels of peace, etc., and the vaguely ominous Masonic all-seeing eye on one side, yet the proud and, sometimes, even kind faces of historical figures on the other. Movies such as National Treasure tap into this fascination we have for these symbols as a kind of key to unlocking the past and past treasures, real and imaginary. The National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC recently published a systematic catalogue of the 900-plus Renaissance medals in their collection, the most important collection of its kind in the United States. John Graham Pollard’s Renaissance Medals, Volumes I and II, provides a glimpse onto the way power and influence literally stamped itself for posterity through the talents of contemporary artists and metalworkers. Looking at Niccolò Fiorentino’s portrait of Florentine leader Lorenzo de' Medici, known as “il Magnifico” and part of the powerful Medicis (above, from 1449-1492), you can still feel the power of his sneer.
Volume I begins with the Italian Renaissance medal, where the modern commemorative medal began, specifically with the innovations of Pisanello. By the Renaissance, “Heraldry had ossified and was insufficiently expressive,” Pollard writes, leading artists such as Pisanello to revisit the ancient Roman imperial coins. Inspired by those ancient coins of the Caesars, Pisanello combined portraits of living persons on one side with “an illustration of his or her deeds or allusion to his virtues” on the other, refreshing the stale symbolism of heraldry with a new format uniting realism with personalized mythology. “Pisanello’s humanist background, training, and artistic skills enabled him to recreate an antique art form into a perfectly considered contemporary work of sculpture,” Pollard writes in praise of the “father” of the medal. “The form given to the medal by Pisanello in 1439 is still in use today.” Looking at Pisanello’s medal for Leonello d'Este (above, from 1441), we see the powerful man’s profile back to back with a scene showing a lion being taught by Cupid to sing. That strange scene of power commemorated Leonello (the “lion”) marrying Maria of Aragon, whose love tempered his rougher, warlike edges. Pisanello’s medals offer a humanizing glimpse into these historical figures, literally displaying that even the most hardened leader had a softer side.
Benedetto Pistrucci, Italian, 1784–1855. The Waterloo Medallion: The Prince Regent (later George IV) of England, Francis II of Austria, Alexander I of Russia, and Frederick Wilhelm III of Prussia Surrounded by Symbols of Power and Justice, with Day, Night, the Fates, and the Furies, designed 1817-1850, produced 1861; copper; diameter: 13.87 cm (5 7/16 in.). National Gallery of Art, Washington. Gift of Lisa and Leonard Baskin.
Volume II traces the expansion of Pisanello’s innovation throughout Europe, specifically Germany, France, the Netherlands, and England. The first dynastic use of medals begins in France in the seventeenth century. Henri IV commissions a series of medals to commemorate his reign, but is assassinated in 1610 before they are realized. Jean Warin carries on his Histoire Metallique to create a tableau of French history in coins that is as much diplomacy as propaganda, literally coining the visual language of French historical memory. In England, transplanted Italian Benedetto Pistrucci designed the Waterloo Medallion (above and below, from 1816) at the request of the Prince Regent, the future King George IV, to commemorate the defeat of Napoleon. On the front (above), the Prince Regent poses with Francis II of Austria, Alexander I of Russia, and Friedrich Wilhelm III of Prussia–the royal leaders “responsible” for the victory. On the reverse (below), military leaders Wellington and Blucher appear in a mythological stage setting involving Jupiter’s conquest of the giants, who number nineteen to represent the number of years it took to finally stop Napoleon’s forces. With such a medal, the trappings of power simply ooze from every detail, down to the connection to the ancient Greek gods. You really have to admire the hutspa of the Prince Regent to put his face and name out there in connection with a winner after the fact.
Benedetto Pistrucci, Italian, 1784—1855. The Waterloo Medallion: The Victorious Generals Wellington and Blücher, with Jupiter's Conquest of the Giants, 1861; copper; diameter: 13.9 cm (5 1/2 in.). National Gallery of Art, Washington. Gift of Lisa and Leonard Baskin.
Pollard’s mammoth text (it’s actually physically exhausting to lift) provides an amazing panoramic view of the role of the medal in Renaissance art and culture. Artists such as Giorgio Vasari and Giovanni Lorenzo Bernini lent their considerable drafting skills to the medal in Italy. The medal served a valuable role in terms of promoting and maintaining the often unstable political families holding power. These medals began as the calling cards of the rich and powerful, but eventually evolved into a tribute to other worthies, some of whom were artists themselves. When Leone Leoni wanted to thank Michelangelo for sending a sculpture commission his way, Leoni had a medal of Michelangelo made. When Albrecht Durer wanted to memorialize his own fame in Germany, he commemorated a medal from Hans Schwarz, the “father” of the German Renaissance medal. Within the context of the humanist spirit of the Renaissance, it seems fitting that giants such as Michelangelo and Durer get their due alongside the kings and queens of the times.
Niccolò Fiorentino, Florentine, 1430—1514. Florence under a Laurel(?) Tree, Holding Three Lilies, c. 1490; bronze; diameter: 8.7 cm (3 7/16 in.). National Gallery of Art, Washington. Gift of The Circle of the National Gallery of Art.
Pollard provides an invaluable primer on the history of the Renaissance medal and the world it inhabited. He even explains the difficulties of establishing ages for different coins and the added complication for today of fakes that flooded the market at the time. What I find most endearing about Pollard’s catalogue is it’s ability to take even the most feared name and face, such as that of Lorenzo de' Medici (top of post) and marry it with a gentler side such as the figure beneath a laurel tree holding three lilies (above). How accurate that marriage of mean and merciful may have actually been is up for debate, but the fact that someone cared enough to at least promote that appearance, and even stamp it into metal, should establish that it was as true then as it is today—image is everything.
[Many thanks to the National Gallery of Art for providing me with a review copy of John Graham Pollard’s Renaissance Medals, Volumes I and II and for the images above.]