Syson, Luke, History Today
Luke Syson on how artifice, art and political calculation mingled to produce medal portraits for two of Renaissance Italy's `warhorses', Giovanni Bentivoglio and Federico da Montelfeltro.
With the ever-increasing enthusiasm, in the courtly and scholarly circles of fifteenth-century Italy, for the study and analysis of ancient historical texts, the writings, for example, of Suetonius or Plutarch, came the desire to create historical records of the events and leading figures of the Quattrocento itself. Humanists, attempting to attract patronage or commissioned by their princely employers, wrote biographies of the rulers of Italy's city-states while they were alive and funeral orations for them after their deaths. These writings were intended to be read in the future, to ensure the posthumous fame of the figure in question and were not always very accurate. It would not have been politic, for instance, for his biographer, Decembrio, to describe the grotesque physical feebleness of the last Visconti duke of Milan, Filippo Maria, who was unable even to lift his head unaided. Rulers were ritually praised for their learning, their military skills, their magnificence, their magnanimity or their dispensation of justice while their consorts' vaunted chastity and modesty formed the subject of contemporary panegyrics. These were not chronicles dispassionately recording events from day to day. Rather they were intended to be the chief source for posterity for the lives of deliberately glorified individuals.
In parallel to the study of the writings of (primarily) Roman historians, humanist scholars, following the example of Petrarch (often called the, first numismatist), turned to ancient coins to provide material evidence for what they were reading and to supply the portrait heads of the emperors. These portraits seem to have been read, to some extent, in physiognomical terms or at least were seen as images which could inspire emulation of the deeds and virtues of emperors. Cyriacus of Ancona, meeting the Emperor Sigismund in Siena in 1432 gave him an aureus of Trajan, as showing the features of a rightful prince and an example to follow. Scholars were not the only collectors. The princes themselves also amassed large collections. Alfonso of Aragon, King of Naples, claimed that the coins of Caesar `did marvellously delight him and in a manner inflame him with a passion for virtue and glory'. It is thus unsurprising that, just as the humanist writers were employed to write the biographies of the rulers of cities like Ferrara, Mantua, Milan or Urbino, so too the princes of these states turned to painters, sculptors and goldsmiths to create a modern equivalent to the ancient coin.
Until the mid-sixteenth century ancient Roman bronze coins were primarily collected for their commemorative value, with some doubt as to whether they had even functioned as currency (later somewhat more account was taken of their original function as coinage). At any rate in the inventories of fifteenth-century collections ancient coins of all metals were always called `medaglie', the same term used for the medals cast by Pisanello (c. 1395-1455) for the marquises of Ferrara and Mantua, whose quality was such that the fashion for producing medals spread rapidly throughout the Italian peninsular.
The casting of modern medals was seen as the exact equivalent of the striking of ancient coins. A somewhat surprising letter from Flavio Biondo, a leading historian and antiquarian, survives from 1446, where he complimented Lionello d'Este, Marquis of Ferrara, on striking 10,000 bronze `coins', imitating Roman pieces and bearing his portrait. No such coins ever existed but this must be some reflection of Lionello's undoubted enthusiasm for commissioning medals commemorating himself, seven from Pisanello alone and three others from lesser medallists. Although these were probably not made in very large editions (and certainly nowhere near 10,000) they could be easily copied and must have found their way very quickly into the numismatic collections of Italy. …