Reflected Glory: Luke Syson on the Art of Forging Reputations for Posterity. (Medals)
Syson, Luke, New Statesman (1996)
It probably should not have been a surprise to come across a commemorative medal, one dedicated to the courage of the New York police officers and firefighters of 11 September ("Buy 3--SAVE $20--$99.85"), lurking in SkyMall magazine, issued by United Airlines. After all, these days the medal is seen as falling into much the same "not quite sure what to do with" category as the Moonshadow Fountain or the Museum of Modern Art "perpetual calendar", or most of the other delights in SkyMall. This sort of medal now seems distinctly anachronistic -- oddly, giver that, after its invention in Renaissance Italy, it was a mainstay of collections for roughly four centuries.
But perhaps it is odder how little thought any of us is giving to how the memory of 11 September is to be transmitted, or how the events will be viewed in future -- let alone rendered tangible and visible. We all seem pretty certain that "no one will ever forget", but we don't think about what will be remembered. Not even the most ardent propagandists appear to be worried about directing the memories of the future, at creating a history, rather than merely a present.
It wasn't always like this. The SkyMall medals represent the tail end of a tradition of representation and memory that was pioneered in a place and a period when eyes were turned not just to the past and the present, but very definitely to posterity. During the Renaissance, a whole category of object was specially invented -- the commemorative portrait medal -- to preserve the names and reputations of an elite, and to ensure that they would be remembered in certain ways. Their fascination now is in trying to disentangle fact from fiction. All that the great and the good of Renaissance Italy considered best about themselves is now on display at the British Museum in "Reflections of Glory: the medallic art of 16th-century Italy", an exhibition curated by Philip Attwood. Here is a whole gallery of reputations. These works of art may be unfashionably small, but they raise big questions.
Renaissance Italians invented the medal by looking at medaglie, two-sided ancient Roman coins, which they collected as part of their studies of a glorious past. For the men and women of the Renaissance, these coins were the empirical "facts of history". How quickly they realised that their own facts could be distorted. These are portraits of men (and women) who wanted to be remembered as new Hadrians. If they could not always achieve these ambitions in real life, they certainly weren't going to let history know.
They chose some of the best artists of their day--Benvenuto Cellini, for example -- to make them noble, beautiful, heroic. …