A Portrait of Renaissance Medals

By Andreae, Christopher | The Christian Science Monitor, August 8, 1994 | Go to article overview

A Portrait of Renaissance Medals


Andreae, Christopher, The Christian Science Monitor


THE CURRENCY OF FAME: PORTRAIT MEDALS OF THE RENAISSANCE Edited by Stephen K. Scher, Photography by John Bigelow Taylor. Harry N. Abrams 424 pp., $95.

I am not entirely sure that I want my profile to be handed down to posterity.

It seems to me that the charitable thing to do would be to take measures - legal if necessary - to ensure that future generations are actually protected from the eccentric contour that travels from the top of one's forehead to one's Adam's apple. Even if you do want to be remembered, why would you choose this particular aspect of your physiognomy as the means?

Not that anyone has come up with the idea of immortalizing the side view - or even the full-frontal - of my features, except in the occasional holiday snapshot. But looking at the portrait medals of the Renaissance in "The Currency of Fame: Portrait Medals of the Renaissance," a book-cum-catalog connected with the exhibition currently at the Frick Collection in New York, I can't help wondering what it was that, beginning in Italy in the late 1430s, made so many people determined to make certain that those of us who happen to be around in the 1990s can yet study the intimate nuances of their nostrils, lips, eyelids, and chins.

The extensive texts and notes in this book go some way toward explanation, though the main emphasis is perhaps on the exercise of connoisseurship. Editor Stephen K. Scher, an art historian and authority on medals, ends his introductory essay by observing: ..."It has been the purpose of this exhibition to provide such examples in the field of Renaissance medals for the collector and student who may thus achieve a heightened awareness of some of the most important aspects of medallic connoisseurship."

In other words, medals, even of the Renaissance, vary in quality.

The sort of qualities Scher, with his own heightened awareness, perceived in the finest of Renaissance medals is expressed in his tribute to Pisanello's "first known effort in the form." This medal (see bottom photo, page 17) shows on one side (the obverse) the head and shoulders of the Byzantine Emperor John VIII Paleologus, in profile - as all but a very few portraits on the medals illustrated in the book do - and on the other (the reverse) a scene in which the Emperor (again in profile), seated on horseback and in hunting garb, has stopped to pray at a wayside cross. This medal is not only the first known by "the greatest of all medalists in any period" but also "may be considered the first true portrait medal of the Renaissance, the progenitor of all subsequent medals:"

Of it Sher writes: "it achieves a measured nobility in the lettering, a balance of proportions in the obverse composition, sensitivity and character in the portrait, subtle delicacy in the modeling of drapery, and control of the relief."

Although medals are not large - they can be held easily between the fingers - it is extraordinary what can be portrayed within their limited scope. On the reverse of many, it was the custom to depict a scene or emblem that would support or enlarge upon the character of the portrait on the obverse. The elephant (see above), for instance, on the reverse of a medal by Pisanello's follower Matteo de' Pasti "evidently stands" (writes Alison Luchs in the catalog note) "for regal strength and for the fame that confers immortality."

This touches on the motivation behind these Renaissance medals. They were one way in which the Renaissance humanist conviction in individual differences, and in the importance of fame, showed itself. Another way people endeavored to memorialize themselves was in painted portraiture, either separately or as one individual in a group of figures in a public image such as a fresco or an altarpiece. Yet another form of portrait for posterity was the sculptural bust.

This last form, and the medal, were forms based quite consciously on classical Roman precedents. …

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