Relics of power

I've never been particularly drawn to portrait medals, as the image is often much too like an icon to sustain my interest for long. But this lead medallion of Gianfrancesco Gonzaga, first Marchese of Mantua, caught my attention and held it long after I had first gazed upon it.

It's only a hundred millimeters in diameter, but the image is impressive, the language effective, and the design clear and evocative. It conjures up the whole mood and flavor of the proud Italian early Renaissance, with its strutting families feuding over city dominance, and its lavish love of splendor and adornment. Yet the care paid to the brocaded costume of Gianfrancesco speaks as much of the International Gothic style (out of which this medal only just emerges) as it does for the Renaissance. Pisanello, the artist responsible for the medallion, was well practiced in depicting the rich materials and decorativeness favored by the International Gothic style -- apropos, perhaps, since he was both the son and the son-in-law of drapers.

The strength of his design, however, is in its language. You don't have to actually know that this marchese symbolized the beginning of an important Italian Renaissance family to grasp that he must be significant. Yet the profile itself is far from significant. The chin recedes, the ear looms large and the hat looks a little silly on such a head. But ironically it's that hat that first commands our respect. Like a top-heavy crown placed on the head of a turtle, the hat, nevertheless endows the marchese with unexpected power and dignity. For power, it seems, begins with action and secures its position through presentation.

The fact that the 15th-century artist, Pisanello, disregarded flattery or idealization in this portrait also indicates the assurance of power; it essentially makes official the Gonzaga look, paving the way for a whole dynasty of Gonzaga features.

Such medals were cast to commemorate individuals or events and were purchased by the populace as mementoes or gifts. But it was, as it is today, and as it was when the Romans originally employed it, a form of propaganda, proclaiming the establishment of power.

This medallion was no different. It was most likely commissioned after Gianfrancesco's death by his son Ludovico, the second Marchese of Mantua, and his purpose was quite plain. He wanted his father, as the first aristocratic Gonzaga, to be honored and remembered for his military success, mainly in the Venetian service, and more important, his political success as the first Marchese of Mantua, the title conferred by the Emperor Sigismund in 1433. For with the prestige and authority of the title, the Gonzaga dynasty began, starting with a military base of strength and fortune and adding on layers of learning, civic stability and refinement with each succeeding generation.

But the misfortune of power and prestige is that it always includes a trapdoor for the unwise. Vanity, greed and a belief in their own infallible myth makes the powerful too pleased with themselves and ultimately vulnerable. The Gonzagas fell from their mighty position in the 17th century. The exigencies of their financial losses were such that the very treasures that they had greedily gathered about them now had to be sold. The discriminating buyer, eager to pull in this haul, turned out to be the grand and extravagant Charles I of England, whose own fall some twenty years later, proved to be fatal.

Power, as graspable as mercury, grinds fortunes and lives to dust. But fortunately thus far, many of the artistic by-products miraculously remain. How extraordinary that art and power should be so linked, each needing the other for its survival. For if art didn't stand for status, the powerful wouldn't support or save it; and if art was unsupported and uncherished by the powerful, would it , I wonder, survive?

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