A Portrait of Renaissance Medals


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. The Renaissance medal, though it was a commemorative and had nothing to do with currency, was derived from the Roman coin. This explains why medal portraits are in profile, perhaps. Profile was the preferred way of portraying the emperors whose images gave Roman coins propagandist as well as monetary value.

It may be that the profile was more immediately recognizable and distinctive, particularly in the small size of a coin, and so made for a more powerful image. Also, since a coin (and the later medals of the Renaissance) shows its images in relief, the linear contour of a profile is, by its nature, capable of clearer definition than the more complex contours of full- or three-quarter face portraits. And finally, since the craftsmen who designed and/or made Roman coins and Renaissance medals were by no means all accomplished painters or sculptors (Pisanello, a painter, was once again exceptional), the profile was, simply, the easiest way of recording a likeness.

In his book ``The Portrait in the Renaissance,'' John Pope-Hennessy, makes this point, and reminds his readers of the Victorian ``silhouettes in which amateurs, armed with black paper and a pair of scissors, succeeded in producing fairly well-individualized likenesses.'' He even goes on to quote Leonardo da Vinci's ``recipe for `making a man's portrait in profile after having seen him only once.' ''

The medals that are now on view in New York, however, show that there is not the slightest justification in believing that a profile cannot be invested with the subtlest degree of conviction and realism; indeed, in one sense its very flatness demands of the artist the greatest attention to the subtleties of facial structure and the relationship of one part to another for the image to be credible.

But the Renaissance medalists aimed at something more than credibility. The medal came out of a belief that a man's character could be perceived in his face. In other periods, when doubts arose about the value of the art of portraiture, those doubts arose largely because people have felt that character is in the mind rather than in the physical structure of even the face, and that the elusiveness of thought could hardly be captured by the depiction of eyes and mouths.

But in the Renaissance, both the intellectual humanists of the time and their vigorous desire to recreate their own imagery in terms of classical precedent, led to the determination to have one's individuality cast into some permanent mold in the form of portraiture. Medals were not, however, usually produced in vast numbers like coins, and the number of people who might have medals made of them was really very limited.

One extraordinary work included in both the exhibition and the book is a bronze relief (see photo left, page 16) self-portrait by Leon Battista Alberti (1404-1472). This was made before Pisanello's medals, and is not a medal as such. It is not circular like most medals; it is larger than they generally are, and it only has one face. Like many medals, it is made of bronze, but it is known as ``a self-portrait in the Roman style'' and it is both a progenitor for Pisanello's medals and a trumpet blast for the Renaissance as a whole. Its sense of nobility, of solemnity, dignity, and assured self-esteem is unavoidable. The catalog note (by Douglas Lewis) on this relief is a song of praise, and rightly so.

One thing, however, that is striking but not mentioned, is that once again this portrait is in profile, a fact that is even more astonishing because it is a self-portrait. It is possible with the ingenious placing of mirrors to look at one's own profile, but all the same the majority of self-portraits down the centuries have been full or three-quarter face, simply because it is easier to stare at yourself that way. In Alberti's case, the imperative to immortalize himself as a kind of Roman emperor, necessitated the profile.

How accurate is this self-portrait, I wonder? It must be said that a later medal of Alberti by Matteo de' Pasti, which could have been in the exhibition but is not, does suggest that Alberti's self-portrayal may have contained idealization. But to give him the benefit of the doubt and credit him with leaving behind him a faithful likeness, it is fair to say that Alberti was one of those rarer people who have a somewhat impressive profile.

I cannot help feeling that many of the other beautiful people of the Renaissance whose side views have come down to us on bronze medals may possibly have been rather dismayed when they realized exactly what they looked like in profile. Did they really want their noses to be remembered for the next 600 years? And did they really imagine that their inner character was aptly expressed by the vagaries of such outer protrusions? I am sure I would rather keep my nose to myself.

* `The Currency of Fame: Portrait Medals of the Renaissance' will be on exhibit at the Frick Collection in New York until Aug. 22. It will be at the National Gallery (at the Mound) in Edinburgh from Sept. 22 to Jan 8, 1995.

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