British Museum Coins: A medal for Mary

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01 March 2018
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We examine a gold medal dating to the mid-16th century by Italian engraver Jacopo da Trezzo (c.1514-89), held at the British Museum in London

Jacopo da Trezzo was born near Milan but little is known of his early life. Like many of his contemporaries in Renaissance Italy da Trezzo was a master of many artistic forms. He was best known as a gem-engraver, jeweller and metalworker, but also turned his hand to sculpture, medal casting and die-engraving. He prospered under the patronage of the Spanish Habsburgs in Spain although history remembers him as inferior to his great contemporary Leone Leoni.

The medal discussed here is widely regarded as da Trezzo’s most outstanding medallic work.

Jacopo was in London in late 1554 following the marriage of Philip of Spain to Mary I of England, and it is possible that he was granted a sitting from the queen at this time. Da Trezzo’s image has been said to have been copied from Anthonis Mor’s famous portrait of Mary, but it is equally possible that both artists attended the same sitting.

The obverse shows the left facing bust of the queen wearing an elaborate gown, chemise, a pendant jewel, a jewelled cap and veil. The Latin inscription translates as ‘Mary I, queen of England, France and Ireland, defender of the faith.’ The ‘FIDEI DEFENSOR’ title had been given to Henry VIII by pope Leo X for his pamphlet attacking the works of Martin Luther and was bestowed upon the king by Parliament following the break with the Roman church.

While it appears on some medals it wasn’t to become a feature on coins until the reign of George I (1714-27) but has been a permanent feature since.

The reverse is full of allegorical allusions. The figure of Peace sits on a throne under which is a cube (representing stability) bearing clasped hands (unity) and a pair of scales (justice). A palm and olive branch are in her left hand, while in the right is a flaming torch which is being used to set fire to a pile of arms, behind which is a crowd and a temple. Medals such as this type were often reproduced some years after the original but it is thought that this piece was contemporary and was one of the examples sent by Philip back to Spain. 

Intriguingly it also seems likely that Trezzo had a role in the production of the Philip and Mary silver shillings struck between 1554-5. A letter he wrote claims that Philip had entrusted him with the task ‘of making all the dies for this kingdom.’

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The design of the shilling was entirely new to earlier traditions. The coin has on its obverse face the facing busts of Philip and Mary with the image of the queen appearing to draw heavily on Jacopo’s medallic portrait. His image of Philip also draws on the medals he produced for the Habsburg prince.

While unfamiliar in England there was a precedent for juxtaposing two facing busts on the coinage of Philip’s homeland of Spain.

The Spanish gold coin, known as the ‘excellente’, depicted Ferdinand and Isabella in a similar way. In a subtle move by the die engraver we see that Mary is placed slightly higher up on the flan than Philip, representing the fact that Philip was the king consort.

The reverse of the coin in incredibly interesting as it combines the arms of England with the multitude of arms represented on the Habsburg arms. Philip had claim over large areas of Europe, the top left quarter includes Castile, Leon, Aragon, Navarre and Sicily, while the lower left quarter has the badges of Austria, Brabant, Flanders, Tyrol and old and new Burgundy.

Accounts show that da Trezzo was in the service of Philip II in the Netherlands and Spain where he worked on dies for jettons and the king’s great seal of 1557. He continued to work for Philip until his death in Madrid in 1589.