09 July 2013
In the fourteenth century the idea that a representation of an individual should convey his actual appearance, rather than his office, became the key requirement for commissioned artists. One of the earliest proponents of the medallic portrait was Pisanello, as the British Museum’s Richard Kelleher explains ...
Pisanello was Antonio Pisano (c.1395-1455) an artist with the ability ‘to reproduce reality with a penetration seldom seen in Italy before Leonardo.’
His artistic skill led him to be much prized by the courts of Ferrara and Mantua and it was in Ferrara, where he was working at the court of Nicolo III d’Este, that this famous medal would be created.
Pisanello was primarily a fresco and panel-portrait painter and probably studied under Gentile da Fabriano with whom he painted the Scenes from the life of St John the Baptist in the Basilica of St John Lateran in Rome and came to medals late in his life.
One of the British Museum’s most famous Italian medals is a cast bronze piece by Pisanello.
The obverse depicts the emperor facing right with trimmed beard and moustache, wearing the large hat so commented upon by contemporaries. He wears a vest and cloak with falling collar and his hair flows from beneath his hat in long curls.
The Greek inscription reads ‘+? ω?NN? · BACIΛ?VC · ΚΑÌ · ?VTO KΡ?ΤωΡ · ΡωΜ?ΙωΝ · ? · ΠΑΛΑΙΟΛΟΓΟ?’ which translates as ‘John Palaeologus Emperor and Autocrat of the Romans’, in a similar style to his coins. On the reverse the Emperor rides a horse and is passing a wayside cross. Behind him a page rides another horse among a landscape of rocks. Another Greek inscription reads ‘?ΡΓΟΝ · Τ?V · ΠΙ??ΝΟV · ZωΓΡ?ΦΟΝ’ and is repeated in Latin ‘OPVS PISANI PICTORIS’ meaning ‘the work of Pisanello the painter’. The artist’s mastery of depicting animals, particularly horses, is clear in his medallic works such as those of Malatesta Novello and Filippo Maria Visconti as well as his painting The Vision of St Eustace in the National Gallery.
This piece came into the British Museum collection on 28 May, 1825 when it was presented to the nation by George IV. It was formerly part of the royal collection of coins and medals, held at Buckingham House and formed by King George III.
The subject of this piece is the Byzantine Emperor John VIII Palaeologus (1392-1448) and the occasion of the commissioning of the medal is well known.
John had travelled to Italy to attend the Council of Ferrara in October 1438 at the invitation of Pope Eugenius IV.
At this period the Byzantine Empire was under serious threat from the Ottoman Turks under Murad II who had captured Thessalonica and besieged Constantinople.
The Emperor sought aid from the west which, it was believed, could be achieved through a union between the Greek and Latin churches. It was during John’s visit to Ferrara that Pisanello was commissioned to produce this medal. As a cast piece the British Museum’s medal is one of many which survive to the present day cast in bronze or lead but a gold specimen, stolen from the Paris Cabinet in 1831, was recorded.
In Pisanello’s medallic work we can find, if we look closely, the influence of elements of ancient coins and medallions. Two examples which Pisanello may have seen, of Constantine and Heraclius, which were in fact fifteenth-century fabrications, have distinct parallels in his work. These too were inspired by the visit of a Byzantine Emperor, have legends in Latin and Greek and (in the case of Constantine) depict the emperor riding a horse. Medals of illustrious persons also became popular with artists and illuminators as they could often act as substitutes for the actual subject.
Art historians have often cited this piece as the first cast medal of the Italian Renaissance but this is by no means a certainty. It was certainly hugely influential in the development of the medium and represents one small numismatic facet of the artistic achievement of the Renaissance.