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Past Exhibition

Sources for the Renaissance Portrait Medals

Ancient Greek and Roman coins are obvious sources for Renaissance portrait medals, and Pisanello, among other early Renaissance humanists, is believed to have collected them. The coins typically present the profile portrait of a ruler on one side and an allegorical or symbolic image on the reverse. The tiny silver eagle inset to the left of the portrait of the Roman emperor Galba (no. 1) indicates that the sestertius (a denomination of imperial Roman coinage) belonged to the Gonzaga, who had one of the most significant Renaissance collections.

Another possible source are the medals belonging to Jean de France, the Duke of Berry (nos. 2, 3), which in the early fifteenth century the duke had cast in gold after the gold, mounted, and jeweled discs that bore portraits of Roman emperors. Their size and format anticipate by several decades Pisanello’s medals of contemporary sitters. Seals had been used since antiquity to present an individual’s personal and heraldic devices, and they may also have informed the production of portrait medals. The plaster cast of a later fifteenth-century seal of Charles the Bold (no. 4) was designed by an artist who was also a medalist, demonstrating the association of the two art forms.

  • Bronze ancient Roman coin depicting Emperor Galba, crowned with laurel leaves in profile to the right, with a pearled border and an inset small silver eagle to the left of the head of the emperor.

    Sestertius of Galba, Emperor of Rome (b. 3 CE; r. 68–69 CE), 68 CE
    Copper alloy, with a silver eagle inset on the obverse
    Diam.: 1 1/2 in. (3.77 cm)
    Scher Collection

    Cat. 1

  • Bronze portrait medal of Emperor Constantine the Great on horseback

    Attributed to Michelet Saulmon (act. 1375–1416)
    Constantine the Great, Emperor of Rome (b. 285; r. 307–37), 1402/13
    Copper alloy, cast
    Diam.: 3 11/16 in. (9.32 cm)
    Scher Collection

    Cat. 2

  • Bronze portrait medal of Emperor Heraclius I wearing an elaborate crown

    Attributed to Michelet Saulmon (act. 1375–1416)
    Heraclius I, Emperor of Byzantium (b. ca. 575; r. 610–41), 1402/13
    Copper alloy, cast
    Diam.: 3 7/8 in. (9.89 cm)
    Scher Collection

    Cat. 3

  • Plaster replica of a round seal depicting a knight on horseback in profile to the right, with a shield on his left arm and a raised sword in his right hand, on a background of heraldic elements.

    Niccolò di Forzore Spinelli, called Niccolò Fiorentino (1430–1514)
    Seal of Charles the Bold, 1470s
    Plaster replica with sulfur-colored coating
    Diam.: 4 9/16 in. (11.52 cm)
    Scher Collection

    Cat. 4