By Elvira Clain-Stefenalli

Curator, National Numismatic Collections
Smithsonian Institution

Pisanello_ImageMan’s quest for immortality, his desire to escape oblivion has never found a better expression than in the medal. Through the quality of the material it is made of – metal – and its size which permits easy storing, thus escaping destruction to which large monuments could be subjected, the medal could preserve for endless generations the record of lives and of important events in history. Since the medal was a free expression, seldom regimented and controlled by governments as coins were, it became an excellent mirror for any given period, reflecting the entire gamut of human life: its spiritual preoccupations, fears, and hopes.

The spiritual austerity of the Middle Ages obliterated the record of the beautiful creations of the ancients, especially the large medallions selected by the Roman emperors to convey to posterity through their portraits the glory and might of Rome.

But with the spiritual awakening in Italy during the 1400s, the classical world became the center of spiritual and artistic preoccupations, and Roman coins and medallions were collected and studied. Due to these influences the portrait found a new appreciation, and with Antonio Pisano (1380-1451), called ‘Pisanello’, the Renaissance portrait medal was born.

The mastery of Pisanello and of his Italian followers lies in the simple but forceful lines of the portrait, bespeaking the great passion which these artists had for the human figure. The obverses of the medals, bearing the portrait were kept simple and austere in their general duct of lines in order not to detract from the impact of the human features, rendered with great sincerity, often even brutal realism. The reverses instead, were of a omre eloquent and epic character, but subservient in their allegorical nature to the domineering portrait.

Pisanello established an art form which soon became the fashion at the courts of the Renaissance princes since it answered the need for glorification of this newly established class of rulers. At their courts in Florence, Ferrara, Mantua, Milan, Rimini and Rome important art schools were developed for the medal, which was elevated to a new and highly appreciated form of art. The works emanated from the studios of artists as Petro da Milano, Niccolo Fiorentino, Sperandio, and Giovanni Candida. Many are ranked as masterly creations, thus assuring the medal the high appreciation as an artistic form.

During the Cinquecento the vigorous and simple style of the earlier Renaissance period gave way to a more sophisticated but weaker design, which favored elaborate details. This passage from the simple bur forceful style to the elegant and refined art of the late Renaissance represented by such masters as Benevenuto Cellini, Leone Leoni or Antonio Abonido reminds us of the change from the forceful style of Phidias to the more emotional and esthetically refined works of Skopas and Praxitelles.

In Germnay the Renaissance medal took a distinct national character, the Germans preferred to the cast Italian pieces the medals cut in wood, mostly box – or pear wood. Here as in Italy, the medal, especially the portrait medal, soon acquired great popularity among the prosperous ‘burgers’ of the wealthy German cities, such as Augsburg and Nuremburg. Famous artists as Albrecht Durer, Hans Schwarz, Matthes Gebel, Hans Reinhart, and others contributed to diffuse the medal in the circles of wealthy merchants and ‘burgers’. While the Italian medal was essentially an art form appreciated by the aristocracy, the German Renaissance medal became basically an expression of the middle classes.

The goldsmith and medalist Hans Reinhart (1510-81) of Leipzig, a pupil of Lukas Cranach, created many medals with religious subjects, which had a great impact on the large masses. Due to his example a new kind of medal, the relihious fervor of the masses, and the need for a spiritual support during the war-ravaged years of the 1600s gave these medals a great popularity. They were copied and recoped and worn as amulets and good luck pieces. Of special interests were the ‘pestilence talers’, medals created under the spiritual anguish of the terror-striken periods when the plague ravaged Europe’s cities. They were often worn as amulets since they were thought to be invested with magical powers against the dreaded sickness.

France experienced only a very slow awakening during the Renaissance period. Due to travelling Italian and German artists such as Benvenuto Cellini or Hans Schwarz, this new art form entered the circles of the royal court where it stayed for a long period of time without reaching the middle classes. The outstanding creations of masters such as Germain Pilon ot Guillaume Dupre were conceived in a spirituality which was already at the threshold of a enw era, the Baroque.

The artists of the Baroque enchanted art lovers through their exuberant style, full of magnificence and rich adornments. The medal followed this art trend, and portrait medals were created with special emphasis on costume details; the human character being often hidden behind a wealth of exterior adornments.

The Baroque medal was not a cast piece but a struck medal, which could be multiplied much faster thus finding its way much easier into the houses of the common man. From Rome came many medals depicting the events at the court of the famous popes. Medals with lively and complex composition as reverse scenes were found not only at the court of the popes, but also in France, England, in Poland and especially in Germany, and even at the court of Peter the Great of Russia.

Medals were struck for practically every possible occasion: there were religious medals of various kinds; there were commemorative medals for happy and for sad moments in people’s lives; there were medals, medalletsm and jetons, struck in gold, silver, or bronze. The latter ones were often distributed by rulers or important people among friends or subjects. Of course, due to this overproduction the general artistic qualities declined, and only seldom can we speak of an art medal of great format, even if many excellent engravers were capable of producing highly pleasing and often very showy works.

A new kind of medal began flourishing in the 17th century in Germany: the satirical medal. Created a century earlier as a result of the mockery of the religious factions fighting the Papacy, it gained enormous impetus through the work of the German Christian Wermuth (1661-1739), who illustrated many scandalous events of his time, such as public dishonesty, corruption, bribery, financial gangsterism.

Beside the enormous number of religious medals meant ot bring solace in distress and protection to travelers, there were also more unusual talismanic pieces such as the alchemistic medals, a product of the mystic beliefs of the 1600s. The wars and rebellions, the floods and droughts, the pestilence and the famine, all the scrouge which afflicted people of the 1600s and 1700s were recorded, in the German lands on innumerable medals. With the same eagerness medallists also tried to record happy events: the opening of a mine, or of a new lottery, or just the happiness to greet a new year by striking a calender medal. In the event of a birth, marriage, or death in the family, large and small medals were issued and distributed. Shooting matches in general were the incentive for many medals given as awards to the winners. But above all reigns the unchallenged in number and variety the Baroque historical medal which has recorded thousands of events and battle scenes.

In the late 1700s the world tired of the rich but shallow art, turned toward a more simple style expressive of deeper feelings and thoughts. A new era, that of Romanticism, rehshaped the arts; and a solemn calmness pervaded the medal. In their search for new values artists turned with almost nostalgic feelings towards the past, towards the classic antiquity, with its simple but imposing values. Almost contemporary with the first attempts to establish a neo-classicistic style, there were also strong currents of romantic feelings. A pronounced sentimentalism found its expression in softer lines and a more flowing relief. It emphasized the world of noble feelings: friendship, love paternal love, pastoral serenity and simplicity of nature.

Napoleon’s victorious sweep through Europe awoke the desire to emulate the glory of the ancient past and to imitate Roman grandeur. A flood of historic commemorative medals glorified Napoleon’s deeds in numerous scenes strongly inspired by the classical antiquity. Some of Napoleon’s medallic portraits are masterworks of this neo-classicism: a bare head completely devoid of any external adornments, its appeal resting exclusively on the simple vigorous features exuding a super-human remoteness so characterists for the classicistic period. Benedetto Pistrucci (1784-1855) proved in his Waterloo medal that a man of the 19th century could totally identify himself with the art concept of the ancients by reviving ancient beauty express in a perfectly harmonious composition.

During the following decades the imposing but utterly dull neo-classicistic style, used for most of the commemorative medals, marked a real stagnation of the arts. Only the second half of the 19th century brought a complete revolution in the art of the medal. The French, Hubert Ponscarme (1827-1903), Jules Clement CHaplain (1839-1909), Louis Oscar Roty (1846-1911), and others, treated the medal as a bas-relief in miniature. They broke the iron rules which enchained the composition of the medal for so long. The severity of the classicistic period was loosened, permitting the medal to develop as a work full of life and humanity. The movement initiated by the French and emulated by other nations raised the modern medal to a level seldom attained since the Renaissance.

The serene and highly sentimental period preceeding World War I found its reflections also across the Atlantic, in America, where Roty’s art concepts continued to flourish in Victor D. Brenner’s (1871-1914) prolific creations. In America the medal reached a high point of evolution with Augustus Saint-Gaudens (1848-1907). With his masterly portrait plaquettes he created an air of nostalgia for a society and culture that vanished with the onset of the war in 1914.

During World War I the medal was enriched by hundreds of medals which excluded the chilling horrors of the war and post-war years full bitterness, moral degredation and suffering. Karl Goetz’s (1875-1950) mordant attire lent a new, unknown facet to the medal, in general, which was thus transformed from a historic-commemorative piece into a political document and a political weapon.

The post-World War II period heralded a new era of nonconformism and freedom. While old schools of thought and style still fascinate many artists who feel more comfortable in expressing their ideals in the tradional style or technique, other artists daringly explore new dimensions and new techniques. And through many of the modernistic or abstract cretions looms an immense wealth of new concepts, of new visions, which tend to open for the medal the horizon of a new metaphysical world dominated by interspacial phenomena. Many contemporary medals point the way in that direction, but is the general public ready to follow it, to accept it?