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Coins and Medals

Coins and Medals

During the Renaissance, many people collected coins and medals with portraits on them. For example, the poet Petrarch collected antique Roman coins, and his interest influenced other intellectuals. Although coins were units of currency and medals served mostly as decorations, both were valued as works of art.


Coins. Renaissance coins were made from gold, silver, and various copper mixtures. In 1252 Florence, Italy, introduced a gold coin called the florin. The florin displayed a lily on one side and a portrait of John the Baptist, the city's patron saint, on the other. The florin, along with a Venetian coin called the ducat, dominated western European currency for most of the 1300s and 1400s. As a result, it influenced the design of coins throughout the continent.

From the mid-1450s through the 1500s, much of Europe returned to the ancient Roman practice of displaying portraits on coins. Displaying a ruler's portrait on a coin helped spread his or her fame. In some areas a coat of arms* appeared on the reverse side of the coin. In other places, such as Spain and Portugal, it took the place of the portrait.


Medals. Portrait medals were double-sided, palm-sized disks that displayed a person's image. The medals of the Renaissance were based on medallions and coins created in honor of ancient Roman emperors. However, they were available to anyone who could afford to commission them.

The basic design of a medal included a portrait of a man or woman on one side, surrounded by a Latin inscription of the subject's name and position. The other side of the medal showed a symbol of the subject's personality. Medals served to court distant brides and to celebrate building projects and patrons*. People collected them, traded them with friends, and wore them around their necks. They even buried medals in the foundations of buildings.

Painter Antonio di Puccio Pisano, or Pisanello, created the first portrait medals in the early 1400s. Some earlier objects resemble medals, but Pisanello established their standard form. The artist's first medal commemorated the visit of John VIII Palaeologus, ruler of the Byzantine Empire*, to the council of Ferrara-Florence in the 1430s. During the next 22 years, Pisanello created more than 26 medals for many important Italian clients.

During the 1400s, most medal designers cast their creations—that is, poured liquid metal into a mold created from a wax model. In the 1500s, metalworkers adopted the "striking" method, which involved hammering a hard metal mold against a softer (usually heated) metal to create an impression. They might also create medals by using the screw-press, invented by Benvenuto Cellini. This large, screwlike machine pressed the mold against the softer metal. Although the striking and pressing methods allowed for greater detail and larger production than casting, they limited the depth and size of the portraits.

During the 1500s Milan, Italy, became a center for medal work. Italian artists produced medals for many of the leading courts of Europe, and their work profoundly influenced the style of medals throughout the continent. Talented medal artists also appeared in Germany, France, the Netherlands, and England.

(See alsoCouncils. )

* coat of arms

set of symbols used to represent a noble family

* patron

supporter or financial sponsor of an artist or writer

* Byzantine Empire

Eastern Christian Empire based in Constantinople (a.d. 476–1453)

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