Renaissance medal: Alfonso of Aragon

Renaissance medal: Alfonso of Aragon

Pisanello Medal Alfonso of Aragon
Country Life / Art And Architecture /…

Pisanello: Painter to the Renaissance Court

Carla Passino examines the historical background of Pisanello: Painter to the Renaissance Court, the first exhibition ever devoted to this Renaissance artist in Britain, which takes place from October 24 to January 13, 2002 at the National Gallery’s Sainsbury Wing

by Carla Passino

October 23, 2001

In his seminal book Il Senso della Morte e L’ Amore della Vita nel Rinascimento, historian Alberto Tenenti wrote that Renaissance signori (seigneurs) saw artistic patronage as a way to ensure their immortality.

Nowhere does this emerge with more clarity than in the Pisanello: Painter to the Renaissance Court exhibition that takes place from October 24 to January 13, 2002 at the National Gallery’s Sainsbury Wing. Although his work has been neglected for centuries, Pisanello was one of the greatest artists of his time, famed for his paintings as much as for the medals which portrayed the rulers of his era.

‘ Work commissioned in Renaissance courts had a dual purpose: to send a specific message of political dominance to an elite of contemporaries, who couldunderstand the erudite symbolism used in paintings and portraits; and to preserve memories of the patrons in centuries to come,’ says Luke Sysons, Curator of Medals at the British Museum and co- curator, together with Dillian Gordon, of thePisanello exhibition.

‘ When Pisanello worked at the court of Aragon in Naples, Alfonso V also had three humanists working on his biography.’

‘ Medals, in particular, were made for posterity. By the fifteenth century, it wasknown that text could be corrupted in time, because passages were often rewritten or amended as manuscripts were copied. Renaissance rulers were familiar with Roman coins, which they often made reference to, and medals, like coins, were thought to give a truthful representation of their subject, which would last over time.’

If that was indeed their intent, there is no doubt the Renaissance men succeeded. Through Pisanello ‘s masterly hand, not only did they leave us their likeness, buta glimpse of their personalities: one only has to look at the defiant profile on the medal portraying Cecilia Gonzaga to see why she choose to become a nun rather than marry a quite obnoxious Montefeltro.

The Renaissance ‘s obsession with the future goes hand in hand with a sudden surge of interest in the past, as the signori sought to justify their rule through the links with the antiquity. They strove to re- enact the virtuous lives of the great – from Alexander to Julius Caesar – as they transpired from the works of Suetonius, Plutarch and Pliny.

Leonello of Este, Alfonso of Aragon, Filippo Maria Visconti modelled their relationship with court artists on the rapport that Alexander had with Lysippus. Artists themselves looked at Rome and Athens as the foundation of their art.

Pisanello devoted much time to the study of ancient sculptures and coins and, like classical artists, made a great effort to record nature. His preparatorydrawings, many of which are displayed to great effect in the exhibition, show a rare preoccupation with detail, both when reproducing classical figures and when depicting landscapes and animals, which, differently from Gothic painters, he often drew from life.

His sketch of a hare – which would later appear in The Vision of Saint Eustace – is clearly based as much on the accurate study of a dead hare as it is on pattern books.

In this, Pisanello – who would otherwise appear to be a late Gothic, for a certain artificial stillness of his paintings – truly is a Renaissance man.

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