(b. 1395, Pisa, d. 1455, Roma)

Niccolò Piccinino

Cast copper alloy, diameter 9 cm
Bibliothèque Nationale, Paris

Niccolò Piccinino (1386-1444) was among the most accomplished condottieri (mercenary soldiers) who were hired by the contending city-states, principalities, and foreign invaders in Italy in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. He was extremely short, as indicates his name, the "tiny one." He worked primarily for the duke of Milan, Filippo Maria Visconti, who in 1439 adopted Piccinino, hence his title in the legend of the medal: "Niccolò Piccinino Visconti, marquess, great captain and a second Mars."

During the years 1439 to 1442, Pisanello traveled in northern Italy, and it was in this period that he came into contact with Filippo Maria Visconti, Niccolò Piccinino, Francesco Sforza, and Gianfrancesco Gonzaga. Portrait drawings of the first two survive, as do medals of all four. In each case, it seems likely that the artist had access to his subjects and drew them from life, translating these drawings into the more permanent and distributable medium of bronze.

In the drawing Piccinino is represented in civilian dress, as he would undoubtedly have appeared when he sat for the artist, but that changed into armour for the medal, the latter communicating to a wider audience the subject's profession as a renowned soldier. Aside from putting Piccinino in armour, Pisanello closely followed the main features of the drawing, compressing them somewhat, however, owing to the reduction in scale and in order to fit the composition into the circular format of the medal.

On the reverse of the medal, Pisanello referred to Piccinino's place of birth, Perugia, and to his mentor Braccio da Montone, a fellow Perugian, by depicting a powerful griffin, emblem of Perugia. Referring to the legend of Romulus and Remus, the two founders of Rome who were raised by a she-wolf, the griffin here nourishes the two generals as infants. As in most of his medals, Pisanello achieved here a remarkable balance between portrait and reverse image, lettering, and field, all composed within the constricting limits of a small circle.

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