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

Medal of Cecilia Gonzaga (obverse and reverse)

Bronze, diameter 8,7 cm
National Gallery of Art, Washington

In the mid 15th century the portrait medal came of age, manifesting many of the Renaissance's ideals and achievements, for it linked with the Roman past and ennobled individuals. The Italian Renaissance medal flourished by 1450 and enjoyed a lengthy popularity. Under the painter and architect Pisanello, its virtual originator and finest practitioner, the medal combined naturalism with symbolism and proclaimed the importance of the artist. (Pisanello prominently signed his medals as a painter, OPVS PISANI PICTORIS.)

Pisanello designed medals for the rulers of the smaller Italian courts -the Este family in Ferrara and the Gonzaga in Mantua - and also for Alfonso I at Naples. The obverse of each medal, usually bronze, had a head in profile and the reverse the emblem and/or motto of the person commemorated.

Pisanello's invention added great charm to the personal devices, often based on his passion, the study of animals. The reverse of Cecilia Gonzaga shows a rocky landscape lit by a crescent moon, in which a semi-nude figure (Innocence) sits with a male unicorn (an emblem of chastity or knowledge tameable only by a virgin). On a pedestal on the right is the artist's signature.