Pisanello
Veronese, c. 1395 - 1455
Pisano, Antonio di Puccio , Pisano, called Pisanello, Antonio , Pisanello, Antonio Pisano, called

Biography

Antonio di Puccio Pisano, called Pisanello, probably was born in Pisa circa 1395 and died in Rome sometime between July and October of 1455. His father was a wealthy cloth merchant, and his mother, Isabetta, was a native of Verona. The nickname "Pisanello," which most likely referred to his small stature, seems to have stayed with him throughout his career. Highly regarded in his own time, Pisanello was influenced by Stefano da Verona (1379-c. 1438), Bono da Ferrara (active 1450-1452), Altichiero (active 1369-1393), and Gentile da Fabriano (c. 1375-1427). He succeeded Gentile in the decoration for the Doge's Palace in Venice between 1415 and 1422 and at the Basilica of Saint John Lateran in Rome between 1431 and 1432.

Besides paintings in fresco and on panel Pisanello left a remarkable group of drawings, ranging in type from vivid sketches that capture a moment of animated movement to detailed, static studies of form. The drawings reveal phenomenal powers of control, observation, and visual curiosity. The bulk of the drawings is preserved in the Codex Vallardi in the Louvre, Paris. Fossi Todorow published the whole body of drawings by Pisanello himself and those related to his studio.[1] The artist also left a group of thirty-six medals of twenty-three sitters. Indeed, the Renaissance medal, as a cast bronze roundel sized to be passed from hand to hand and bearing a personal portrait studied from life, was Pisanello's most original contribution to the early Italian Renaissance.[2]

Pisanello bought a house in Verona in 1422 and always regarded himself as a Veronese citizen. His earliest surviving work is the Brenzoni monument in the church of San Fermo, Verona, of 1426. The chapel decorations of Saint George and the Princess of Trebizond, from the church of Sant'Anastasia, 1433-1438, still exist in that church.

Pisanello is documented as having worked as a painter for Filippo Maria Visconti, duke of Milan, in the late 1420s. He was to make a medal of the duke (NGA 1957.14.595) and of his condottiere, Piccinino (NGA 1957.14.596), in about 1441. The earliest of all records of Pisanello, however, concerns his work for the court at Mantua, where he is recorded in 1422 in the employment of Lodovico Gonzaga (then age thirteen), the son of the ruler Gianfrancesco Gonzaga. Pisanello continued working for the Gonzaga court until the very end of his career. His fragmentary and incomplete fresco of an Arthurian legend, probably painted in 1447, has survived in the Palazzo Ducale in Mantua. In 1438 Pisanello was in Ferrara where the Marquess Niccolò III d'Este was host to the ecumenical congress of the Greek and Latin churches, attended by Pope Eugenius IV and the Byzantine Emperor, John VIII Palaeologus. This occasion may have prompted Pisanello to invent the personal commemorative medal. The medal's format derived from ancient Roman imperial coinage, having a portrait on the obverse and a commemorative type on the reverse. The scale of the new invention was inspired by some commemorative medals of the heroes of the Christian Church, produced in Paris for the duke of Berry and bought by him between 1400 and 1402 (NGA 1957.14.1119; NGA 1957.14.1120).

An important patron of Pisanello's was Leonello d'Este, who succeeded as marquess of Ferrara in 1441. He had received an excellent humanist education under Guarino da Verona and his respect for antiquity prompted him to commission from Pisanello a painted portrait of Julius Caesar (now lost), a series of nine portrait medals, including that for his marriage in April 1444 to Maria of Aragon, and a painted panel portrait of himself in 1441. Pisanello's movements in the 1430s are not well documented, but his medals show him to have been employed at the courts of the Malatesta at Rimini and Cesena, while being principally engaged at Mantua and Ferrara. The artist ended his career at the court of Alfonso I, king of Naples, employed on most generous terms as both a painter and a sculptor.

Although the reasons for the invention of the medal have never been satisfactorily explained, it is no cause for surprise that the form of the medal should emerge completely in Pisanello's first experiment in medal-making, for he was trained not only as a painter, but also as a sculptor and metalsmith. The privilegium drawn as a contract between Pisanello and King Alfonso I of Naples in 1449 refers to the artist's accomplishments as being "de singulari et picture et sculpture enee [aeneae] pisani arte" (of the singular art of painting and bronze sculpture of Pisano), showing that he was to be employed both as a painter and medalist.

The status accorded to Pisanello at Naples and the sophistication of his medals for Leonello d'Este suggest that he was a courtly figure who enjoyed close contact with the humanists of the courts, especially in Ferrara with Leonello d'Este's tutor, Guarino da Verona. The newly invented form of the medal, in the initial example, combines a humanistic knowledge of ancient precedent in coinage with the sense of an important event in contemporary history (the meeting at Ferrara of the leaders of the eastern and western Churches). Pisanello's humanist background, training, and artistic skills enabled him to recreate an antique art form into a perfectly considered contemporary work of sculpture. The form given to the medal by Pisanello in 1439 is still in use today.

A group of Pisanello's drawings, bearing elaborate notes of color, shows the members of the Byzantine court as they appeared during their visit to Ferrara, suggesting that the host or the participants might have proposed a painted commemoration of the visit. The forced removal of the congress to Florence, prompted by an attack on the territory of Ferrara, probably prevented this work, and the medal of John VIII Palaeologus (NGA 1957.14.593) could have been made as a substitute for a commemorative painting. A variant version of the medal of John VIII Palaeologus, with a reverse of clasped hands (perhaps representing the union of the two Churches), is mentioned by Paolo Giovio in 1551, although no specimen is recorded.[3] Florence is considered as the city in which the first medal was produced because in a letter before 1550 Paolo Giovio asserted that Pisanello made the medal there.[4] The citation, however, is dated more than a century after the event, time enough for an ingenious forgery to have appeared.[5] Conversely, the sense of a momentous event and the humanist enthusiasm of the court at Ferrara combined to provide a stimulating context for the invention of the medal, even if the first specimens were made in Florence. In its turn, Florence gave great impetus to Pisanello's figurative and sculptural interests. Thirty-three surviving drawings indicate that the artist studied the paintings of Filippo Lippi and Fra Angelico and the sculpture of Donatello. In 1439 Ghiberti's second set of gates for the Baptistery was two years old.

The body of medals catalogued in George Hill's Corpus of 1930 does not represent the whole of Pisanello's medallic work. Hill also noted early literary references to twenty additional medals, possibly by Pisanello, with varying degrees of probability.[6] In 1931 Hill suggested that the monument to Giovanni Pietro Vitali d'Avenza on the facade of the cathedral at Lucca reproduced a medal by Pisanello of which no example had survived. However, in 1977 and 1981, Middeldorf published a specimen of the obverse of that medal.[7]

Pisanello's invention of the medal was swiftly imitated at other courts, although only the work of Matteo de'Pasti at Rimini rivals that of Pisanello in harmony of composition and quality of invention. It is surprising that so little work in medals continued at the courts in which Pisanello had been active, such as those at Ferrara, Mantua, and Naples.[8] Pisanello apparently did not have any pupils. The patronage accorded to him was dependent on his direct contact with cultivated patrons and not on a social demand for medals as a form of personal commemoration, no matter what quality of medal making was available.

[1] Fossi Todorow 1966.

[2] G.F. Hill, Medals of the Renaissance, 2nd edition, ed. J.G. Pollard (London, 1978), 13-15; Roberto Weiss, Pisanello's Medallion of the Emperor John VIII Palaeologus, British Museum, London, 1966: 10-12. John R. Spencer, "Speculations on the Origins of the Italian Renaissance Medal," in Italian Medals, Studies in the History of Art, vol. 21, Washington, 1987: 197-293, argues that a wide variety of antique artifacts would have been the sources for fifteenth-century Italian artists and suggests that the pottery lamp and the bronze mirror may have provided such inspiration. See also Irving Lavin, "Pisanello and the Invention of the Renaissance Medal," in Italienische Frührenaissance und nordeuropäisches Spätmittelalter, ed. by Joachim Poeschke, Munich, 1993: 67-84.

[3] The clasped hands represent the union of the churches achieved formally in Florence. The source in Paolo Giovio is quoted by Giorgio Vasari, Vasari, Vite I, Gentile da Fabriano e il Pisanello, Florence, 1896: 87.

[4] Paolo Giovio is quoted in Vasari; see Venturi 1896, 3-4, 87.

[5] J.A. Fasanelli, "Some Notes on Pisanello and the Council of Florence," MD 3 (1965): 36-47.

[6] Hill 1930, 13.

[7] G.F. Hill, "A Lost Medal by Pisanello," Pantheon 8 (1931), 487-488; Ulrich Middeldorf, "Zu Einigen Medaillen der Italienischen Renaissance, I. Zu Pisanello," in Festschrift Wolfgang Braunfels, ed. Friedrich Piel and Jorg Traeger, Tubingen, 1977: 263-265; Ulrich Middeldorf, Collected Writings 3, 169-171; Ulrich Middeldorf, "A New Medal by Pisanello," The Burlington Magazine 123 (1981): 19-20.

[8] The earliest medals produced in Ferrara are contemporary with Pisanello, and consist of works by Amadeo da Milano (died 1483), of before 1441, and Antonio Marescotti (active 1444-1462), 1445. At Mantua, Pietro da Fano was active from 1452 (NGA 1957.14.728). The Venetian school produced the medals closest in style to those of Pisanello. Marco Guidizani's (active 1454-1462) portrait medal of Colleoni (NGA 1957.14.731) is entirely in Pisanello's manner. Although Pisanello worked for Pope Eugenius IV in Rome and encountered him again in Ferrara during the ecumenical congress of the Churches, the earliest papal portrait medals were not produced until the reign of the next pope, Nicolas V, 1446-1455.

[John Graham Pollard, Renaissance Medals. The National Gallery of Art Systematic Catalogue, 2 vols., Washington, D.C., 2007: 1:2-3.]