A New Medal for Michelangelo

A new medal commemorating 450th anniversary of the death of Michelangelo is going to be presented on Saturday, October 25th on the occasion of the conference, Michelangelo: Nuove proposte di lettura, organized by Casa Buonarroti Foundation, in the Cenacolo of Santa Croce.

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In producing a new commemorative medal, Opera di Santa Croce and Casa Buonarroti are honoring a tradition that goes back in time. Medals appeared in Italy in the 1430s as a result of a revived interest in classical antiquity and the Renaissance philosophy of man. The function of medals was consistent with the commemorative role of ancient bronze coins: the same word, medaglia, was used for both ancient and Renaissance pieces. In both periods, two principal functions of medals were commemoration (marking political events, weddings, anniversaries) and awards to individuals for their services. Medals of the deceased were also produced, which celebrated the life of the person represented.

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The medal’s easy portability, guaranteed that its message would be easily spread. It would also have been seen as ‘official’, even though it was not used as a practical tool of the state and had no monetary value, which was the main use of the medal’s predecessor, the Ancient Roman coin. In Renaissance, most medals were produced to serve as the portrait medals: increased awareness of individual human excellence or personal virtu resulted in the desire to be remembered to posterity.  One original way to attain earthly immortality was through the portrait medal, which was small, durable, portable, and easily reproduced. In addition, this small object contained a wealth of information about the person represented. In the second half of the fifteenth century, portrait medals mostly were associated with the courts and dignitaries of the church, but they were also commissioned by private citizens, mostly lawyers. Since medals could be made of gold and silver, but also of less costly materials, as bronze or lead, they were affordable not only to the privileged few but to the ordinary citizens as well.

Curiously, many Renaissance portrait medals were not commissioned by the person represented. The act of commissioning a medal was undertaken by someone else, who could have kept a copy for himself and distribute other copies far and wide, in addition to sending them to the person represented. Such was a case of medal made in honor of Michelangelo in mid 16th century. It was created by Leone Leoni, who deeply admired the elderly artist and was inspired to make a portrait medal of him.

Leone Leoni, Medaglia di Michelangelo, 1561

In a small package sent to Michelangelo on March 14, 1561, Leoni  sent him four copies, two in silver and two in bronze and a short note, The one which is in the box is all cleaned. Keep it and look after it for love of me. Do with the other three what seems right to you. In my ambition, I have sent some to Spain and Flanders, and likewise through love have sent some to you in Rome and to other places. According to Vasari, Michelangelo was pleased with the medal, that in turn he has presented Leoni with a wax model of one of his statues. In addition, he recommended Leoni’s services to the Pope.

The brand new commemorative medal produced in Santa Croce, continues in a way  exactly what Leone Leoni wanted to achieve in the 16th century – keep the memory of the special individual alive. The new medal has on obverse the Battle of the Centaurs, one of the earliest works of Michelangelo, housed in Casa Buonarroti, while on the reverse it boasts the tomb of Michelangelo in Santa Croce.photo 2-1

“When the time comes, they (future generations) will find these things (medals) and through them they will remember us and know our names, just as we remember (the Romans) when we find some noble thing in an excavation or a ruin; we hold it dear and are pleased to have found a thing that represents antiquity and gives the name of them who made it.

Filarete, Florentine Renaissance architect, sculptor and architectural theorist.

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Paola Vojnovic

Opera di Santa Croce


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