The Portland Vase, £5.00
Cast bronze medal of Isabella d'Este, Marchioness of Mantua, by Gian Cristoforo Romano
Mantua, Italy, AD 1498
The first lady of Renaissance Italy
Isabella d'Este (1474-1539) was brought up at the artistically minded court of Ferrara, and continued to pursue her artistic interests after her marriage to Francesco Gonzaga, Marquis of Mantua (reigned 1484–1519). She was an avid collector of both classical antiquities and works of art by the leading contemporary painters and sculptors of Italy. The sculptor and courtier Giovanni Cristoforo Romano (1470-1512) often acted as her agent in acquiring objects, probably including the many ancient coins she possessed.
Romano's medal of Isabella is a particularly sophisticated reworking of images found on coins of the Roman emperors Augustus, Claudius and Vespasian, focussing on her abilities as a peace-keeping ruler, during the many absences of her mercenary husband.
The figure of peace is depicted below a Sagittarius, Isabella's astrological ascendant sign, with the inscription 'on account of high merit'. Isabella believed that she merited commemoration, through her star-given ability to govern. She gave the medal out to many poets and nobles, and a contemporary, the Queen-consort of Aragon, Germaine de Foix, commented on the beauty of the portrait (which deliberately minimises her weight) and remarked that it revealed 'un grande inzegno', a great talent, of which she had already heard many times.
G.F. Hill, A corpus of Italian medals of (London, Trustees of the British Museum, 1930)
L. Syson, 'Reading faces: Gian Cristoforo Romano's medal of Isabella d'Este' in La corte di Mantova nelleta di (Milan, 1997), pp. 281-94