Papal Medals from their Beginnings until Pius IX: A Brief History

by Giancarlo Alteri

Pope Paul II Barbo (1417–1471) was the instigator of the papal medal. Keen to exploit the newly developed art form for commemorative purposes, he had nearly every event in his pontificate celebrated by a medal, from major construction projects, like the Venezia Palace, to important political and ecclesiastical events (fig. 1). He invited to Rome the Mantuan artist Cristoforo di Geremia (flourished between 1455 and 1476) and provided him with a foundry close to the construction site of the Venezia Palace, where he could cast medals to commemorate the building as it progressed (fig. 2). When the Pope decided
to start work erecting the new tribuna in Saint Peter’s, he ordered a medal with that subject as well (fig. 3). Sixtus IV della Rovere (1414–1484) also had a singular passion for medals. Indeed he engaged a number of exceptional artists, thereby enhancing the artistic level of the schola Romana, even though many of the names of these artists are unknown to us. Because of this attention, the papal medal made a qualitative leap under Sixtus, excelling especially in architectural subjects.

Lisippo the Younger, for example, the leading figure of the schola Romana, created a medal with the image of the Sistine Bridge (fig. 4), following the placement of the first stone in its renovation by the Pope himself (fig. 5). The sixteenth century began under the papal leadership of Julius II della Rovere (1443–1513), who started the reconstruction of Saint Peter’s Basilica. In the underground caverns of the new basilica, under the apse of
the church, Julius II placed the first stone of the reconstruction along with a vase containing twelve medals created by Cristoforo Foppa (“Caradosso”) (1452–1527) (fig. 6). Another artist, Gian Cristoforo Romano (c. 1460–1512) was commissioned by Julius to engrave dies for many medals celebrating other events of his pontificate, such as the construction of the Rocca Giulia in Civitavecchia, the Courthouse in Rome, and the ratification of the Peace of Blois.

Although unlucky in his pontificate, which witnessed the pillage of Rome in 1527 by the Landsknechts and was marked by European wars, Clement VII (1478– 1534) had luck in finding great engravers such as Vittore Gambello (1455–c. 1537), Valerio Belli (1468–1546), Giovanni Bernardi (1496–1553) and, above all, Benvenuto Cellini (1500–1570) to execute his medals. These artists created some of the finest medals of the sixteenth century, such as that made by Bernardi showing Joseph recognized by his brothers, clearly an allusion to the forgiveness granted by the Medici Pope to his fellow
citizens, who expelled the Medici family from Florence, or that of Cellini, with the representation of Moses causing water to spring from a rock, in remembrance of the Well of Saint Patrick in Orvieto (figs. 7–8).

The peak of artistic beauty in papal medals, however, was achieved during the reign of Paul III Farnese. Two exceptional artists of the burin, Gian Giacomo Bonzagni (1507–1565) and Alessandro Cesati (“Grechetto”) (1505–c. 1575), were appointed Chamber Engravers ad perpetuum. Cesati’s classicism is clear in some of his most famous medals such as that of the figure of Ganymede watering the lilies; in this representation, the figure of the youth kidnapped by Zeus, which foreshadows the work of Pier Luigi Farnese on the same topic, is absolute sculptural perfection worthy of Praxiteles (fig. 9).
Under the pontificate of Julius III, the Chamber Engravers were Gian Giacomo Bonzagni, his brother Gian Federico Bonzagni (1508–c.1588), and Alessandro Cesati, but it was during the reign of the rather strict Paul IV Carafa that the artistic decline of the papal medal began. The age of the Counter-Reformation had repercussions on the papal medal, restricting the subject matter to more focused religious topics. Moreover, under Pius IV there was a generational shift among the Chamber Engravers. Gian Giacomo Bonzagni died at the beginning of 1565 and in the same year Alessandro Cesati left Italy. Only Gian Federico Bonzagni and Giovanni Antonio de Rossi (c. 1515–1575) remained in Rome.

The artistic decline of the papal medal continued during the pontificate of Pius V Ghislieri (1504–1572). However, as a sworn enemy of the Turks, Pius was inspired by the victorious sea battle of Lepanto on October 7, 1571, and so put his engravers to the task of commemorating the event. Thus there was a short and ephemeral renewal of papal medallic art. The fight of the two fleets was all but photographed, detailed with absolute precision on a medal by Giovanni Antonio de Rossi, whereas Bonzagni transferred onto metal the pathos of the battle, underscored by the presence of the angel leading the Christian fleet against the Turkish armada (figs. 10–11).

Gian Federico Bonzagni created two masterpieces for Gregory XIII Boncompagni (1502–1585): a medal devoted to the massacre of the Huguenots (fig. 12) and another depicting the Pope opening the Holy Door (fig. 13). Meanwhile, an artist from Parma, Lorenzo Fragni (1548–1619), was appointed Chamber Engraver; although he was not a top tier artist, nevertheless he was very good on miniature details, as can be seen on a medal devoted to the Gregorian Chapel in Saint Peter’s (fig. 14). Sixtus V Peretti reformed the papal mint, replacing Fragni with Domenico Poggini (1520–1590). Suffering under a crippling disease, Poggini’s medals reflect his weariness. In the last years of his life, debilitated and unable to work, he left the practical activity of chamber engraving to the Roman brothers Niccolò (1555–1594) and Emilio de’ Bonis (c. 1560–after 1601). The brothers subsequently worked for Paul V Borghese (1552–1621), who embellished Rome with great architectural works, such as the façade of Saint Peter’s Basilica and the Pauline
Chapel in Santa Maria Maggiore. But above all he gave the city architecture of great urban utility, such as the renewed Pauline Aqueduct. These works all found a place on his medals (fig. 15).

In 1610, Giacomo Antonio Mori (c. 1575–1625) took the place of Niccolò de’ Bonis as engraver. A little over a dozen years later, in 1623, Urban VIII Barberini (1568–1644), who was also a refined numismatic collector, ascended the throne of Peter. The new pope welcomed Mori’s suggestion to appoint as his successor a distant relative, Gaspare Mola (1567–1640). After Mori’s death in 1625, Mola opened the door to the great golden age of the Roman Baroque medal. For his skill with the burin, he obtained from the Pope the appointment of Chamber Engraver ad vitam. Mola also named as his successor his nephew Gasparo Morone and indeed this choice was fortuitous. Gasparo Morone Mola (1603–1669) became the greatest Italian engraver of the Baroque Age. Like his uncle, he obtained from Urban VIII the office of Chamber Engraver ad vitam and he proved worthy of it. In the age of Innocent X Pamphili (1574–1655), however, Mola’s reputation was overshadowed by the skill of Johan Jacob Kormann, a German from Augsburg, who moved to Italy in 1620 and proved himself to be an excellent engraver, creating medals of
the highest artistic quality (fig. 16).

Alexander VII Chigi (1599–1667) so loved medals that he sometimes made sketches of them and made recommendations to his engraving staff on the wording and placement of legends. One such sketch, for example, was of the foundation medal of the Portico of Saint Peter’s Square, the most famous architectural work of Gian Lorenzo Bernini (fig. 17). Alexander VII’s pontificate, like that of Paul II, was also marked by a long list of commemorative medals; his edifices, from the Portico of Saint Peter’s to the Altar of the Chair, from the Scala Regia in the Vatican to the Quirinal Palace, from the several restored churches or those built ex novo, all were immortalized in medallic art, designed not only
by Morone, but also by Gioacchino Francesco Travani (1605–1675), one of the most singular representatives of a particular sub-group of medallari (or medalists).

His particular skill was in cast medals and he created, using a drawing almost certainly done by Bernini, the famous “Jacobacci Medallion”, the finest cast medal of the Baroque Age (fig. 18). When Gaspare Morone began to suffer from arthritis, Girolamo Lucenti (1627–1698) was placed at his side and, after Morone’s death, took his place entirely, but Lucenti only obtained the official appointment as Chamber Engraver in 1675 from pope
Clement X Altieri (1590–1676). Because Lucenti was overcommitted with too much to do, Travani was then placed at his side. In the meantime, in the new mint of Rome, the Bavarian Alberto Hamerani (1620–1704) began work; he was the progenitor of a dynasty of medalists that had a virtual monopoly in the Roman mint for almost a century and a half. On September 21, 1676, Innocent XI Odescalchi (1611–1689) was elected Pope and
a few days later Girolamo Lucenti was dismissed from his post. Giovanni Martino Hamerani (1646–1704), son of Alberto and son-in-law of Cristoforo Marchionni,
owner of a private minting workshop on the Via dei Coronari (at the sign of the she-wolf), was appointed the new Chamber Engraver. Giovanni Martino Hamerani was the best of his family of engravers from an artistic point of view and his nose for business turned the workshop on the Via dei Coronari into the most important private minting establishment in Europe.

The final years of the seventeenth century saw the rebirth of a Roman school of medallic art. Among the artists of this period, Ferdinand de Saint-Urbain from Lorraine (c. 1654–1738) stands out, although in contrast to Giovanni Hamerani, his career faced obstructions at every turn. During the pontificate of Innocent XII Pignatelli (1615–1700), Giovanni Hamerani kept his advantageous position overseeing medallic art in Rome.
In his last years, he started to collect a great number of dies of earlier papal medals and soon thereafter began restriking them on a small scale, something that his sons continued to do but on a larger scale. In fact, two of his children Ermenegildo (1683–1756) and especially Beatrice (1677–1704) started working as medalists. In 1702, when a stroke struck down Giovanni, these two produced the annual medal in his place (fig. 19). The
annual medal for 1703 was engraved by Saint Urbain due both to Giovanni Hamerani’s poor health and to his children’s lesser talent. This medal was, however, the last work of Saint-Urbain in Rome. The hostility of the Hamerani family convinced him to leave the city in the late spring of 1703. Ermenegildo was duly appointed as Chamber Engraver and Master of the Irons; his younger brother Ottone (1694–1761) also soon followed the family
tradition. When Ottone was sixteen, he modeled a splendid cast medallion on the occasion of the beatification of the Jesuit Giovanni Francesco Regis (fig. 20). In the first half of the eighteenth century, the Hamerani monopoly remained unassailable. When Giacomo Mazio was appointed as Director of the Mint, however, things for the Hameranis soon changed. The Chamber Engraver lost several privileges and he became in essence just another salaried worker of the State. This situation caused, with the passing of time, the economic decline of the Hameranis. Ferdinando Hamerani (1730–1789), who disliked Mazio and was nagged by serious financial problems, tried, at one point, to sell the prestigious family’s collection of dies. This was stopped by the intervention of the Reverend Apostolic Chamber, which forbade the sale of the dies to a third party, and which tried to buy the dies at a reduced price. For inexplicable reasons, Ferdinando Hamerani in 1771 was dismissed from the mint. The election, in February 1775, of Pius VI Braschi (1717–1799) saw the re-employment of Ferdinando, but his financial situation had not improved and so he was compelled to abandon the family workshop and move into a rented house along with his wife and his sons Gioacchino and Giovanni. With the death of Ferdinando in 1789, his first-born Gioacchino (1761–1797) was appointed to the mint, although he did not enjoy good health; for this reason, he sought a coworker, finding one in Tommaso Mercandetti (1758–1821), the best engraver of his generation.

In the meantime, the Napoleonic star had begun its upward course. The French victor imposed on Pius VI the indemnity of the Treaty of Tolentino, which drained the treasury’s coffers. To add to the papal hardships, on February 15, 1798, General Berthier deposed Pius VI as temporal sovereign and, five days later, ordered the old, sick Pope to be transferred to France, to Valence, where death overtook him on August 29, 1799. Under his successor, Pius VII, Tommaso Mercandetti remained Chamber Engraver. After Mazio had regained his office as Director of the Mint, he assigned the young Giovanni Hamerani (1763–1846), son of Ferdinando and brother of Gioacchino, to engrave the annual medal.
The lack of money in the State’s coffers stopped the issue of the annual medals in 1802 and 1803, although Giovanni Hamerani had prepared the dies for 1802. The young Hamerani was, however, no great artist, especially when compared to Mercandetti, who in order to survive, had started engraving sets of medallions dedicated to “illustrious Italians”, a series that opened with a medal depicting on the obverse Pius VII, and on its reverse the Colosseum (fig. 21). This medallion was so well received that the Pope, at the end of 1806, reemployed Mercandetti at the mint (fig. 22). But it was too late. Napoleon, on April 2, 1808, annexed the Papal State to the French Empire, occupied Rome and, on July 6, 1809, arrested Pius VII at the Quirinal Palace. He was soon transferred to France as a prisoner. At the beginning of 1814, after the disastrous Russian campaign, Napoleon ordered Pius VII to be liberated from his prison in Fontainebleau and let him return to Italy. His journey was triumphal and each stage was marked by commemorative medals. Most of these were created by the brothers Giuseppe (1756–1829) and Giovanni Pasinati (1755–before 1829), whereas a French artist, Henri François Brandt (1789–1845), celebrated the liberation of Pius VII with a medal showing, on the reverse, the scene of Saint Peter freed by an angel (fig. 23). The same scene appeared on the annual medal of 1814, whose execution was assigned by Mazio to Mercandetti, only because he was the sole engraver available at that time (fig. 24). For his work, Mercandetti took his inspiration from the famous fresco by Raphael in the Vatican. Nevertheless, Mercandetti was dismissed from the mint and replaced, for the annual medal of 1815, by the Pasinati brothers. The annual medal of the following year, 1816, was assigned to Brandt. Still on the outs, Mercandetti again was passed over for the annual medals of 1818 and 1819, which were assigned to Salvatore Passamonti (d. 1852). At last in 1820, Mercandetti was given back all of his earlier commissions including many important medals for Pius VII, such as the annual medals of 1820 and 1821, the latter being the year of the artist’s death. His final annual medal, dedicated to the recognition of the mortal remains of Saint Francis of Assisi, was issued after his death in May 1821 (fig. 25).

After Mercandetti’s death, there was no one who seemed worthy of his prestigous office. For this reason, the mint director decided to set up a competition and the winners ex aequo were Giuseppe Cerbara and Giuseppe Girometti, both Roman seal makers and engravers. Both had a decent artistic stature: the former, Cerbara, had a genius for figurative medals; the latter, Girometti, was better at creating architectural scenes,
such as the medal with the impossible perspective of the Piazza del Popolo. In the meantime, the new Director of the Mint, Francesco Mazio and his son Giuseppe,
thought to use, for their new issues, the dies they had held in their possession since 1815 as well as the two hundred dies from the Barberini collection. Radical changes in medallic art took place under Pius IX Mastai Ferretti (1846–1878). In the first two years of his pontificate, until the proclamation of the Second Roman Republic (1848–1849), there was not a great deal of development. Significant changes took place when the pope came back to Rome after his voluntary exile in the Kingdom of Naples. From 1852 onwards, the technical and artistic quality of the engravers improved, thanks to a generational turnover. Nicola Cerbara, before being sent to exile because of his political involvement in the Republic of Rome, engraved what is considered the best Italian medal of the 1800s. Pius IX wanted to thank the members of the diplomatic corps who had followed him voluntarily into temporary exile in Gaeta, to escape the dangerous disorders in Rome. To show his appreciation, the Pope had struck in gold a medal of a maximum module, the largest achievable with the machinery of the time. Nicola Cerbara engraved, on the obverse, a lively portrait of the Pope and on the reverse, a magnificent view of Gaeta (fig. 26). In 1853, Giuseppe Cerbara created his last medal showing,on the obverse, the figure of Pius IX seated in an armchair in domestic quarters; the reverse shows the Porta Pia, after its restoration (fig. 27). New technical inventions permitted the creation of medals of exceptional diameters, like, for example, a medal made by Zaccagnini, commemorating the column erected in the Piazza di Spagna in honor of the Immaculate Conception (fig. 28). At 32 years, the pontificate of Pius IX was the longest in history, after that of Saint Peter himself, during which time the Papal State was a theater of changes and exceptional events including the loss of

territories and the proclamation of the Kingdom of Italy in 1861. All these events were recorded on medals, as was one of the most exceptional events of the day, the First Vatican Council in 1869. Giuseppe Bianchi’s medal commemorating the Council again went for
maximum module, featuring the interior of the Vatican Basilica, a great artistic achievement (fig. 29). Soon thereafter, medallic art throughout all of Europe went through a period of crisis, in which the work remained anchored in post-romantic styles and an inflated artistic vernacular. Although many medals of the second part of the nineteenth century were beautiful from a technical point of view, they lacked the afflato of the art. In time, however, with the resurgence of the art medal around 1900, this slumbering medium was brought back to life.

Dr. Giancarlo Alteri is Director of the Numismatic Department at the Biblioteca Apostolica Vaticana.