MEDALLIC ART

What a marvelous field for enjoyment is opened to the collector by
medallic art! To the uninitiated any coin or medal a hundred years old
will seem instantly to suggest an almost prohibitive value. Nothing
could be more of a mistake. As a matter of fact interesting coins and
medals are within the reach of almost any one for a remarkably small
outlay. Of course tremendous prices are given for tremendous rarities,
but coin-and medal-collectors in America seem more interested in early
coined United States cents which exhibit this slight variation or that,
than in collecting for purely the beauty and the historic charm medallic
art exhibits.

Perhaps I should not quarrel with such, for this state of affairs has,
in times past, permitted my acquiring for pennies lovely medals and
marvelously beautiful coins, while they were paying out, in the same
sales, small fortunes for ugly broken-down coppers whose sole virtue
(in my sight) lay in their containing half their face-value of pure
copper!

But we need not linger over these. Let us take thought of the _real_
masterpieces of the times that were and the times that are. We must
include the remarkable productions of our contemporary medalists,
inheritors of the skill and best traditions of past masters.

In the first place, medallic art, more than any other, perhaps, nearly
always displays prominent national characteristics; so it is
comparatively easy to distinguish between the medals of various
countries.

The debt history owes to coins and medals, for the clues to the past
they have given it, is enormous. Cities and sites have been identified
by their means, dates of dynasties made certain by their evidence, and
forgotten deeds of heroes recalled through their records. A few years
ago a Sicilian peasant is said to have discovered the only specimen
extant of a rare coin of antiquity that adds certainty to our knowledge
of the site of Abacænum, whose ruins lie outside the walls of Tripi.

As Vasari observed, the art of the medalist is “a work most difficult by
artists as it holds the mean between painting and sculpture.” That it
does, truly, as any collection of early medals and the best medals of
to-day conclusively proves. At the end of the fifteenth century the
making of dies as it was then practised permitted only designs for very
low relief to be struck and of small circumference–such a size as we
see in the coins of that time. Coins like the United States double eagle
designed by Saint-Gaudens could not then have been attempted. Stamping
from the die was a process yet in its infancy and was not then able to
meet the requirements of striking the larger medal forms; hence these
were invariably cast. First a model in wax was made and embedded in some
fine molding-substance, such as earth or charcoal. Having fitted itself
perfectly into every crevice of the wax model, this mold of earth was
stiffened by a lye solution; the wax was melted out, and molten metal
was poured from a crucible into the mold which was left behind. Whether
or not replicas were made from the same mold is a question that remains
unsolved. Probably not, but instead they may have been made from the new
molds of new wax models formed in plaster molds from plaster casts of
the originals. When removed from its mold the medal was worked over with
a fine gritty substance, and often with finishing instruments. Moreover,
the edges had to be filed smooth, as the casting always left them
rough. In many cases it is apparent that engraving was resorted to in
order that outlines might be emphasized, especially in indicating hair.

In very early days medals afforded a convenient kind of portrait for
transmission to distant friends; large numbers of medals, too, were
buried under the foundations of buildings erected by a prince or a
state, as in our own time coins are placed under the corner-stone of a
public edifice. For instance, in the cellar walls of the Palazzo Venezia
in Rome, built by Pope Paul II, twenty medals of that pope were found.
Some bore on the reverse a representation of the palace, others the arms
of the pope with the legend: “Has Ædes Condidit.” They were enclosed in
an earthenware case that had to be broken in order to release the
contents. It is safe to assume that nearly all early medals bearing
representations of buildings were cast for like commemorative purposes.

It remained for the beginning of the sixteenth century to witness the
inauguration of the art of striking medals from engraved dies. In the
British Museum there is an example of a medal of Pope Julius II by
Francesco Francia the painter, who besides being a painter and a
medalist was also a goldsmith and likewise designed the font of italic
type for Aldus Manutius the printer. This medal of Pope Julius was
probably struck about the year 1506. It and the medals of Benvenuto
Cellini in the Museo Nazionali in Florence (which latter medals are
perhaps the finest examples of struck medals of the period, though by no
means the most artistic) occasionally turn up in public sales. They, of
course, command top-notch prices, although a truly fine gold coin from
Cellini’s dies, a coin of undoubted authenticity, was purchased in
London by the author for two pounds, and from a dealer of international
reputation.

When Francia and Cellini were engraving their dies the new method was
still confined to medals of smaller circumference, for all the larger
ones as yet continued to be cast, even down to the end of the sixteenth
century; and of course casting is a method in very general use to-day.
The modern process of reducing models by means of a clever mechanical
instrument enables the medalist to work out the relief without size
restrictions, from which the reduced size desired for the medal is
finally obtained with absolute fidelity. In fact, modern medals are
often produced in various sizes by an ingenious mechanical process,
without any loss in effect from the same original. Roty’s medal for the
French Alpine Club is such an example.

One may see that the change from casting to striking medals greatly
affected the art of the medalist. The preparation of the model for
casting required a technique almost identical with that of the sculptor
preparing for a bronze statue, the sculptor in marble of course having
to take into account further matters incident to the substance he was
finally to work in. On the other hand, the die-engraver’s art required a
totally different technique, a skill akin to the requirements of
gem-engraving and also to the craft of a goldsmith. When cast medals
became reduced to the size of struck medals, the reduction required
finer workmanship in the original modeling and in the finishing. This
again brought the medalist nearer the goldsmith. Accordingly, we find
Francia, Cellini, Valerio Belli, Cesati, Annibale Fontana, Leone Leoni,
and others at once goldsmiths or gem-engravers and medalists.

It is interesting to visit some museum collection and compare a _cast_
medal by Pisano with a _struck_ medal by Cellini, or with one by
Bernardi, in order to note their differences. Very often the extreme
fineness in finish of early Italian medals makes them appear at first
sight struck when in reality they have been cast. This is especially
noticeable in the medals of Pastorino of Siena, who very nearly brought
medallic portraiture to its perfection. His manner is full of delicacy
and beauty, but it just misses the mark in requisite vigor.

There are various medals intimately connected with American history,
though many of them have been executed by alien artists. However, with
the example set by Augustus Saint-Gaudens, Frederick Mac Monnies, Victor
D. Brenner, Paul Manship, James Earle Fraser, John Flanagan, and others,
it is to be hoped that more of our artists will turn to this field and
that more encouragement, public and private, will be given in it. We
might well emulate the attention that has been given to the subject in
France.

Fine medals and coins should be tenderly treated. Every scratch mars
their beauty. Each should be kept protected from abrasion. It is
vandalism to subject a medal or coin to an unskilled scouring or
scraping. The early Italians were greatly interested in medallic art and
appreciated beautiful medals as perhaps no other people has ever done.
There are, of course, those soulless persons who find in a medal or an
uncurrent coin only a suggestion of something that might once have been
spent but which cannot be now, and who, with a shrug, refuse to share
the enthusiast’s pleasure. The collector must not hope to win such to
the interest with which medallic art is invested.

In Beau Brummel’s time not to know all about gem-engraving, the intaglio
and the cameo, was thought to be devoid of one of the most important
cultural attributes of every eighteenth-century gentleman. Those were
the picturesque days of post-riders and sealing-wax, days that scarcely
anticipated the letter-writing necessities of our own time, when we can
scarcely stop to put on the stamp and one lick of the flap has taken the
place of the perfumed elegance of yesterday’s wafer, leisurely impressed
with some exquisite seal.

It was only natural then that the seal should be a factor in the
diversions of polite society while possessing a utility not yet
exterminated by demands on man’s time. Not only did every gentleman have
a seal ring, but often he had several, and sometimes many for different
occasions. Frequently these seals or _sigilii_, as the Latins called
them, were engraved with devices directly upon metal. However, the far
more popular method was that which is one of our chief heritages from
antiquity–engraving on gems or on semi-precious stones by means of the
intaglio process. _Intaglio_, derived from the Italian _intagliere_ (to
cut into), means _incised_ engraving, as opposed to the _cameo_ process,
or engraving _in relief_. Cameo-engraving is a later art, as generally
practised, and cannot compare with that of intaglio-engraving, with
which it has nothing in common but its subject and the material on which
it is cut. An intaglio is the product of a reverse and much more
difficult process than that by which the cameo is evolved. An impression
from a well-cut intaglio leaves a very fine design in relief, and it is
marvelous to behold the results obtained by the infinite pains of
gem-engravers. In our own day the masters of the art can be counted on
the fingers of one hand, so greatly has the demand for work of the sort
diminished. Indeed, there is almost no call for it in America. Probably
this is due to the fact that so few people really either understand the
importance of the subject, the history of glyptic art, or realize the
beauty of the fine works of the sort.

It should be borne in mind that although engraved gems, unlike Greek
painted vases, are chiefly valuable as handmaids to history in
preserving to us contemporary portraits of their times, they still make
known to us, as Collingnon says, a whole phase of Greek thought that was
developed in the Macedonian epoch.

The Greeks never greatly favored the Egyptian scarab beetle-form for
engraved gems and later introduced the oval, which is known as the
scaraboid form, especially popular from 600 B.C. to 500 B.C., in the
Archaic Period. With primitive engraved gems and scarabs (2500 B.C. to
900 B.C.) as well as with later ones, the archæologist has to move
cautiously, since imitations were manufactured at a very early time. The
researches in Crete by Arthur Evans brought to light great numbers of
engraved seals and stones that are unquestionably of remote antiquity,
and, by the form of their engraved characters, indicate the existence of
a system of writing of a far earlier date than had been assigned to
calligraphy on Greek soil. The most interesting examples of this class
were found in the Palace of Minos at Cnossos, and were used for sealing
documents in the Cretan script, while others were used in sealing
storage vessels. That there is nothing new under the sun seems again to
have been demonstrated in the discovery at Mycenæ of a massive engraved
signet portraying three ladies in modern-looking divided skirts, a
subject quite as up-to-date as the beflounced corseted, frilled, and
bonneted ladies that the Cretan frescos disclosed a few years ago, to
the bewilderment of the Parisian dressmakers.

However, the intaglii which typically mark the early Mycenæan period are
the Island Stones (900 B.C. to 600 B.C.), a name given to a lenticular
stone of steatite, rock crystal, carnelian, or chalcedony, such stones
being chiefly found in the Greek islands and in the Mediterranean
region, where Mycenæan remains are to be found. The decorative devices
employed were nearly always animals, such as the lion, deer, bull, goat,
singly or quasi-heraldically arranged in pairs, facing in or facing out.
Their artistic merit was often of a high order, though this excellence
was somewhat over-balanced by the figures being arranged to occupy the
entire area of a gem’s surface. As Dr. Walters of the British Museum
observed, “this _horror vacui_, or dread of leaving a vacant space, was
characteristic of Greek artists at all periods.”

The Transitional Period proper, from 500 B.C. to 450 B.C., produced very
fine gems with genre subjects. These were probably influenced somewhat
by the freedom acquired by the Greek vase-painters, whose art reached
its perfection in that era. From thence onward no subject seems to have
daunted the gem-engraver who reproduced the most intricate details and
reduced to miniature marvelously well the beauties of those groups of
colossal statuary that particularly inspired him, subjects from
paintings or his own devices, or figures, heads and portraits of his
contemporaries, men, women and children–portraits which must have been
possessed of the virtue of likenesses to an extraordinary degree, else
they would not for centuries have continued in such favor. As Renton
says, “we are forcefully reminded of the extreme durability of engraved
gems when we reflect that some at the present time contained in our
museums and collections have been buried in tombs or in the earth;
others have been thrown upon the shore, washed by the sea or exposed to
fire, pillage, and other dangers, but still appearing with the engraving
in some instances as clear, sharp, and defined as it was the day they
left the artist’s hands.” It is this careful and peculiar finish to the
work that distinguishes the truly antique gems from the spurious.

We have little reliable data concerning the artists in glyptic art from
the primitive period represented by the Samian Theodorus, who made the
famous ring for Polycrates, to the period of the art’s perfection, 450
B.C. to around 400 B.C. To the latter period belongs, by right of his
excellence, Pyrgoteles, who engraved the seals of Alexander.

The least doubtful names, perhaps, are those of Agathopous, Apollonides,
Aspasios, Athēniōn, Boēthos, Dexamenos, Dioskouridēs, Epitynchanos,
Hērakleides, Hērophilos, Hyllos, Mykon, Nikandrus, Onēsus, Pamphilos,
Prōtarchos, Solōn, and Teukrus, tedious to catalogue perhaps, still a
small number out of proportion to the vast quantity of intaglii that
have been recovered from the past. We are sure of Dioskourides under
Augustus, but even in antiquity names were forged upon gems at a later
date or by an alien hand, such forgeries being especially common from
the time of the Renaissance on. Indeed, it became quite as much the
fashion to mutilate antique gems by adding bogus signatures as it did
later to imitate the glyptic art of the ancients and attempt to pawn off
forgeries and fabrications on the enthusiastic but indiscriminating. Of
this the reader will find further mention in the chapter on Fraudulent
Art, which follows. In ancient times intaglii were also imitated in
glass and much affected by the poorer classes, so early had the idea of
cheap imitation jewelry taken root.

However, such work was obviously false, while there have been some very
clever imitations engraved on very fine gems. The famous Poniatowski
Collection was the greatest of the gigantic frauds of the sort
perpetrated. In the happier days of the First Empire the patronage of
the Empress Josephine had brought appreciation of the glyptic art to a
pinnacle, whence it fell from mere discouragement by the exposition of
the Poniatowski Collection fraud in a London market. These gems might
best be described as regular pictures in stone and portraits of all the
celebrated men of antiquity, each blandly “authenticated” with his
proper name and the artist’s signature! No wonder collectors and
amateurs turned, frightened, to scan their own collections. If such
traffic was fostered by dealers of their time, what recourse had they
outside careful and arduous scholarship? Still, minute rudimentary
knowledge of gem-engraving and its chronological phases should at once
have set them at ease. The amateur of to-day knows that a signed gem is
an exception to the rule and rests secure in the knowledge.

Although the various periods of Greek glyptic art have been indicated,
it may be helpful to repeat them here in tabulated form, following
mainly Walter’s scheme of classification.

I Prehistoric Period–2500 to 900 B.C. Primitive seal stones,
imported cylinders.

II Early Period–900 to 600 B.C. Island gems. Mycenæan era.

III Archaic Period–600 to 500 B.C. Scaraboids supersede scarabs.

IV Transitional Period–500 to 450 B.C. Finely engraved gems and
prevalence of genre subjects.

V Culminating Period–450 to 400 B.C. Perfection in engraved gems.

Greek gems of the latest period are rare in comparison with those of
periods preceding and following.

That Greek influence reached Etruria has been shown by full evidence in
many ways, and we have large numbers of engraved gems from Etruscan
tombs of the fifth and fourth centuries, these intaglii having for their
subjects most commonly incidents from legends of the Greek heroes. It is
well to note that deities are rarely portrayed on Etruscan gems, whose
form was usually that of the scarab. The fourth century finds their
workmanship greatly deteriorating.

The Romans were very fond of engraved gems and practised the glyptic art
from early times. When Constantine the Great removed the seat of the
Roman Empire to Constantinople in 329 A.D. this art, like the other
arts, followed him thither, of course; but for over a thousand years
succeeding the intaglii produced seldom attained great excellence and
the taste for engraved gems followed other esthetic tendencies into the
obscure retirement of the dark ages. In fact, the glyptic art almost
became extinct, but with the expulsion of the Greeks from Constantinople
by Mahomet in 1453 A.D. it found itself again on Italian soil,
thereafter to grow strong and flourish from the root it had taken.

Just as the ecclesiastics converted Greek painted vases to altar use and
sculptured sarcophagi into containers of holy water, they now turned
their attention to engraved gems and rescued these baubles from the
reproach of being mere vanities by clothing their subjects with
Christian legends. Probably to this fact we owe the preservation of some
of our finest examples. It was a difficult task to rechristen the gems
and endow them with a sacred character quite out of keeping with their
conception. However, the early church was ingenious and gave to Jupiter
with his eagle the significance of St. John the Evangelist, while
Melpomene did very well for Salome with John the Baptist’s head.
However, gem-engravers arose to help truth out with veritable subjects,
and the church became a powerful patron of the art of gem-engraving.
Prelates and princes hastened to have their fancies carried out in
intaglii, until the cinquecento produced a host of clever engravers
capable of catering to any taste or to any fad or fancy. About this time
the forms of intaglii were greatly enlarged.

Lorenzo de’ Medici and his successors were munificent patrons of the
gem-engraver, and not only formed splendid collections of intaglii but
encouraged engravers in Florence, and by the middle of the fifteenth
century a graceful classic style had been revived. Giovanni, surnamed
Della Corniole, was one of the most excellent artists of the time, and
in his everlastingly entertaining “Memoirs” Benvenuto Cellini speaks of
Micheletto, who was “very clever at engraving carnelians, an old man and
of great celebrity.” This was the engraver whom Vasari calls by the
affectionate diminutive “Michelino,” but Cellini himself later calls him
“Michele.”

The gem-engravers of the sixteenth century were prolific, and their work
appealed immensely to the French taste. Francis I was a liberal patron
of the glyptic art and had at his court the renowned gem-engraver,
Matteo del Nassaro of Verona. Probably the first French gem-engraver of
note was Julien de Fontenay, sometimes known as Coldore, who executed
an intaglio portrait of Henry IV, and was later invited to England by
Queen Elizabeth. Subsequently a taste for the art developed in England,
although the culmination of encouragement was not reached until the
middle of the eighteenth century, when collecting engraved gems became a
mania with many and good examples brought huge prices. Up to the
beginning of the nineteenth century the influence of classic designs
obtained. King George III was a liberal patron of gem-engravers, and to
the foresight of the Duke of Devonshire and Marlborough the world owes
the preservation of some of the finest examples extant of intaglii of
any time.

The works of such classicists as Marchant, who studied in Rome many
years, and of his successor, Burch, a Royal Academician, extending over
a period of years from 1750 to 1815 or thereabouts, are well worth
while, and would reveal an excellence of execution unsurpassed. Then
followed such men as Weigall, Bragg, Grew, and in our own day the
Rentons, who engraved intaglii for members of the royal family.

Since the heraldic style has followed the classic, interest in the art
of intaglio-engraving has waned tremendously and can be brought back
only by the revival of that classic spirit which, after all, underlies
everything that is best the world over, in art or in literature.

The substances employed by the gem-engravers are amethyst, hyacinth,
agate, carnelian, chalcedony, crystal, and other precious gems. In our
own day almost every stone is employed. The lapidary must not be
confused with the gem-engraver. The first prepares the stone to receive
the work of the second, just as the wood-sawyer prepares the material
for the carpenter, or the man at the quarry the block for the sculptor.
Pliny described at some length the process of gem-engraving in his day.
As to the ancient mode of engraving gems, in which the drill wheel and
diamond point were used, the use of the wheel is especially noticeable
in the lenticular Island gems; it was a small bronze disk set on a shaft
of metal worked like the drill with a bow and tube of emery powder; its
purpose was for cutting lines to connect the points made by the drill,
or else for broad, sunken surfaces. The diamond point, on the other
hand, was used like a pencil, with the hand alone; it resembles the
modern glass-cutting diamond and was employed for giving an artistic
finish to the design, which could of course be best done with the free
hand. The use of this tool required great technical skill, the results
of which may clearly be seen on some gems of the best period.

In passing it is interesting to note the devices to which makers of
fraudulent “antique” intaglii have been known to resort. As an instance,
that misty dullness of the stone which only age is supposed to give is
produced in Italy by forcing the smaller engraved gems down the
unwilling gullets of defenceless turkeys, whereupon the action of the
gastric juice and the gritty substances in the gizzard outdo the devices
of Time himself, as the funeral of the unhappy bird reveals to the
dissecting and dishonest fabricator.