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Leonello d'Este

  • Object:


  • Place of origin:

    Verona (made)

  • Date:

    1444 (dated)

  • Artist/Maker:

    Pisanello (maker)

  • Materials and Techniques:

    Cast bronze

  • Credit Line:

    Salting Bequest

  • Museum number:


  • Gallery location:

    Medieval & Renaissance, Room 64, The Wolfson Gallery, case 14

The singing lion on the reverse of this medal is a punning allusion to the patron’s name, Leonello or ‘little lion’. Leonello d'Este (1407-1450) received early training as a soldier and went on to become marquis of Ferrara, his reputation was as one of the most cultivated princes of his time presiding over a court of intense intellectual activity.
Cast in bronze or lead, the Renaissance portrait medal commemorated individuals or events. They were used as gifts and mementoes and were inspired by Roman coins, with their portraits of rulers and allegorical representations on the reverse, excavated all over Italy and eagerly collected by humanists such as Leonello.

Pisanello established the format for the portrait medal and produced superb examples for the d’Este family.
Antonio Pisano (b.ca. 1395; d. 1455) was born in Pisa or Verona, by 1395. He was an Italian painter, draughtsman and medallist. His richly decorative frescoes, courtly and elegant painted portraits and highly original portrait medals made him one of the most popular artists of the day. He travelled extensively and worked for several Italian courts, at Mantua, Ferrara, Pavia, Milan and Naples. Many of his paintings have been lost or damaged, making a reconstruction of his career difficult. He is now better known as a medallist.
Two-sided Renaissance portrait medals were a form developed by Pisanello, and commemorated individuals or events and functioned as gifts and mementoes. They were inspired by the Roman coins, with their portraits of rulers and allegorical representations on the reverse, excavated all over Italy and eagerly collected by humanist scholars.

Physical description

Medal in bronze of Leonello d'Este (1407-1450).
Obverse; bust to left of Leonello in an embroidered tunic, and the inscription, 'GE R AR / LEONELLVS MARCHIO / ESTENSIS / D FERRARIE REGIE ET MVTINE.'
Reverse; in a rocky landscape, a lion turned to the right regards a scroll of music shown to him by a winged cupid. Behind a square pillar bearing the device of a mast and sail and the date 'MCCCCXLIIII', and on the left an eagle seated on a withered branch, 'OPVS PISANI PICTORIS'.

Place of Origin

Verona (made)


1444 (dated)


Pisanello (maker)

Materials and Techniques

Cast bronze

Marks and inscriptions

'GE[ner]R[egis] AR[agonum]
Son-in-law of the king of Aragon
Leonello Marquess d'Este
Lord of Ferrara, Reggio, and Modena

'. M. / CCCC / XLIIII /
Work of Pisano the painter


Diameter: 103 mm, Thickness: 1.5 cm, Weight: 0.36 kg

Object history note

The obverse of this medal by Pisanello is a beautifully modelled profile bust of Leonello d'Este (1407-50). As Marquise of Ferrara (1441-1450), one of the wealthiest city-states in Northern Italy, he controlled a large area including Modena, Parma and Reggio. The Este family were one of the oldest families of noble lineage in Tuscany, ruling continually from 1240 to 1598, and they earned a reputation as important patrons of the arts and sciences during the 15th Century. This era of cultural renown started during the reign of Leonello's father, Niccolò III (1393-1441), who initiated the humanist court in which Leonello was brought up and educated. Despite being the bastard son of Niccolo III and a Sienese lady, Stella dell'Assassino, Leonello was legitimated by Pope Martin V in 1429, and when Niccolo III married for a 3rd time in 1431, the marriage contract stipulated that he would inherit the title even if they now had sons. Despite this he felt the need to justify his ruling status by actively promoting his reputation for the courtly virtues of the time.

Although he received early training as a soldier, Leonello's reputation was as one of the most cultivated princes of his time presiding over a court of intense intillectual activity. He was taught by the celebrated humanist Guarino of Verona, who was brought to Ferrara in 1429. The flowering of Ferraese art and literature really began with Leonello's relatively brief reign as marquis. He was renowned for being a wise and fair-handed man, and a peacekeeper. Ferrara was unique amongst the warring north-Italian city-states in appearing to maintain a neutral political position during this period, with its long established dynasty ruling on behalf of the pope.

Antonio di Puccio (Pisano) called Pisanello (c.1394-1455) was one of the most famous Italian artists of his generation. Generally credited with the invention of the portrait medal in its true Renaissance form in the 1430’s, he was arguably also its greatest exponent. Born to a Pisan father, his mother was from Verona where he grew up. This was his own and his family’s official residence for the rest of his life, and his base before he left for Mantua in 1422. Throughout his career he resided in many different courts and cities as patronage dictated, principally the courts of Ferrara, Naples and Mantua. He worked in Mantua during parts of the 1420’s for both Lodovico Gonzaga, and Filippo Maria Visconti, duke of Milan.

There are few surviving works and documents relating to his early career and artistic development. Trained in Northern Italy, his paintings combined elements of Tuscan and International Gothic style. Pisanello’s painting was strongly influenced by Gentile da Fabriano and evidence suggests he was a pupil. There are strong stylistic similarities with the painter Stefano da Verona. There is evidence Pisanello received a humanist education, and the intellectual preoccupations of the courts in which he worked would have ensured his familiarity with the new art and ideas of the time looking back to the ancients, especially true in Leonello d’Este’s humanist court in Ferrara. He is known to have possessed a collection of antique coins, and would almost certainly have studied the remains of ancient sculpture whilst in Rome in the 1430’s.

A distinguished painter, few attributed works of his remain apart from the medals. His earliest surviving work is the graceful Annunciation fresco of 1426 that forms part of the funerary monument to Niccolò Brenzoni in San Fermo Maggiore, Verona. Previous to this, before 1419, he worked either with or subsequent to Gentile da Fabriano in Venice on the repainting, in colour, of a series of frescoed narratives at the Ducal Palace. Pisanello was in Rome and a member of Pope Eugenius IV’s household by 1431. Here he continued a fresco cycle, in the papal basilica of San Giovanni in Laterano, left unfinished by Gentile da Fabriano on his death in 1427. Depicting scenes from the life of John the Baptist and monochrome images of Prophets suggesting classical statuary in the manner of Mantegna, they were destroyed during a remodelling of the church in 1646. c. 1434-8 Pisanello completed a group of frescoes in the Pellegrini chapel in the church of San’Anastasia, Verona, including Saint George and the princess of Silena, his most famous surviving work. The chivalric frescoe cycle he painted in the ducal palace in Mantua - Scenes of War and Chivalry, c.1447, was discovered recently. A portrait painter of repute before the invention of the medal, his panel painting Portrait of an Este Princess, Ginevre d’Este c. 1433-34 survives. In 1441 Pisanello entered into a competition with Jacopo Bellini for a portrait of her brother, Leonello d’Este, understood to be the portrait hanging in the Accademia Carrara in Bergamo.

Pisanello began making medals the 1430’s, the first surviving example being his portrait medal of the last Byzantine Emperor John VIII Palaeologus, c.1438-43. In 1438 he was present for his arrival in Ferrara for the Church Council. This is arguably the very first Renaissance portrait medal, commissioned by Leonello. Lionello d’Este and the Ferrara court was the most enthusiastic of his patrons for medals, with five small uniform pieces of probably 1443 and this large medal to commemorate his marriage in 1444. He generally made very few specimens of each medal, which were widely admired and copied in lead. Pisanello drew the designs for his medals before making models of them in wax or clay for casting. The conventional portrait type in Pisanello’s medals is a profile, based on a life study of the sitter. Many carefully observed drawings survive by Pisanello and his workshop. One of his methods was to produce several finished drawings on the same theme, usually animals from life. He referred to this stock of ‘pattern’ drawings when working in other medium. These delicate and crisp drawings of animals were frequently used in his paintings and medals. Two Italian painters of the 14th century he would have come into contact with, Michelino da Besozzo and Giovannibo de’ Grassi, were both noted painters of animals and this tradition no doubt influenced him. The accurately and confidently modelled lion on the obverse of this medal reflects this.

Historical significance: This medal is one of the earlies two-sided portait medals of the Renaissance and was realised in several examples. Whilst some contemporary portrait medals by Pisanello, for instance that of Ludovico Gonzaga (1412-78), tended to have a reverse emphasising the subject's military prowess (Ludovico is shown on horseback in display armour), his medals for Leonello d'Este emphasise very different virtues using a more subtle visual language peculiar to the Este humanist court. Of the five early portrait medals made for Leonello by Pisanello, several are obscure in the extreme. The reverse of this particular medal, depicting love in the form of cupid teaching a lion (Leonello) to sing, is more accessable, cast to commemorate the second prestigious marriage of Leonello d'Este to Maria of Aragon. This was a political alliance that joined the Este with the powerful Alphonso V of Aragon, King of Naples and father of the illegitimate Maria. He is probably represented by the eagle on a dried branch up in the left hand corner, for another depiction of an eagel on a branch, this time donating its prey to other birds, is used by Pisanello for the reverse of his largest portrait medal of Alphonso as an allegory of his benevolence. Therefore here it could represent Alphonso again, and his benevolence in bestowing his daughter and his kinship on Pisanello. Other interpretations recognise the eagle as simply an Este emblem, a symbol of Este pride like the lion and peacock, or even a christian symbol. Leonello would have hoped a marriage alliance with such a powerful ally would protect Ferrara from Venice. The Obverse legend celebrates the political acomplishments of this marriage, which was celebrated over 2 weeks of festivities. These included a St George play, a joust, and a ritualised hunt with wild animals released into the garden of the Estense villa. The festivities also included a great deal of music as was Leonello's wont.

The use of a musical allegory by Pisanello would have raised the status of the medal as artform (and thus the artist), as music was a more highly valued art form in the humanist court presided over by Leonello, who was a passionate music lover and a good musician himself. The Este festina lente(proceed cautiously) device of a sail, attached to a column (Fortitude), had already been used as the reverse of one of his earlier small portrait medals, and is situated above the lions head confirming it's identity as Leonello. The Leonello/Leoncello(young lion) pun is comlementary as well as humourous. King of the beasts on a level with the eagle (Alphonso), the lion represents the regal qualities of magnanimity, strength and generosity, but they were also regarded as symbols of animal savagery which would liken the action of Cupid teaching the lion to sing to the classical myth of Orpheus.

On the Obverse Pisanello has idealised and distorted Leonello's apperance to subtly convey extra meaning in the image and allude to his virtues as a ruler. The stylised treatment of the hair recollects a profile of Alexander the Great with the Hercules motif of a lion-skin over the head as on a greek coin, a representation of Alexander familiar to the Este court, emphasising his manly and leonine qualities, and of course it is a play on his name as reflected in the reverse. Plutarch had described Alexander as having a leonine appearance. Association with this great leader and his remarkable portrait strategy also flattered Pisanello and Leonello simultaneously, as according to ancient texts such as Pliny the Elder's Natural History, Alexander would only allow the sculptor Lyssipus and the painter Apelles to represent him. Only they were talented enough to create the flattering but realistic likeness he needed to perpetuate his fame, whilst augmenting it by association with their skill.

Historical context note

Cast in bronze or lead, the Renaissance portrait medal commemorated individuals or events. They were used as gifts and mementoes and were inspired by Roman coins, with their portraits of rulers and allegorical representations on the reverse, excavated all over Italy and eagerly collected by humanists such as Leonello. The large commemorative gold medals of Emperors Constantine and Heraclius, aquired in 1402 by Jean de France, Duc du Berry, were a precedent for the large scale of the earliest Renaissance portrait medals. These had a strong appeal for patrons already under the influence of Petrarchian learning and values, and provided a durable, portable and sophisticated portrait that could disseminate their reputation. Pisanello combined clarity of form and ingenious composition within the unusual space of the roundel. His reverses were highly skilled bronze depiction of an event in the life of the sitter, or witty or intellectual allegories or impresa emphasising their virtues. These combined a mixture of the prevalent chivalric Gothic imagery adopted by North Italian courts in the fourteenth and early fifteent century, and a new visual culture based on the antique texts of the new classical learning, not yet the standardised visual language of the later Renaissance based on antiquities. Confident interpretation of these reverses is therefore sometimes difficult, and indeed some were probably only intended to be understood by court intimates.

Descriptive line

Medal, bronze, of Leonello d'Este (1407-1450), by Pisanello, Italy (Verona), dated 1444

Bibliographic References (Citation, Note/Abstract, NAL no)

Hill, G.F. A corpus of Italian medals of the Renaissance before Cellini [London: Trustees of the British Museum, 1930]
Scher, Stephen K, The Currency of fame: portrait medals of the Renaissance, New York, National Gallery of Art (U.S.), Frick Collection., 1994
Pisanello: le Peintre aux sept vertus exh. cat. musée du Louvre, Paris 6 mai-5 août 1996 [Paris : Réunion des musées nationaux, 1996]
Syson, Luke and Gordon, Dillian.Pisanello: Painter to the Renaissance Court, London : National Gallery Co., 2001
Syson, Luke and Thornton, Dora Objects of Virtue: Art in Renaissance Italy [London: The British Museum Press, 2001], pp.108-25
Waddington, Raymond B., 'Pisanello's Paragoni' in Scher, Stephen K., ed. Perspectives on the Renaissance Medal, [New York: Garland Publishing/The American Numismatic Society, 2000] pp. 27-45
'Salting Bequest (A. 70 to A. 1029-1910) / Murray Bequest (A. 1030 to A. 1096-1910)'. In: List of Works of Art Acquired by the Victoria and Albert Museum (Department of Architecture and Sculpture). London: Printed under the Authority of his Majesty's Stationery Office, by Eyre and Spottiswoode, Limited, East Harding Street, EC, p. 17





Subjects depicted

Pillars; Portraits; Roman numerals; Sails; Lions; Landscapes; Scrolls; Masts; Eagles; Putti; Music


Sculpture; Coins & Medals; Portraits


Sculpture Collection

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