Book Review

Cunnally, John. Images of the Illustrious: The Numismatic Presence in the Renaissance. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1999.

Reviewed by Stephen Deng | December 3, 2001

In Images of the Illustrious John Cunnally explores the Renaissance birth of numismatics, which evolved as a branch of the humanist fascination with antiquity. Starting with a marvelous story in Antoine Le Pois’ Discours sur les medalles (1579) about a bronze coin of Augustus purportedly found in Brazil, suggesting that Roman sailors had reached the New World, Cunnally observes, “Renaissance antiquarians regarded ancient coins as ubiquitous objects, constantly emerging from the earth” (3). As relatively cheap artifacts, which a wide range of humanists could own and study (they were often exchanged as gifts among nobles and humanists), ancient Greek and Roman coins provided miniature, movable versions of vastly more expensive sculpture and architecture. “A frequent topos of Renaissance humanism,” Cunnally writes, “is to compare, contrast, or identify the tiny coins with the colossal architecture of antiquity, a fancy encouraged no doubt by the frequent appearance of temples, palaces, and other public works on Roman imperial medals” (11). Coins also offered historical evidence for ancient cultural practices often displayed on the reverse side of coins. Following Francis Haskell, Cunnally argues that coin collections “predisposed the humanist writers and their readers to regard history as a series of images or ‘figures’ rather than texts,” offering yet another example demonstrating the importance of visual culture during the Renaissance (14).

Le Pois’ report about Roman coins in Brazil also points to Renaissance enchantment with Roman accomplishment. Portraiture of emperors and nobles on the coins’ obverse side, studied through the lens of contemporary theories of physiognomy, presented “authentic likenesses produced by the subjects themselves to convey their virtus to posterity” (16). In fact, a debate arose in the 1550s between Enea Vico and Sebastiano Errizio over whether Roman coins were even intended for use as currency or merely for commemorative purposes, as a celebration and preservation of virtu for future generations. For the humanist, the commemorative value greatly appreciated even while the economic value remained steady. Most coins sold for about twice their weight in their component precious metal until “nummomania,” which began to spread north from Italy, drove up prices and increased scarcity. The commemorative value was driven by the antiquarian belief that “coins and other objects of antiquity could link the antiquarian to the moral and spiritual power of the ancients, and induct him into a secret visual history not available through texts” (25). Many followed Petrarch, an early numismatist, in believing that these coins could inspire their owners or viewers to emulate the virtues of those portrayed. For this reason, coins were often used to educate princes and continued for the education of children into the twentieth century.

With the spread of nummomania, which made scarcity of such antique coins a problem, and with the more prevalent production of counterfeit coins, some humanists like Andrea Fulvio saw an opportunity in transferring coin images to paper by producing numismatic books. The books offered a cheaper version of the rapidly appreciating coins and at the same time constituted an authoritative catalog for collectors to check the validity of their own coins. Fulvio’s Illustrium imagines (1517), which was published in Rome and led to a number of other numismatic works (and numismatic bibliographies later in the sixteenth century), contained 205 coin images of various ancient luminaries, along with brief biographies emphasizing moral strengths and weaknesses, suggesting an educative purpose both for numismatists and general schoolchildren. By combining the devices of “vita and the effigies,” numismatic books contributed to the “Renaissance cult of the hero, of virtus and fama” (95). Moreover, the later inclusion of reverse coin images, which often contained iconography worth explicating in the text, linked the numismatic books to the popular emblem books. This connection is particularly evident in Johannes Sambucus’ Emblemata, which includes numerous woodcuts of Roman coins among its variety of emblems. Cunnally even argues that the layout of Fulvio’s Illustrium imagines influenced the first emblem books, which in turn influenced the later numismatic books of Vico, Erizzo, and Landi, among others (116). By investigating the numismatic presence in the Renaissance, Cunnally reestablishes an important component for understanding both Renaissance humanism and visual culture.

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