home authors books contributors books for sale links
The Library of Renaissance Symbolism
The Symbolic Literature of the Renaissance

Support the Library!
Buy your books here.

Find On Worldcat
Find On This Site


Latin: Nomisma

Authorities: Contile, Gracian

(What is this?)

Obviously, coins and medals are not books but many Renaissance books were written describing them and most categorizations of literary genres include as a valid rhetorical and symbolic genre what they call reverses of medals. It was natural enough that the renewed interest in classical culture should include collections of classical remains and this included coins. Coin collecting became a mania during the period and those with famous collections included Petrarch himself, the Medicis of course and Grolier the 16th century French collector and eponym of the literary club in New York City. Later John Evelyn, the diarist, wrote a book on coins and medals, the Numismata of 1697, and during the period the practice of sculpting and pressing art medals became a recognized art form; starting with the artist Pisanello (1395-1455), the genre continued with the great quattrocento architect Bramante and most famously Benvenuto Cellini who described how ‘at this period also I made gold medallions, upon which every lord or noble liked to have sculptured his own fancy or device’.

Coins and medals lent themselves appropriately for the expression of symbolism since the two sides could represent the signifier and the signified, the physical and the spiritual significance and with the inscription on the reverse completing the ensemble there was clearly a close relationship to the device. Henri Estienne in the section on reverses of medals in his treatise, the Art of Making Devises, makes the distinction between medals and devices as follows: “a reverse is generally but a memoriall of things which are done and past…A device is to demonstrate a rare and particular intent, not yet effected”.(Estienne 1645) Similarly, it is said that almost every Roman coin known in the Renaissance was used in some way as the basis for an emblem.

The symbolic potential of coins was exemplified by one of the first and perhaps the most influential of works on Renaissance numismatics, the Discorso sopra le medaglie antiche, a Discourse on Antique Medals, of 1559 by Sebastiano Erizzo one of the great coin collectors of the Renaissance. His book, in the spirit of the age, gives a partly allegorical and partly historical interpretation of 241 ancient coins from Augustus to Constantine. It also had a foreword by Girolamo Ruscelli, the author of an early book of devices, L’imprese illustri, or Famous Devices. The emblem writers, Paradin and Simeone validated medals as motifs for their work, the Emblemata of Sambucus contained an appendix on coins and Claude Menestrier in his life’s work in the latter part of the 17th Century, the multivolume Philosophie des Images, included a section on medals. According to Gardien, author of a piece in the Mercure Gallant of October 1678  Medals, if they were to excel, should have four qualities: nobility and elegance of the figures depicted, the use of hieroglyphs with or in place of the figures, beauty and emphasis of the wording and the proper abbreviation of certain words (Russell 1986).