Pisanello, the subject of an exhibition which can be seen until 13 January at the National Gallery, was admired above any of his contemporaries in the 15th-century Italian Courts, and much praised and patronised. He was, by any definition, fashionable, a man who both made and recorded fashionable things. The exhibition includes a remarkable proportion of his surviving work: the drawings document the efforts of embroiderers, tailors, furriers, hatters, armourers, hawkers, huntsmen, dog breeders, harness makers and horse copers - the makers or minders of gear for the princely pastimes of choice. There are even a few bits of real armour which show how accurate he was. The princes themselves are here, too: in portraits on medals and in paintings of Leonello d'Este and (probably) his wife Margherita Gonzaga, a picture which is, we're told, the first Italian profile portrait of a woman. She sits composedly, if not exactly decorously (there is, in her look, a suggestion of the cheerful, self-willed schoolgirl) in front of a background of dark foliage dotted with pinks, columbines and butterflies. There are preparatory drawings for scenes of romantic chivalry: one of the now sadly battered frescos in the series illustrating Arthurian legends which he painted in the Palazzo Ducale in Mantua has been blown up as a wall covering. Even his St George (shown here), who wears a broad-brimmed straw hat and fine armour, and his St Eustace, in a fur-edged gold coat, are dressed in high fashion.
The portrait medals, ten centimetres or so in diameter and cast in bronze or lead, belong to a genre which he invented. On the obverse, the face of an Italian mercenary can be given the gravitas of an emperor on an ancient coin - and still be dressed in the height of fashion. Emblems on the reverse - an elephant, a blindfolded lynx, a virgin with tamed unicorn, a child-faced Janus looking left, right and forward, flanked by the knee-pieces of a suit of armour - gloss the portraits, sometimes simply (the virgin and unicorn are on the reverse of Cecilia Gonzaga's) but in the case of the Leonello d'Este medals so obscurely that only two have been satisfactorily explained. These medals, the smallest pieces in the exhibition, are also in a way the grandest. Because they are modelled and cast, not engraved and struck, they are larger and more broadly handled than the coins they imitate. Later medals were to be more exquisitely crafted but Pisanello's profit from a forced simplicity. His painted portraits in profile are a stage in the progression from hieratic to realistic representation - three-quarter and full-face images will very soon take over. On medals, however, profiles come naturally; Pisanello's have, despite their size, a monumental assurance.
LRB 29 November 2001 | PDF Download