Cast bronze medal of Leonello d'Este, Marchese of Ferrara, by Pisanello
© The Trustees of the British Museum
Ferrara, Italy, around AD 1441
The little lion of Ferrara
Leonello d'Este (1407-50) was born into the aristocratic ruling family of Ferrara, a small but wealthy city-state in northern Italy. However, he was an illegitimate son, and had to justify his power by his individual virtues - his wisdom, his sense of justice, his role as a peace-keeper and so on - rather than merely his parentage. He turned to Pisanello (about 1395-1455), probably the most famous Italian painter of his generation, with long connections to the Ferrarese court. He commissioned him to make a series of portrait medals, which would not only preserve his fame in the future, but also proclaim his strength as a ruler to his subjects.
Leonello was an enthusiastic collector of ancient Greek and Roman coins, and Pisanello designed the medal with this knowledge of the art of antiquity in mind. He subtly idealized the portrait to suggest a similarity to the heads of Hercules wearing his lion-skin that appear on the coins of Alexander the Great (reigned 336-323 BC). These images were believed to be portraits of Alexander himself. Leonello's curly hair takes the place of the lion-skin and it has been modelled rather like a lion's mane, a reference to Leonello's kingly nature (the lion is the king of beasts) and a play on his name, which translates from Italian as 'little lion'.
Diameter: 68 mm
Object reg. no: CM G3,FER.M.25
Department of Coins & Medals