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Fashion, Devotion and Contemplation

The Status and Functions of Italian Renaissance Plaquettes

Marika Leino

Italian Renaissance ‘plaquettes’ are often stored and displayed as a homogeneous category or genre in museum collections due to their apparently uniform small relief format. This has resulted in a scholarly literature that has concentrated largely on connoisseurship and taken the form of catalogues, thereby both responding to and propagating the myth of this classification. However, what is often forgotten, or buried deep in scattered catalogue entries, is that during the Renaissance this small relief format was regularly mass-produced and employed extensively in a variety of different contexts. Far from being a homogeneous category, plaquettes were originally viewed as many separate types of object, including pieces for personal adornment, liturgical objects, domestic artefacts, and models for architecture and painting. For the Renaissance consumer, the commission of a hat badge with a personal motto, the purchase of an off-the-shelf inkwell or the acquisition of a small relief for his study were separate concerns.
The aim of this book is to redress the balance by examining these reliefs in terms of their use, alongside broader issues regarding the status of such objects within visual, scholarly and artistic culture from the fifteenth century to the early sixteenth.


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Chapter 2 Origins and Production


The place of origin of plaquette production has long been contested in modern literature, so it is useful to begin with a brief exploration of the two main arguments, promoting the opposing claims of Donatello’s Padua and the antiquarian centre of Rome in the 1440s. Emile Molinier initiated the vogue for placing the origin of plaquette production with Donatello in the late nineteenth century.1 This vision has since then dominated the field of plaquette literature, although John Pope-Hennessy amongst others believed manufacture to have begun in Rome, with copies executed on the basis of ancient gems and cameos in the antiquarian collections of Pietro Barbo (who later became Pope Paul II, 1464–1471).2 Despite speculation, how and where the manufacture of bronze reliefs directly taken from antique gems began remains a mystery. Nevertheless, an investigation of the arguments relating to the origins of such produc- tion is essential because it has been suggested that reliefs based on ancient gems represent the first Renaissance plaquettes.3 As many of these reliefs can be linked with gems in the large and well-known collections of either Pietro Barbo in Rome, or Lorenzo de’ Medici (1449–1492) in Florence, it is possible that production commenced somehow in conjunction with these collections. The obvious place to begin an investigation is with Pietro Barbo, who began collecting before Lorenzo de’ Medici, and whose inven- tory of 1457 provides an interesting starting point for identifying designs. 1 Molinier 1886, p. xx. 2 Pope-Hennessy 1964, pp. 66–67....

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