Friday, February 23, 2024

Perfection through Portraiture

The title page to the Illustrium Imagines.Can we become more virtuous just by looking at portraits of illustrious people? Yes, we can! This is the claim of 16th century portrait books like the Illustrium Imagines (Images of the Illustrious), published at Rome in 1517. The printer’s preface points out that the noble Romans had portraits of illustrious people “in the halls and even in the very doors” so that “by constant recollection of them, not only in thought but by sight, their minds were encouraged and supported to emulate their glory.” Portrait books offered readers an edifying gallery of portraits in the palm of their hands.

The portraits in the Illustrium Imagines are mostly based on coins – making it the earliest illustrated printed book about ancient coins. It is probably the work of Andrea Fulvio, an antiquarian and Latin teacher active in Rome.

The book’s layout is striking. Ornate woodcut frames surround and “support” coins depicting Roman emperors and members of their families. Brief biographical, historical, or antiquarian notices accompany each coin. Though mostly dedicated to Roman emperors, the Illustrium Imagines includes Byzantine and medieval rulers, but their likenesses are almost entirely imaginary and suggest that medieval coins, despite being nearer in time to Fulvio’s day, were less readily available to collectors.

[The emperor Tiberius depicted in the Illustrium Imagines and a gold aureus issued in 16 CE (image courtesy of the American Numismatic Society).]

The portrait artist (both Ugo da Carpi and Giovanni Battista Palumba have been proposed) has crammed many details into the tiny portraits: craggy wrinkles, exquisitely coiffed hair, and fierce or benign gazes. The inscriptions around edge of the coins, like the coins themselves, are sometimes genuine.

The Illustrium Imagines was widely imitated. Johann Huttich’s Imperatorum et Caesarum Vitae cum Imaginibus ad Vivam Effigiem (Lives of the Emperors and Caesars with Lifelike Portraits, published in Strasbourg in 1534; an earlier edition was printed in 1525) copied many portraits from the Illustrium Imagines, including those of Emperor Galba and his wife. Fulvio's version is below on the left, and Huttich's on the right.

Fulvio's portraits of the emperor Galba and his wife.

But Huttich also corrected many of Fulvio’s errors, added coins to which he had access, and included blanks in cases where he had no coins at hand, such as the empty space shown below where the emperor Leo's image should be. Book owners could draw in their own if they had them.

In the second half of the 16th century, the formula of coin with text was still popular. The French printer Guillaume Rouillé published his Promptuarium Iconum Insigniorum (Treasury of Portraits of Distinguished People) in 1553 (often reprinted; our copy is from 1578). Less concerned with historical accuracy – there are coins depicting Theseus and the Minotaur, for example, as seen below on the left – Rouillé’s work includes historical and contemporary people of note, like modern kings and men of letters. The images below on the right are his renditions of Renaissance luminaries Erasmus and Guillaume Budé.

Rouillé's images of Theseus and the Minotaur      Rouillé's renditions of Renaissance luminaries Erasmus and Guillaume Budé

Fulvio’s and Huttich books held great value for those interested in ancient coins. Rouillé’s has more of a general appeal. But perhaps the most important reason for the success of their books, and Rouillé’s, is the human desire to see (or imagine) what illustrious people looked like. And, of course, to make ourselves more virtuous.

In his preface to the reader, Rouillé suggests that the edifying effect of gazing upon such illustrious people could even result in the reader himself being immortalized in print: “Conduct yourself in this way,” he writes, “so that through the exceptional praises of your virtues, your likeness too might be deemed worthy of a distinguished place in future editions of this book.”

To see the Fulvio, ask for Rare N7585 .F8 1517; the Huttich, RareDG203 .H8 1534; and the Rouillé, Bryant CJ5569 . R73.

Further reading:

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

Haskell, Francis. History and Its Images: Art and the Interpretation of the Past (New Haven 1993).

Madigan, Brian. Andrea Fulvio’s Illustrium imagines and the Beginnings of Classical Archaeology (Leiden 2022).

Pelc, Milan. Illustrium Imagines: Das Porträtbuch der Renaissance (Leiden 2002)

Stahl, Alan. “Numismatics in the Renaissance.” Princeton University Library Chronicle 69.2 (2008), 217-240.

Weiss, Roberto. “The Study of Ancient Numismatics during the Renaissance.” Numismatic Chronicle 7.7 (1968), 177-187.

Published for Daniel Abosso, Subject Librarian (Baker-Berry Library).