If you’ve ever wanted to tour the museums of Europe to experience the history of artistic expression of ages past, this recent collaboration between IU Press and the Indiana University Art Museum is your passport and Arne R. Flaten is your tour guide. The itinerary was mapped out by the late Ulrich Middeldorf, preeminent scholar of art history and specialist of the Italian Renaissance. Rather than viewing grand-scale paintings or towering statues, this tour is on a more personal and tangible level. Yet all the characteristics and broad strokes of the Renaissance, the Enlightenment, and Romanticism through Art Deco and beyond are recognizable in the palm of your hand. Through the medium of more than 300 commemorative medals and plaquettes that make up the Ulrich Middeldorf Collection, you'll embark on a sumptuous and intimate tour of art history and evolving aesthetic styles across Europe over the course of 600 years, through Italy, France, Switzerland, Germany, Austria, the Netherlands, England, and Spain, with echoes stretching across the ocean to the United States.
You won't be traveling light on this grand tour! The collection, brought together by Ulrich Middeldorf and donated to the IU Art Museum, is beautifully represented in this lavishly illustrated and meticulously documented catalogue through life-size color photographs that bring all the fine, minute details of the objects right to your fingertips. The curious may turn the pages quickly and still appreciate the survey of this gallery of greats, but aficionados and lovers of art will want to settle into a comfortable chair before a wide desk to savor the details of what will be more like a semester abroad without ever leaving. Arne Flaten provides an informative overview of the history and functions of portrait medals and plaquettes and of their specific production methods over time. Throughout the catalogue, he brings these items to life with details about the individuals and events depicted, as well as valuable information about the more obscure artists who crafted these tokens meant to stand the test of time.
There is something about the choice of this medium that brings you across time into direct contact with the individual depicted. To strike or caste a person's image in metal conveys an inherent importance and power—or, at least, the desire for them—and expresses the longing for longevity. Small enough to be held in one’s hand, to be worn as a personal token of allegiance, to be displayed as a symbol of one's ties to the great and powerful, or to be attached to an object of importance (a sword, a shield, a book, an inkwell), there is an intimacy in these objects that immediately connects, on the personal level, the individual depicted and the viewer. Among the powerful patricians, popes, and princes, the Medicis, the various kings called Louis, the Ferdinands, Maximillians, and Napoleons, you meet Dante (catalogue object 146) and Bembo (cat. obj. 37), Galileo (cat. obj. 125) and the striking Violenta Brasavola Pigna (cat. obj. 35), or (one of my favorites) the famous Florentine bibliophile Antonio Magliabecchi (cat. obj. 133): wild and wrinkled in appearance but endowed with a prodigious memory and an unquenchable thirst for books and learning, his library of 25,000 manuscripts and 29,000 books forms the core of the Biblioteca Nazionale Centrale of Florence.
Many medals commemorate specific architectural endeavors, which themselves were the tangible evidence on a much larger scale of the power and prominence of the individuals that funded their construction (such as cat. obj. 6, 13, and 16). These medals provide snapshots of the centers of artistic activity and document the changing trends in art and architecture over time. It was common to embed these medals into the foundations of the structure being built. One such medal (cat. obj. 239, reverse) depicts a structure that actually never was built: construction was begun on the Hôtel de Ville (City Hall) in Rouen, France, in 1758, but was abandoned in 1765 when funds dried up.
Plaquettes, developed in imitation of classical gems, intaglios, or cameos, were one-sided compositions, often rectangular rather than round, designed to be affixed to an object. These mini reliefs depicted Greco-Roman mythological figures or religious scenes. Less personal in their subject matter, the diminutive size of the pieces does not diminish the degree of detail and the richness of expression and emotion. Fewer in number among Middeldorf's collection, they round out the journey, perhaps fittingly, as sober reminders of the folly of human indulgence. The pleasures of this volume should not leave you feeling guilty, though, for you will have learned so much along the way.