Skip to main content Accessibility help
  • Print publication year: 2020
  • Online publication date: February 2020

Introduction - Making and Unmaking Sculpture in Fifteenth-Century Italy


Around 1460, the artist Antonio Averlino (1400–69), better known to us by his adopted pseudonym Filarete (Greek for “lover of virtue”), produced a self-portrait medal, two copies of which survive (Fig. 1). The medal may be physically diminutive (7.9 × 6.7 cm), but its historical value is immense. Indeed, in this single object, it is possible to discern any number of themes that run, to varying degrees, through the period’s sculpture. By producing a medal, Filarete knowingly took up a format that was then something of a novelty. Decades earlier, Filarete himself, as well as Pisanello (ca. 1394–1455), produced some of the first examples of the type.1 Being made of bronze, moreover, the medal reflects a growing appetite, within certain cultural spheres, for a material prized because of its associations with antiquity. And it provides a link to Filarete’s largest sculptural undertaking, the doors for St. Peter’s in Rome (1433–45), which originally measured around twenty-two-feet tall and demonstrate the vastly different scales at which sculptors worked. To model and cast the medal, and earlier the doors, Filarete drew upon skills that he learned during his training as a goldsmith and work as a bronze caster; but just as significantly he signed the medal “architectus” (a profession that had, at the time of the medal’s manufacture, come increasingly to preoccupy him), alerting us to another common reality of fifteenth-century practice: the hybrid career. And then there is the geographic itinerary that had led Filarete, a Florentine by birth, to the Sforza court in Milan, where he had been for about a decade before fashioning the medal. Earlier commissions in Rome, Rimini, Todi, Mantua, and Venice, among other cities, attest to a career spent, like many of Filarete’s peers, relentlessly on the move.2