The man whose distinctive profile adorns the one decorated side of this medal is identified by a Latin inscription that runs around the edge: Franciscus I Francorum Rex – 'Francis I, King of the French'.
It is a noble image. In very low relief, the Florentine goldsmith and sculptor Benvenuto Cellini superbly evokes this monarch's individuality and authority: look at the long, slightly bent nose, the large ear, the confident, penetrating gaze.
Francis's impressive beard distinguishes him further. It is said that Henry VIII of England grew his own facial hair out of rivalry with his French counterpart. With his beard, sceptre (here topped by a fleur-de-lys) and laurel wreath, Francis resembles ancient representations of the Greek king of the Gods, Zeus.
Cellini worked in the service of Francis I from 1537 until 1545, and it was under his patronage in Paris that he made his first sculptures. Arguably his most remarkable individual work dates from this time: a salt cellar made of gold, ebony and enamel, now in the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna. This lavish item of tableware, left, is a sculptural group in miniature. Two figures, a male and a female, recline upon an ornate base. She is the goddess of earth, he is Neptune, god of the sea. Below them are carved personifications of the times of the day and the four winds, and beside them sit two beautifully wrought receptacles: a miniature temple to house earth's peppercorns, and a boat to carry Neptune's salt.
But it is for his autobiography, written between 1558 and 1562, that Cellini is probably best known today. This is a fascinating, brilliantly entertaining document. A self-aggrandising account of a life that covered much of the sixteenth century, it gives unique insights into the artistic and political life of the age, and vividly introduces the reader to some of the most significant figures – artists and patrons – of the Renaissance. Cellini received the encouragement of Michelangelo, he worked for Cosimo de' Medici and the Popes Clement VII and Paul III, as well as Francis I.
Particularly interesting in regard to this medal is the influence that Cellini appears to have exerted upon Titian. The great Venetian painter portrayed Francis three times, yet never actually set eyes upon the man himself. It has been suggested that for the painting of Francis on the left, now in the Louvre, Titian looked to Cellini's portrait medals of the king.
Ex coll. Peter Spiro, bt Schulman sale 5.vi.1961, lot 891, ex coll. J van Kluyk, bt Schulman sale 19.xii.1938, lot 35.
Associated department: Coins and Medals