by Michael Riddick
The art historical examination of Renaissance plaquettes naturally lends itself to certain vacuums in our understanding of them, particularly as it regards their impetus for creation and in many cases, who authored them. A variety of sobriquets are touted for those responsible for a particular style or series of reliefs. Names like the Coriolanus Master, Master of the Cartouches or Master of the Orpheus Legend spring-to-mind. However, none are perhaps so aptly due a proper recognition as that of the misfortunately construed Pseudo-Fra Antonio da Brescia.
Four reliefs are given to this master (Fig. 01): An Allegory of Virtue and Vice, Apollo and the serpent Python, Abundance and a Satyr and a Sleeping Cupid.
Since the inception of plaquettes as an art historical category, this group of four reliefs have long been associated, albeit erroneously, with the relatively obscure medalist Fra Antonio da Brescia of Venice. Prior to Émile Molinier’s expansive and ground-breaking volume on plaquettes, Charles Fortnum first connected the Apollo and the serpent Python relief with Fra Antonio da Brescia because it was featured on the reverse of Fra Antonio’s autograph medal of Niccolò Vonico of Treviso.  Molinier reiterated this attribution which remained until almost half-a-century later when Francis Hill instead suggested Fra Antonio most likely appropriated the plaquette for use on his medal of Vonico, a practice typical of amateur and provincial medalists to which ilk Fra Antonio belonged in spite of his notable talent.
In acceptance of Hill’s observation, the following year Seymour di Ricci published his catalog of the Gustave Dreyfus collection instead identifying the author of these reliefs as the newly coined Pseudo-Fra Antonio da Brescia. This epithet has since remained a generic identity thought to describe an artist active in Northern Italy from around the year 1500.
In recent years this misguided name has been provisionally redeemed by Doug Lewis who has adopted a new identity for the artist which he dubs the Vicentine Master of 1507, based upon the maker’s presumed references to the artistic output of the Montagna family of that region. The date of 1507 is apparently adjudged due to Erasmus of Rotterdam’s acquisition of a Sleeping Cupid plaquette he likely acquired during that year, or the next, while visiting the region.
It is unfortunate a proper identity has not yet been satisfyingly proposed for such a fine originator of these beautiful, yet charming group of reliefs who, for the realm of plaquettes, achieved a rather wide success in consideration of the quantity of surviving examples today located in various private and public collections. While there are few certainties involved in the following assessment I do hope the ideas introduced here may be palpable enough to reach a degree of acceptance, if not a curious consideration.
FRANCESCO FRANCIA, A MAKER OF PLAQUETTES?
An initial point of departure involves the Abundance and a Satyr plaquette which is related to two dated engravings. The satyr blowing a cornett corresponds with the satyr featured in Albrecht Dürer’s Satyr Family engraving of 1505 (Fig. 02) while the reclining figure of Abundance corresponds with an engraving of a Nymph and Satyr by Marcantonio Raimondi, dated 1506 (Fig. 03). Because of these dated prints, traditional scholarship has assessed this plaquette as belonging to a period sometime after those years.
It is visually apparent the Pseudo-Fra Antonio plaquettes are reflective of the transitional period in Italian engraving, ca. 1490-1510, when the fine and broad line traditions dissolved and a new generation of engravers emerged blending contemporary Italian influences with those of the indelible Northern spell of Dürer’s landscapes. The confluence of these styles is evident in Raimondi’s print of the Nymph and Satyr which happens to belong to the earliest part of his career while under the tutelage of the goldsmith, engraver, painter, medalist and sculptor Francesco Francia (Raibolini) of Bologna.
Although Francia is chiefly known for his work as a painter he is perpetually addressed throughout his career as a goldsmith and served in this capacity to a quantity of significant patrons in Bologna and its vicinity during the course of his life. Francia is cited by his contemporaries and by Giorgio Vasari as an exceptional niello worker and is today credited as the progenitor of that tradition in Bologna. Of relevance is Francia’s skill as a celebrated medalist and sculptor of which no autograph works are identified or survive and to whom but a paltry minority of medals are attributed. The most confident medal given to Francia’s authorship is one of Cardinal Francesco Alidosi with a figure of Jupiter on its reverse (Fig. 04). Until recently, no sculptural works were associated with Francia until Jeremy Warren brought to light two lovely small bronze statuettes of Venus which are adequately attributed to Francia or his circle. Regardless of the deficiency of sculptural works associated with Francia he was contemporaneously praised as both an adept sculptor and medalist and was especially industrious in the latter.
While Christopher Fulton suggested the plaquette maker commonly referred to as the Master IO.F.F. could have been associated with Francia’s workshop and J.C. Robinson, according to Fortnum, privately suggested a short-lived idea that Francia’s son, Giacomo could be IO.F.F., plaquettes have not otherwise been associated with Francia’s activity. However, his background as a goldsmith, engraver, sculptor and niellist would have made him amply suited for such an enterprise. Adding to this idea is Vasari’s comment that Francia’s primary creative pleasure was derived from the making of medals, comparing his accomplishment with that of his contemporary Cristoforo Foppa (called Caradosso) also a goldsmith, medalist and consequently, a maker of plaquettes. If Francia, as according to Vasari, maintained an earnest passion for the low-relief sculpture of medals, it is natural his activity could have carried over into the production of plaquettes, and more so, upon observing the success accomplished in this medium by his regional peer, the Master IO.F.F. Indeed, the Pseudo-Fra Brescia plaquettes all belong to the same categorical circular relief format as IO.F.F.’s creations, originally suited for sword pommels but also intended for the cabinets of collectors. A few examples of the Pseudo-Fra Brescia reliefs are known used as pommels and in some instances, are paired also with IO.F.F.’s designs. 
FRANCIA’S MANNER AND THE ‘PSEUDO-FRA ANTONIO DA BRESCIA’ PLAQUETTES
Omitting the Sleeping Cupid plaquette, to be discussed, one may observe a visual relationship between the plaquettes of Apollo and the serpent Python, Abundance and a Satyr and an Allegory of Virtue and Vice when compared with Francia’s painted works. As plaquettes, they diverge from most compositions in the genre with their languid-dreamy demeanor and confident eloquence. They are certainly the work of an artist intimately familiar with engraving, noted by their stippled ground, reminiscent of the methods employed by print engravers when treating such surfaces, as well as the refined low-relief modeling typical to the goldsmith trade. The essence of these plaquette compositions feature a plain simplicity characterized by inert figures set against austere landscapes whose spirit is not unlike Francia’s Adoration of the Child in Munich (Fig. 05), among other examples of his painted oevure. The elongated bodies of the children with their lanky arms and unnatural torsion on the Allegory of Virtue and Vice plaquette correspond in manner also with those featured on Francia’s Virgin and Child with Saint Anne and Other Saints in London (Fig. 06).
Most evident, however, is the figure of Apollo on the Apollo and the serpent Python plaquette whose pose is expressive of what Warren defines as Francia’s artistic “trademark,” being explicit to his output between the years 1500-06. This pose can be clearly observed on Francia’s painting of St. Sebastian (Fig. 07) which is also known by a highly finished drawing in Berlin. This figural form has a possible antecedent in nielli compositions ascribed to Francia or his pupil Peregrino da Cesena. For example, one depicting Hercules and Deianara or another of Diomede Removing the Palladium from the Trojan Acropolis, monogrammed by Peregrino (Fig. 08).
The plaquettes share further parallels with the Venus statuettes Warren attributes to Francia. The Kunsthistorisches Venus, in its pensive simplicity and thickly modeled eyelids, shares the character of Apollo’s face on the plaquette of Apollo and the Serpent Python (Fig. 09) while the modeling of the Ashmolean Venus’ torso resounds the female figures of the plaquettes with their commensurate breasts and eloquently dipped abdomens (Fig. 10). Especially apparent are the undulating waves of Venus’ hair, terminating in coils which have their low relief corollary on the plaquettes (Fig. 10). Even the medal of Alidosi, though limited in its comparative capacity, still shares certain parallels. For example, the elongated limbs of Jupiter and the qualities of his face and hair are proportionate to characters featured on the plaquettes.
An apparently unpublished plaquette of Danaë and the Shower of Gold from the Ubertazzi collection (Fig. 11) may also be the work of Francia. It’s smaller scale and slightly convex shape, suggests it probably formed part of a dagger hilt which may link it to the Bolognese arms trade to which the Master IO.F.F. was so closely linked. 
A WINDOW INTO FRANCIA’S WORKSHOP
As earlier noted, traditional scholarship locates the Abundance and a Satyr plaquette, and consequently the others, to a date sometime after Raimondi’s Nymph and Satyr engraving of 1506. However, not yet entertained is the idea that this engraving may have been altogether realized in the same workshop or artistic environment as that of the plaquette. As a pupil to Francia, Raimondi may have executed his engraving with less invention of his own and under the guiding hand of Francia. Richard Fisher notes of this print, and others from this period, the presence of the engraving’s “slight handling of Francia’s teaching.” In this case we would have Raimondi, himself lauded as a successful copyist, effectively working from models within Francia’s workshop, perhaps even those models involved in the creation of the plaquette, if not the finished plaquette itself.
Of worthwhile import is Warren’s discussion on the use of sculptural models for Francia’s varied output. Francia appears to have depended upon a minority of models for subjects reflected in his drawings, paintings, medals and sculpture. This same dependency would have carried over to his pupils. For example, in Raimondi’s earliest dated engraving of 1505 we observe a deceased Pyramus lain horizontally across the picture plane. However, if we imagine him upright before us we might draw a comparison with the figure of Apollo on the plaquette (Fig. 12), portraying an equally tranquil face with coiling locks falling to his shoulders. But especially apparent would be the posture of the figure’s arm, poised graciously upon a tree stump on the plaquette but resting awkwardly on the ground in Raimondi’s print, suggestive of his use of a model. Its possible Raimondi referred to models or sketches in Francia’s studio to work-out the figure of Pyramus or even the face of Thisbe whose countenance strikingly recalls that of Abundance on the Abundance and a Satyr plaquette (Fig. 13). If this is the case, it is equally reasonable Raimondi could have adapted his nymph on the Nymph and Satyr engraving of 1506 from a sketch by Francia or possibly from the formerly noted plaquette, finished or possibly in-progress in Francia’s workshop.
ALBRECHT DÜRER AND THE IMPETUS FOR THE ABUNDANCE AND A SATYR PLAQUETTE
While the dating for the Abundance and a Satyr plaquette can be argued in coincidence with the realization of Raimondi’s corresponding engraving it remains indisputable that the plaquette borrows the satyr from Dürer’s 1505 engraving of a Satyr Family (Fig. 14), thus confirming its creation cannot predate that year. However, why an artist like Francia would adapt the engraved work of Dürer but not Riamondi is twofold. For one, Raimondi was his young pupil and Dürer was perceived already as a new master for the genre of art to which Francia had his roots. A reverence and respect for Dürer would have been natural. However, there are two possibilities why Francia would have chosen to adapt Dürer’s figure on his own creation and the solution has to do with Dürer’s visit to Bologna sometime after October of 1506 and his departure by early 1507. According to the contemporary account of Christoph Scheurl, Dürer’s arrival in Bologna was welcomed by a celebratory reception organized by the painters of the city who proclaimed Dürer “first among all the painters in the world.” Those in attendance are not noted but it is presupposed Francia had a significant role in the matter considering his position as the chief painter in Bologna at the time.
Its possible Francia may have intentionally incorporated Dürer’s satyr on the plaquette of Abundance and a Satyr as a homage to the artist and quite possibly cast an example of it as a gift for Dürer himself. This idea is reasonable when considering Vasari’s mention that Francia specialized in making portrait medals of distinguished visitors to Bologna. Without an accessible portrait of Dürer available, he could have opted instead to commemorate the event by incorporating one of Dürer’s recently completed designs in the esteemed format of a metal relief, an object-type suitable for the era and frequently offered as diplomatic gifts to visiting courtiers. If not made for Dürer’s arrival in late 1506 it is further possible Francia could have executed the plaquette afterward as a way to memorialize Dürer’s brief visit to the city and disperse casts to his humanist patrons at the University of Bologna, some of whom would have certainly been in attendance at Dürer’s reception considering the presence of Scheurl who was himself attending the university during that time.
Also considerable is the possibility Francia may have revised an existing design or in-progress composition in order to adapt Dürer’s satyr to the scene upon learning about Dürer’s pending arrival. For example, Raimondi’s engraving of the subject, which might represent the original prototype, suits particularly well for what could have originally been a circular composition (Fig. 15) with the inward leaning pose of the satyr bestowing a pleasing visual harmony.
THE PICTORIAL INVENTION OF AN ALLEGORY OF VIRTUE AND VICE
Ambiguous as it may be insofar as it concerns the diffusion of prints, designs and the allocation of their dating, there is yet the matter of contending with the extended representation of these motifs in the Veneto. The region of Venice has occasionally been proposed as a place of origin for the Pseudo-Fra Brescia plaquettes. This is largely due to Raimondi’s immediate activity there following his discipleship in Bologna as well as the engraved adaptations of the Allegory of Virtue and Vice (Fig. 16) and Apollo and the serpent Python, the latter converted to a scene of Saint George and the Dragon (Fig. 17), by the Vicentine Benedetto Montagna. The engravings are thought to date around 1506 though some sources suggest a later period.
While its reasonable to suggest Montagna’s engravings could have served as models for the corresponding plaquettes there is also reason to suggest the opposite. Examples of these plaquettes could have reached Vicenza at an early date, notably by way of Venice where Dürer traveled on his return north from Bologna, supposing him to have shared the accoutrements received by him in Bologna. Raimondi could likewise have diffused these motifs to other engravers upon leaving Bologna for Venice during this same period. The plaquettes show evidence of a rather swift diffusion. For example, a terminus post quem for the Abundance and a Satyr plaquette occurs only a few years after its inception, apparent by its appearance on a roundel executed ca. 1508-13 in the cloister of St. Martin in Tours, France. The same plaquette also appears to have enjoyed an early reputation in Augsburg, Germany where it is reproduced in the prayer book of Matthäus Schwarz, illuminated in 1521 by Narziss Renner and in Hans Burgkmair’s painting of Esther before Abasuerus, dated 1528. In closer proxmity to Bologna, the presumably Ferrarese workshop of the Master of Moral and Love Themes, specializing in the production of pastiglia caskets, uniquely reproduces the plaquette on six surviving examples all dating to the first part of the 16th century.
While the composition of Montagna’s Sleeping Nymph and Two Satyrs appears to reinvent an earlier woodcut from Francesco Colonnna’s Hypnerotomachi Poliphili, published in Venice in 1499 (Fig. 18), this reinvention may not be due to Montagna’s genius but could instead reproduce the plaquette to which it owes an almost exact likeness. The rectangular format of Montagna’s print is less harmonious than the visually balanced circular form of the plaquette. The print gives the impression the artist forced the composition into its newly conceived space. The orange tree in the background is awkwardly truncated and lacks the balance of composition observed in Montagna’s other works. In fact, the subsequent state of the engraving, worked over by another hand, is characterized by an entirely different face for the figure of the nymph, among other edits, and excises the tree from the composition altogether.
Furthermore, an earlier development of this subject in the sphere of Francia is suggested by a Bolognese niello print of Mercury Delivering the Infant Bacchus (Fig. 19), attributed to Francia’s pupil Peregrino, which follows the design of the Allegory of Virtue and Vice plaquette insofar as the upright depiction of Ino and the breastfeeding babies are concerned. This niello print suggests the concepts involved in the development of the plaquette were already being worked-out around 1500, being an amalgam of the niello and the scene depicted in the Hypnerotomachi Poliphili woodcut published in 1499.
REASSESING THE SLEEPING CUPID
The Sleeping Cupid plaquette (Fig. 20), long accepted as a work by Pseudo-Fra Antonio and grouped with those previously discussed, began its attributional history independently when Fortnum first considered it to be the work of the medalist Giovanni Boldú of Venice. Molinier rightly disregarded Fortnum’s suggestion but grouped it instead among those now associated with Pseudo-Fra Antonio. This tentative attribution has remained unchallenged with the recent exception of Warren who described the Sleeping Cupid as “perhaps by” Pseudo-Fra Antonio da Brescia and Doug Lewis who renamed him the Vicentine Master of 1507.
While the previous plaquettes have been suggested here as artworks derivative of the Bolognese school, the Sleeping Cupid is here agreed to be the work of an entirely different hand, and notably one probably active in the Veneto, or Vicenza, as suggested by Lewis.
Lewis proposes a revised Vicentine identity for the Sleeping Cupid based on its relationship with the painter Bartolomeo Montagna and his son Benedetto, whose engraved works have already been discussed. The cupid motif is adapted from Bartolomeo’s painting of the Holy Family, ca. 1500 (Fig. 21). As Lewis keenly observes, a terminus ante quem for the plaquette is ca. 1507-08, a period in which Erasmus of Rotterdam resided in Venice and where he is likely to have acquired a personal example of the plaquette which now forms part of the Amerbach Kabinett at the Historisches Museum in Basel, Switzerland. The plaquette’s early presence in the Veneto is confirmed by its reproduction on the stone legs of a marble banqueting-game table commissioned by the wealthy Venetians Agenesina Badoer and Girolamo Giustinian and attributed to Tullio Lombardo, ca. 1514-15.
An initial reason for the association of the Sleeping Cupid with those plaquettes given to Pseudo-Fra Antonio is its feature on the reverse of four documented examples of the Apollo and the serpent Python. However, one may consider their uniform shape and standard size an impetus for their grouping, notwithstanding their potential symbolic implications which may have whetted the personalities of those who owned or commissioned such two-sided examples. However, as formerly noted, the combination of two reliefs on a single medal-plaquette doesn’t necessarily indicate a shared authorship of those designs.
Warren has most recently commented on the lack of conformity between the Sleeping Cupid and the other reliefs given to Pseudo-Fra Brescia without elaboration. However, the differences are worth noting for sake of divorcing this plaquette from the others in the hope its distinguished author may one day be revealed.
The scene of the Sleeping Cupid is prepared in a way that is less dense than the other plaquettes and the weight of its design leans toward the left in a graceful congruence that is unlike those previously discussed. The balance of perspective is divergent with the Sleeping Cupid’s more sophisticated design which offers the illusion of looking up at the cupid from below. There is also the apparent distinction of an isolated subject whose presence consumes a majority of the relief’s picture plane.
There are even further differences when observing finer details, particularly with regard to the treatment of foliage on the trees. The flame-like leaves of the Sleeping Cupid plaquette with their sharply pronged ends is unlike the softly modeled almond-shaped leaves on the Psuedo-Fra Brescia series. There is also a distinction in the rendering of the ground. On the other plaquettes the ground is delineated by densely packed and finely rendered stippling while on the Sleeping Cupid the ground is delineated by thicker arched striations that thin-out in their termination. The technique in execution is different and suggests the workmanship of a different hand. The hair of the cupid is also markedly dissimilar with a stronger degree of undulating grace and more thickly modeled tufts which perhaps owe an influence from Raimondi and Benedetto’s engravings. The adaptation from Bartolomeo’s painting and recontextualization of the Christ Child as a cupid leaning on a plinth is precisely the type of appropriative work typical of engravers of this period and suggestive that its maker was acquainted with engravers or was one himself. The cupid’s face, entirely different in its expressive charm, has no counterpart in the other plaquettes disccused and seems to recall an influence from the delightful putto or children of Cristofano Robetta’s Florentine engravings.
1. Jeremy Warren comments that Charles Fortnum misread the inscription on this medal, instead identifying it as a work by Francesco Antonio Erizzo, which Molinier subsequently corrects in his later publication. See Jeremy Warren (2014): Medieval and Renaissance Sculpture in the Ashmolean Museum, Vol. 3: Plaquettes. Ashmolean Museum Publications, UK., p. 876. For Molinier’s attribution and entry see Émile Molinier (1886): Les Bronzes de la Renaissance: Les Plaquettes. 2 Vols. Paris, France. Vol. 1, No. 119, pp. 81-82
2. Charles Fortnum did not include the Sleeping Cupid plaquette in his attribution to Fra Antonio da Brescia, but rather suggested Giovanni Boldù as its maker, subsequently rejected by Molinier who chose to group it together with the three other reliefs.
4. Confirming this practice, the plaquette of Apollo and the Serpent Python is known to have similarly been borrowed on a quantity of other later medals by workshops producing otherwise uniface casts of medals. See J. Warren (2014) op. cit. (note 1), No. 333, pp. 876-77
8. Doug Lewis (2008): Collectors of Renaissance Reliefs: Erasmus of Rotterdam (1466-1536) and Baron Boissel de Monville (1763-1832). Collecting Sculpture in Early Modern Europe, Studies in the History of Art 70, Symposium Papers XLVII. National Gallery of Art, Washington DC; pp. 128-43
11. The Master IO.F.F. is most recently identified as Giovan Francesco Furnio of Bologna. For the most recently published essay on IO.F.F.’s identity as Furnio see Jeremy Warren (2016): The Wallace Collection. Catalog of Italian Sculpture. The Trustees of the Wallace Collection., No. 41, p. 168-69
12. Fulton suggested this due to the character of nielli likely emanating from Francia and his studio which share certain similarities with IO.F.F.’s compositions. See Christopher Fulton (1989): The Master IO.F.F. and the Function of Plaquettes. Vol. 22. Studies in the History of Art. Italian Plaquettes. National Gallery of Art, Washington DC., pp.143-62
15. However, as previously noted with regard to medals, the combination of disparate reliefs into a singular double-sided object is potentially the product of later workshops mixing and matching source material and would require close examination to determine for their contemporaneous authenticity.
19. A letter from Dürer to his friend Pirckheimer, dated October 1506, indicates his intention to visit Italy and spend “eight to ten days” there. See Andrew Morrall (2010): The Essential Durer. University of Pennsylvania Press., p. 114
22. For example, John Pope-Hennessey (1965): Renaissance Bronzes from the Samuel H. Kress Collection. Reliefs, plaquettes, statuettes, utensils and mortars. Phaidon Press, London., p. 56; D. Lewis (2008) op. cit. (note 8); Francesco Rossi (2011): La Collezione Mario Scaglia – Placchette, Vols. I-III. Lubrina Editore, Bergamo
A sincere thanks to Tom Eden and Neil Goodman for their provision of images, helpful in the survey of these plaquettes and to Doug Lewis for kindly sending his article concerning the Sleeping Cupid.