Striking Medals

The rugby World Cup ended last weekend with victory either for New Zealand or Australia, I was out of the country and don’t recall the details; but the medals were made in England, needless to say, and made very close to Cambridge, by a small Shepreth firm.

I don’t know that Cambridge has a particularly rich association with medals and medal-making, but when a year or two ago I was asked to take a couple of our Spanish students around the Fitzwilliam Museum the first thing I showed them was a cabinet containing medals struck for Sigismundo Malatesta and other Renaissance notables. The Sigismundo medal, designed by Pisanello, bears on the obverse a portrait bust of his wife, Isotta degli Atti, and on the reverse an elephant with an over-long trunk – his emblem.

Medals were struck in the Renaissance in emulation of Roman coins and medals. A minor princeling such as Sigismundo would have wished to show his cultivation and classical learning, as well as his power and wealth, through the art works he commissioned, and this would have included the medals on display.

We do not strike medals for quite the same reasons today. While the World Cup medals look rather pretty, they are hardly a match for the beauty of Sigismundo’s efforts. Perhaps that is why an individual call Sonny Bill Williams who plays either for New Zealand or Australia gave his away to a child on the pitch after his victory (always assuming it was a victor’s, and not a loser’s, medal – who can remember?).