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Plaque.  A one-sided medallic item, rectangular, square, or nearly so, with at least one dimension greater than eight inches. Plaques are most often cast – by any method of cast- ing – or galvanos made by electroforming since the 1840s. (By definition plaques are too large to be die struck, as no striking press is capable of striking medallic items larger than eight inches.) Plaques are a form of relief or bas-relief being the artistic expression of this type of sculpture and can range from the lowest to the very highest relief (even with extensive undercutting). As such they are always attached to their background or matrix (in contrast to sculpture-in-the-round which has no background).

Plaques are always one sided with the most frequent intent to be mounted against a wall or other flat surface. Often sculptors placed bas-relief designs on the base of their monuments or heroic sculpture; these plaques were used to further develop the statue's theme. Plaques are almost always cast bronze (or electroformed copper).

When necessary, plaques are backed with drop-in metal for added strength, and most often their back side would be left untreated. The obverse would then be finished or patinated as any medallic item or sculptural object. Often plaques would be framed; the frame could be considered the plaque's border. The frame can be a part of the model (called integral) or be made separate. If not framed it would be called without border.

Plaques, along with plaquettes, medals and medallions – were developed to their highest style in 15th century Italy, during the Renaissance. This form of glyptic art was an expression of relief sculpture that was small enough to be personal (medals, medallions and plaquettes under 8 inches, plaques are over 8 inches), but large enough for the sculptor to express his artistic design. Models of this period were made in wax, a pattern was kept in lead, the final piece was cast in bronze.

The same topics were developed in plaques as were found on medal;s (both with extensive portraits or religious themes). The only restriction was the artist had to do it in one view rather than two. It was still bas-relief intended for intimate view, to be examined close up to appreciate all its three-dimensional beauty. But because of this three- dimensional relief, plaques are excellent display pieces, (however, their larger size discouraged collecting them alongside coins and medals).

Very large plaques, called tablets, are made by the same sculptors and the same method of manufacture – foundry casts or electroformed. Those that are intended to be placed on a wall or other flat surface (as on a monument) have integral stud bolts casts on the back at the same time as their formation.

A negative pattern of the artist's design is required for either a foundry cast or electroform, for a small plaquette or a large tablet. This mold is made of plaster of Paris. If it is to be electroformed, the mold is coated to make it electrically conductive and wired to a low voltage source. This is placed in a tank large enough to accommodate the dimension of the pattern and sufficient anodes to supply the metal. (For more on the techniques of how plaques are made see cast, casting, foundry cast, electroforming.)

Occasionally both plaques and plaquettes are made from the same artist's model. A negative pattern is required for both; one negative pattern is reduced on a die-engraving pantograph to cut a die for stamping plaquettes.

Early plaques and plaquettes.  Pisanello, the first to create a medal in 1438, and his immediate followers, all produced round medals. It was Donetallo (c1386-1466) who shortly thereafter created perhaps the first plaquette (so many are attributed to him), along with numerous plaques. A typical Donetallo production of this early period was Madonna and Child (Kress A283.6B). Also an early innovation of this time was the silhouetted plaque and plaquette.

While the first Renaissance medals were made in 1439, round and for personal adornment, the first plaques were not all that different from the reliefs which sculptors had been adorning their statues since ancient times. Thus the origin of the first plaque or plaquette is not all that finite. Certainly Italian, but reliefs were cast earlier than 1439, exact date uncertain.

Hundreds of plaques and plaquettes were made in Italy in the 15th century. Their popularity spread to France, Germany, Flanders (Belgium) and Russia. More were created in the 16th century, and later of course, but collectors and curators highly prized those of the Renaissance (made before 1700). One of the largest collections of these was formed by Gustave Dreyfus (1837-1914) of Paris that now is in the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC. It was acquired and donated to the Smithsonian by the Samuel H. Kress Foundation (and now known as the "Kress" collection).

The Kress collection of Renaissance objects included, not only small statues, but 460 reliefs and plaquettes and 408 medals. (The Victoria and Albert Museum in London, the Kaiser Friedrich Museum in Berlin, museums in Florence and Vienna have large collections of Renaissance plaques and medals as well.) The medallic plaquettes were collected alongside small sculptural relief objects. Thus there is a fine line distinction between the two: the intent to have the art object stand alone, or be attached to another object, flat surface or wall. The intimate size objects were always considered more personal and highly collectible.

Round plaques.  Considering the definition "square, rectangular, or nearly so" for plaques and plaquettes, how come there are round plaques?  Perhaps this is also the medallic development from the sculptural tondo employed in architecture and later in decorative art. Or it can be attributed to the genius of Donetallo, who created these objects in square, rectangular, round and silhouetted shape.

(Today we would call any uniface medallion, round and over 8 inches in diameter, a round plaque – both terms are used and both mean the same. Either could hang on the wall. But just as easily it could rest in the drawer of the cabinet as a medallic collectible, albeit somewhat oversize.)


NC5 {1951} National Gallery of Art.

excerpted with permission from

An Encyclopedia of Coin and Medal Technology

For Artists, Makers, Collectors and Curators


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