Coins and Medals

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COINS AND MEDALS. The coinage of the early modern period differs profoundly from that of the Middle Ages in fabric, artistic style, and technology of production. An innovation of this period unknown to the medieval or ancient world was medals having a purely commemorative purpose, portraying princes, artists, and other celebrities. Here we will examine each of these four developments in turn.


For most of the Middle Ages the feudal economy of Europe was served by a monometallic system of silver coins based on the penny, usually weighing less than 1.5 grams. With the increase in trade and urban life in the thirteenth century, the silver coins were supplemented by a new gold coinage, including the florin of Florence and the Venetian ducat, weighing 3.5 grams. These circulated throughout Europe as an international currency, inspiring many local imitations like the English noble, the French écu, and the gulden of various German states.

Beginning with Venice in 1471, the Italian city-states began striking heavier silver coins of 6 to 8 grams, known as testons, from the Italian testone 'big head', because they commonly bore the profile portrait of the reigning prince. King Louis XII introduced this coin to the French in 1514, and in England it was first struck by King Henry VII in 1504, where it came to be known as the shilling, worth 12 pence. An important factor leading to the emergence of large silver coins was a shortage of gold in Italy and northern Europe due to Portuguese expeditions along the west coast of Africa. The Iberian caravels diverted to Lisbon the gold of Guinea that had previously reached Italy overland through the Sahara and North Africa. At the same time, new sources of silver were discovered by the miners of Tyrol and Saxony, which made possible a large silver denomination capable of taking the place of florins and guldens. In 1519 Count Stephan of Schlick in Bohemia began to produce great quantities of coins of 30 grams from the newly discovered silver deposits of St. Joachimstal. These large Joachimstaler (which became known as talers or dollars) circulated throughout Europe and were widely imitated. The English dollar or crown, the Spanish peso or piece of eight (so called because it was worth eight of the old silver reals), and the French franc, first struck by King Henry III in 1575, were among the important large silver coins introduced to the markets of Europe in the sixteenth century.

A further innovation was the use of copper for fractional or "subsidiary" coinage, replacing the old billon (debased silver) pennies, halfpennies, and farthings. In 1472 the Kingdom of Naples became the first state to strike a pure copper coin, and in 1575 King Henry III of France introduced the copper denier or penny, part of an overall reform of the monetary system that included the new silver franc. In England copper farthings (fourth-pennies) made their first appearance in 1613, followed by halfpennies in 1672, although the penny remained silver until 1797, when Matthew Boulton was commissioned to make copper pennies with his new steam-driven coin press. Thanks to new sources of gold from Guinea, and later from Mexico and Peru, the old florins, ducats, and gulden were replaced by larger pieces such as the gold sovereign or guinea of England. The Spanish doubloon, first minted at Seville in 1497 and worth two ducats, carried the facing portraits of King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella. This became the common gold coin of international trade from the sixteenth to the eighteenth century, thanks in part to the retention of the double portrait long after the death of the two monarchs, making it attractive to conservative bankers and merchants around the world.


The Renaissance revival of classicism included the collecting and study of ancient Greek and Roman coins, beginning with Petrarch and other pioneer humanists of the fourteenth century. Under the influence of the antiquarians, the old medieval imagery of heraldic devices and symbolic effigies of rulers gave way to a new iconography of naturalistic portraits and allegorical scenes inspired by classical models. A very early example of this revivalism was the gold augustales of the Emperor Frederick II in 1231, which showed his profile bust in the manner of the ancient Roman Caesars, and on the reverse an imperial eagle. Most mint masters were too conservative to make radical changes in the appearance of their coins, however, until the coming of the new large silver pieces of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. The Venetian teston of 1471 displayed the profile portrait of Doge Nicholas Tron, and the Roman silver piece was known as the giulio because of its fine portrait of Pope Julius II (reigned 15031513), who was the first to strike these coins. At the same time, medieval Gothic inscriptions were replaced by Roman letters.

During the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, a number of important artists produced dies for coins whose beauty and grace have never been surpassed. Benvenuto Cellini served as mint master for Pope Clement VII, and his rival Leone Leoni worked for Emperor Charles V. Leoni's classically inspired teston for Charles shows the emperor wearing a laurel wreath and on the reverse the figure of the goddess Pietas copied from a sestertius of Caligula. The silver crowns of King Charles II of England, designed by Thomas Simon, and the gold pieces of King Louis XIII, designed by Jean Varin, with their flowing hair and elegant drapery, are splendid examples of baroque portraiture.


The ancient and medieval technique of striking coins manually, using a hammer and handheld dies, resulted in coins with irregular edges, and their weight and thickness could vary considerably from the official norm. With the increased production of coins of all metals in the sixteenth century, especially the heavier pieces in gold and silver, mint masters recognized the necessity of maintaining uniformity of size and weight. This was achieved by the invention of the rolling mill for squeezing bullion into standardized sheets, the cutting press for punching out identical round blanks from the sheets, and the screw press for stamping the blanks. The first mechanized mint of this sort was established in Paris by King Henry II in 1551 in a water mill along the Seine. Henry's testons or monnaies du moulin were perfectly round and elegantly designed, demonstrating the superiority of the new methods. Due to resistance by conservative mint workers, however, the new technology was slow to catch on, but before the end of the seventeenth century most of the European states had adopted the mechanical production of coins, as well as machines for marking or "milling" their edges with grooves and other designs to prevent clipping.


The invention of the commemorative medala coinlike object created as a work of art to honor some special person or eventis traditionally attributed to Antonio Pisanello, an Italian painter working at the courts of Mantua and Verona in the 1430s and 1440s. Recent scholarship, however, has uncovered medieval precedents for Pisanello's medals, including the large gold medallions with portraits of the emperors Constantine and Heraclius produced at the court of Jean de France, Duc de Berry, around 1400, although their intended purpose remains a mystery. Be that as it may, Pisanello established the prototype for the genre in his large (100 millimeters in diameter) bronze portrait medal of the Byzantine emperor John VIII Palaeologus, who came to Italy in 1438 to negotiate a reconciliation between the eastern and western churches. Pisanello's later medals of princes and warlords like Leonello d'Este and Sigismondo Malatesta helped spread the new technique throughout Italy. These early Renaissance medals established the standard format, namely a profile portrait on the obverse, and on the reverse an allegorical scene proclaiming the virtues or accomplishments of the subject.

In the sixteenth century the medal spread beyond Italy, and masters like Benvenuto Cellini, Leone Leoni, Giovanni Cavino, and Jacopo da Trezzo applied the classicism and elegance of the High Renaissance to the new art. Medals were produced in great quantities by sixteenth-century princes and by the admirers of poets, scholars, and artists such as Pietro Aretino and Michelangelo, and were often employed to convey propaganda during the religious and dynastic wars of the day. Leoni's medal of the Emperor Charles V represents him as Hercules overcoming his enemies, whereas da Trezzo's medal of Queen Mary Tudor shows her as the goddess Pax burning the arms of war and bringing peace to England. Because of their size, the early Renaissance medals were cast in molds rather than struck, but the screw press of the sixteenth century made it possible to produce large medallions from engraved dies, allowing more detail and complexity in the portraits and reverse scenes.

During the baroque period of the seventeenth century, the art of the medal reached a zenith of exuberant style and technical perfection. Guillaume Dupré, who worked for King Henry IV of France and Marie de Médicis, and Jean Varin, mint master of King Louis XIII and King Louis XIV, were the leaders of the genre. Varin's 1665 medal of Louis XIV, commemorating the building of the Louvre, portrays the Sun King with long flowing hair and an imperious expression. In Italy, Massimiliano Soldani-Benzi designed medals with scenes of athletic and vigorous gods and goddesses reminiscent of the paintings and sculpture of Rubens and Bernini. An important innovation of this period was the striking of sets of medals summarizing the significant events of a ruler's careerso-called medallic historiesthe first being a series of three hundred medals proclaiming the achievements and victories of Louis XIV, issued in 1702. This became the precedent for numerous medallic histories of monarchs, governments, and institutions, often bound together in booklike volumes with accompanying text, produced during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.

See also Cellini, Benvenuto ; Money and Coinage .


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Cunnally, John. Images of the Illustrious: The Numismatic Presence in the Renaissance. Princeton, 1999.

Doty, Richard G. The Macmillan Encyclopedic Dictionary of Numismatics. New York, 1982.

Grierson, Philip. Numismatics. Oxford and New York, 1975.

Jones, Mark. The Art of the Medal. London, 1979.

Porteous, John. Coins in History. New York, 1964.

Scher, Stephen K., ed. The Currency of Fame: Portrait Medals of the Renaissance. New York, 1994.

John Cunnally