Florins and ducats: the return of gold to Europe in the late Middle Ages
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After the fall of the Roman Empire and the choice of silver monometallism by Charlemagne, the coinage of new gold pieces in Europe was undertaken in a significant way only in the Byzantine Empire. Elsewhere in Europe only limited and occasional gold issues took place, such as Arab coinage in Sicily, followed by pieces minted in Messina by Frederic II, Holy Roman Emperor between 1220 and 1250. Picture 1 shows a multiple of the tarì, bearing the imperial eagle and a cross surrounded by the initials of Jesus Christ Winner. Small silver and bronze coins were the typical medium of exchange until the expansion of trade of the thirteenth century initiated a new phase of economic growth in Western Europe. A renewed demand for more valuable means of exchange was met through new mining of gold in Europe and imports from Africa and the Middle East.
At that point in time the two richest economic and financial centres of Northern Italy, Florence and Venice, introduced a gold coinage, which became an international standard and a model to imitate. In 1252 Florence introduced the gold "fiorino" of approximately 3.5 grams and 24 carats (100% of gold). The florin represented the lily of Florence and its patron, St John, as shown in picture 2 in the 1252- 1303 anonymous version of the coin. The florin was widely copied by other states in Italy, France, Germany, Poland, Hungary and elsewhere.
Venice, then one of the three largest European cities and leading commercial power between Byzantium, the Muslim world and Europe, in 1284 introduced the "ducato" (later called "zecchino"). It had weight and gold content similar to the florin and maintained unchanged its aspect and metallic content until the fall of the Republic in 1797. Picture 3 shows a ducat of Francesco Foscarini, 1423-57, showing a kneeling Doge receiving a standard from St Mark and a Standing Christ holding a bible. The ducat proved as popular as the florin and became an international currency imitated by Italian and German states and by Austria.