City views on thalers of the German states of the eighteenth century
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Large silver thalers were an ideal medium for articulate compositions, which were otherwise normally restricted to commemorative medals. During the eighteenth century several small German states, for one or more years, issued thalers, or their fractions, with detailed landscape views of cities.
Normally the coins of the time would show a profile of the ruler on one side and the crest of his empire, kingdom or duchy on the other, even if many other variations were possible. In this case, bird's eye urban views were proposed by small city states, essentially by free cities, Bishoprics and Archbishoprics within the Holy Roman Empire which could afford to sacrifice either the Emperor's or the Bishop's portrait, or the town's crest. It became a manifestation of civic pride for the beauty, wealth and achievements of the city through its labour and autonomy. It also celebrated reconstruction after the extensive destruction of the thirty years war which had ended in 1648 with a decline of the German population by more than 30%.
The popular success of these pieces is proven by the fact that they were often transformed into medallions to be carried as jewels. Yet despite their character of local patriotism, those very special coins still carried more or less discreet symbols of imperial power hidden within itheir localistic appearance.
The city of Regensburg in Bavaria was a Bishopric and an important trade centre, as well as the seat of the Perpetual Diet of the Empire (Reichstag) from the seventeenth century to 1803. It issued thaler pieces with a city view from 1754 to 1791. The image focused on the Steinerne bridge across the Danube, a magnificent structure initiated in the twelfth century, over 300 metres long, interrupted by several watch towers, which has survived until today. In the background the centre of the town is marked by the city walls and gate and by the church of St Peter. In the foreground the islands on the Danube, which in the mid eighteenth century hosted little town gardens, a wood depot, and small houses, are surrounded by barge traffic and a water mill.
Nuremberg, also in Bavaria, issued a depiction of the city in silver Convention thalers between 1711 and 1796. It showed the much more modest Pegnitz river and focused on the fortifications of the city and the skyline punctuated by church towers, surrounded by a green countryside, seen from the west side. On the left of the city view, on top of a hill, the city castle is visible as the key centre of power. It hosted the Imperial court and on several occasions the rotating Imperial Diet of the Holy Roman Empire before it settled permanently in Regensburg. On the right of the coin image lie the tall, old fashioned medieval walls. They are protected by an additional more modern bastion of the Renaissance, larger, thicker and with a lower profile in order to resist artillery fire and to host defensive batteries.
The thaler of Frankfurt represented primarily the role of the river Mainz, the old bridge and the gothic Cathedral of St Bartholomew, where Holy Roman Emperors elect were crowned, marked by its characteristic tower. The Church was twice destroyed and twice reconstructed after a fire in 1867 and after WWII bombings.
Finally the influence of this type of urban representation was also felt on other German speaking cities outside of the Empire, as was the case with the Republic of Zurich, which in 1736 issued the half thaler here illustrated.
In the nineteenth century this type of depiction disappeared from German coinage, victim of political and monetary unification and standardization. This evolution also corresponded to the loss of the distinctive visual shape of urban centres, due to the systematic demolition of medieval and Renaissance defensive walls, considered an unhealthy and barbarian obstacle to progress and to economic and demographic development.