In the second half of the seventeenth century, despite its relative decline, the Spanish empire managed to maintain its international presence, extending across most of Latin America, the Philippines, the Spanish Netherlands and most of Italy (Lombardy and the whole South, including Naples, Sicily and Sardinia). In the seventeenth century Italy was encountering one of its worst periods of economic and demographic decline: its population suffered of several outbreaks of plague; cold weather reduced agricultural productivity; competition in luxury goods increased where the Italians formerly had been pre-eminent; and the Italian central role in the east-west trade was lost.
Spain controlled the rich Duchy of Milan and most of today’s Lombardy from 1535 to 1714. Under Philip IV of Habsburg (1621-65), Milanese coinage was often of limited quality, minted in a very rough and approximate manner, with uneven borders, made even more irregular by the practice of stealing part of its metal through clipping or sweating (“tosatura” in Italian). The limited quality of Milanese coinage in the mid-seventeenth century was common to the pieces minted in Spain and its Latin American Empire.
Some Milanese pieces benefitted, however, from higher artistic standards, with fine portraits replacing part of the most common standard Spanish types based on cross/crest/columns. This is the case, for example, with the large silver filippo da 100 soldi (approx 28 grams),minted in Milan in 1657 and here illustrated representing King Philip IV.
When Philip IV died he left a 4 years old son, Charles II, under the control of his mother Mariana of Austria, who acted as regent for ten years. The infant king is shown here in another silver Filippo (also called Carlo, following the name of the new king it represented) from 1666, as a child under the shadow of his mother, who wears a mourning veil.
The intricate and clearly articulated crest on these coins included a small central part referring to Milan and a larger part representing the complex aggregations of the Spanish kingdom and empire. In the middle a waving snake eating a child was the symbol of the Visconti family which ruled Milan from the middle of the thirteenth to the middle of the fifteenth centuries, integrated with a black eagle on a yellow background, the latter having been introduced by the Sforza family which took over in the mid-fifteenth century. Much more dominant in the overall outlook of the crest are the Spanish castles and lions of Castilla Y Leon, as well as the yellow and red stripes of the Kingdom of Aragon, the two kingdoms who merged and unified Spain in the fifteenth century though the marriage of the Catholic sovereigns Isabella I and Ferdinand II.
A finer portrait of the adult Charles II was produced in Naples, as illustrated here in 1684 in a large silver ducat of approximately 28 grams. Its appearance is greatly improved by an innovation that began to solve the problem of clipping and sweating, by replacing the minting by means of hammers with minting through a new instrument, the bilanciere (manual screw). This machinery provided a more precise and defined rim, and became the main minting tool until more powerful machines evolved from the late eighteenth century onwards. The advantage was also a more beautiful quality of the coin, providing, however, a somehow misleadingly smooth representation of Charles’ aspect. In reality he did not have the harmonious appearance shown here but the typical protruding jaw and imposing nose of the Habsburgs, as recorded more realistically by official court portraits.
The Kingdoms of Naples and of Sicily were two separate legal entities under the same sovereign (personal union), under Spanish rule from 1516 to 1714. The reverse of the Neapolitan coin showed a single sceptre surmounted by a crown, dominating two globes, representing on the right Europe, Africa and Asia, and on the left the Americas (without California) and the Pacific Ocean, with rough outlines of Australia. The Latin motto Unus non sufficit (one is not enough) highlighted the global ambition of the Spanish empire, for whom domination over a single continent was clearly not sufficient.
Charles reigned for 35 years, despite his continuous illnesses and extreme fragility, a consequence of the Spanish Habsburg inbreeding habit. When Charles II died without children in 1700, the European part of the Spanish empire imploded after a long Spanish war of succession. Not only were Milan and the south of Italy taken over by the Austrians, but most other important Italian dynasties which had reigned since the Renaissance became extinct within a few decades (the Gonzaga in Mantova in 1707, the Farnese in Parma in 1731, and the Medici in Florence in 1737), all of which led to an almost complete change of dynastic leadership in the peninsula. The beneficiaries were the Bourbons (taking over Naples and Sicily after a brief Austrian interlude, together with Parma) and the Austrian Habsburgs (acquiring Milan, then Florence and later Venice and Modena). The notable exception, apart from the decaying aristocratic republics of Venice, Genoa and Lucca, was the Savoy dynasty in Piedmont, which went on to unify Italy in the nineteenth century.