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coins of the month - march 2023
Renaissance monetary portraiture in Lombardy and Piedmont
The transformation of the Italian free city states (comuni) of the late middle ages into oligarchies and then signorie (rule of a lord, originally with some popular backing, without a specific title endorsed by the Emperor or the Pope) and then into principalities, marquisates, or duchies, was a phenomenon that covered most of Italy north of the Papal states. Such political evolution happened with a combination of popular acclamation of a specific leader, usurpation, coups, military conquest and Imperial or Papal endorsements.
The Republics of Venice, Genoa and Lucca, aristocratic or oligarchical republics, kept their old institutional arrangement until the French Revolution. South of Tuscany the monarchical principle had never been seriously questioned because of the rule of the Popes and of the larger Kingdoms of Naples and of Sicily.
The development on a large scale of realistic portraiture in Italian Renaissance coinage spread from the second half of the fifteenth century onwards in Northern Italy. It was facilitated by the appearance of larger silver coins, the testone, due to the increase of economic activity and the availability of silver. The testone indeed derived its name from the realistic "big head" ("testone" in Italian) present in the coinage for the first time since the Roman empire. Their weight (a little less than 10 grams of silver) and their size allowed larger, more detailed and beautiful prestige coins, along the lines of the propaganda requirements of new rulers.
The Italian Republics did not ordinarily resort to monetary portraits of their heads of State (Dogi in Venice and Genoa, Gonfaloniere in Lucca) because of their Republican organization. The only exception was briefly the minting in Venice in 1471-74 of the lira Tron, after the name of the then doge Nicolò Tron, who had his portrait inserted on the bronze and silver coinage of the Republic but not on its most important gold coinage.
We will see some examples of this new coinage in northern Italy, in particular in the Duchy of Milan under the Sforza, the Marquisate (Marchesato) of Mantova under the Gonzaga, the smaller Marquisate of Saluzzo under the Del Vasto, Monferrato under the Paleologo, and the minuscule Principality of Messerano under the Fieschi.
Milan and its territory had fallen under the control of the Visconti in 1277, first as holders of minor local feudal titles in Lombardy, combined with the authority of Archbishops of Milan, and then as Captain of the People (Capitano del popolo). This was a mandate similar in inspiration to the Roman Tribune of the people, conceived in order to balance the political authority of the Podestà, appointed by the oligarchy. The power of the Visconti became hereditary and they acquired the title of Imperial Vicars (Vicari imperiali) and in 1395 of Dukes of Milan. The family became extinct in 1447, allowing the return of a short-lived oligarchic republic (Aurea Repubblica Ambrosiana).
In 1450, the condottiero (commander of mercenary units, also known as compagnie di ventura) Francesco Sforza, who had married Bianca Maria Visconti, daughter of the last duke, marched with his troops on the city, imposed his rule and became Duke of Milan. He established a new dynasty which played an important part until 1535 in the Duchy's cultural, artistic and economic flourishing and then, ultimately, in its fall under foreign domination. His son Galeazzo Maria Sforza was Duke from 1466 to 1476, until he was murdered owing to his unpalatable character; a patron of the arts and supporter of economic development, he was personally unstable and cruel.
Galeazzo Maria was the first to introduce, in 1474, the new large post-medieval silver coin, the testone, here illustrated, of about 10 grams of silver (named lira da 20 soldi, it weighted 9.79 grams of silver, against the 6.52 grams of the Florentine lira Tron of 1472).
The creation of these large silver coins testified to the increase of economic transactions and of prices in Lombardy and Venice. It was soon followed throughout Europe. It was also the consequence of new important discoveries of silver mines in Tyrol, Bohemia-Moravia, Saxony and Silesia, which permitted a more abundant supply of silver coinage. A by-product of the greater supply of silver was the temporary increase in the relative price of gold and therefore the tendency for gold coinage to be hoarded and disappear from monetary circulation. Gold coins had already reappeared in Europe outside of the Byzantine empire (where gold coinage had continued throughout the Middle Ages) and the Venetian ducat and Florentine florin had been minted since the 13th century. The insufficient circulation of gold coinage created the necessity for the introduction of larger silver coins as a substitute to carry out transactions.
When Galeazzo Maria Sforza died in 1476, his 7 years old son Gian Galeazzo became legally Duke of Milan, under the regency of his mother Bona of Savoy. By 1480, however, the brother of Galeazzo Maria, Ludovico Maria Sforza, better known as Ludovico il Moro, took power after a military conflict and excluded Bona and her aides. He placed the young Duke under control in the Castle of Pavia, where the boy lived in a "Garden of delights", created to distract him with various pleasures and to keep him from contesting his uncle's government. Ludovico ruled Milan for twenty years, even if he became formally Duke only in 1494, when his nephew died prematurely (probably poisoned). Ludovico il Moro played a central role in the balance of power and cultural development of Italy, until he was captured, deposed and imprisoned by the King of France in 1500, opening three and half centuries of French, Spanish or Austrian occupation of Lombardy.
We have here illustrated an extraordinary testone, showing on one side the formal ruler, the boy Gian Galeazzo, with his wavy elegant long hair, and on the other his jailer-uncle, the real ruler Ludovico il Moro, having in common a similar hairstyle but with a far more determined and mature look and imposing jaw.
Mantova. The Gonzaga secured control over Mantova and its surrounding province in Southern Lombardy in 1327, ejecting in a coup the family Bonaccolsi who had preceded them in holding the Signoria of the city. A famous painting (la cacciata dei Bonaccolsi), now in the Ducal palace of Mantova, painted by Domenico Morrone in 1494 on a commission from the Gonzaga, showed regime change as a giant melée of men and horses in the central square of the city. The Gonzaga, as Marquesses and then Dukes of Mantova, created one of the most sophisticated courts of the Italian Renaissance, with Giulio Romano as architect and painter, and prestigious collections of paintings and sculptures, much of it now in the National Gallery in London and in the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna.
Mantova held a strategic position between the Republic of Venice and the Duchy of Milan but also between possessions in northern Italy of the Habsburg Monarchy, the Kingdom of France and the Spanish Empire.
Francesco II Gonzaga (1484-1519), third marquess of Mantova, military commander on behalf of the major powers of the period (the Venetians, the Milanese, the Pope, the French and the Holy Roman Empire), is portrayed here in a half testone silver piece, wearing a cap, a carefully cropped moustache and beard and long hair. The reverse of the coin shows a pyx (pisside), thought to contain the sacred blood of Christ, collected under the cross by the Roman soldier Longinus. This pyx is preserved today in the Church of Sant'Andrea, constructed by the architect Leon Battista Alberti in Mantova. Another monetary portrait of Francesco II is closely connected to Mantegna's portrait now at the Louvre.
Saluzzo. A small state in southern Piedmont, the Marquisateof Saluzzo was controlled by the Del Vasto family, probably since the eleventh century. During the Renaissance Saluzzo tried to balance diplomacy and war to survive the ambitions of its largest and expansionist neighbours, the Kingdom of France and the Duchy of Savoy. But ultimately the latter annexed Saluzzo in 1601, before unifying Piedmont in the eighteenth century and the whole of Italy in 1861.
The coin here represented is a silver cavallotto, minted in Carmagnola by Ludwig II of Saluzzo (1475-1504), who fought alongside the French during the invasions of Italy of the late fifteenth century. The die was produced by the Milanese engraver Francesco da Clivate. The portrait, cuirassed and surmounted by a cap, highlights the powerful nose of its holder, whose imposing nature is confirmed by his magnificent funerary statue lying in state (a gisant in white marble by Benedetto Briosco), still preserved in the church of San Giovanni in Saluzzo.
Monferrato. As was the case with Saluzzo, the Del Vasto family had controlled an era of eastern Piedmont as Marquisate of Monferrato, since the eleventh century after a reorganisation of feudal territories. In 1306 they were succeeded by the family Paleologo, a cadet branch of the Byzantine Emperor, who had to fight continuously to fend off the ambitions of the courts of Turin and of Milan. In 1533, when the male line expired, the Gonzaga of Mantova acquired the Marquisate of Monferrato. They built in Casale one of the largest fortresses of western Italy, which became another reason that Monferrato was an important objective for European powers competing for control of northern Italy, and attracting larger scale wars. Monferrato was finally acquired by Savoy with the Treaty of Utrecht in 1713.
The coin here depicted is a silver testone minted in Casale by Guglielmo II Paleologo, Marquess of Monferrato (1494-1518), ninth holder of the title, who continued the pro French stance of his predecessors and faced conflict with the Milanese neighbours. The dies are engraved by Claude Besson, from Lyon. The portrait shows a man with regular features, the usual long wavy hair under a fashionable beret, wearing civilian clothes over which is carried a medallion.
The Principality of Messerano was a small Papal feudal territory in Northern Piedmont. It was given to the Fieschi in 1394, when a member of the family was bishop of Vercelli with responsibility over this small territory. The Fieschi were a Genoese family of bankers and merchants, from whose ranks an impressive total of 72 cardinals were appointed through the centuries. In 1506 Pope Julius II made the Fieschi counts of Messerano. In 1547, however, Gian Luigi Fieschi overreached with a plot to kill the famous admiral Andrea Doria and the latter's family and replace them at the head of the Republic of Genoa (congiura dei Fieschi). He died while leading the attack, after killing the Doria heir, and the revenge of Andrea Doria destroyed the family in Genoa. The Fieschi remained in control of Messerano, even after popular uprisings, and only in 1741 were the Dukes of Savoy able to obtain control over the territory from the Pope.
The coin here represented is a silver testone of Louis II Fieschi (1528-1532). This is a rare case where the ruler accepts to be represented in his coinage as balding, beneath streaks of long hair, and heavily overweight. The Mint was active from 1158 to 1690.
Luca Einaudi, Centre for History and Economics