The Enlightenment in coinage from Milan to Geneva
At the basis of Enlightenment was the idea of a systematic and rational re-examination of political principles affecting every branch of public administration, rejecting prejudice and the simple authority of tradition. The impact of Enlightenment in Europe during the second half of the eighteenth century also extended to monetary reform.
Montesquieu was one of the main figures of European Enlightenment. A medal dedicated to him, dated 1753, here depicted, shows an allegory of Truth as a woman on a cloud. She holds a copy of L'esprit des loix, Montesquieu's most celebrated book, and transmits the Light of Reason from the book to the draped allegory of Justice. Freed from the darkness of ignorance and prejudice, Justice removes the piece of cloth covering her eyes and throws away the dagger of punishment, maintaining only the scales needed to adopt just decisions. A later medal, here depicted, shows Enlightenment as a radiating sun and represents on the obverse Jean Jacques Rousseau and Voltaire, standing uncharacteristically smiling side by side.
The monetary reform in the Duchy of Milan, carried out in 1778, is an interesting example of the European breadth of the ideas of Enlightenment and of its practical effects in attempting to modernize outdated and burdensome monetary practices. Milan was under Austrian rule and the authority of the Empress Maria Theresa, but philosophers and economists worked as civil servants, representing the best of the Milanese Enlightenment with an international outlook. Cesare Beccaria (author of On crimes and punishments, 1764), Pietro Verri (Meditations on political economy, 1771 and Observations on torture, 1777) and Gian Rinaldo Carli (On the origin and trade of money and the creation of Italian mints, 1751), all contributed to the monetary reform, both as intellectuals and as administrators. 1
The operation rationalized a complex system of more than 200 co-existing different types of coins, minted in the previous two centuries in Milan and elsewhere in Europe, with varying purity of gold, silver and copper, often worn or clipped, and with a legal value (established by frequently modified decrees) often diverging from their intrinsic content. The new system was based on gold and silver pieces based on Milanese duodecimal lire, but the reform of copper coinage was considered particularly important for day to day transactions and for fear of popular riots. In order to complete the recoinage, the new pieces were minted in Vienna and Bohemia as well as in Milan. The silver scudo of six lire of 1779, the outcome of the reform, here depicted, represents a veiled Maria Theresa on one side and the shield of Milan on the other.
Another example of attempts to rationalise the currency took place in Geneva. Rousseau was very proud of being a citizen of the Republic of Geneva, but the conservative authorities of his city did not reciprocate the admiration while he was alive. With the beginning of the French Revolution the democratic movement in Geneva grew rapidly, demanding full equality between the aristocracy, the bourgeoisie and the other citizens, often descendants of immigrants. Following the French example but also fearing French annexation, democrats took over the city in late 1792, invoking Rousseau's name in the revolutionary clubs and building him a statue. 2 A the time of the 1792 revolution, the old monetary system of Geneva was rather unhelpful, with a gold pistol worth 35 florins, a silver thaler worth 12 florins and 9 sols and additional duodecimal complications (until 1850 every Swiss canton had its own separate currency system).
The revolutionary government attempted in 1794 to introduce a rational and simple decimal currency, the silver genevois coin, divided into ten decimes. In this it followed the example of France, which was attempting to establish francs and decimes coins as well, but whose circulation was dominated by depreciated paper assignats which caused all metallic currency to be hoarded and disappear from circulation. Geneva instead had a real metallic circulation and the new coins were meant to have a "truly revolutionary character", to prove that the only basis for property was work and to ban the symbols of detested feudalism, inequality and slavery. They carried the mottos, Idleness is theft, Reward of labour and Equality, freedom, independence.
The new system failed because it had no equivalent on the French side and diverged from that of the neighbouring Swiss cantons, with whom trade was most intense. By 1795 Geneva had reverted to the old system. The new silver thaler of XII florins and IX sols, here represented, exhibited on the reverse, next to the revolutionary slogan (Genève Republique, l'an IV de l'egalité, Geneva Republic, year four of equality), the old symbols of Geneva (the city's crest with a key and a half eagle). The obverse was close to traditional models, based on religious references, but could have been mistakenly taken for a homage to the Enlightment. The motto post tenebras lux (after obscurity light) was again in Latin, after a brief attempt to translate it in French. A radiating sun seemed to recall the light of reason of the two medals described at the beginning of this article, but it was in fact an old religious image, with the value of the coin replacing at the centre of the sun the letters IHC, which referred to the name of Jesus in pre-revolutionary coins.
1 Sul disordine delle monete a Milano nel settecento, tre saggi di Cesare Beccaria e Pietro Verri, introduzione di A. Quadro Curzio e R. Scazzieri, Electa, Milano, 1986.
2 Révolutions genevoises, 1782-1798, Maison Tavel, Geneva, 1989.
Luca Einaudi, Centre for History and Economics
Centre for History and Economics,
Cambridge CB3 0AG, UK
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