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Best of Europe II: Europe's Most Beautiful Coins from the Renaissance to Modern Times

By Jürg Conzett Welcome to "Best of Europe II." Here I want to show you Europe's most beautiful coins from the Renaissance to modern times. The Renaissance broke down the barriers of medieval thought and so, after an interruption of many hundreds of years, it was possible to portray rulers on the coins without being reproached for committing blasphemy. From then on the human being was the focal point. This of course led the way to self-portrayal in all its colours. With the triumphant advance of the taler, the most successful large silver coin of all times, diesinkers had at long last enough space for their artistic skills to come to the fore. It became a matter of prestige to mint beautiful coins. Princes, kings, towns – all competed for their presence on the most beautiful, best minted money. The results are astounding.

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Double ducat of the Milan duke Ludovico Maria Sforza (14941498), made of gold

The trading and harbour towns in northern Italy were the gateways of the trade routes to the Orient. Whoever ruled over northern Italy possessed a huge instrument of power, namely money! No wonder then that towns like Milan, Venice, Florence, Bologna, Este and Genoa became the bone of contention for the powerful and those lusting for power. The gentleman on this double ducat is Ludovico Maria Sforza, who firmly held the reins of rule over Milan and Genoa prior to 1500.

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Testone of Ercole I d'Este, duke of Ferrara, (1471-1505), made of silver, minted 1492/93

The clever, hawk-faced Duke Ercole I ruled over Este and Ferrara. His main enemies were Venice and the pope. To ward off these unpleasant contemporaries, Ercole d'Este pursued an ingenious marriage policy. He got tied up with the Sforzas, with Milan and Genoa thus, as well as Bologna and Naples. Ercole also liked to compare himself with his heroic Greek namesake, Heracles.

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Giulio of Pope Giulio II (1503-1513), made of silver

Pope Giulio II had qualities true of a true Renaissance prince, too. He rebuilt the Pontifical State that had been ruined by the Borgias. In 1508, he conquered Bologna, and a year later subjugated Venice. This turned Giulio into an enemy of the French, who had Milan in their power. Naturally, in true Renaissance manner, Giulio also was a great lover and patron of the arts. Michelango created a wonderful bronze in his likeness that stood in the San Petronio church in Bologna.

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Testone of Alfonso I d'Este, duke of Ferrara (1505-1534), made of silver

Pope Giulio II broke his alliance with France and Ferrara. This annoyed the gentleman on this coin, Alfonso I of Ferrara, for a long time. Owing to his flair for artillery and cannons Alfonso committed a sacrilege: on recapturing Bologna in 1511, Giulio's bronze sculpture fell into Alfonso's hands. He had the figure produced by Michelangelo melted down and cast into a cannon which he nicknamed "La Giulia."

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Half dicken undated of Matthias Schiner, bishop of Sion (14991522), made of silver

The skirmish for power between France and the pope for northern Italy spread further. This well-fed gentleman was the energetic bishop from the Swiss canton of Valais and later cardinal Matthias Schiner. He was loyal to Rome, and for this reason recruited mercenaries for the pope and the Sforzas from among the Swiss confederates. Pope Giulio II was well aware of the confederates' courage and defiance of death from his own experience. And this is no doubt why in 1506 the pope created the Swiss Guards – still in charge in the Vatican today.

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Taler of the city of Solothurn, minted in 1501

Mercenaries were the main export merchandise of the old Swiss confederation. And so what? In the end, everyone involved earned a lot of good money. Second-born farmer's sons had nothing to do at home anyway: the farms always went to the firstborns. So instead of working for fathers or older brothers, these farmhands were better off in active service abroad. The authorities in the federal places also earned well and were restored to financial soundness with the generously paid pension money.

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Testone of the French king Francis I (1515-1547), made of silver, minted in Lyon in 1540

And what do you think about this gentleman? The French king didn't look all that terrifying, did he? Yet it was Francis I who as a 21 year-old discouraged the papal army and the Swiss mercenaries at the Battle of Marignano in what was the worst defeat of their entire history. With this victory Francis became the determining force in Europe. In 1519, he still seemed certain of a meteoric rise to power – if only there hadn't been that other family of European rulers. So who would become the next emperor?

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Half ducaton undated of the Holy Roman emperor Charles V (1519–1556), made of silver, minted in Naples around 1552

One became emperor of the Holy Roman Empire by purchasing the votes of the princely electors. This naturally involved a lot of money. His election cost Charles V the amazing sum of 852,000 guilders! From then on poor Francis I of France didn't do too well, because Charles had gathered an incredible amount of power. He was emperor, king of Spain, king of Naples, king of the Netherlands and archduke of Austria. In other words: the undisputed ruler of the Old and New Worlds.

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Scudo worth 3 lire of the Savoyard duke Emmanuel Philibert (1553-1580), made of silver, minted in 1569

The attractive gentleman on this scudo is Emanuele Filiberto the Ironhead. You needed one of those in the duchy of Savoy, particularly if you were aiming at reconquering territories lost to France. As is generally known, headstrong people don't shy away from long winding paths or high obstacles. And so Emanuele Filiberto married Margaret of France, the sister of the French king, to secure his duchy. Did Margaret have anything to say in all this? Probably not!

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Sovereign worth 30 shillings undated of the English queen Elizabeth I (1558-1603), made of gold

Wherever the balance of powers was threatened in Europe, England wasn't far. The young Madonnalike lady on this beautiful sovereign is none other than Elizabeth I. And though it turned out to be effective, the way she sank the Spanish Armada was not particularly ladylike. Her dear ex-brother-inlaw, Philip II, son of Emperor Charles V, had sent his fleet to invade England. The Spanish-English battle for military and economic supremacy on the world oceans had definitely begun.

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Ducaton of the Savoyard duke Charles Emmanuel I (15801630), made of silver, minted in 1588

It wasn't only the big fish who played power games. The small fry also knew how to exploit certain opportunities. Charles Emmanuel I of Savoy profited from the fact that the French king preferred playing with his mates to pursuing politics. The duke cheekily appropriated Saluzzo and the Provence. To mark this event a victory coin had to be produced. Here we have the duke, born under the sign of Sagittarius, assuming the form of a centaur and crushing the French throne into the dirt. But watch out, Charles Emmanuel, even centaurs are not invincible.

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Commemorative medallion marking the Treaty of Lyon in 1601 of the French king Henry IV (1589-1610), made of gold

Now, who was it who vanquished the centaur in Greek mythology? Right, it was Heracles! And who is the gentleman here in the guise of Heracles? Henry IV. In 1589 he became the new king of France, and he didn't appreciate seeing the possessions of the crown misappropriated. Here Henry-Heracles repossesses the crown and flogs the poor centaur – who everybody recognises immediately as Charles Emmanuel of Savoy by his pointed beard.

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Quarter ducat of Vincent II Gonzaga, duke of Mantua (16261627), made of silver, minted in 1627

The well-fed gentleman on this quarter ducat is the duke of Mantua. As from 1612, things were only going downhill in this duchy in northern Italy. Vincenzo II and his brothers loved pomp and splendour, expensive diversions and magnificent self-portrayals. Politics, on the other hand, was hard work.

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Double taler of Adolf Frederick I, duke of MecklenburgSchwerin (1592-1628), made of silver, minted in Gadebusch in 1613

If you were on the wrong side, even Fortuna, the goddess of luck, couldn't help you – particularly when the opponent was called Wallenstein, and served the Catholic emperor of the Holy Roman Empire. This was the bitter experience that Adolf Frederick of Mecklenburg-Schwerin had to make. During the 30 Years' War he fought on the side of protestant Denmark. When Wallenstein won, handsome Adolf Frederick lost his duchy in 1628. And now guess: who was to become the new duke of Mecklenburg? None other than Albrecht Wenzel Eusebius of Wallenstein himself, of course!

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Scudo of Pope Innocent XI (1676-1689), made of silver, minted in 1677

A pope who would protect the Protestants? This could only have been Innocent XI – one of the most eminent popes of the 17th century. Without him, the Turks would have captured Vienna, and Louis XIV would have chased all the Huguenots out of France. On this scudo you can see the tolerant pope with the distinctive features personally.

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Double taler undated of the city of Nuremberg, made of silver, minted in 1705

Nuremberg, as free imperial city, was formally ruled by the emperor only. The bustling town made the most of this situation. Art, culture, trade and artisan work flourished. In 1705, Joseph I of Hapsburg was made the new emperor of the Holy Roman Empire, and Nuremberg paid its due reverence. It had this wonderful double taler minted with the emperor's portrait on the obverse. Self-confident, however, the town claimed the reverse for itself. This launched a huge boom: henceforth not only noblemen but also towns competed for creating the most beautiful coins.

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10 ducats of the city of Zurich, made of gold, minted in 1724

What could a free imperial city depict on its coins, since it didn't have a prince? The town's coat of arms and the city saints, of course. However, this was rather monotonous, even if the city – like Zurich – has a lion on its coat of arms. And the city saints were not really acceptable in a protestant town. Fortunately town views had become popular, and Zurich was eager to follow the trend. This 10-ducat coin gives a wonderful view from the lake on the prosperous town on the Limmat river.

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Convention taler of the archbishopric of Eichstätt, made of silver, minted in 1781

The archbishopric of Eichstätt in Bavaria used the sede vacante to portray itself for once rather than bishops and saints. The unusual bird's eye perspective makes this wonderful taler particularly enticing. But it's worth taking a look at the sky, too. God is keeping an eye over Eichstätt, thus protecting it.

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Double louis aux lunettes of the French king Louis XV (17151774), made of gold, minted in 1766

The kings of France didn't want to have anything to do with town views, however. They wanted to decorate the coins with their own portraits. This good-looking gentleman is the French king Louis XV, the father of rococo. Flirting, decadence, and dissipating money were typical features of life at his court – the French Revolution would have an answer for that in due time.

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Crown of the British queen Victoria (1837-1901), made of silver, minted in 1844

The name of the pretty young lady on this taler is Victoria. This unusual woman ascended to the British throne at the tender age of 18. And she seems to have liked it there, because she reigned for over 60 years, nine pregnancies notwithstanding. The British Empire flourished during this time. Victoria also stood for reticence and prudery, though unjustifiably so. The queen was a passionate person, and quite receptive to male gallantry.

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100 francs of the French emperor Napoleon III (1852-1870), made of gold, minted in 1869

In 1871, after being defeated by Prussia, the French emperor Napoleon III portrayed here profited from his charm and charisma. Having fallen under his spell, the British queen gave him her support by asking Emperor William I to be clement towards him. This is rather an ironic touch to history in view of the war that had been waged between their respective ancestors. The uncle of the gentleman shown here was Napoleon I, who had been a bitter enemy of Victoria's grandfather, George III.

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20 francs (Vreneli) of the Swiss Confederation, made of gold, minted in Bern in 1904

And what was going on in Switzerland in the meantime? As from 1847, the country was recovering from the civil war, trying to become a federal state. It was essential to defang the centuries-old smoldering conflicts between Catholics and Protestants, urban and rural cantons. A non-committal coin devoid of any political or religious connotation had to be minted. What would be better suited than a pretty maiden encircled by the majestic Alps? The "gold Vreneli" is still very popular today. Whoever is proud of being Swiss offers the coin at christenings, communions and confirmations.

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best of europe II: europe's most beautiful coins from the renaissance to modern times  
best of europe II: europe's most beautiful coins from the renaissance to modern times