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Italian noble families on coins – Part 1

In this blog series, we will explore the most famous Italian noble families of the Middle Ages and the Renaissance and their coins. We will look at how did they rose to power, what are their heraldic symbols and some of the coins we have in our collection. In this part we will be looking at Visconti and Sforza families, as well as Este family that had connections to many European ruling houses.

Visconti of Milan

The Visconti were the most powerful family in Milan until the early Renaissance period. Their rise to power started in the late 11th century with Ottone Visconti who is said to have had a close relationship with the Holy Roman Emperor Henry IV. The founder of the Visconti lordship of Milan was the archbishop named Ottone as well, who took control of the city from the rival Della Torre family in 1277 AD, establishing Visconti power. They ruled Milan from 1277 to 1447 AD, initially as Lords and later as Dukes, from 1395 AD, when Gian Galeazzo Visconti sought to expand his interests in Northern Italy and Tuscany.

The Visconti coat of arms quite memorable in heraldry and adorns the historical buildings all around Milan. It depicts the so-called biscione, an animal variously interpreted as grass snake, viper or basilisk devouring a human, a male youth. The biscione remained associated with the Duchy of Milan even after the Visconti main line ceased to exist.

Coat of arms of the Visconti

Visconti rule in Milan ended with the death of Filippo Maria Visconti in 1447 AD. His daughter Bianca Maria married into the Sforza family, so he was succeeded by his son-in-law Francesco I Sforza, who established the rule of the Sforza dynasty in Milan.

A silver Grosso of Filippo Maria Visconti, the last Visconti ruler of Milan

Sforza of Milan

As the heirs of Visconti, Sforza family came to power in Milan in 1447 AD and ruled the Duchy of Milan until 1535 AD, when the last member of the main branch died. The Sforza coat of arms incorporated the Visconti biscione and an Imperial eagle. They also ruled Pesaro, Bari, Cotignola and Caravaggio. The founder of the dynasty was Muzio Attendolo Sforza, who was the father of the first Sforza ruler of Milan, Francesco I Sforza. Through marriage, they sought to align themselves with Borgia family, albeit unsuccessfully since the Borgias were quick to annul the marriage when the need for the alliance ceased. The Sforza court was notable for its patronage of artists, even taking Leonardo Da Vinci into their service. Ludovico Sforza (1494-99 AD) was the famed patron of Leonardo and many other artists,

marking the richest period of the Milanese Renaissance. Ludovico is known as the man who commissioned The Last Supper, one of Da Vinci’s most famous works.

The Last Supper by Leonardo Da Vinci, commissioned by Ludovico Sforza in the Convent of Santa Maria delle Grazie in Milan.

One of the most notable members of the family and the most notorious was Galeazzo Maria Sforza (1468-76 AD), the 5th Duke of Milan. He was known as the ruthless tyrant towards his subjects, even ousting his own mother from Milan, which they ruled jointly in his first years as the Duke. He was an abuser and torturer, which ultimately led to his assassination in 1476 AD, when he was executed by three high-ranking officials of his court in St. Stephen’s church, the day after Christmas.

Este of Ferrara, Modena and Reggio

Villa d’Este in Tivoli, one of the masterpieces of Renaissance architecture and landscaping.

The family of Este are one of the most prolific noble families, with ties all over Europe. The house of Este is divided in two main branches: the elder branch and the younger branch. The elder branch, known as the Younger House of Welf (Guelph), produced the Dukes of Bavaria, Dukes of Saxony and Dukes of Brunswick – Lüneburg. The latter became styled as the Electors of Hanover and it is from them that the British Hanoverian monarchs were descended.

The younger branch of the house of Este is the Italian side which included rulers of Ferrara, Modena and Reggio. They were descendants of Fulco d’Este and were known as Margraves of Este from the 12th century onwards. The came to lordships of Ferrara, Modena and Reggio in the 13th century, as well as becoming hereditary papal vicars in the 14th century. They were based in the city of Este until 1240 AD, when they made Ferrara their capital. Under their rule, the city blossomed into a cultural centre, renowned for music and prominent patronage of arts.

At the very end of the 16th century, Estensi lost Ferrara. Among the several Dukes of Modena who followed in the 17th century, Francesco I (1629–58 AD) was the most important. He came to the throne during the turbulent period of the Thirty Years’ War and chose alliances that he thought would help him restore Ferrara. He was initially allied to Spain, then to France. He died tragically from malaria, on the battlefield, fighting against the Spaniards. Photo: https://www.baldwin.co.uk/product/italy-modena-francesco-i-deste-1-2-lira-1657/

A silver ½ Lira of Francesco I d’Este, Duke of Modena and Reggio.

Written by Ema Sikic (ema@baldwin.co.uk).

Bibliography

  • Hale, J. R. (1981), A concise encyclopaedia of the Italian Renaissance, Thames & Hudson
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The Second reign Gold Angels of Edward IV (1471-83) : An introduction

Edward IV born on the 28th April 1442 at the port city of Rouen in the northern French region of Normandy, to Richard Duke of York and Cecily Neville. Crowned June 28th 1461 at Westminster Abbey aged just nineteen, wedded to an Elizabeth Woodville. Died 9th April of 1483 aged thirty nine. The first King of the House of York securing his claim to the throne by vanquishing the Lancastrians during the Battle of Towton on the 29th March 1461, often dubbed the bloodiest battle in the Wars of the Roses. This essentially culminated in Edward IV displacing Henry VI, crowned shortly afterwards.

As King he had gained a reputation for being politically savvy, known as an accomplished statesman and equally a capable soldier. The War of the Roses, his dislocated relationship with the Earl of Warwick (Richard Neville – his chief ally, cousin and de facto mentor), Warwick’s defection and the Battle of Barnet, the role of Margaret of Anjou, the push for marriage with Elizabeth Woodville despite her hailing from a family of Lancastrian sympathisers, Henry VI’s murder at the Tower and all the associated intrigue; when blended together are inextricable factors in the field of vision when Edward IV is considered. A tumultuous, mildly progressive and dramatic double reign spanning 1461-70, then reinstated from 1471-83. Equally it was during his reign that Caxton introduced the English printing press, Kent born William Caxton travelled to Germany to witness firsthand the developments of the Gutenberg press; on returning home he pioneered the first printed English book, the ‘Dictes or sayingis of the Philosophres [1477] and the poems of Chaucer.

Numismatically, a rich innovative period especially in the realm of hammered Gold. In his first regnal years we witness the introduction of two new denominations, the Ryal (or Rose Noble) having a value of 10 shillings and the first Angels, struck up carrying the value of six shillings and eight pence, to replace the old Noble which ceased in production by 1464. The initial Angels were somewhat inspired by the French Angelot that had been issued since the mid 14th century, archangel Michael slaying the dragon being the recognized or universal motif of these new coins. They were referred to as Angel-Nobles at first, the ecclesiastical design made them immediately recognisable.

In his second reign, the area of focus here, only the Angel and its half were the sole Gold denominations issued, this paid tribute to the success of both coins, perhaps most importantly the former held up the essential measure of six shillings and eight pence, integral to commerce. They were offered in Tower mint with seven accompanying mint mark combinations or as a Bristol mint, sporting a B in the reverse waves, exclusively to the mintmark small annulet (1472-73), a recognised rarity. None were struck at the Ecclesiastical mints of Durham or York, Tower mint types can be narrowed down to the following mintmarks, short cross fitchee (1471), large annulet (1471-72), pellet in annulet (1473-7), cross and four pellets (1473-77), pierced cross (1473-77), pierced cross and pellet (1477-80) and lastly Heraldic cinquefoil (1480-83).

Gold Angels, with their inception in Edward IV’s first reign continued to be issued right the way up to Charles I’s time, with Nicholas Briot’s pattern Angel being the great rarity known, three in private hands; more common examples presenting at auction or dealers trays as 10 shilling Angels, Royal touchpieces. The journey of the Angel saw a monetary fluctuation from 6s 8d right up to 11s, an important coin heavily collected in the hammered Gold English series, still enjoying a broad appeal today. The iconic and timeless design helped separate it from other contemporary pieces, distancing itself from the representation of the King in ship, with its lofty nautical evocations that had been in the popular consciousness since the second period Nobles of Edward III in 1344-46.

Find herewith two excellent and distinguished examples, both carrying the pierced cross and pellet mintmarks issued between 1477-80. The Gold used was at a fineness of 23ct (0.995 fine) at a nominal weight of 5.184 grams to the Angel of six shillings and eight pence (6s 8d).

BIBLIOGRAPHY:

  • Schneider, ‘The Herbert Schneider collection, Volume 1, English Gold Coins 1257-1603’ Woodhead, P, Spink 1996 (SCBI 47)
  • ‘Coins of England’ Pre Decimals edition, 2020, Spink
  • Kings and Queens : The Concise guide, Cavendish, R. D&C 2007
  • ‘The coinages of Edward IV and of henry VI (restored) C .E. Blunt and C. A. Whitton, BNJ 25 (1945) pp 4-59
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Coins of the Mughal Empire

From 16th to the 18th century the Mughal Empire commanded impressive wealth and resources on the Indian subcontinent, almost unprecedented in their glory. Growing European presence and its increasing demand for Indian raw and finished products created great wealth in the Mughal courts. Mughal elite provided patronage of painting, literature, and architecture, especially during the reign of Shah Jahan. Mughals created many masterpieces of jewellery, painting and especially architectural wonders such as Agra Fort, Red Fort, Shalamar Gardens, and the Taj Mahal.

Early Empire and currency

The foundation of the Mughal Empire is dated to 1526 AD. The founder was Ẓahir al-Din Muḥammad Babur a warrior chieftain and descendant from famous conquerors Genghis Khan and Timur. He was aided by the neighbouring Safavid and Ottoman Empires to defeat the Sultan of Delhi and establish the Mughal dynasty. First ruler of note was his grandson, Akbar the Great (1556–1605), who established the administrative structure of Empire that will last for centuries to come.

The silver denomination minted under Akbar, the grandson of Babur (the warrior-founder of Mughals).

The Mughal Empire was created by military conquest; however, Akbar did not suppress the peoples he came to rule. He incorporated their elites into the imperial structure and practiced religious tolerance across his vast territories. He also created agricultural tax system which became the foundation of Mughal wealth. The taxes were paid in regulated silver currency – Mughals adopted and standardized the rupee (silver) and dam (copper).

A silver rupee from the reign of Muhammad Shah (1719 – 1748).

The ratio of dam to rupee was initially 48 to one, in the start of Akbar’s reign. The dam’s value continued rising until the 17th century when it became 38 dam to one rupee. This was because more industrial uses of copper and its alloys where being developed, such as the need for bronze in cannons and manufacture of brass utensils. Eventually, by 1660s, the value of dam versus rupee was 16 to one. It is important to note that the Mughals minted coins with high purity of about 96% or more.

Later emperors and trading networks

A gold mohur of emperor Aurangzeb Alamgir (1658-1707).

The 17th century was marked by three greatest Mughal emperors: Jahangir (1605 -1627), Shah Jahan (1628–1658), and Aurangzeb (1658–1707). The reigns of Jahangir and Shah Jahan are known for political stability, strong economic activity and excellence in arts and architecture. The last major emperor of Mughals was Aurangzeb Alamgir (1658-1707). His mother was Mumtaz Mahal, a Persian empress consort of Shah Jahan. She was his favourite wife – it is for her that the emperor Shah Jahan built the Taj Mahal as her resting place.

The beauty of the monument is thought to represent Mumtaz Mahal’s beauty and undying love her spouse had for her. During the reign of Aurangzeb, the Empire achieved its maximum geographical reach. He fully implemented Islamic Law (Sharia) across the entire country. During his reign, the demand for Indian agricultural and industrial exports was high. In the 16th and 17th centuries European and non-European trading organizations were established and started expanding rapidly in the subcontinent. The trading networks grew both in-land and coastally, increasing the internal surplus of precious metals.

Decline of the Mughals and British rule

A gold mohur of Shah Alam I (1707-1712)

At Aurangzeb’s death, many parts of the Empire were in open revolt. The decline was imminent as the country descended into conflicts and power grabs. His son, Shah Alam I (1707-1712, also known as Bahadur Shah) attempted reforms of administration and change of religious policies, but the dissolution was already taking hold. In 1719 alone, four emperors ascended the throne. After years of infighting and conflicts between different kingdoms and states, the East India Company (EIC) started overtaking what was left of the Mughal territories and trade connections. First, they established nominally Mughal protectorates in Delhi and Bengal, however, the role of Mughal emperors was downsized to a mere formality.

After the defeat of the last Mughal ruler Bahadur Shah Zafar in 1858, East India Company deposed him and exiled him. With the Government of India Act 1858 the British Crown assumed control of EIC territories. In 1876 the British Queen Victoria assumed the title of Empress of India.

This article was written by Ema Sikic (ema@baldwin.co.uk).


Literature

  • Asher, C. B.; Talbot, C. (2006), India Before Europe, Cambridge University Press
  • Gilbert, M. J. (2017), South Asia in World History, Oxford University Press
  • Richards, J. F. (1995), The Mughal Empire, Cambridge University Press
  • Richards, J. F. (2003), The Unending Frontier: An Environmental History of the Early Modern World, University of California Press
  • Tracy, J. D. (1997), The Political Economy of Merchant Empires: State Power and World Trade, 1350–1750, Cambridge University Press