Featured Two Classicizing Renaissance Rarities

Discussion in 'Ancient Coins' started by ycon, Jul 20, 2020.

  1. ycon

    ycon Renaissance Man

    I would like to share with you two recent acquisitions. They are both beautiful, rare, anepigraphic, enigmatic, classicizing, and quintessentially Renaissance issues, from the Northern Italian cities of Ferrara and Mantua, and issued by grandfather and grandson. In the following write-up I would like to give some account of their artistic and historical context, imagery, and relation to one another.

    The Idra

    Ferrara. Ercole I d'Este
    Testone or Idra (Doppio Grossone). AG. g. 7.63 mm. 26.00 O: HERCVLES FERRAR DVX II Head facing right. R: Anepigraphic, seven-headed Lernean Hydra over burning embers. CNI 20. MIR 255. Rav. Mor. 4 RR

    Ercole I d'Este by Dosso Dossi, Galleria Estense, Modena

    I have written about the origin of the Testone before, but it is useful to note that before the denomination became fixed at a silver coin of approximately 28mm and roughly 9.5 g. the name referred to a coin in any metal featuring the portrait head (testa) of the ruler. The weight of the Idra is considerably less than the standard of the Milanese Testone, but it sheds light on the coin’s meaning. It is precisely two grossone or exactly the value of the tax implemented on the populace of Ferrara in 1492 to finance the cities expansion and pay for the new neighborhood of the Addizione Erculea. The fact that the coin was introduced in 1493 is testified in an anonymous sixteenth-century chronicle (Bellini 1761, p. 163).

    Screen Shot 2020-06-06 at 12.59.34 AM.png
    Printed illustration of the Idra from Bellini

    In order to understand the symbolism of the monstrous hydra on the reverse of the coin, we must first turn to its obverse. Its legends identify the ruler: Hercules, Duke of Ferrara. While it is common for Renaissance rulers to be identified by their Latin names, Ercole is doing something further in his identification with Hercules. The bust is nude, and it is missing the beaded border found on most earlier testoni. It is clearly an homage to the portraits on Roman coins, the systematic study of which was beginning for the first time. To celebrate the birth of Ercole, the poet Pier Andrea de’ Bassi wrote an account of the labors of Hercules, which in 1475 became one of the first books printed in Ferrara. The Herculean imagery Ercole projected shows his desire to be seen in a classical light, like the semi-divine princes of ancient times (Ercole was also the first Italian Prince to refer to himself as “Divus” on his coins). He frequently used such imagery in his imprese (erudite personal symbols) including other coins with a reverse of the Nemean Lion, medals with the infant Hercules strangling snakes in his crib, and marble plaques in the church of San Cristoforo alla Certosa again including the Hydra, or in dozens of full size sugar sculptures of Hercules slating the dragon produced by his kitchens for a wedding feat in 1491. (See Meserve, A Roman Monster in the Humanist Imagination).

    However, in light of the coins equal value to the Addizione Erculea tax it would be a mistake to view the Hydra as generically Herculean. Instead, it most likely symbolizes Ercole’s clearing of the swamps north of the city to make way for the expansion. His courtiers Pellegrino Prisciani and Giovanni Sabadino degli Arienti both employed the metaphor of conquering the Hydra to describe this feat of infrastructure and engineering. The Hydra was also used on occasion as a metaphor for Ferrara’s frequent enemy the Venetian Republic, and with its seven heads (in most medieval depictions) as a symbol for the seven deadly sins—neither reading seems terribly applicable here. Ravegnani Morosini also writes that it may symbolize the eradication of malaria that was the result of draining the swamps.

    The design is indisputably a miniature masterpiece of Renaissance art, but the question of whom the die engraving may be attributed to is perplexing. Several sources tentatively attribute the dies to Gianntonio di Foligno, this is based on stylistic similarities to two testoni of 1502, which are attributed to him based off a mint document that survives (he was compensated 15 golden ducats for his work). However in an essay on the subject of the coinage of Franceso Francia by Michael Chimienti and Guglielmo Cassanelli (which I muddled my way through with my poor Italian) they point out that Gianntonio had only just started working for the mint in 1493, and though his father Ludovico worked for the mint they discount the possibility of his hand because by 1493 there are no longer any documents associated with him. Instead, they propose an attribution (of at least some of the dies) to the brilliant and multitalented Bolognese artist Francesco Francia (I already own two other coins attributed to him).

    Drawing of a Scene of Antique Sacrifice by Francesco Francia, Morgan Library

    According to their thesis Ercole would have met Francia at the court of Giovanni II Bentivoglio in Bologna, where he had a prolonged visit, and would have engaged him to design the money. There is a related medal (Hill 1930, 119) which they also give to Francia. As far as I can tell there is no documentary evidence linking Francia to the mint of Ferrara, or indeed to almost any of his medallic and monetary output. The main source for Francia’s work as a medallist at all is from the notoriously unreliable account of Giorgio Vasari. Therefore the reconstruction of his oeuvre is a tricky task, and any attempt must be taken with a grain of salt. Nonetheless on the basis of sheer artistry—and command of an esoteric classical subject—I find the attribution to Francia compelling (if not completely convincing).

    Hill 119, along with other Gonzaga medals

    The EPO Quattrino

    Mantua. Federico II Gonzaga
    1519-1540. Anonymous quattrino attributed to Federico II. Æ gr. 1,85 VIRGILIVS MARO Laureate head of Virgilio. R:. Anepigraphic, EPO over flower Bignotti 2; MIR 405.

    Federico II Gonzaga, as a child, by Francesco Francia, from the Met

    The second coin I have to present is not quite so prestigious or rare as the first one (costing me about 1/60 the price) but it is certainly scarce, and very difficult to find in decent condition.

    The obverse of the coin depicts the poet Virgil who was featured on the coins of Mantua from the time of the first Gonzaga dukes. (A grossetto from the mid 14th century (1328-69) issued under Luigi or Guido Gonzaga appears to be the first Virgilian issue.) Virgil was born near Mantua in the town of Andes in the year 70 BC. He became a symbol of the city. One could hardly find a more apt representation of the Mantuan court’s classical and humanistic aspirations. The coinage of Federico II, is in fact rife with classical symbolism. Besides the present quattrino there is another featuring the word OΛVMΠOΣ (Olympos) on the reverse with the Duke’s portrait on the obverse. There are also a very rare Doppio Ducato and Testone which feature the prince’s head on the obverse and an image of mount Olympus, surmounted by the legend “Fides,” on the reverse.

    Both of the Fides/Mount Olympus types as well—unusually—as a third type of quattrino featuring the same image are attributed to the workmanship of Gian Marco Cavalli (See Verosini Il Bagattino per Federico II Gonzaga). The EPO type is anonymous and as such there is some debate about who struck it, with some scholars giving it to Federico II’s paternal grandfather Federico I. However, if it is a coin of Federico II it seems reasonable to me to think that the dies may be by Cavalli. This is entirely my own conjecture, as I have found nothing written on the subject. In my opinion, though, the simple, elegant and classicizing style of the head of Virgil on my coin (so different from the earlier amateurish bust on the small coins of Federico’s predecessors) is very close to the work that is generally given to Cavalli.

    Like the Idra of Federico’s maternal grandfather, this coin has a mysterious anipegraphic reverse. It consists solely of the acronym EPO and a small flower. This article in cronacanumismatica contains a number of interesting theories, about its meaning which I will summarize here. The EPO monogram is not only found on this coin, it also appears on frescoes in the Asola palace and on medals. In Latin EPOS refers to an epic poem and in Greek EPOΣ means love. It could indeed be a pun on both of these meaning poet of love and referring to Virgil. Others think it is an acronym E (picorvm) P (oetarvm) O (ptimo) (“To the best of epic poets”) or E (picorvm) P (oetarvm) O (ptimvs), (“The best of epic poets”), or some close variation. One 18th century author had the novel and baseless idea that it stood for E (vsebivs) P (otest) O (mnia), 'Eusebio can do everything', alluding to the Jewish Eusebio Malatesta, who had the mint patent under Federico from 1480 to 1484.

    More recently however it has been proposed that the EPO does not refer to Virgil at all, but instead to Federico, in particular because the legend appears on a medal of Federico’s that has nothing to do with Virgil. Instead, the simplest explanation is that it simply means E(x) P(rincipe) O(ptimo), “To the Best Prince.”

    Ercole, Isabella, and Federico

    These two coins are linked to each other further by their connection to one of the most storied figures of the Italian Renaissance: Isabella d’Este, daughter of Ercole I d’Este, and mother of Federico II Gonzaga.

    Cartoon of Isabella d'Este by Leonardo da Vinci, from the Louvre

    I won’t go further into the biographies of these three fascinating individuals, as they are easy to read about and I’ve written enough already. However, it is worth noting that one of the most significant provenances a coin can have is the small silver eagle countermark associated with the Gonzaga collection, which in turn is thought to have originated with the d’Este family and gone to Mantua with Isabella d’Este herself—I believe @AncientJoe and @Voulgaroktonou have examples if they are willing to share.

    Thank you for reading and please share anything you think is relevant.
    Last edited: Jul 20, 2020
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  3. Cachecoins

    Cachecoins Historia Moneta Supporter

    Outstanding work and coinage, each from an incredibly interesting time and place. Thanks!
    spirityoda and ycon like this.
  4. Robidoux Pass

    Robidoux Pass Well-Known Member

    Superb explanation, great illustrations, and most interesting coins once their story is told. Thanks for sharing.
    Orielensis, spirityoda and ycon like this.
  5. Voulgaroktonou

    Voulgaroktonou Well-Known Member

    DonnaML, ycon and zumbly like this.
  6. AncientJoe

    AncientJoe Supporter! Supporter

    Great post!

    Here's my sestertius:


    Ex. Gonzaga collection; Ex. HC Levis Collection, Ars Classica Auction 11 lot 831, June 18, 1925
  7. seth77

    seth77 Well-Known Member

    Incredible coins and the testone is of extraordinary quality. Although the period is a bit outside my focus, here are a couple of quattrini of Guidobaldo I da Montefeltro, as Duke of Urbino (1482-1502 and 1502-1508):

    - an earlier specimen "a la testa piccola" possibly minted while Urbino was under the stewardship of Ottaviano Ubaldini della Carda (Guidobaldo's uncle) and brother Antonio da Montefeltro in the 1480s:

    - and a later cca. 1495-1502/1508 specimen "a la testa grossa" minted while Guidobaldo was condottiere di ventura for Venice and Pope Julius II:

    The reverses have two different types of shields with the coats of arms of Guidobaldo at different stages in his life.

    These pieces, minted at Casteldurante, are far from the quality, rarity and value of your testone, the workmanship is rather mediocre, but they have that air of similarity of the Italian Renaissance: the general shape of the effigy of the prince or the haircut so en vogue around 1500.
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  8. curtislclay

    curtislclay Well-Known Member

    Two interesting and impressive acquisitions!

    Is it known why the hydra should be shown atop a pile of burning embers?
    ycon likes this.
  9. ycon

    ycon Renaissance Man

    That's a good question that I wondered myself. I read nothing about it when doing my research. My only guess is that it is a reference to the fire that was needed to kill the hydra by cauterizing its wounds?
    curtislclay likes this.
  10. Cucumbor

    Cucumbor Dombes collector Supporter

    Exceptionnal Idra. I wouldn't cauterize its wounds though, preferring it continues bleeding...

    Here's the first appearance of an "antique like" portrait on a coin issued on the land of what would someday become France, copying the milanese Francesco Sforza

    Jean II de Bourbon (1456-1488), Franc à cheval
    Atelier de Trévoux
    +IONES*DVX*BORBONI*TREVOBCII׃DNS. Buste cuirassé du Prince à gauche, portant le collier de l'ordre de St Michel.
    DEXTER A*D NI.*EXAL TAVIT*MEA Le Prince casqué et cuirassé à cheval, brandissant une épée et passant à droite. La housse est semée de lis, accompagnée de la brisure (les armes de la maison de Bourbon).
    3,44 gr.
    Ref : Divo Dombes # 1 (5 exemplaires decrits), Mantellier -, Poey d’Avant -, Friedberg # 119

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  11. curtislclay

    curtislclay Well-Known Member

    Apparently the hydra is being consumed by the flames, since tongues of fire are visible not only directly below the monster, but left and right of its two lowest heads and between its uppermost and middle heads on each side.
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  12. ycon

    ycon Renaissance Man

    My other major recent purchase also features a mythological creature being consumed by flames. Bona di Savoia with her phoenix:

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  13. talerman

    talerman Well-Known Member

    Great coins and very interesting write-up. You should also post this on the "Post Your Renaissance Coins!" thread.
    ycon likes this.
  14. Severus Alexander

    Severus Alexander Blame my mother. Supporter

    Our Renaissance Man strikes again... congrats on these two great coins!!
    ycon likes this.
  15. Orfew

    Orfew Draco dormiens nunquam titillandus Supporter

    Wow, some great coins in this thread. Nice coins all!
    Cucumbor likes this.
  16. talerman

    talerman Well-Known Member

    "The coinage of Federico II, is in fact rife with classical symbolism. Besides the present quattrino there is another featuring the word OΛVMΠOΣ (Olympos) on the reverse with the Duke’s portrait on the obverse."

    Here is the other Federico quattrino which @ycon mentions. I am afraid it is not in great condition.

    Mantua. Federico II Gonzaga, 1519-1540. Quattrino Æ gr. 1,74 FE.DVX.M.ET.MON.F (errat) Bust of duke l. R: 2 leaves/OΛVM/ΠOΣ/ flower
    Bignotti 57v; MIR 488v; CNI IV,p.287,206-207v; Neumann 615v.

    Although it seems always to be described as a quattrino, as a copper coin it is really a bagattino. Quattrini were billon coins.

    Mantua Federico II Quattrino w Bust & Olympos in Greek script nd obv  361.jpg Mantua Federico II Quattrino w Bust & Olympos in Greek script nd rev  364.jpg
  17. ycon

    ycon Renaissance Man

    I'm really having trouble stopping myself from starting a side collection of small renaissance copper. I like them even when they're junky!
    DonnaML likes this.
  18. Egry

    Egry Supporter! Supporter

    I really do love these coins, such a cool period.

    I’ll share my French Teston from the period only slightly later than those shown.

    Francis I, Type 3, Paris Mint. 1515 to 1547

  19. ycon

    ycon Renaissance Man

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  20. Egry

    Egry Supporter! Supporter

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  21. talerman

    talerman Well-Known Member

    Here is one more type of the Federico II Quattrino. I will post it here rather than on Post your Renaissance coins since all the backchat is on this thread. Also, it will only be of interest to a very limited audience. It is again not in great condition.

    Mantua. Federico II Gonzaga, 1519-1540. Quattrino Æ gr. 1,56. O: FE.II.MR.MANTVAE.IIIIII. Bust l. R: FIDES over Mt. Olympus
    Bignotti 52. Moro.II,30. CNI IV,p.279,133 ( Tav.XXII,23). MIR 485.

    Mantua Federico II Quattrino w Bust & Mt Olympus nd obv 480.jpg Mantua Federico II Quattrino w Bust & Mt Olympus nd rev  356.jpg
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