The Idra Ferrara. Ercole I d'Este (1471-1505). 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). 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.