«Traditional Means of Payment»

The Head of the State depicted on Coins: Why Doge Niccolo Tron‘s Individual Portrait Lira remained singular in Venetian Coinage

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What do you prefer as head of state? An absolute ruler or a pure figurehead? Sometimes this discussion is mirrored in coinage: Venice made just one coin featuring the portrait of a doge. We are telling you its story.

 

 

Come along with us on our journey through the world of money. Today we are stopping in Venice. We are in the years between 1471 and 1473 A.D.

 

When Charlemagne created his monetary system, the international trade was still in its infancy. The Roman streets were ruinous, travelling was dangerous and luxury items were something that only the bigwigs of the empire could afford.

 

Thus, Charlemagne had only the smallest denomination minted - the penny. 12 pennies equaled a shilling, in theory, and 20 shillings made a pound. Again, in theory, because both the shilling and the pound occurred only in the books of account.

 

When really large bills had to be settled, people resorted to the gold coins of the Byzantine emperors.

 

But times changed. The trade routes improved. Since the crusades, merchant ships plied between West and East and brought luxury goods of the Orient to the Occident.

 

In the wealthy emporium of Venice, the leading politicians soon realized that the highly differentiated economic system could no longer do with the traditional system of coinage.

 

In 1204, Enrico Dandolo introduced a heavy silver coin, the grosso matapan.

In 1284, it was followed up by a gold coin, the ducat.

 

The grosso matapan and the ducat, however, differed in value enormously. That was why the Venetian Doge Niccolo Tron had the lira minted. ‘Lira’ is nothing else than the Italian word for the Carolingian pound of 240 pennies.

 

On its reverse, the lira depicts the winged lion of Saint Mark, the heraldic animal of the Venetians. The lion wears a nimbus and holds the Holy Scripture. The inscription reads SANCTUS MARCUS, Saint Mark. So far, so good: Saint Mark and his lion had been the most important subjects on the Venetian coinage for a long time. It is the obverse that was strikingly different.

 

It depicts the doge of the Republic wearing the official robes and the characteristic headgear.

The doge likewise was not entirely new in the Venetian coinage. He is shown on the ducats receiving from Saint Mark the banner as symbol of the rule over Venice. He is kneeling. His face is stylized.

 

With the lira, it is completely different. We don’t see a stylized doge but a man of flesh and blood, with wrinkles, a bulbous nose and a pointed beard. In exactly the same way he is shown on his magnificent funerary monument in the Frari Church.

 

Powerful, in his highly adorned robes of office, a ruler over a vast empire.

Niccolo Tron was an important merchant. He had outpolled influential opponents. As steadfastly as he prompted his election, Tron promoted the matter of the Republic. He secured control of Cyprus for the Serenissima, enlarged the Arsenal and formed an alliance with the Turkmens, the enemies of the Ottomans in Anatolia.

 

Tron saw himself as head of state, and, in this capacity, his portrait graced the obverse of the new coin.

 

The Venetians tended to differ. At the Doge’s Palace, where the gallery of all doges can still be visited, a black cloth was covering the countenance of the doge who had tried to win control over Venice.

 

In 1355, more than 100 years before Niccolo Tron was elected Doge, Marino Faliero is said to have attempted a coup d’état. The Venetians accused him of trying to make his dynasty become the rulers of the maritime republic. The plot was discovered. The doge was executed.

The coins of Niccolo Tron awakened bitter memories of that coup. Thus, after the doge died, the Venetians had the minting stopped immediately and all his lira pieces withdrawn from circulation.

 

The lira as a coin continued to be struck, but the following editions displayed the usual depiction of the kneeling doge, devoid of any individual facial features.

A powerless, easily replaceable figurehead – that was what the Venetians wanted their doge to be. Individuals like Niccolo Tron were out of place.

 

While other Italian states showed the portraits of their rulers on the gorgeous testone, Niccolo Tron remained the only doge until the fall of the Venetian Republic whose image was ever depicted on a coin.

 

Thank you for listening. And you can find more podcasts about coins and money on the Sunflower Foundation Web page.