Florentine Florin

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The Florentine florin was the first European gold coin to achieve the status of an international currency after the disappearance of European gold coinage in the eighth century. Florence first issued the florin in 1252. It weighed 3.53 grams or 72 grains of fine gold and took its name from the fleur-de-lis, the iris flower whose image adorned one side of the florin. The florin preceded the era of milled coins with corrugated edges that protected coins against the clippers. To circumvent the clippers, florins circulated in leather bags sealed by the mint. The seal was intended to vouch for the integrity of the coins inside. Thus anyone who wished to clip coins had also to be able to counterfeit the seal.

The florin did not burst upon the world without European rivals. Genoa also commenced gold coinage in 1252, but Genoa’s coins never commanded the international stature of the florin. Frederick II of Sicily may have struck gold coins a few years earlier than Florence, but his coinage was a descendant of Moslem and Byzantine coinage, despite its popularity in Europe.

Originally Florence struck the florin as a gold pound, equal to 20 soldi or shillings, or 240 deniers,or pennies. The Florentine version of the Carolingian system soon broke down amidst fluctuating exchange rates between gold and silver, and an imaginary money of account developed based upon a pound affiorino, in which 20 florins equaled 29 affiorinos. A separate silver standard evolved that set the value of the silver pound equal to 20 silver soldi, or 240 silver deniers. Market forces overrode government efforts to establish official exchange ratios between gold and silver such as existed with the European bimetallic system in the nineteenth century.

From the outset Florence groomed the florin to play the part of an international currency. Florentine law provided that only international merchants of the Calimala Guild, the moneychangers, the cloth and silk manufacturers, the grocers, and furriers, could keep books and conduct business in florins. Silver currency was used in retail trade, payment of wages, and small transactions. Wholesale prices were often quoted in florins, while retail prices were quoted in silver currency.

San Antonino (1389–1459), archbishop of Florence, complained of the government debasing the silver currency used by the lower classes, while maintaining the purity of the gold currency used by the wealthier classes. The employer-controlled government of Florence could effectively reduce real wages by debasing silver coins used to pay wages while maintaining the purity of gold florins in which wholesale goods were priced. Separate gold and silver standards, with separate prices, exposed one segment of the population to the ravages of inflation through debasement, while another segment remained untouched by inflation. From 1252 until the beginning of the fifteenth century, the florin rose in value 700 percent relative to silver coinage, largely reflecting debasement of silver.

In the second half of the thirteenth century and the first part of the fourteenth century the Florentine florin rose to become the equivalent of the modern-day dollar in international trade. As often happens in currencies, the florin was unable to dodge the pitfalls of success. Foreign governments minted florin imitations from lighter metal, and at the beginning of the fifteenth century Florence minted florins of a lighter weight. The florin may have owed part of its success to the strength and expansion of the Florentine economy. During the fifteenth century the Venetian ducat displaced the Florentine florin as the international currency par excellence.