The Roman papal court rose to become a significant European financial center in the late Middle Ages, and the papal mint, called the Zecca, was a major focus of curial activity. The famous Renaissance artist and architect, Donato Bramante, built a new mint for Pope Julius II. Another Renaissance architect of some
renown, Antonio da Sangallo the Younger, later remodeled the mint, his facade remaining on the building to this day. The Renaissance popes needed money to pay soldiers, hire artists, and build monuments and buildings, and the papal mint often furnished the coins to make payment.
The popes minted gold and silver coins. The principle gold coin of the Renaissance era was the gold ducat of
the Chamber, named after the Apostolic Chamber that handled the financial affairs of the papacy.
The gold ducat was preceded by the gold florin of the Chamber, approximately equivalent in value to the ducat. In 1530, the papal mint issued a new coin, the scudo d’oro in oro, a coin that in value fell short of the ducat by a
small margin. A papal ducat equaled about one-third of a Tudor pound sterling. The papal mint struck silver coins called carlina, and later, giulii, that equaled approximately one-tenth the value of a ducat.
The papal treasury and Roman treasuries tended to accumulate precious objects, and during times of financial
stress, treasures were melted down and minted. Under Innocent III, the opening of a sepulcher of a noble lady of imperial Rome brought to light a golden brocade on her robes, which was promptly sent to
the mint and melted down.
The papal court of Rome drew income from benefices across Europe, and the Apostolic Chamber expected
payment in its own coinage, partly to protect itself from payments in mixed and depreciated silver money. Princes usually made payments in gold and the lower classes in silver. The combined gold and silver sent to Rome raised the ire of northern Europe, leading to charges that the Roman church was bleeding Europe white.
Papal coinage was noted for its beauty, a trait not surprising in light of the celebrated Renaissance artists who
applied their gifts to coinage at the papal mint. The most eminent was Benvenuto Cellini, the Renaissance goldsmith, sculptor, and author of a famous autobiography. Perhaps less known is Francesco Francia, who struck coins so distinguished by their beauty that they became collectors’ items and sold at premiums
soon after his death. Vasari, in his Lives of the Most Eminent Painters, Sculptors, and Architects, says of Francia that he was “so pleasant in conversation that he could divert the most melancholy individuals, and won the affection of princes and lords and all who know him”(Vasari, 1927, 119).
Papal coinage is among the more modern manifestations of a familiar theme in monetary history. Temples and religious institutions usually have had the inside track on the accumulation of gold and silver. Because of the reverence for these institutions, the treasures of these institutions are usually safe from theft and extortion.
(This reverence did not keep the papacy from losing much of its treasure during the Sack of Rome in 1527.) The moral leadership of these institutions can also add credibility to the precious metal purity of coinage. Historically, these institutions have often held a stronger claim of trust on the public than kings and princes.
Today the Vatican issues its own paper money, in francs and lire, which is noted for beautiful pictorial and religious themes.
Cellini, Benvenuto. 1931. The Life of Benvenuto Cellini.
Cellini, Benvenuto. 1967. The Treatises of Benvenuto Cellini on Goldsmithing and Sculpture.
Partner, Peter. 1976. Renaissance Rome, 1500–1599.
Ryan, John Carlin. 1989. A Handbook of Papal Coins.
Vasari, Giorgio. 1927. Lives of the Painters, Sculptors, and Architects, vol. 2.