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Research Coins: Feature Auction


First Civic Issue of Venice

CNG 91, Lot: 1397. Estimate $20000.
Sold for $14000. This amount does not include the buyer’s fee.

ITALY, Venezia (Venice). temp. Agnello Participazio to Pietro Tradonico. 811-864. AR Denaro (20mm, 1.46 g, 2h). Struck circa 820-840. + DS CVSERVA Ro(MA)No I(MP), cross pattée, pellets in quarters / XPE SALVA VE(HE)CIAS, temple façade. Coupland, Money Class III Group G, 1 = BN 920g var. (spelling of legends); Depeyrot 1116G (attributed to time of Louis II); Haertle 11/243; M&G -; MEC -; CNI VII 5 var. (obv. legend); cf. Papadopoli 5; Paolucci 1; Biaggi 2748. EF. Extremely rare and of outstanding quality.

Since the time of its traditional foundation in the mid-fifth century AD, the city of Venice was an important regional outlet into the northern Adriatic, connecting the eastern Mediterranean with the central and northern European heartland. In the late seventh, or very early eighth century, Venice - which was until then a collection of lagoon communities united in defense against the Lombards – became united under a single leader, who was confirmed in his position by the Byzantine emperor. By the end of the eighth century, Venice had expanded to include the Rialto islands and had assumed a position of not only regional, but also international, prominence. At the same time, within the city's leadership, the rise of a pro-Frankish faction in opposition to the older, pro-Byzantine group, put Venice in a precarious position between the Carolingian and Byzantine Empires. Although an 803 treaty between the two empires, known as the Pax Nicephori, recognized the de facto independence of Venice, the city also acknowledged its nominal subservience to the Byzantine Empire. In response, the pro-Frankish Obelerio degli Antenori seized control of the city government the following year. Calling on the Frankish king of the Lombards, Pepin, for assistance, the situation resulted in the expulsion of Obelerio and his supporters from the city and the withstanding of a subsequent Frankish siege. Under Obelerio's opponent and immediate successor, Agnello Participazio and his successors (Giustiniano Participazio, Giovanni I Participazio, and Pietro Tradonico), Venice secured its military and economic powers, so that by the tenth century it was developing into a major mercantile empire.

Since the Exarchate of Ravenna, which had nominal control over Venice, was the main Byzantine mint in northern Italy, Venice did not strike any coinage. The dissolution of the exarchate in the mid eighth century, however, left a void in the coinage of the region; a vacuum that Venice soon filled. By the time of the divisio imperii of Louis the Pious and Lothair I (AD 817), Venice had become a major trading center with the Carolingian Empire, and consequently became an important mint for striking Carolingian issues. Apart from a very rare issue of Charlemagne (Depeyrot 1116B), the bulk of Venetian Carolingian coinage began with large-scale production of the Class II issues of Louis the Pious, dated to 819-822. This was soon followed by significant quantities of Louis' Class III, or Christiana religio, coinage, dated to 822-840.

The present coin, however, is exceptional to the standard Carolingian issues at Venice. The dating of the issue is securely fixed not only by its similarity to the Class III coinage of Louis, but also by the presence of two examples in the Hermenches Hoard, found near Lausanne in western Switzerland, which is assigned a deposit date of 822 by Haertle and 825-840 by Coupland. Unlike Venice's standard Class III coinage, though, the legends on this issue, DS CVSERVA ROMANO IMP / XPE SALVA VENECIAS, are completely novel. The legends, which translate as Lord, preserve the Roman Empire (or Roman emperor) and Christ, safeguard Venice, are clearly more localized in character, indicating that this type was the product of an independent minting by the city. Grierson (MEC 1, p. 217) argued that the legends were intended to be "ambiguous," and indicated that Venice – formally still part of the Byzantine Empire (the Empire of the Romans) in this period, though far enough removed from Constantinople to be able to act independently of imperial command – was attempting "not to commit itself to one empire or the other." The reverse legend is more specific than Grierson thought, however, since the invocation for divine assistance to the newly-independent city would continue in a revised form in the later civic issues. Grierson's observation about the ambiguity of the obverse legend, though, may not be so far off, since the IMP – which is generally assumed to be IMP(erio) – could be read as IMP(eratori). Obviously, Byzantine sponsorship of the Pax Nicephori achieved for Venice a window of territorial independence between the Byzantine and Carolingian Empires. In return for this sponsorship, the city reciprocated by praying for the continued existence of its benefactor, thus Lord, preserve the Roman Empire. If, however, the legend is to be read Lord, preserve the Roman Emperor, the possibility arises – given the Carolingian-inspired types used on this issue – that the legend is a complimentary allusion to the Carolingian emperor, who as imperator Romanorum, or emperor of the Romans, had provided Venice with the economic foundation for its own mercantile empire, through trade with the Carolingian territories of central Europe.