Backstabbing, double-crossing, murder, crimes of passion, power and
opulence all formed part of the backdrop of the Italian Renaissance
during the Italian Renaissance.
These characteristics of the period invite a visit from Hollywood
or small screen movie-makers, and they have responded. For example,
the now-canceled cable television series The Borgias mythologized the
real-life House of Borgia, which found itself at the center the battle
for supremacy among Italian city-states in the 15th century.
It is impossible not to think of those tumultuous times when
seeing the coins of the Italian Renaissance being offered by Stack’s
Bowers and Ponterio in its American Numismatic Association World’s
Fair of Money auction in August in Rosemont, Ill.
The signature coin of the time may well be the silver testone,
first issued by the House of Sforza, some of whose members turn up in
the storyline for the hit dramatic series (spoiler alert: the story
involves an arranged marriage between both houses).
One such testone, undated but issued circa 1481 to 1494 in Milan,
is a highlight of the latest offering from what Stack’s Bowers is
calling the Demarete Collection.
The example in the coming auction features portraits of Giovanni
Galeazzo Maria Sforza and Ludovico Maria Sforza.
Giovanni was the sixth Duke of Milan, son of the assassinated
Galeazzo Maria Sforza whose death in 1476 is widely believed to have
come at the poisonous hands of his brother Ludovico. Ludovico, uncle
to Giovanni (also known as Gian), then served as regent when the
youngster, only 7 years old, was elevated to duke upon his father’s death.
The younger Sforza’s death in 1494 (also under suspicions of
poisoning) paved the way for Ludovico to formally seize power. His
comeuppance came a few years later when the plotting and scheming
ignited the Italian Wars. In 1500, opponents seized and imprisoned
him; he died in 1508.
In addition to his political machinations, Ludovico is most
famously remembered today as a patron of Leonardo da Vinci, having
commissioned The Last Supper.
The testones (or testons — the coin takes its name from testa,
meaning head) of Milan are notable for their artistry, according to
Richard Doty. Writing in The MacMillan Encyclopedic Dictionary of
Numismatics, he notes that the coins carry “some of the greatest
masterpieces of Renaissance portraiture. Rulers are portrayed
realistically, albeit with a grandeur elevating the renditions far
above the merely representational.”
Testones of the Sforzas were widely imitated. The coins measure
somewhere between the size of a U.S. quarter dollar and a half dollar.
The obverse of the testone in the Demarete Collection features a
portrait of the scheming mop-haired uncle, with a slightly mischievous
look on his face. The reverse shows the younger Sforza inside a beaded
circle, with a softness reflecting his youth.
Graded Extremely Fine 40 by Numismatic Guaranty Corp., the coin
has an estimate of $1,000 to $1,500. ■
Undated (circa 1481 to 1494) silver testone
NGC Extremely Fine 40
Silver testone depicts two members of the House of Sforza, one who
is alleged to have killed the other.