The following is the first segment from a feature article appearing in the June 2015 issue of Coin World Monthly:
Napoleon’s defeat at Waterloo brought an end to 23 years of battle in Europe, but was the beginning of acclaimed Italian engraver Benedetto Pistrucci’s 30 years of toiling to create a masterpiece medal marking the battle.
Pistrucci’s masterpiece Waterloo Medal was ultimately never issued to the intended recipients, though modern-day recreations proliferate.
Napoleon’s end sparks medal
In 1815, allied forces led by Britain’s Duke of Wellington and Prussia’s Gen. Gebhart Blücher defeated French emperor Napoleon Bonaparte at the Battle of Waterloo.
The Allied armies suffered an estimated 24,000 casualties in the battle, with 4,700 killed, 14,600 wounded and 4,700 missing. However, their victory ended Bonaparte’s designs on domination of Europe, bringing almost 100 years of peace to Europe following the multiple wars dating back to 1792 that had fractured the continent.
William Wellesley Pole, an elder brother of the Duke of Wellington, was appointed master of the Royal Mint in 1814, right after it had moved from its cramped quarters in the Tower of London to a purpose-built edifice just across the road on Tower Hill.
In 1819 Pistrucci was commissioned to design the Waterloo Medal to commemorate Britain and its European allies’ defeat of Napoleon in 1815. The medallic project was conceived by Britain’s prince regent, later George IV. Four medals were to be struck in gold for the rulers of Austria, Britain, Prussia and Russia, with two in silver for the British and Prussian field marshals.
Pistrucci negotiated an incredibly high fee for the project. Initially a sum of £2,400 was agreed upon, with payments made in installments. The fee was later raised to £3,500, as the artist considered the task to be the equivalent of designing 30 medals.
He was undoubtedly right.
While reviewing the dies that Pistrucci delivered to the Mint 30 years after he was awarded the contract, Kevin Clancy told Coin World (Nov. 19, 2007, issue) that “these are undoubtedly among the finest examples of the engraver’s art. Unfortunately the medal was never struck, partly because of Pistrucci’s extreme dilatoriness and partly because of technical difficulties in striking such a large piece.”
If struck, the medal would have measured 139 millimeters in diameter. No medal of this kind and size had been struck before or during that period.
Understandably, the historic nature of the medal can explain some of the delay. But many other causes contributed.
While designing the contracted medal, Pistrucci also worked on the coronation medal of George IV and designed new coinage issued in 1821. The engraver was also commissioned to create a medal for Pole, marking his friend’s tenure as Master of the Mint, which came to an end in 1823.