The Research Desk column from the March 14, 2016, Weekly issue of
Few American numismatists will recognize the name of the Italian
statesman Francesco Crispi (born 1818, died 1901). Medal
collectors may encounter him through a 65.8-millimeter bronze medal
hailing his 80th birthday on Oct. 4, 1898, designed by sculptor Adolfo
di Nicola Farnesi.
The medal presents an imposing frock-coated bust, facing right, with
enormous walrus mustache but without inscription other than artist’s
signature. The reverse bears the radiant Star of Italian Destiny and
the three-legged Triquetra and Medusa head of Crispi’s birthplace, the
island of Sicily, with legend TO FRANCESCO CRISPI ON HIS 80TH BIRTHDAY
FROM THE SICILIANS.
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Research quickly identifies Crispi as one of the longest-lived
leaders in the struggle for Italian unification, the Risorgimento. He
was a contemporary of Italy’s first King Vittorio Emanuele II; his
prime minister, Count Camillo Benso di Cavour; republican activist
Giovanni Mazzini; and warrior Giuseppe Garibaldi.
His family was of Albanian ancestry, one of thousands of refugee
families from Ottoman Turkish conquest who formed the Catholic
Byzantine Rite that retained Greek liturgy while maintaining union
with the pope. He would die an outspoken freemason and atheist.
As a young man he took part in the 1848 rebellions against Bourbon
King Ferdinando II of the Two Sicilies, was condemned to death and
fled to Piedmont and on to France. He took part in Garibaldi’s 1859
invasion of Sicily, then served for decades in the parliament of
united Italy ruled by the House of Savoy. He wrote to a disappointed
Mazzini in 1864 that he now supported the new Kingdom of Italy because
“The monarchy unites us; the republic would divide us.”
He engineered Italian membership in the Triple Alliance with German
Chancellor Otto von Bismarck and with longtime national enemy Austrian
Emperor Franz Josef while fighting a damaging tariff war with former
Crispi is best remembered for his colonial policy that led to the
Italian invasion of the ancient kingdom of Ethiopia and the disastrous
defeat of Italian forces by Emperor Menelik II at Adowa in March 1896.
This was the worst colonial defeat of a European power up to that
time, which had long-lasting effects down to Fascist dictator Benito
Mussolini’s invasion of Ethiopia in 1935 to 1936.