Power, Impotence and a Coin Collection

Cover page of the 6th volume of the complete publication of the Farnese coin collection.

Paolo Pedrusi, I Cesari in Metallo Grande da Giulio Cesare sino a L. Elio, raccolti nel Farnese Museo. Volume 6

Published in Parma 1714


We don’t know much about the Jesuit Paolo Pedrusi (*1644, +1720), the author of this book. The publication of the coin collection of the House of Farnese was his life’s work. And yet, he wasn’t of any importance. He was an interchangeable tool of the duke, who wanted to let the entire educated world know about the fact that the House of Farnese had a collection of major significance. But why was that important at all? What political message was connected to it?

Those who opened the book immediately encountered the owner of the collection, the Duke of Parma and Piacenza. By the way, his name is written in much larger letters on the cover page than the author’s.

A Powerless Duke and His Collection

In order to understand the function of a coin collection in the time of the late Baroque period, we need to examine the copper engraving included in this edition on the page opposite the cover. It shows Francesco Farnese, its owner, the Duke of Parma and Piacenza. Fama, the public opinion, hovers over him and proclaims his glory with her trumpet. The decoration of the trumpet shows the Capitoline Wolf with the twins and thus refers to the Roman coins of the publication. On the lower right we can see Minerva, who was interpreted as the goddess of knowledge in the Baroque period. The duke himself is standing on the left, upright, in full armour and wearing an allonge wig. His right hand rests on the books that are dedicated to him. He holds the victor’s laurel wreath in his left hand.

However, in real life Francesco I wasn’t a winner, quite the opposite. As Duke of Parma and Piacenza, he was rather a mediocre ruler, considered weak and, therefore, vulnerable by the contemporary great powers. Even though Francesco publicly declared his neutrality at the beginning of the War of the Spanish Succession, Prince Eugene occupied parts of his duchy on behalf of the emperor. When Francesco protested, emperor Leopold I promised that reparations would be made, however, that didn’t happen. Why would it? Francesco was powerless. When the War of the Spanish Succession was over, the Austrians, with the help of the Pope, even claimed Francesco’s territory to be part of their newly won Duchy of Milan.

One would think that a duke like Francesco, who was fighting for the survival of his duchy in such a warlike environment, would have better things to do than publishing his coin collection. However, in the Baroque period, an extensive coin collection was something that could help gain importance. The reason was that the collection reflected the political connections of its owner.

The Farnese Collection

Today, you only need a lot of money in order to build up a good collection within a short amount of time. However, in the early days of collecting, it wasn’t that easy. A collection reflected the importance of the collector. The collector – usually a man, rarely a woman – received the objects thanks to excellent connections to educated and powerful men all over Europe. Thus: if you had an extensive collection, you necessarily needed to be a powerful man.

And the founder of the Farnese Collection certainly was such a man. Alessandro Farnese made it to the highest ecclesiastical office. As Pope Paul III he could do anything: therefore, he granted his family (and thus himself) the privilege to carry out excavations in Rome and to keep the statues that were found during those works. Until today, some particularly important objects are known in the archaeological world as the “Farnese Hercules” or the “Farnese Bull”.

Paul’s III papacy lasted from 1534 to 1549. At that time, celibacy was the subject of intense criticism – not only among Protestants but also in progressive Catholic circles. Those discussions were certainly not about the issues of piety and asceticism. It was first and foremost an economic question: noble Catholic clergyman with close family ties did not want the church to get all the personal possessions they had accumulated during their tenure! Those who had an (illegitimate) son wanted to provide for their child!

Paul III, too, did not only have nephews but also a son. He set up the Duchy of Parma for him. And that’s where the papal collection went after the death of Paul III. Therefore, Francesco, the great-great-great-great-grandson of the Pope, had a world-class collection in his residency even though he no longer had any power or influence.

The Baroque Stage

Especially those who were powerless during the Baroque period had to create the impression of having unlimited means. For Francesco, his collection was the political capital he could build on. After all, who outside of Italy knew that he was highly indebted? By means of this elaborate publication of his coins, he demonstrated that his collection was on one level with that of the emperor and the Spanish king. And that impressed those of his contemporaries that didn’t know much about the circumstances in Italy.

Francesco’s efforts weren’t entirely unsuccessful: it was considered a diplomatic coup when he, the small, impoverished, insignificant Duke of Parma married his stepdaughter Elisabetta in 1714 to the recently widowed King Philip V of Spain. It was also thanks to the collection that the Duchy of Parma was considered desirable and rumour had it that Francesco’s wife, who was already 44 years old in 1714, would not bear any more children. Thus, there were no official heirs – apart from an unmarried brother – and Philip V knew that the Duchy of Parma would fall into the possession of his and Elisabetta’s son. But Francesco benefited decisively form this deal, too: as long as he was alive, Spain protected his duchy!

The Collection Moves to Naples

Afterwards, however, the collection was moved by Charles to his Kingdom of Naples and Sicily. Until today, it can be found in the National Archaeological Museum of Naples. The statues are in the numerous halls of the museum. In contrast, the coin collection is kept in the – usually closed – mezzanine. A sad destiny for this collection, which was of high political importance back then and which was published by Paolo Pedrusi with great care and effort.

Paolo Pedrusi’s book demonstrates that, for many centuries, numismatics was much more than a scholarly field. It was a field in which rulers competed against each other. Whoever was successful here, was considered to have considerable political influence. And that’s how certain dukes were able to cover up the fact that their duchies did no longer have as much power as they used to have.


You can download all volumes of this impressive work in the Hathi Trust’s digital library. The volume we presented here is number 6.

Unfortunately, there are not many things to see about numismatics on the website of the National Archaeological Museum of Naples, well, at least there is something.

By the way, many pieces from the Farnese Collection were published photographically for the first time in February 1977 when almost 6,000 pieces were stolen from the coin cabinet of Naples, which was – already at that time – closed on most occasions. The IAPN dedicated a whole issue to these coins. However, that’s a completely different story.

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