The House of Savoy and the Italian 20 lira gold coin
The creation of the Italian 20 lira gold coin can be attributed to one of the oldest royal families in the world, namely the House of Savoy. The heritage of the House of Savoy began almost a millennium ago in a small alpine territory between Switzerland, France and Italy. What is of peculiar interest is that over the centuries that followed, the House of Savoy did not expand its territories through traditional means, in other words conquest by brute force, but rather by making advantageous marriages and fostering alliances. Although the dynasty lost its territories several times to larger regional players like, for example, Napoleon Bonaparte, it always miraculously managed to gain back its land and even some more.
In the early 19th century, Italy was part of the French Empire, but because of Napoleon’s defeat at the decisive Battle of Waterloo, the Empire fell, and French rule over Italy was relinquished. Italy was divided into regions, with many becoming satellite states of Austria, as a reward for Austria’s participation in the Napoleonic wars. The House of Savoy was more fortunate in Italy’s break up, receiving autonomous rule over the Island of Sardinia and the north-western part of Italy bordering France. The new region was referred to as the Kingdom of Sardinia and became one of the three largest regions in Italy.
The disunited Italy had no central government or strong army, just as Austria had planned, enabling Austria to more easily indirectly govern a large part of Italy’s territories. Not surprisingly, by the middle of the 19th century, a strong revolutionary movement was born, comprised of nationalists who wished to unify Italy. Following several rebellions in major Northern Italian cities against Austrian rule, the Kingdom of Sardinia, eager to expand its territories, decided to declare the First Italian War of Independence against the Austrians. Unfortunately for the revolutionaries, the campaign came to a quick end after several decisive defeats to the Austrian forces.
Bruised, but not beaten, the Kingdom of Sardinia, with Vittorio Emanuele II (Umberto’s father) at the helm, tried again a decade later by declaring the Second Italian War of Independence against the Austrians in 1859. This campaign proved more successful, partially due to the military support provided by Napoleon III of France and the stronger and more organised nationalist movement led by the infamous Italian revolutionary Giuseppe Garibaldi. After two bloody years, Vittorio Emanuele II managed to secure all parts of Italy except for Rome and the Venetian region in the northeast. Subsequently, in 1861, the Kingdom of Italy was proclaimed, with King Vittorio Emanuele II as the sovereign. To mark the almost five decade quest of unifying Italy, the gold lira was introduced, bearing the effigy of the victor, King Vittorio Emanuele II, and the royal arms of his dynasty, the House of Savoy. Many considered King Vittorio the “Father of the Fatherland” because of the role he played in Italian unification. Although not the only person to be responsible for Italy’s unification, he certainly proved to be a great diplomat and military strategist. King Vittorio Emanuele II would reign firmly over Italy until his death in 1878, when the throne was passed on to his son Umberto I.
The lira gold coins unify Italy’s coinage
The House of Savoy not only managed to unify Italy, but also managed to unify the country’s coinage. Before unification, the custom was for every larger region to issue its own circulating coinage. As an example, the Papal States, part of Italy ruled by the Pope, used scudos, the Kingdom of Naples traded with piastras, Lombardy-Venetia minted florins, and the Kingdom of Sardinia issued liras. The new gold liras were a continuation of the currency used by the Kingdom of Sardinia. The reason for selecting the Sardinian lira was the fact that it had already been unified in 1816 to equal the French gold franc in terms of fineness and weight. This enabled it to circulate inside France at parity with the franc, as did the franc inside the Sardinian Kingdom, thus making it easier to trade and exchange goods. Furthermore, the French gold franc was, at the time of Italy’s unification of coinage, a major regional currency, so the decision to base the lira on the French franc made even more sense. The new uniformity of the gold lira fostered trade inside Italy and likewise contributed to making Italy one of the founding members of Europe’s first major currency union, the Latin Monetary Union.
The Italian 20 lira gold coin was part of Europe’s gold standard
In 1865, Italy, France, Belgium and Switzerland founded Europe’s first major currency union under the name “Latin Monetary Union”. This union was an attempt to unify the respective countries’ money into a single uniform currency. The founding members of the union agreed on a uniform fineness and weight of their coinage, which was set to equal the French silver and gold franc, as the Kingdom of Sardinia had done 50 years previously, and they agreed to interchange each other’s gold and silver coinage at parity, irrespective of whether it carried another design, effigy or name. The ratio of the two precious metals was likewise standardised, with 4.5 grams of silver being equal to .290322 grams of gold, a ratio of 15.5 to 1. The standardisation facilitated and simplified trade among the member countries and was seen as an appealing concept, leading other European countries to join as well. Although the union came with numerous flaws, one of them being that individual governments over-issued paper notes above the stipulated fixed ratio that was set between paper notes and circulating precious metal coinage, they were all the consequence of poor human judgement rather than the failure of the uniform precious metal coinage itself. Nevertheless, the union expanded until the advent of World War I, and came to a formal end a decade later in 1927.
The Italian 20 lira gold coin and King Umberto I
As all royals of the House of Savoy, Prince Umberto I received the best possible education. Yet, despite being well educated, it was expected of him to have a military career, especially considering that the revolutionary war to unite Italy at that time was still ongoing. He began his carrier as a captain in the Sardinian army where, alongside his fellow soldiers, he fought several decisive battles against the Austrian forces during the second and third Italian war of independence. His heroic gallantry in many of the battles earned him several decorations and good standing with his citizens.
Following the death of King Vittorio Emanuele II in 1878, Prince Umberto I became the second King of unified Italy. Some would say that his reign was a controversial one. On one hand, he became referred to as the “good king” because he showed concern and empathy for the common person several times during his reign. For instance, when massive flooding struck Venice, he himself went to the affected areas to organise the relief work. Likewise, when a disastrous earthquake destroyed the Italian town of Casamicciola in 1883, King Umberto again became involved, offering both financial and personal aid. He offered similar assistance one year later when a cholera epidemic broke out in southern parts of Italy. On the other hand, King Umberto I was highly disliked by those in leftwing circles. His unpopularity with this group could partially be explained by his colonial endeavours in Africa, which were to some extent a failure, and because his rule was associated with the rise of conservative elements in the Italian government.
King Umberto I’s rein ended in 1900 when an Italian anarchist assassinated him in retribution for his handling of the Milan uprising. In an attempt to restore order in this uprising, an Italian general ordered his men to fire on the rioters. In the aftermath of the uprising, King Umberto decorated the general for successfully restoring order to the streets of Milan. Because of Umberto’s favourable treatment of the general, the anarchist decided to murder the king.
Despite Umberto’s being in office longer than his father, King Vittorio Emanuele II, the issuance of the 20 lira gold coins depicting his effigy was substantially lower. In fact, even though King Umberto I reigned until 1900, the last 20 lira gold portraying his effigy was minted three years earlier in 1897.