New from 1706: an inventory (and cash assessment) of coins and medals in the ‘Museo Boncompagni Ludovisi’ (Part I of II)

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Collection of HSH Prince Nicolò and HSH Princess Rita Boncompagni Ludovisi, Rome (this and all MS photos below).

Here’s an item from the newly-recovered Boncompagni Ludovisi archive at the Villa Aurora that positively leaps to the eye—not so much for intrinsic value (it’s a copy, as we shall see) but for the brilliant light it throws on the history of collecting in the Seicento. Put briefly, it’s a careful inventory of 3557 coins and medals that Cardinal Girolamo Boncompagni (1622-1684, direct great-grandson of Pope Gregory XIII Boncompagni) had either inherited or purchased, and then willed (with the rest of his amazing estate) to the Ospedali della Vita e della Morte in Bologna.

The fascinating bit is that each item is assigned a contemporary cash value, in scudi Romani (the currency of the Papal States until 1866). As such, one gets not just a comprehensive overview of a premier 17th century numismatic collection, but also a spectacular lesson on what factors determined relative worth in the art market of that era.

The author of the inventory? None other than the famed Bolognese erudite Giuseppe Magnavacca (1639-1724). Though known especially as a pioneer in the emerging field of numismatics, Magnavacca also moved in the same circles as Guercino (whose portrait he painted!), Pietro da Cortona, the art historian Carlo Cesare Malvasia, and indeed the artists of Bologna’s Accademia Clementina, of which he was a founding member.

It was only in 1706 that Magnavacca assessed Cardinal Girolamo Boncompagni’s coin and medal collection—a full two decades after it had passed to the Bolognese Ospedali. (We’ll discuss why in Part II of this post.) In this inventory he describes most items carefully enough to allow full identification today. Indeed, with a bit of time and energy, it would be possible just from this inventory to reconstitute digitally most of Cardinal Boncompagni’s collection.

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Aureus, circa 43-42, commemorating the assassination of Julius Caesar on 15 March 44 BC. Obverse: BRVT IMP – L·PLAET·CEST Bare head of M. Iunius Brutus r. Reverse: Pileus (signifying liberty) between two daggers; below, EID·MAR. This explicit coin type is so remarkable that it attracted comment even in antiquity (Dio Cassius 47.25), and inspired at least one bizarre Renaissance derivative (the medal that commemorated the murder of Alessandro de’ Medici in Florence 6 January 1537).

There are surprises on almost every page of Magnvacca’s inventory, some 240 pages in all. Let’s start with page 2, the 10th item listed under Roman issues in gold. There is the most famous coin type that has come down to us from antiquity, Brutus’ commemoration of Caesar’s assassination on the Ides of March (44 BC), struck as he traveled with a moving mint through northern Greece in 43/42 BC. The silver denarius is rare enough—just over 50 are known today.  In September 2011, one particularly fine example  (formerly in the collection of actor and scholar Peter Wellerfetched $546,250 at auction. As for the version in gold, there are just two known in the world. (On this, see further in Part II of our post.) Its value in 1706? Six Roman scudi—about a month’s wages for a skilled worker.

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Giuseppe Magnavacca’s 1706 assessment of the EID MAR aureus. The value (six scudi) is at far right.

Here’s some more, almost at random. Page 14 of the inventory reveals that the Boncompagni Ludovisi collection had three examples in gold from Hadrian’s celebrated “travel series”. Minted in Rome in the years AD 134-138, these coins commemorated the restless emperor’s travels throughout the Mediterranean. The types representing Egypt, Africa and Hadrian’s patronage of Achaea (i.e., old Greece) earn values from Magnavacca of five, six and nine scudi respectively. Today that RESTITUTORI ACHAIAE coin might fetch up to $30,000 at auction. And the collection had another 14 from Hadrian’s”travel series” in silver.

HadrianAegyptos

Aureus, AD 134-138. Obverse: HADRIANVS AVG. COS. III. P. P. Bare-headed, draped, and cuirassed bust of Hadrian right; Reverse: AEGYPTOS. Egypt reclining left, holding sistrum in right hand and resting left arm on basket, around which a snake coils, ibis standing left at her feet. RIC 296.

HadrianAfrica

Aureus (AD 134-138). Obverse: HADRIANVS AVG COS III P P. Portrait bust, bare-headed, draped, cuirassed, l.; dotted border. Reverse: AFRICA. Africa, wearing elephant-skin head-dress, draped, reclining l., placing r. hand on head of lion standing l., and resting l. arm on basket; on r., two ears of corn; exergue and dotted border. RIC 298h.

HadrianAch

Aureus (AD 134-138). Obverse: HADRIANVS – AVG COS III P P Bareheaded and draped bust r. Reverse: RESTITVTORI – ACHAIAE Hadrian, togate, standing r., holding roll in l. hand and extending r. to raise up kneeling figure of Achaia in front of him; between them, palm in vase. RIC 321c.

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But the collection extends well beyond Roman Republican and Imperial types. Greek coins of Alexander the Great and the various Hellenistic dynasties are well represented (about 160 coins in all). And there are about 80 medals of the early modern era—Papal and other.

One of the higher valuations (13 scudi, about four months’ rent in one of the better districts in Rome) is assigned to what appears to be a gilt-bronze medal from Clement VIII Aldobrandini (1536-1592-1605), commemorating the Pope’s bloodless accession of Ferrara in 1598 after the death of Alfonso II, Duke d’Este. The worth of this item today would be considerably less than any of the ancient coins we have so far surveyed.

Ferraria

Obverse: CLEMENS VIII PONT MAX A VII. Reverse: FERRARIA RECEPTA. This medal commemorates the reversion of the Duchy of Ferrara to the Papal States, and the entry of Clement VIII into the city on 8 May 1598.

The inventory at the Villa Aurora takes the form of a manuscript volume, bound in parchment, that the family’s agent Francesco Marziani placed in the Archivio Boncompagni Ludovisi on 16 November 1869. The title page reads as follows: “Descrizione succincta del Museo dell’ Ecc[ellessi]mo Sig[nore]e Principe di Piombino Boncompagni Ludovisi con l’apprezzo esiguito dal perito antiquario Sig. Giuseppe Magnavacca da Bologna sotto il dì 5 ottobre 1706”. The Prince of Piombino in question would be Cardinal Girolamo’s nephew Gregorio Boncompagni Ludovisi (1642-1707), who—with his wife Olimpia Ippolita Ludovisi, whom he married in 1681—was the first to join the Boncompagni and Ludovisi names.

The book, some 240 pages in length, somehow had found its way into the collection of Cardinal Giacomo Giustiniani (1769-1826-1843), and upon his death, passed with the rest of his library to the Seminario of Albano Laziale. Francesco Marziani evidently recognized that the book once belonged to the Boncompagni Ludovisi. For on the title page it also is inscribed that it was a copy begun on the very day that Prince Antonio (II) Boncompagni Ludovisi was born, i.e., 16 June 1735.

As it happens, the circumstances of Giuseppe Magnavacca’s 1706 inventory of the Boncompagni Ludovisi coins and medals can be reconstructed with a fair degree of certainty. But for that one will have to wait  for the second and final installment of this blog piece…

BUB245_R Magnavacca Giuseppe

Benedetto Gennari (1633-1715), portrait of Giuseppe Magnavacca. Credit: Biiblioteca Universitaria, Bologna. Gennari inherited the workshop of Guercino upon his death in 1666.

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  1. […] hard to resist taking a parting look at just a few more of the coins that went up for sale in 1706 after the Magnavacca assessment. Here’s just six (of the 3557 […]

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