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


In our last installment, we were examining a fascinating early eighteenth century inventory of coins and medals in the collection of the Boncompagni Ludovisi. The title page of this inventory, some 240 pages in length, reads “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 is 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. And the assessor? Giuseppe Magnavacca (1639-1724) was a Bolognese erudite known especially as a pioneer in the emerging field of numismatics. But he also can be counted as an intimate of GuercinoPietro da Cortona, the art historian Carlo Cesare Malvasia, and indeed the contemporary artists who comprised Bologna’s Accademia Clementina, of which Magnavacca was a founding member.


This unpublished treatise by Boncompagni Ludovisi archivist Giuseppe Felici (completed March 1949) offers a comprehensive overview, working from primary documents, of the family’s historically important collections of gems, cameos, coins and medals.

So what were the circumstances of Giuseppe Magnavacca’s 1706 inventory of the Boncompagni Ludovisi coins and medals? For that, one has to go back—in fact, way back…


Portrait of Cardinal Francesco Boncompagni (1596-1621-1641) in Bibliotheca Universitaria di Bologna (inv. 308). From F. Missere Fontana, BdN 36-39 (2008) 216.

In a sense, the story starts with a grandson of Ugo Boncompagni (= Pope Gregory XIII), Francesco Boncompagni (21 January 1596-9 December 1641). Francesco’s parents were the Pope’s legitimated son Giacomo Boncompagni and Costanza Sforza; he was the 12th of their children. In 1621, at age 25, Francesco was created Cardinal Deacon. Not only did Francesco have a Pope as grandfather. He had as uncles two Cardinals,  Filippo Boncompagni (created 1572) and Francesco Sforza (1583).

After serving almost four years as Bishop of Fano, in 1626 Cardinal Francesco Boncompagni was promoted to the metropolitan see of Naples, where he tried to brake the lavish construction of the Royal Chapel of the Treasure of San Gennaro. From 1634 he also was titular head of the fortified church of SS. Quattro Coronati in Rome. However Cardinal Francesco died in 1641, aged just 45.

Now, Cardinal Francesco Boncompagni in his lifetime had accumulated a famous collection of gems, cameos and ancient coins and medals. In his will he had designated that these pass to the the Jesuits of the Collegio Romano in Rome, which his grandfather Gregory XIII had promoted and completed. But the Jesuits renounced the inheritance. In the event, the collection  was delivered to his nephew, the 19 year old Girolamo Boncompagni, a direct great-grandson of Pope Gregory XIII Boncompagni and the future (1664) Cardinal and archbishop of Bologna. An eyewitness said that the treasures came to the young Girolamo “ad usum in suo potere” (“in his possession and for his use”) . Whatever this hybrid Latin/Italian phrase means, it seems unlikely that Girolamo had full legal ownership.


Francesco Sabadini, portrait of a younger Cardinal Girolamo Boncompagni (1622-1664-1684), in Biblioteca Comunale dell’Archiginnasio di Bologna. From F. Missere Fontana, BdN 36-39 (2008) 218.


Portrait of Cardinal Girolamo Boncompagni (1622-1664-1684) [detail]. Collection of HSH Prince Nicolò and HSH Princess Rita Boncompagni Ludovisi, Rome.

Of the newly-appointed Cardinal Girolamo Boncompagni, the art historian Giovan Pietro Bellori writing in 1664 recalls: “In his Palazzo is preserved the famous Dattilotheca of Cardinal Francesco Buoncompagni, Archbishop of Naples, rich in exceedingly precious carvings consisting of gems and antique cameos, among which is the great cameo portrait of Augustus by the hand of Dioscorides [now lost], and with it, the collection of medals and medallions, famous in Europe along with [his] rare paintings.”

On his death in 1684, Cardinal Girolamo Boncompagni willed—with the rest of his amazing estate—his uncle’s Dattilotheca (i.e., a cabinet filled with carved gems and cameos) plus whatever coins and medals he had in his possession to the Ospedali della Vita e della Morte in Bologna.



Will (autograph and in printed version) of Cardinal Girolamo Boncompagni (died 1684). Collection of HSH Prince Nicolò and HSH Princess Rita Boncompagni Ludovisi, Rome.

But soon a dispute arose. Prince Gregorio Boncompagni, as great-grandnephew of  Cardinal Francesco, claimed a part of the inheritance. It didn’t take long for matters to become heated between Gregorio and the designated heirs, the two Ospedali in Bologna. In the event, the case was to generate several decades worth of legal documents. One of the matters at stake seems to have been the difficulty in ascertaining what gems, cameos and coins Cardinal Girolamo had purchased himself (and thus willed legitimately), and what had come to him in 1641 from the estate of his uncle Cardinal Francesco.

In 1690 even Pope Alexander VIII Ottoboni (1610-1689-1691) is found intervening in the dispute, authorizing the seizure of coins and medals from the collection of Cardinal Girolamo Boncompagni that had found their way into the Monte di Pietà (i.e., pawnshop) in Bologna. Recently, Alexander VIII had already performed a conspicuous favor for Prince Gregorio Boncompagni; on 26 October 1689 he removed a death sentence that had hung over the Prince in in the Papal States since a serious diplomatic incident of 1674. For his efforts in one or both of these cases, the Pope seems to have received a gift of some medals from Gregorio. The source? Perhaps the items originated from the collection of his great-uncle Cardinal Francesco, as was alleged at the time.

By 1706 the two parties in the dispute—Gregorio Boncompagni and the Bolognese Ospedali—had come to an agreement. Cardinal Girolamo’s collection went up for sale, with Giuseppe Magnavacca drawing up the catalogue (i.e., the one we have here) and estimating the worth of the pieces. In a way, Gregorio had come out on top in this convoluted tale, for the coins in the inventory are identified as belonging to his “Museo”.


Portrait of Prince Gregorio Boncompagni (1642-1707) [detail]. Collection of HSH Prince Nicolò and HSH Princess Rita Boncompagni Ludovisi, Rome.

The Magnavacca inventory in the Casino Aurora is not a unique copy. The Boncompagni Ludovisi collection in the Archivio Segreto Vaticano has two (perhaps three) further examples, and the Archivio di Stato di Bologna a third. On all this, one can see two excellent recent studies: that of Flavia Mattiti (“Le antichità di Casa Ottoboni”), in Storia dell’ Arte 90 (1997) 201-49, and Federica Missere Fontana (“Raccolte numismatiche e scambi antiquari a Bologna fra Quattrocento e Seicento, II”), in Bolletino di Numismatica 36-39 (2008) 206-315.

It’s 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 five (of the 3557 coins and medals in our inventory) from the 17th century Boncompagni collection that leap to the eye…



AR. Obv. AVGVSTVS – COS XI Oak-wreathed head of Augustus r. Rev. M AGRIPPA COS TER COSSVS LENTVLVS Head of Agrippa r., wearing combined mural and rostral crown. RIC 414.

First, a denarius of Cossus Cornelius Lentulus, to be dated to 12 BC. On the obverse, Rome’s first emperor, Augustus (27 BC-AD 14); on the reverse, his intended successor, Marcus Agrippa, wearing a striking composite crown with both towered fortifications and ship’s prows, i.e., to commemorate his military victories at land and at sea. Alas, the planned succession was not to be: Agrippa was dead by the end of the year, aged (at most) 52. Estimated worth in 1706: 12 scudi Romani (i.e., about two months’ wages for a skilled laborer). Estimated worth in 2013: ca. $15,000.



AV. DOMITIA AVGVSTA IMP DOMIT Draped bust r., hair in plait. Rev. DIVVS CAESAR IMP DOMITIANI F Infant seated l. on globe, lifting up both hands; around him, seven stars. RIC 152

The empress Domitia bore her husband the emperor Domitian (AD 81-96) two children—first a girl, then a year later a boy. As this coin (from ca. 82/3)  indicates, the boy died young and subsequently was deified. Here the infant is portrayed as a young Jupiter seated on a globe; the seven stars in the constellation of Ursa Major surround him. The estimated value in 1706 was an astounding 36 scudi Romani; today the value is ca. $15,000.



AV. PLOTIN – AE AVG Draped bust of Plotina r., wearing double metal stephane. Rev. MATIDI – AE AVG Diademed and draped bust of Matidia r. RIC Hadrian 34.

This coin represents on the obverse Plotina and on the reverse Matidia, who respectively were the wife and niece of the emperor Trajan (AD 98-117). The date however is most plausibly AD 117 or 118, i.e., the inaugural year of Trajan’s successor Hadrian. Plotina had allegedly engineered Hadrian’s succession, and Matidia was the new emperor’s mother-in-law. It was in Hadrian’s interest to stress his connections to these women, to bolster the legitimacy of his reign.  The assessment in 1706 was 22 scudi; today this coin—which is of exquisite rarity—might fetch $80,000.



AV. SEVER P AVG P M TR P X COS III, laureate, draped, and cuirassed bust right / FELICITAS above, SAECVLI below, laureate and draped bust of Caracalla right; facing, draped bust of Julia Domna; bareheaded and draped bust of Geta left. RIC 181c

This gold coin was struck in AD 202, and features on the reverse a remarkable portrait of the north African emperor Septimius Severus on the obverse, and his wife Julia Domna and sons Caracalla and the ill-fated Geta on the reverse. The legend: “Happiness of the Age”. In 1706, the assessed value was 22 scudi; a reasonable estimate for the present day would be $25,000.



AV. IMP C IVLIA – NVS P F AVG Laureate, draped and cuirassed bust r. Rev. LIBERTAS PVBLICA Libertas standing l., holding pileus in r. hand and cornucopia in l.; in r. field, large star. RIC 1d

The military commander—and pretender to the Roman throne—Julian of Pannonia minted this exceedingly rare gold coin in Siscia (in modern Croatia) during the chaos that ensued between October and December 284 following the death of Numerian when leading his army back from the Persian front. Julian was defeated and killed by Numerian’s elder brother Carinus in early 285. Magnavacca valued this coin at a whopping 45 scudi back in 1706—at the time, more than a year’s rent in a fashionable district of Rome. Today? About $50,000.

There is obviously much more to be said. But even the briefest glimpse at the “Descrizione succincta del Museo dell’ Ecc[ellessi]mo Sig[nore]e Principe di Piombino Boncompagni Ludovisi” offers a host of details on the numismatic fine art market in its infancy.

The most surprising item we have seen in this inventory remains the “Ides of March” gold coin, circa 43-42 BC, commemorating the assassination of Julius Caesar on 15 March 44 BC. We have noted the extreme rarity of this issue—just two known, with the authenticity of at least one of them vigorously contested. So one wonders whether the example found in the Boncompagni Ludovisi collection is the same that the British monarch George III (1738-1760-1820) once owned. Today that coin is in the British Museum, which counts it as a fake. If its ultimate provenance is the collection of Cardinal Francesco Boncompagni—which clearly had gold Roman coins as a particular strength—then that takes the story of this spectacular item back at least to the early 17th century.

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