Some Papal medals of Gregory XIII Boncompagni (1572-1585): Trajanic influences, cosmic aspirations

An illustrated introductory essay by Thomas Gosart (Rutgers ’20)

Medal reverses of Gregory XIII Boncompagni, as illustrated in Filippo Bonanni, Numismata Pontificum Romanorum…a tempore Martini V usque ad annum M.DC.XCIX I (Roma 1699), plate between pp. 322-3. Three of these images (XXXIII, XXXV-XXXVI) refer to this Pope’s restoration of Rome’s Palazzo Senatorio ca. 1579.

Popes of the Catholic church have issued one or more commemorative bronze medallions each year since the mid-15th century. As a group these medals have several important implications for Papal history, European history, art history, classical reception—and indeed neo-Latin.

The medals are not coins and had no fixed monetary value. They were issued as keepsakes to Papal officials, elite Italian individuals, and important visiting dignitaries, visitors and pilgrims. They commonly depict a significant Papal event or achievement of the Pope in the previous year; starting in 1605, they systematically do so (the so-called “annual” medals). By at least the mid-17th century, these medals were widely collected, with large collections being presented with prestige in Rome. (On all this, see the recent overview by M. K. Averett here.)

The commemorative medals usually depicted the Pope on the obverse (“heads”), and an engraving of the event on the reverse (“tails”), accompanied by a phrase in Latin. In my study, I conduct an initial examination of the Papal medals of Pope Gregory XIII Boncompagni (1572-1585), to examine patterns, anomalies, and understudied aspects of his reign. Here I will limit myself to two specimens of the ca. 135 types that the Papal mint produced under Gregory XIII’s reign, and describe their implications.

A video survey (11 mins.) of Papal medals minted by Gregory XIII Boncompagni, as found in A. Modesti, Corpus Numismatum Omnium Romanorum Pontificum III (Rome 2004)

The first specimen, from 1579 (Modesti CNORP III 769), involves Gregory XIII’s invocation of the Roman emperor Trajan (98-117 CE), including his favored title OPTIMVS PRINCEPS (“best emperor”) and the phrase SPQR (Senatus Populusque Romanus = “the Senate and People of Rome”). The second significant medal (not in Modesti) heralds the 13th year of Gregory’s pontificate. That was to start 13 May 1585, but never happened, due to his death on 10 April of that year. This medal has only recently appeared, in the form of an apparently unique example in the private online Virtus Collection of Renaissance and Baroque Medals.

Modesti, CNORP III 769: Giovanni Melone (medalist) for Gregory XIII Boncompagni (1579), with reverse showing the reconstructed bell tower of Rome’s Palazzo Senatorio, the center of civic government

The obverse of the first medal, from 1579, depicts Pope Gregory XIII Boncompagni facing to the left, wearing the traditional Papal cape known as the mozzetta and the hat called the camauro. The legend above his portrait states GREGORIVS XIII PONT[IFEX] MAX[IMUS], which is the traditional inscription on the obverse of all his Papal medals, and simply means “Pope Gregory XIII.” He is also holding up his hand and raising two fingers, the traditional hand gesture for a Papal blessing.

The reverse shows the central bell tower of Rome’s Palazzo Senatorio that Martino Longhi the Elder constructed for Gregory XIII, to replace one destroyed by lightning in 1577. The inscription reads SPQR OPTIMO PRINCIPI, which means “To the best leader, [dedicated by] the Senate and People of Rome.”

This medal is one of the more unique types which Gregory XIII released, and presents a number of fascinating attributes. First, the fingers in gesture of blessing occurs very rarely on his medals—depicted on less than 10% of all the known specimens. There is also, in one of the examples of this medal examined, a hole punctured at the top, certainly indicating that the medal was strung and worn by whomever it was given to. These two features raise the strong possibility that such medals as a matter of course were blessed before being distributed.

At top, Modesti, CNORP III 769 (Gregory XIII / bell tower of the Palazzo Senatorio), with hole punctured at top of obverse. Bottom: RIC II 293, denarius of Trajan (ca. 112 CE). Cf. RIC II 292, the same type minted as an aureus.

The reverse of this medal is taken directly from a Roman type issued by the emperor Trajan ca. 112, commemorating the famous Column in the imperial forum he built. In fact, the Papal medal directly copies not just the iconography of its Trajanic model, but also its Latin inscription, even with the precise word breaks SPQR OPTI—MO PRINCIPI.

Another important aspect is precisely the use of SPQR, which Gregory was the first Pope to use on any Papal medal. A common phrase on the coinage of imperial Rome, it had until now been avoided by the Papacy. But Gregory’s use of it shows his desire to connect with the people of the city of Rome and make himself seem like one of the highly-regarded “Good Emperors” of the Roman past.

Medal of Giovanni Melone for Gregory XIII (Modesti, CNORP III 751, with date 1578/9), commemorating this Pope’s building projects in Rome. Modesti notes that the reverse is based on imperial types— see especially RIC II 150 (aureus of Trajan).

These medals suggest that it is worth exploring other aspects in which Gregory XIII Boncompagni took inspiration from Trajan. In the case of the restoration of the Palazzo Senatorio, the comparison was natural, since its bell tower on the Campidoglio looked down on the Column in Trajan’s Forum, just 400 meters away.

Medal—apparently unique—commemorating “Year 13” of the reign of Gregory XIII Boncompagni, from the Virtus Collection. Cf. A. Modesti, CNORP III p. 573 (doubting the existence of this design, recorded by Bonanni 1699, as a medal)

The second specimen is a medal evidently meant to mark the year starting 13 May 1585, the 13th of Gregory XIII’s pontificate. But since Gregory XIII died on 10 April 1585, this existing medal must have been released posthumously. An interesting detail is the inclusion on both faces of the medal of the Boncompagni family symbol of a dragon without a tail (i.e., lacking the part where its venom was thought to collect), making this a strongly personal issue.

Obverse of medal commemorating “Year 13” of the reign of Gregory XIII Boncompagni, from the Virtus Collection.

On the obverse, Pope Gregory XIII is depicted bare-headed, clothed in an ecclesiastical cope (piviale) decorated with an abstract design. We once again have GREGORIVS XIII PONT[IFEX] MAXIMUS, as with the Trajanic medal; however now with the year added (AN[NO] XIII = year 13) of Gregory’s reign. This corresponds to the year 13 May 1585-12 May 1586.

Reverse of medal commemorating “Year 13” of the reign of Gregory XIII Boncompagni, from the Virtus Collection. Note especially the globe with its renderings of the Americas and Africa according to contemporary understanding.

On the reverse is the inscription NON EST QVI SE ABSCONDAT A CALORE EIVS, which is taken from Psalm 19:6. The phrase, from David’s description of the sun’s daily course, is to be translated “there is no one who could escape from its heat”. As for the medal’s image itself, we see the sun illuminating the Earth from below. The Earth is round, and it looks as if the sun is traveling around it.

The sun appears between two Zodiac signs, Scorpio (October 23 – November 22) and Libra (September 23 – October 23). This is most likely referring to the date October 23. Some other symbols included are: Sagittarius (far left), Virgo (far right), Mercury (left), Venus (above the belt), Mars (left), the moon (below the belt). Mercury (left), Venus (right) above the belt, Mars (left), the moon below the belt.

The number 13 also has a prominent role in this medal: there are 13 stars, and 13 overall Zodiac symbols. It is hard to miss the point that the medal was meant to mark 13 May, the start of the 13th year of Gregory XIII’s pontificate.

Reverse design of the posthumous “Year 13” issue of Gregory XIII Boncompagni, as illustrated in Filippo Bonanni, Numismata Pontificum Romanorum…a tempore Martini V usque ad annum M.DC.XCIX I (Roma 1699), plate between pp. 322-3. Until recently this drawing was the only evidence for the existence of this type.

The date 23 October still needs to be explained. One notes that there was a belief that this is the date when the universe was supposedly created in 4004 BCE. This theory was first fully explicated in 1650 by Irish Archbishop James Ussher—well after Gregory XIII’s death. But now this medal raises the possibility that it had come about earlier, or at least was thought of earlier.

The project examined over 25 medals in total, and so this is a small fraction of the total research conducted. I would like to thank Professor T. Corey Brennan for his immense help and support with this project, as well as the Aresty Research Center for this opportunity. Finally, I would like to thank HSH Princess Rita Boncompagni Ludovisi for her wonderful encouragement and inspiration, and her permission to use digitized documents from the HSH Prince Nicolò and HSH Princess Rita Boncompagni Ludovisi Archive that is housed in her residence in Rome, the Villa Aurora.

Thomas Gosart is a rising senior in the School of Arts and Sciences (Honors College) of Rutgers University-New Brunswick, with a double major in Classics (Greek and Latin option) and Physics (Professional option). In each of the past two academic years, Gosart has presented his work on the cultural history of the Boncompagni Ludovisi in the context of Rutgers’ Aresty Undergraduate Research Program, while continuing his research as a member of the Rutgers Relativistic Heavy Ion Group (part of the STAR collaboration at Brookhaven National Laboratory).

The Boncompagni dragon perusing numismatic lore, in Filippo Bonanni, Numismata Pontificum Romanorum…a tempore Martini V usque ad annum M.DC.XCIX I (Roma 1699), plate between pp. 322-3

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