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Some notes on a Venetian colonial coinage


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The history of Venetian interests in the Levantine area is almost fully overlapping the 'Crusades' period and its influence was instrumental in both the evolution of the crusading ethos and in its downfall and decay. In the Balkans, Greece and Constantinople proper, Venetian interests vastly precede the Fourth Crusade and the fiasco of 1204-5 -- the conquest of Constantinople by the crusaders, the election of Baldwin as 'Latin Emperor' and the direct involvement of Enrico Dandolo in the war against the Bulgarians, Vlachs and Cumans of 1205.

After the partition of Greece, Venice ended up with direct control over colonies both on the continent and in the wider Aegean. Although usually cast on the same 'side' as the Frankokratia in Greece, Venice was a more devious player, acting more through private enterprises driven by the goal of making profit than by stately politics and 'geopolitics'.

The main ingredient of trade at the scale and complexity that Venice ran in the Balkans and in Asia Minor was coinage. Thus the Venetian podesta in Constantinople is usually the main agent considered as the issuer of the 'Latin trachea' series, as it was likely the driving force behind the 'local imitation' tetartera along the Via Egnatia in the 12-13th centuries. By mid 13th century the Greek trade was mainly a billon-silver (Western) and gold (Greek) trade and after 1270 Venice started relying more and more on the local denier tournois of Clarentza as the commonest and most reliable coinage of the age. The fact that the denomination was accepted as far West as Normandy and as far East as Tripoli and Acre in the Holy Land was a bonus, but the main reason why the denier tournois was so important for Venice is that after 1278, when Charles d'Anjou became Prince of Achaea, the coin entered the Italian markets in droves and was legal tender. It was virtually indistinguishable from the tournois provencal of ca. 1246-1266 that came to Sicily with Charles conquest, and with Greece entering direct Angevin overlordship, the coinage got the backing of one of the main European powers.

Venice was happy to use the tournois of Clarentza, Thebes or Naupaktos as long as it was a stable and reliable coinage with a steady output and a standardized fineness. But by the 1320s, Greece became the ground for a multiple-faced conflict that saw the Angevins struggling for control with the Epirote Greeks, the Palaiologans and (later) the Kantakouzenos of Mystras, the Catalans of the Atticoboiotia and, as time progressed, Turkish and Ottoman incursions. As such, in the 1320s the Venetians started flirting with minting their own denier tournois. This idea did not come to fruition though -- although Baker mentions that there might have been Venetian illicit operations striking deniers tournois in Greece at that time. The official coinage for Giovanni Gravina in Achaea and afterwards for Robert de Taranto was eventually deemed "good enough" by Venetian interests even if it was way more debased than the original tournois of Clarentza. 

But by 1350 the local billon coinage stopped. Greece was heavily afflicted by the Black Death and the downfall of the mint at Clarentza might be related to the heavy casualties that the plague exacted from the local population. But there was another thing at play also -- between ca. 1330s and 1350, the realm descended steadily and conclusively into chaos, as the real power of the Angevins in the Balkans also decreased and waned. The open support of the local barons to a direct anti-Angevin revolt that offered the Principality to Ioannis Kantakouzenos of Mystras and even to the son of Ferdinand de Majorca, Jaime -- following an incredibly interesting and desperate anti-Angevin stance by Mahaut d'Avesnes-Hainaut, who gifted her claim as heiress of the Villehardouin-Avesnes-Hainaut line in Achaea, on her death bed in the early 1330s to Jaime de Majorca, the son of her former enemy from the wars of Achaean succession in 1316 -- was a symptom of this reality and the fact that in 1345 Jaime would proclaim Erard le Maure of Arcadia and Saint Sauveur as 'hereditary baillie' of the Principality might imply interesting things numismatically (this is one of my obsessions -- the IACOBVS deniers tournois of the 14th century Greece).

Anyways, in this fragmented and almost anarchic context, the Venetians decide to take matter into their own hands and strike a colonial coinage meant to supplant the extinction of the denier tournois. The coin became known as the 'tornesello' and was struck at Venice and distributed in the colonies as a new means of exchange at a parity with the old tournois beginning with 1353.

Here is a tornesello from Venetian doge Michele Steno, ca. 1400:


AR16mm 0.53g 100/1000 billon tornesello minted at Venice, ca. 1400
+ MIChAEL STEN' DVX; cross pattee
Papadopoli 7


The coinage series lasted to the late 15th century and became a common fixture in continental Greece and the Archipelago. By the 1480s it started gaining ground in Cyprus also. By this time the main power struggle in Greece was no longer involving the Angevins nor the Palaiologans. It was Venice against the Ottomans. The coinage reflected these realities, especially in relation to the overall output relating to the dogi who ruled Venice in the 15th century. Up to around the first quarter of the century, the torneselli were regulars and their use is well attested both on the continent and in the Archipelago. Afterwards the coinage becomes spotty.

What is interesting is that the coinage appears time and again in the second half of the 15th century also, as a billon unit of ca. 100/1000 fineness. That is until 1486, when the monetary reform of Agostino Barbarigo renders the tornesello as a practically base metal coinage.

Still, there are a few torneselli struck at the earlier standard in 1486:


AR12mm 0.45g 100/1000 billon tornesello, minted at Venice ca. 1486.
• AVG • BARBADICO • DVX; cross potente
S MARCVS VENETI; Venetian lion
cf. Papadopoli 64


Although anti-French, Barbarigo was forced to ally Venice with Charles VIII in the 1490s to allow for a war against the Ottomans, which started in 1499. While it was moving from the billon colonial coinage to the copper-based colonial coinage, Venice was preparing the annexation of Cyprus. The tornesello was everywhere from Nauplio to Monemvasia and from Cyprus and Crete/Candia to Coron, Modon and Corinth.

Edited by seth77
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