~ miscellanea ~

- 4 -
Scudi, Testoni, Paoli

Rome's old coinage system

Thanks to the modern Euro currency, in most parts of Europe the same coins and banknotes can be used; but no more than 150 years ago, when the city still belonged to the Papal State, things were completely different.

In those days, not only each country had its own system, but often cities belonging to the same state used different coins, and according to their weight, the values of some units could vary. In fact, the purchasing power of a coin, especially if made of gold, basically depended on its value as raw metal. Therefore, only coins were used, made of gold, silver, billon (an alloy containing various percentages of silver, copper and other metals) and copper; banknotes had not been invented yet, although forerunners of the modern cheques called 'letters of credit' already existed: they were documents signed by the debtor, which the creditor then produced at a given bank to obtain cash.
All trades were subject to the risk of an unfavourable exchange rate, and to the slyness of the many money-changers, whose complicated lists enabled to calculate how much any foreign coin was worth in one's own city. Furthermore, most systems were based on a combination of decimal and non-decimal coinage, and to figure out even the simplest calculation, i.e. how much change was due after a purchase, would appear today rather complicated.
The one in Rome was probably the weirdest among the systems found in Europe. This was due to the very old age of some monetary units, whose value in time had somewhat changed; newer ones, issued by the following popes, usually did not replace old units, but were simply added to the preexisting ones.
On top of this, Rome's people gave nicknames to some popular coins, some of which were alternatively referred to with two, three or sometimes four different names.
As a last consideration, in times when a very large majority of common people were illiterate, in the face of the extraordinary complexity of the currency system, it is surprising how skilled they must have been in doing mental calculations, even more than a modern accountant!

This page takes into consideration the period between the 16th and the 19th century.

The following list briefly describes each of the main units of this system, with a few sample pictures that show coins in their actual size.

One of the oldest units in Rome was the giulio, named after Julius II, who had introduced it in 1504.
Soon after, Paul III (1534-49) too wanted a unit of his own, and called it paolo, slightly modifying the value of the old giulio, so to make the two coins perfectly match. The two names were used as synonyms, although giulio was preferred for official purposes, while the common people called it more often paolo.
Both of them were worth 10 baiocchi (see below). But since 5 baiocchi also made a grosso (see below), a third name for the paolo a.k.a. giulio was doppio grosso ("double grosso").

Some popes also struck a doppio giulio (double piece, worth 20 baiocchi).
1 giulio (paolo) = 2 grossi = 10 baiocchi = 50 quattrini
3 giuli (paoli) = 1 testone

Its name comes from the Latin grossus, "thick", although the papal grosso had completely lost this feature. It was a name also found in other countries, e.g. the English groat, and the Austrian Groschen. Romans popularly referred to it as grossetto ("small grosso"), or lustrino ("little shiny"), as it was the smallest silver coin of the system, worth 5 baiocchi, or  giulio.
1 grosso = 5 baiocchi = 25 quattrini
6 grossi = 3 giuli = 1 testone

This is another unit of ancient origin, whose name was probably borrowed in the Middle Ages from a Merovingian coin, that bore the text BAIOCAS CIVITAS ("city of Baiocas", presently Bayeux, in Normandy).
Originally struck in silver, its value was gradually reduced, until in 1725 Benedict XIII changed its metal to copper. The same name baiocco also became a generic term for "small coin".
Nevertheless, smaller coins did exist (see below).
Several multiples and submultiples of this unit were struck in the 18th-19th centuries; by the end of the 1700s, Pious VI issued eleven different baiocchi pieces: 60, 25, 12, 8, 4, 2, 5, 2 , 2, 1, and  baiocco. The 2 and 4 baiocchi pieces were sometimes called muraiola (from muro = "wall", of uncertain meaning), while Pious VI's 5 baiocchi was also known as madonnina ("small Madonna"), and the same pope's 2  baiocchi was nicknamed sampietrino ("small St.Peter").
The smaller coins (up to 5 baiocchi) were in copper, all the others were in billon.
Curiously, by the time of Pious VI, a silver grosso coin, worth 5 baiocchi, coexisted with coins of lesser metallic value (billon), but of higher nominal value (8, 12, 25 e 60 baiocchi).
1 baiocco = 5 quattrini
30 baiocchi = 6 grossi = 3 giuli = 1 testone or 4 carlini = 2 papetti

Despite the name clearly derived from quattro ("four"), suggesting the quarter of a unit, in the roman system this was the fifth part of a baiocco, thus it represented the smallest coin, made of copper.
Also the term quattrino became a synonym for "penny, small coin", and used in expressions such as squattrinato ("pennyless"), and also a generic word for "money".
150 quattrini = 30 baiocchi = 3 giuli = 1 testone or 4 carlini = 2 papetti

The name testone, literally meaning "big head", alludes to the pope's bust featured on some of the early issues. This name, though, was maintained for later issues on which the head was replaced by the coat of arms of the pope's family. The coin was in silver.
As of the reign of Pious VI (1775-1799), 10 testoni made one doppia d'oro (see below).
The cross rate with one scudo, instead, was unpractical (3,33 testoni = 1 scudo), unless calculating it in a ratio of 10 testoni = 3 scudi.

1 testone = 3 giuli = 6 grossi = 30 baiocchi = 150 quattrini or 2 papetti = 4 carlini
10 testoni = 1 doppia d'oro

This was another old unit found in many lands, whose name sprang from the shield (scudo) that bore the heraldic coat of arms of the pope, or king. Some issues, though, featured the pope's head instead of the coat of arms. Another name for this coin was piastra.
At first, the popes had it struck in two different metals, gold and silver. The former (scudo d'oro) weighed about 3.30-3.35 g. The one in silver was obviously much larger, so to counterbalance the gold coin's intrinsic value.
As a unit, its value considerably varied in time, until it was finally fixed at 10 paoli, or 100 baiocchi.
The last golden scudo was issued in 1738, and was gradually replaced by the zecchino (see below). All the following scudi were only in silver.

1 scudo = 10 giuli = 100 baiocchi
3 scudi = 1 doppia d'oro

The name of this early unit dates back to the time of Charles I of Anjou, who first issued it in 1278. After Julius II's monetary reform, in the early 16th century, it had been completely abandoned. But over two centuries later, in 1747, Benedict XIV retrieved it; among his own issues are  carlino, 1 carlino and 2 carlini, all stricken in billon. The rate of the unit was fixed at 7  baiocchi. Instead, the cross rate with 1 giulio was unpractical (1.333), unless calculating it in a ratio of 3 paoli = 4 carlini.
The 2 carlini piece became rather popular in the early 19th century; poet Giuseppe Gioachino Belli referred to it as "the real roman Lira", i.e. the most handy among the many existing units. Since it originally featured the head of Benedict XIV, the popular nicknames for the 2 carlini piece were papetto ("small pope"), Prospero Lambertini (the actual name of the pope), or in short Prospero, or Lambertini. Puns based on these nicknames were rather frequent; even among Belli's own verses, a commoner comments about Gregory XVI in the following way:

Er Zantopadre, pe ddiograzzia, ll'asso,
un testone, un papetto de ggiudizzio:
e ssi arivi ssan Pietro a ff st'uffizio,
lui se ne frega e sse lo porta a spasso.
Thanks god, the Holy Father is a great man,
he's got brains (=testone), he's a wise little pope (=papetto):
and should St.Peter come back again for doing this duty,
he wouldn't care, he would have him in his power.
1 carlino ( papetto) = 1 grossi = 7 baiocchi
4 carlini (2 papetti) = 3 giuli = 1 testone

Not to be confused with quattrino, the name of this coin means "small quarter", referring to the fourth part of the golden zecchino.
Introduced by Clement XII (1730-40), the piece weighed 0.69 g, and was worth 5 paoli; but turning it into testoni was unpractical, because the latter would have been broken into decimals.

1 quartino = 5 giuli = 50 baiocchi
4 quartini = 1 zecchino

This used to be a popular gold coin in many parts of Italy (especially around Venice); Rome's own zecchino was introduced by Benedict XIII rather late, in 1728. Its size and weight was almost identical to the gold scudo (3.40 g versus 3.30-3.35 g, respectively), but its conventional exchange rate was fixed at 20 giuli, i.e. twice as a gold scudo. Therefore, in a short while the latter coin was replaced by the zecchino, and only the silver scudo was maintained.
One year after the roman zecchino had been introduced, the quality of this coin was so much appreciated by the market, that it had been completely 'absorbed', so the pope issued it again, slightly reducing its weight.

1 zecchino = 4 quartini = 20 giuli = 200 baiocchi
3 zecchini = 2 doppie d'oro = 1 quadrupla d'oro

The "golden double" was introduced by Pious VI (1775-99). Despite its name, it was not the exact double of any of the units. It weighed 5.39-5.49 g, and was worth 3 scudi.
1 doppia d'oro = 3 scudi = 10 testoni = 30 giuli = 300 baiocchi
2 doppie d'oro = 1 quadrupla d'oro

The "quadruple", also called 2 doppie, was the coin of highest value ever issued in Rome. It was struck on rare occasions. It weighed 10.90 g, and it was worth 6 scudi (equals to 60 giuli or paoli), although we may think that such a precious piece did not circulate very much, being mainly used for the storage of large sums of money, or for very important economic transactions, as nowadays it happens with 500  banknotes, or 1,000 US$ banknotes.

1 quadrupla d'oro = 2 doppie d'oro = 6 scudi = 20 testoni = 60 giuli = 600 baiocchi

The following diagram summarizes the main units of this system, showing their rate.

This other diagram, instead, lists the various pieces that were issued and actually circulated, although many of them did so only for limited periods. For each of them the equivalent in quattrini (the smallest subunit) is shown, as an easier reference of their value.

Except the baiocchi pieces, which came from the mint in Gubbio (central Italy, once belonging to the Papal State), all the others were stricken in Rome. In the early 1500s, following a monetary reform decreed by Julius II, the mint had been founded in Ponte district, on the bank of the river Tiber opposite Sant'Angelo Castle, where it kept working until 1541. In those years, a busy financial business developed in this area, as still suggested by the names of the streets: via dei Banchi Vecchi ("old banks street"), via dei Banchi Nuovi ("new banks street"), via del Banco di Santo Spirito ("Santo Spirito bank street"). Banco ("desk") was the actual table where the money-changer weighed the coins and calculated the exchange rates; later on, such word became the name of the same commercial activity.

The reason for such a concentration of early banks was due to the project by Julius II of turning this area, which up to those days was populated mainly by inns for pilgrims going to St.Peter's, into Rome's new commercial district, a goal partly remained unfinished.

the old mint (Banco di Santo Spirito Palace)

But what was the power of purchase of the old coins in Rome? A comparison with today's currencies would be extremely difficult, and likely imprecise. However, also in this case Giuseppe Gioachino Belli is a valuable source of information, as many of his sonnets mention both money and the purchased goods.

beef butcher, etching by Bartolomeo Pinelli, 1831
For instance, we learn that the price of bread, sold by the pound, was about 2 baiocchi, and beef was  grosso. A pound of anchovies was 9 baiocchi but cod was 10 , turbot 2 carlini, and bass, sea bream and other fine fish 1 papetto.
Twenty artichokes costed 1 giulio (paolo), while at the inn wine was 2 quattrini for half litre. However, in some taverns it was possible to pay by the time, i.e. 6 or 7 quattrini each hour, for drinking as much as one liked.
Household goods were unexpensive, but good quality had its cost: for a drinking vessel of fine glass, one may have spent about 20 baiocchi, and the price of a 'cane' of good cloth (Roman measure equivalent to 2.23 metres) would have been no less than 2 testoni.
For 1 giulio one could go to the theatre, while those who went bathing in the river could hire a closed hut for 1 carlino (but Belli remarked that most people would choose the open ones, for no more than1 lustrino, i.e. 1 grosso).

For the same price of 1 grosso one could buy a monthly magazine: print was still expensive in those days! Instead, who preferred other forms of ...entertainment, would have found Rome's prostitutes rather cheap: 1 giulio or 1 papetto ("you'll always get back some change out of a testone", wrote Belli).
Having to cope with bureaucracy was expensive: only the stamp that was placed on a sheet of paper to make it official would cost 1 giulio. The fee for the licence to carry a hunting rifle was 3 giuli. But if a man wanted to marry his cousin (or any other second- or third-grade relative) he should have asked for a special permit issued by the religious authorities, which costed almost 700 scudi! This was indeed a large sum of money, considering that a cardinal, second in rank only to the pope, received a yearly appanage called piatto ("dish") of 4,000 scudi. In 1831 Gregory XVI raised it to 4,500 scudi; somebody said that this was a promise he had made before becoming a pope, to promote his own election.

a water-melon seller in piazza Navona, watercolour by Achille Pinelli, 1836-37
From Belli's verses we also learn how the poor families rented their children to 'professional' beggars for 1 grosso a day per kid, while the expenses for a burial included 9 scudi for the marble slab, 6 scudi for the letters in relief and the cross, and all the rest.

These are two sample sonnnets by Belli, in which the author plays wittingly with the complex monetary system of those days; the first one, about a father settling an account with his son, is said to have been inspired by a real discussion once occurred between Bartolomeo Pinelli, famous roman engraver and painter, and his son Achille, a painter as well.


Che? stammatina t'ho ddato uno scudo,
e ggi stasera nun cii ppi un quadrino?!
Rennte conto, al, ssor assassino:
cqua, pperch'io nu li zappo: io me li sudo.

S: ttre ppavoli er pranzo: dua de vino
tra ggiorno; e cquesti ggi nnun ve l'escrudo.
Avanti. Un grosso p'er modello ar nudo.
Bbe': un antro ar teatrin de Cassandrino.

S ssei pavoli. Eppoi? Mezzo testone
de sigari: un lustrino er pan der cane...
E er papetto c'avanza, sor cojjone?

N, ppranz'e vvino ve l'ho mmesso in cima.
Dunque? Ah, l'hai speso per ann a pputtane.
Va bbene, via: potevi dllo prima.


What? This morning I gave you a scudo,
And this evening you are already left without a quattrino?!
Give account of it right now, you squanderer:
Come here, 'cause I don't grow money: I earn it working hard.

Come on, three paoli for the lunch, two for wine
During the day; and I'm not complaining about these.
Well then. One grosso for the nude model at the Academy.
What else: another one for the theatre of Cassandrino

Makes six paoli. And then? Half testone
For cigars: one lustrino the bread for the dog...
And what about the spare papetto, you blockhead?

No, I counted food and wine as first,
So then? Ah, you spent it on prostitutes.
Well, it's OK: you should have told me before.

              August 30th, 1835


Tre ppavoli, lo so, ccaro don Diego
me l'aricordo, v'ho da d un testone:
m'avanzate tre ggiul de piggione:
trenta bbaiocchi, s, nnun ve lo nego.

Perantro de sti conti io me ne frego,
perch ss ar verde e sto ssenza padrone.
E come disce chi nun ccojjone?
Prima crita sncipi tabbego .

Dunque, sentite, sor don Diego mio:
eccheve du' lustrini, e ffamo patta;
e a messa poi v'ariccommanno a Ddio.

Gi, un giulio solo; e mm dd'uno se tratta.
Tre ne volete? E cquesto ttre, pperch'io
lo bbattezzo pe un tre ccome la matta.


Three paoli, I know, dear Father Diego,
I remember, I owe you one testone:
I'm in debt with you by three giulii for the rent:
thirty baiocchi, yes, I don't deny this.

By the way, I don't care about these figures,
because I'm penniless, and I'm without a master.
As cunning people say,
"Care for others, but first of all care for yourself".

So listen, mister Father Diego:
take these two lustrini and we are quits;
and at mass I'll recommend you to God.

Yes, only one giulio; for the time being it's one.
You want three? Well, this counts three, because
I hold it for a three, like a joker 1.

              January 17th, 1847
1. - In many card games, the joker can take
any value the holder wishes.

The currency system described in this page was discontinued no sooner than in 1866, only four years before the Papal State came to an end. The last 'pope king' Pious IX, introduced the more practical decimal currency 1 lira = 20 soldi = 100 centesimi) that was already being used in other parts of Italy.