Michelangelo: Money and Medals

Lead medal of Michelangelo, by Leone Leoni

The Italian painter, sculptor and architect Michelangelo Buonarroti (1475-1564) was one of the greatest artists of all time. He spent his life in Florence and Rome, where commissions from rulers and popes made him extremely wealthy. This tour examines his life through the coins and medals with which he was familiar.

Coins fell into three distinct types during Michelangelo's lifetime. Firstly, there were pure gold coins, generally known as florins or ducats, which were used throughout Italy as stores of wealth, for major purchases, and in international trade. Secondly, there were coins of fine silver, usually called grossi, still relatively valuable but more usable in daily life. Finally, as small change, there were small coins of silver mixed with copper. Different cities and princes issued their own versions of these coins with their own designs.

The first medals were made in Italy less than forty years before Michelangelo's birth in 1475. The earliest examples were fed by a growing interest in the coins of ancient Rome, which they were made to resemble. By the sixteenth century they were mass-produced for a wide audience and often carried a political message.

The tour was written to accompany the exhibition Michelangelo: Money and Medals, at the British Museum (Room 69a, admission free) from 12 January to 25 June 2006.