By Tyler Rossi for CoinWeek …..
When it comes to coins, what do we mean when we call a numismatic portrait ugly? Are we talking about the beauty, or lack thereof, of the actual individual pictured? Or simply the skill level of the engraver? Why not both? So for this article, I have put together a list of eight of my personal favorites when it comes to ugliness across numismatic history.
One reason for the large percentage of objectively ugly individuals ruling countries was the drive for royal families to keep their bloodline pure. This impulse has led to many serious cases of incest and the subsequent health issues associated with this practice.
Therefore, there have been some seriously ugly rulers. Not even the most skilled engravers could flatter these individuals with handsome portraits if they were attempting to portray reality. Of course, there is always a sliding scale of attractiveness, and beauty standards change over time. For example, throughout most of history, the people considered most beautiful were pale and heavy set. This was because it meant you could afford lots of food and did not need to work outdoors. Also, during the Hellenistic period, “unibrows signified purity, [and] intelligence”.
Charles II (ruled 1665-1700), the last king of Habsburg Spain, is one such ruler. Ascending to the throne at the young age of four, the unfortunate Charles suffered from the “Habsburg Jaw” and other serious health issues for his entire life. These issues became so pronounced that he was known as El Hechizado (“the Bewitched”) because people believed he was the victim of witchcraft. Charles’s physical deformities prevented him from chewing his food and were even said to have scared his wife, Marie Louise.
Emperor Maximilian I (r. 1493-1519), one of the most successful Habsburg rulers, also suffered due to his family’s predilection for incest. While he did not have as large a maxillary deficiency, or Habsburg Jaw, as his later relatives, he did have a slightly protruding jaw and a massive, hooked nose.
While this portrait of Maximillian is highly realistic and has even been described as a “masterpiece of Renaissance engraving,” it highlights the man’s physical characteristics. Looks are not everything, however, and the portrait simply adds to this coin’s stunning nature. “Beautifully toned,” this “superb Renaissance portrait” is “of the finest Italian style” and would serve wonderfully as the centerpiece of any numismatic collection.
Leopold I (r. 1658-1705), another Habsburg, was the very model of a Baroque emperor. While personally shy and indecisive, Leopold shepherded the Holy Roman Empire through the reconstruction and reconsolidation efforts after the Thirty Years War. Despite not fitting the physical mold of a “radiant monarch”, Leopold was known as “Hogmouth”, he decided to have his “physical deficits emphasized” in royal portraiture. He relied heavily on the “nimbus of his sublime office” and his unbending and “intolerant” Catholicism. The taler from 1700 below clearly demonstrates how Leopold embraced his significantly protruding jaw.
George III of England, who ruled from 1760 to 1820, is best known for descending into madness and being the king who lost the American colonies. While in his early years the king was quite handsome, he did not age gracefully. Portraits on coins struck in the first 30 years of his reign portray a slightly overweight middle-aged man who still has remnants of his youthful good looks. However, during a comprehensive currency redesign and overhaul in 1816, the Royal Mint hired Benedetto Pistrucci to design the now-famous “bull head” type portrait. It is not flattering in the least. Since George was insane at the time, the artist was unable to have an in-person sitting with the king. The new design was so unpopular that the Mint ordered it replaced less than a year later.
The second group in my list is comprised of individuals, who while they may not be the most beautiful, were victims of poorly skilled engravers. These portraits are not representative of the individual’s actual features. Not included in this list are rulers whose coins are highly stylized. If the portrait is engraved using an artistic format, that is not the fault of a specific engraver.
On many of the circulating coins featuring the president, George Washington appears regal, austere, and even slightly haughty. However, in 1862 a commemorative medal was struck that almost makes Washington look like a frog. While undated, these medals are thought to have been struck in 1862 and the corresponding dies destroyed in 1863. Examples were struck in both white metal and bronze. Even contemporaneously, these medals were recognized for their sheer ugliness, and earned the nickname “Ugly Head Medal”.
Ugly coins with poorly executed designs are not the sole purview of the modern era. Quite the opposite in fact.
While most numismatic portraits of Pompeia Plotina, the wife of Roman Emperor Trajan, show a dignified middle-aged woman, one specific provincial bronze doesn’t quite live up to the standard portraiture. Struck in Amphipolis Macedon, this diassarion is practically a caricature with a weak chin and a grossly oversized nose. When compared to the bulk of coins struck with her portrait this example is obviously an outlier.
One of the most famous Roman coins, the portrait denarius of Julius Caesar is an example of early Roman Imperatorial hyper-realism. It is highly doubtful that Caesar looked exactly like the portrait on this series of coins. The wrinkled skin on his forehead and neck, along with his piercing gaze and sunken cheeks, imparts a sense of age and commanding presence. Due to the political import of using his portrait, this was most likely an artistic choice.
Following Bolivia’s independence in 1809, the mint at Potosí began striking republican issues, with the 1859-p ½ Sole being one such example. Known colloquially as the “ugly head” type, there are only two examples known and it is therefore extremely rare. Unlike the standard portrait of Simón Bolívar, this type appears slightly squashed and stiff. It is interesting that this specific portrait is so different than the standard circulating version, especially since this is a modern coin. This coin is emblematic of the crudeness of revolutionary and early republican coinage from 19th-century Central and South American countries.
As an honorable mention, I really need to include a 1639 teston struck by the city of Besancon in honor of Charles V of France many years after his death. His imposing portrait jumps off the obverse with a massive chin.
These are just some of my personal favorites, and it seems like there is always another coin with an ugly portrait waiting just around the next corner to be discovered and enjoyed.
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About the Author
Tyler Rossi is currently a graduate student at Brandeis University’s Heller School of Social Policy and Management and studies Sustainable International Development and Conflict Resolution. Before graduating from American University in Washington D.C., he worked for Save the Children creating and running international development projects. Recently, Tyler returned to the US from living abroad in the Republic of North Macedonia, where he served as a Peace Corps volunteer for three years. Tyler is an avid numismatist and for over a decade has cultivated a deep interest in pre-modern and ancient coinage from around the world. He is a member of the American Numismatic Association (ANA).