By Tyler Rossi for CoinWeek …..
Like many countries in the aftermath of World War One, Italy was riven by internal divisions.
At the start of the Great War, Italy split from the Central Powers and joined the Entente. When combined with disastrously ineffective leadership, this decision–while placing Italy on the winning side–resulted in over 600,000 deaths, almost total economic collapse, and significant resentment among the general population. Shortly after the war, this toxic combination greatly contributed to the rise of nationalist and communist forces. It was during these tense years when both sides were poised to clash that Benito Mussolini began his rise.
Originally a far-left communist journalist before WW1, he was forced out of the communist party due to his support of Italian intervention in the war. During the war, Mussolini served as a soldier and also supported the war effort with his journalistic experience. Turning again to politics after the war, he officially founded the Fasci Italiani di Combattimento in 1919.
Formed from the Milanese Fascio, a nationalistic organization, Mussolini employed their image of the ancient Latin, or possibly Etruscan, fasces. Since this bundle of rods tied around an ax was supposedly used “to lash people, and … execute them,” it was quickly adopted as a symbol of power, strength, and unity. On this Roman Republican denarius of Gaius Norbanus from 83 BCE, we can see the fasces’ status as a symbol of the Republic.
As the leader of the fascists, Mussolini strong-armed King Victor Emmanuel III into appointing him as Prime Minister and forming a totalitarian state. While nominally remaining a kingdom, and with the king’s portrait still appearing on the obverse of all the country’s coins, after October 1922, Italy was a fascist dictatorship led by Mussolini. By the 1930s, Italy was again in dire economic straits and the New Lira was losing value fast until the national government was forced to devaluate the currency.
This did not help matters, and the country continued to suffer from the ongoing economic collapse lasting through the 1930s and into the ’40s. By the end of the Second World War, coins had practically vanished from circulation, and prices in 1945 had risen to 25 times those in 1938.
A New Coinage
In 1936, the government completely redesigned its coinage. These new coin designs would be struck during the 1930s and throughout the war, with some being produced right up until Italy surrendered in 1943.
The smallest denomination struck as part of this new series was the copper 5 centesimi. From 1936 until the start of World War 2, this denomination was struck in copper, weighed 3.25 grams, and measured 19.5 mm. Due to the demand for copper during the war, these small coins were struck from an Aluminum-bronze alloy from 1939 until 1943. The obverse of both types depicts a right-facing bust of the king circled by the legend VITT – EM – III – RE – E – IMP. The “IMP” refers to the Italian dream of reinstating the historic Roman Empire. This same legend would appear on all Italian coins of the period. On the reverse is the fascist eagle. While this rendition is very similar to the contemporary German eagle, it is holding a fasces instead of a swastika. With low pre-war mintages of less than 10 million, the Mint of Rome would increase production until it struck between 10 and 25 million pieces each year from 1938 until 1942. However, in 1943, only 372,000 pieces were produced.
Also struck originally in copper from 1936 to 1938, the 10 centesimi denomination was shifted to the same aluminum-bronze alloy at the same time as the 5 centesimi coins. While the original specifications for the bronze types stood at 5.4 grams and 22,5mm, the alloyed type weighed only 4.9 grams. The mint in Rome produced mintages ranging from 18 to 26 million pieces between 1938 and 1943. Ten-centesimi coins also share an obverse design with the smaller 5 centesimi type, with the exception that the king’s bust faces left and not right. On the reverse is the House of Savoy shield superimposed on fasces and flanked by a wheat ear and oak leaf.
The nickel 20 centesimi, 50 centesimi, 1 lira, and 2 lire coins also underwent a material change due to the war and were shifted from nickel to stainless steel.
The 20 centesimi and 1 lira coin both have the king facing left on the obverse and the 50 centesimi and 2 lire have him facing right. Otherwise, the obverse designs are the same. All four denominations have exceedingly small mintages in 1936 of between 117,000 and 120,000 pieces. The 20 centesimi is also rare in 1937 and 1938, with a combined mintage of 69 pieces circulation pieces for both years. Meanwhile, the other three denominations were only minted in Proof for those two years (1937-8).
When minting was resumed in 1939 and the composition was shifted to stainless steel, these mintage numbers rose dramatically. The numbers peaked in 1941 for the 20 and 50 centesimi coins which reached 97,300,000 and 58,100,000 pieces respectively. The largest mintages for both the 1 and 2 lire coins was in 1940, with almost 26 million and 5,742,000 pieces, respectively.
As can be seen on the coin above, the 20 centesimi incorporated the personification of Roma or possibly Italia on the obverse and the standard fasces with Savoy shield on the reverse design. The 50 centesimi, as well as the 1 lira and 2 lire coins, similarly to the 5 centesimi reverse, display variations of the eagle gripping the fasces in its talons.
All standard circulating denominations from the 5 lire coin and above were struck in silver. This denomination is quite rare, because while over a million pieces were struck in 1936, only 20 pieces were struck each year from 1938 and 1941. The obverse of the 5 lire coin also has the same obverse design as the 1 lira stainless-steel type, with a bust of the king facing left. On the reverse is a female figure representing fertility, seated and wearing a Roman toga, surrounded by four children of various ages. Like all fascistic Italian coins, the reverse design includes the standard Gregorian mintage date in Latin numerals and the date of the Fascist era in Roman numerals. Since this example was struck in 1940, 19 years after the Fascist Italian state was established, there is a XIX in the lower right field beneath the fasces.
A test pattern 5 lire was struck in 1940, which depicted the king from the shoulders up in a military uniform, wearing a helmet. This extremely rare piece shows the crowned Savoy Coat of Arms and fasces, with the denomination and standard dual dating system of fascist Italian coins on the reverse.
Similar to the 5 lire, the 10 lire coin also had a very small mintage from 1938 until 1941, with only 20 pieces struck per year. This coin shows the king facing right on the obverse and Roma standing proud on the prow of a ship holding Victory in her left hand and a fasces in her right. The crowned Savoy Coat of Arms is pictured on the boat’s prow.
The 20 lire is perhaps the rarest, non-gold denomination produced between 1936 and 1943 by Fascist Italy. In 1936, usually the most prolific year for the silver denominations, only 10,000 pieces were struck and even fewer the following years. The obverse, the same as the 1 and 5 lire coins, shows the king facing left. On the reverse is a quadriga, or four-horse chariot, pulling a seated Roma holding a fasces and a figure of Victory.
All of these coins are rife with fascist imagery and allegorical figures harkening back to Italy’s Imperial Roman past. But after the fascist government fell, this imagery was replaced, mainly by tableaus with a mythical or natural theme. For example, the aluminum 10 lire struck from 1946 to 1950 had a Pegasus on the obverse and an olive sprig on the reverse.
Interestingly, many of these new coins were also designed by Giuseppe Romagnoli. Romagnoli worked for the Roman mint from 1918 and was also responsible for the vast majority of the earlier fascist coins.
* * *
* * *
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).