ERIZZO, Sebastiano

ERIZZO, Sebastiano Discorso di m. Sebastiano Erizzo sopra le medaglie de gli antichi

Venice, Giovanni Varisco and Paganino Paganini, [after 1584]


4to, pp. (xvi) 282 (ii); 572; four unprinted pages (P3 verso, P4 recto, P5 verso, P6 recto) Italic and Roman letter, woodcut headpieces, handsome woodcut architectural t-p with Varisco’s printer’s device, cornucopiae, masks, putti and standing figures at the sides, numerous woodcuts depicting Greek and Roman coins and medals. A couple of tiny very light ink marks to t-p, intermittent age yellowing (some slight browning), light waterstain to fore edge of two initial and one final gathering, a few deckle edges. A good copy in contemporary limp vellum, small hole and a little loss at tail of spine, yapp edges, missing ties. Frequent early marginalia to second half and annotation “Medaglie Crotoniate p. 126, 113” to rear pastedown. Bookplate of Patricia Milne-Henderson (1935-2019) to front paste-down.


Fourth and best edition of this beautifully illustrated numismatic treatise, with interesting manuscript annotations. First published in 1559, it was considerably enlarged and improved by the author in the following editions: the fourth, here, is the “most complete and refined” (Cicognara). Very curiously, this copy has four blank unprinted pages (two ruled through in pencil), and a few of the anomalies in the page numbering cited by Dekesel are different or corrected. We have not been able to identify any comparable copy in libraries. The date of publication is inferred from the activity of the two printers (who were active together in Venice from 1584), however according to Cicognara some copies bear the date 1571 (as the third edition).


Sebastiano Erizzo (1525-1585) was an Italian humanist and numismatist. With Enea Vico, he is considered the founder of numismatic criticism. Born to a patrician family of Venice, he completed his classical studies at Padua and became a senator and a member of the Council of Ten. He was a prolific writer of political and philosophical treatises. Passionate about antiquities, he owned one of the finest coin cabinets in Europe. ‘Discorso sopra le medaglie degli antichi’, is one of the first numismatic treatises written in the Italian vernacular, which became extremely popular and influential. The author addressed “the question whether ancient coins were actually money or commemorative medallions designed to perpetuate the memory of an event or person illustrated, a problem that had plagued scholars in the Renaissance. Although Erizzo erroneously argued that coins were simple medals, his catalog was more complete and more methodical than that of his contemporary rival Enea Vico, and his study demonstrated a keen awareness and understanding of ancient numismatics.” (Hoff)


This book is in three parts. The first, “Discorso sopra le medaglie degli antichi”, gives the title to the volume and it is entirely dedicated to demonstrating that ancient coins were not used as currency, but were instead display pieces. Among the ‘proofs’ that Erizzo proposes were the idea that coins were too beautiful to be produced for the masses, and the fact that silver sestertii were made to no consistent weight standard. The second and third parts, ‘Dichiaratione delle monete consulari’ and ‘Dichiaratione delle monete antiche’, are detailed catalogues comprising, respectively, coins of the Roman Republican and Imperial periods – up to Emperor Marcus Aurelius Probus. The description of each coin contains information about the material (iron, copper, silver or gold), a transcription of the inscriptions, and an explanation of the historical events or symbolical meanings of the images illustrated. The third part is embellished with countless, handsomely printed illustrations of Roman and Greek coins, remarkably including many reverses, often overlooked or omitted in other contemporary publications.


Frequent and brief early manuscript annotations, mainly to the catalogue of Imperial coins, belong to an expert of ancient coins with access to a remarkable library. Next to coins of interest, the anonymous commentator wrote references to other numismatic works in which the same coins are mentioned, particularly the ‘Commentaires historiques’ (1644) of the French Jean Tristan, and other treatises by Guillaume du Choul (1496-1560) and Hubert Goltz (1526-11583). Interestingly, he also corrected errors in the text (e.g. wrong material of coins) and pointed out different interpretations (e.g. coins attributed to different emperors). In numerous instances, e.g. on the first page of the third part or next to some of his comments, the annotator wrote ‘J.M.’ or ‘J.N’, possibly his initials.


From the prestigious numismatic library of Patricia Milne-Henderson (1935-2019), British art historian and collector of fine historic numismatic books, coins and medals.

USTC 828354; BM STC It. 16th century, p. 237; Adams E919; Brunet II, p. 1047; Graesse II, p. 498; Dekesel E32; Gamba 1380: “Questo libro è il primo che faccia epoca nella scienza numismatica”; Cicognara 2833. M. Hoff ‘Sebastiano Erizzo’ in Encyclopaedia of the History of Classical Archaeology (1996).
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