BBC NEWS Americas Africa Europe Middle East South Asia Asia Pacific Arabic Spanish Russian Chinese Welsh

 You are in: World: Europe
Front Page 
Middle East 
South Asia 
From Our Own Correspondent 
Letter From America 
UK Politics 
Talking Point 
In Depth 

Commonwealth Games 2002

BBC Sport

BBC Weather

Wednesday, 31 October, 2001, 10:04 GMT
So long to the lira
100,000 lire banknote
Lira art: Caravaggio and his painting The Fortune Teller
Like the German mark, the Italian lira is a comparatively recent currency with roots that lie deep in the past.

The word "lira" is derived from the Latin "libra", meaning pound, which makes it a distant cousin of the British pound sterling, whose Roman roots are reflected in the L-shaped symbol.

Lira / livre / pound users
Ireland (until 2002)
The lira was a unit of account long before it existed as a coin or a note.

It made its first appearance in the hands of bankers, merchants and consumers in Venice in 1472, struck by Doge Nicolas Tron.

The Venice lira set a trend for large silver coins with enough space to bear the local ruler's portrait.

These were called testone in Italy, from the word testa meaning head, teston in France, and testoon in Britain, where the first example was a shilling minted by Henry VII in 1504.

However, the lira remained just one of many silver coins circulating in the states that later joined together to make up modern Italy.

Works of art

Some of these were works of art: the Italian sculptor and goldsmith Benvenuto Cellini was employed to cut dies for coins when Florence became a duchy under the Medici.

A pocketful of coins
zecchino (sequin)
The lira became the name of Italy's national currency after unification in 1860.

It was made up of 100 centisimi, the smallest coins made of copper, and larger ones of silver. Coins of 10 lire and above were struck in gold.

But inflation gnawed relentlessly away at the descendants of the doge's magnificent testone.

The one and two centisimi coins disappeared in 1918. The smaller silver lire changed to nickel then stainless steel, and finally, after World War II, aluminium.

The one and two lire coins disappeared altogether in 1984, though a 500 lire coin continued to be issued in silver until 1982.

Italy's rich artistic history has also been reflected on its banknotes.

Detail of 50,000 lire note
Bernini sculpture depicted on 50,000 lire note
The highest denomination lire notes celebrate Bernini, Caravaggio and Raphael.

Euro coins

The Italian euro coins will depict, among other things, Botticelli's Venus and Leonardo da Vinci's Vtiruvian man.

The Vatican has been issuing variations on Italian coinage since 1929. Its euro coins will continue to depict the Pope's head.

A curious appendix to the recent history of the lira came in 1935, when Italy's fascist leader Benito Mussolini invaded and quickly conquered Abyssinia.

Instead of attempting to conduct business there in the lira, Mussolini acquired the dies of the silver thaler produced under the Habsburg empress Maria Theresa (1717-1780) and began to mint them in Italy.

The thaler - which gave its name to the dollar - was the coin of choice in the region, a genuinely hard currency used in trade with countries such as India and China.

For older Italians the euro will, at least in one way, bring back memories - the return to everyday life of centisimi, as the euro cents will be known.

Legacy Currencies
Internet links:

The BBC is not responsible for the content of external internet sites

Links to more Europe stories are at the foot of the page.

E-mail this story to a friend

Links to more Europe stories