The Numismatic Bibliomania Society



The E-Sylum: Volume 14, Number 17, April 24, 2011, Article 21


Alan V. Weinberg writes:

If you watched 60 Minutes on CBS last Sunday, the Morley Safer segment covering the widely-unknown and largely unseen Vatican Library covered in part the Library's apparently extensive coin and medal collection, formed since the 1400's, and the librarian held (in his palm as is the practice I've noticed with ancient silver coins) two superb condition silver ancient Greek coins up to the camera lens- both of which I recognized including a Syracuse decadrahm - and in the background a large gold medallion.

Did anyone else see the segment? Here's some information on the coin and medal cabinet from the Vatican Library web site. Check out the online catalog! -Editor

Vatican catalogo Numismatico The Numismatic Cabinet or Medagliere of the Vatican Library preserves coins, medals, seals, foil strips, plaques, engraved stones, casts, and other similar materials. It also keeps the official pontifical medals and coins. The collection includes about 300,000 pieces. The work of the Department consists of inventorying, classifying and cataloguing this material, and making it available to scholars. Il Catalogue of coins and medals is available on-line.

The origin of the Vatican Medagliere is generally believed to go back to Pope Marcellus I (1555), who, when he was still Cardinal Librarian, is said to have donated his collection to the Vatican Library. It was made up of many rare pieces, including a large number of ancient coins.

In fact, however, it is not until the pontificate of Clement XII Corsini (1730-1740) that we find the beginnings of a numismatic collection worthy of the name in the Medagliere of the Vatican Library. In 1738, Clement XIII acquired the famous collection of 328 Greek and Roman medals which belonged to Cardinal Alessandro Albani, especially for the Vatican Medagliere, which had been relatively neglected up until then. The same access restrictions as had been established by Sixtus V for books and manuscripts were applied to this fundamental nucleus of medals, and one can say that it is from here that the entire history of the pontifical Medagliere had its beginnings.

Between 1741 and 1743, Pope Benedict XIV Lambertini decided to acquire another famous collection, that of Cardinal Gaspare Carpegna, which included not only coins and medals, but also thousands of tesserae, cameos, small bronzes and jewels. The work of inventorying this immense collection lasted for almost two years; but in 1743, Msgr. Giuseppe Simone Assemani, "Primo Custode" of the Vatican Library and a keen numismatist who had already compiled the inventory of the Albani collection, was able to add the over 4,000 pieces of the Carpegna collection to the Medagliere.

A few years later, again upon the initiative of Pope Lambertini, the no less famous collection of about 5,000 pontifical coins which had belonged to the well-known numismatist Saverio Scilla became part of the Vatican Medagliere. This collection included a number of unique pieces; the Pope had cases constructed out of walnut wood in order to provide a fitting home for the entire numismatic collection.

In most recent times the Medagliere has grown further, especially by additions of pontifical and other modern medals, thanks to donations and purchases: the donation of medals by Luciano Zanelli, made by the artist himself; the donation of the medals of Pietro Giampaoli, made by the heirs of the famous medalist; the donation of medals from the Western world from the sixth century B.C. to the twentieth century, made by the collector Msgr. Salvatore Nicolosi; the donation of medals by the artist Pezzetta, made by his heirs.

The collections which today distinguish the Vatican Medagliere and are its main source of pride are certainly those of pontifical coins, of pontifical medals and of Roman coins, especially from the Republican period. However, other collections are also important and contain many rare or even unique pieces, in particular the collections Greek, Byzantine, Medieval and Oriental (especially Chinese) coins. Also noteworthy are the collections of pontifical and Byzantine lead seals (or "bulls"); of Roman lead tesserae; of over 10,000 plaster, glass or sulfur casts of medals and gems; of 800 engraved Roman gems; of pontifical, Italian, and other decorations. The technical library is also rich in books, many of which are old or rare, and which complete the numismatic collection of the Popes, one of the world's richest collections and certainly its most famous one.

There's much more to the collections history than I've excerpted here. What a treasure! See the web site for more information. Thanks for bringing this up, Alan. -Editor

To visit the Vatican Library Numismatic Collection web page, see: Department of the Numismatic Cabinet (


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Wayne Homren, Editor

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