Before the Euro

A national currency is a powerful symbol.  It represents a country’s sovereignty and the independence of a country and its people.  When I was ten, I did not realize all of this.  I used the Lira, which at the time was the national currency, to buy candy before soccer practice.  That was all it represented for me – a necessary means of enjoying a sweet treat before training.

 

Children Buying and selling Figurine Panine for Lire

Children buying and selling Panini trading cards with Lire

 

 

The Lira, Italy’s official currency before the Euro, was named after a Carolingian unit of measure, the “libra.” There were many precursors to the Lira before the different regions of Italy became one country in 1861 under King Vittorio Emanuele II di Savoia. After unity, the Lira was made the official legal currency of Italy, but was still produced by banks from different regions until the Bank of Italy was created in 1893.

 

 

A one Lira fiduciary banknote issued by the Bank of Rome

 

A one Lira fiduciary banknote issued by the Bank of Carrara

 

Initially the Lira was produced as copper, silver and gold coins. It was only in 1896 that the Bank of Italy began producing paper banknotes. I remember inspecting the faces that were placed  on the notes. I was always wondering who those people might be. Over time, I came to learn that they were the many personalities who had contributed to Italy’s rich history, such as the artists  Raffaello and Caravaggio.

 

 

In the 1960s Michelangelo appeared on the 10,000 Lire banknote.

I remember Caravaggio's face on the 100,000 Lire banknote

 

The face of Maria Montessori, the great Italian physician and educator, graced the 1,000 Lire banknote.  It is hard to explain, but the Thousand Lire banknote (mille lire) is perhaps the most iconic Italian banknote of all time.  Unlike many other sizes of banknotes, such as 10 Lire or 500,000 Lire, the Mille Lire note was produced from the beginning of the currency’s history to the introduction of the Euro. While in 1939 Mille Lire was a month’s salary for someone who made a good wage, by the time the Euro was introduced it was the price you would pay for a cup of espresso.  Despite this change in its value, the Mille Lire banknote was one that generations of Italians were familiar with.

 

Maria Montessori with a group of children

Maria Montessori on the Mille Lire banknote

 

The colours of the banknotes have also always intrigued me. Looking back at the history of the Lira, you can find pretty much any color of the rainbow in the old banknotes.  As a child I would arrange them as one would arrange paint chips, trying to create the best palette.  I also used the coins when I played.  I would stack them to make tall towers of coins and challenge myself to reach new heights before they came crashing to the ground.

 

 

This detail of the 5,000 Lire banknote shows just how many colors were in any single banknote

I

n 2002 the Lira was replaced by the Euro and many people set aside a Mille Lire banknote or a 500 Lire coin as a souvenir.  Since then, most people feel a bit of nostalgia for the former currency, while some have devoted themselves to the art of collecting and have created the most exclusive collections of Lira coins and banknotes. Even I, who am not particularly sentimental, must admit that candy tasted a little bit sweeter when paid for with the Lira.

 

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