American Numismatic Society
American Numismatic Society

Drachmas, Doubloons and Dollars: The History of Money

New Sources: The 15th and 16th Centuries


The 15th and 16th centuries are probably best known for a renewed interest in the Greek and Roman past and the artistic genius of individuals like Michelangelo, da Vinci, and Dürer. Developments in the high arts were also reflected in the coinage, which now took the skillfully rendered portrait of the ruler as its main focus, just as in ancient times. The vast wealth that had accrued to the Italian communes through banking and international trade made it possible for local rulers to commission their portraits on large coins. In association with portrait coinage, the modern commemorative medal was also developed, displaying a portrait on one side and an allegorical scene on the other.

Unfortunately, in contrast to the beautiful artworks of the period, the 15th and 16th centuries were marred by violence born of religious division and political upheaval. War was a frequent occurrence and rulers constantly required money to fund their conflicts and to pay for damages in the event of defeat.

New sources of silver were discovered in German lands and in the Spanish territories of the New World. The mines of St. Joachimsthal in Bohemia and Potosí in Bolivia were primarily responsible for the introduction of new large silver coins: the thaler and the Spanish 8 real piece. These new denominations continued to circulate for the next several centuries and lay the foundation for modern silver coinages, such as the dollar.