The Italian Lira is a fairly new currency with roots that lie deep within Italian culture. The word “lira” is actually derived from the Latin word “libra”, meaning pound, making it a distant cousin to that of the British pound sterling. The lira was a monetary unit long before it existed as a coin or note. The lira made its first appearance in the hands of bankers, merchants and consumers in Venice in 1472, put in place 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. Italy being famous for such great artist such as Michelangelo and Rafael, they ensured that there money not only serve as economic importance, but also as reminders of their rich culture by including works of art on the faces of their coins and bills. The Italian sculptor and goldsmith Benvenuto Cellini was employed to cut dies for coins when Florence became a duchy under the Medici. And not surprisingly, on Italy’s current lire the highest denomination notes celebrate Bernini, Caravaggio and Raphael.
The lira didn’t become the name of Italy’s national currency until 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. 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. Bibliography: