ACTA ACCLA, March 2003


Ken Baumheckel

Bronze Centionalis of Valentinian II
Republic of Venice

Grosso of Doge Ranieri Zeno, who ruled Venice 1253-1268 CE. Obverse: facing figure of Christ Pantocrator; Reverse: Doge Zeno stands facing with St. Mark, patron saint of Venice. Legend: RA . CENO . S . M . VENETI; the word DVX is to the immediate right of Zeno.

I collect ancient coins for their art and history. The Venetian grosso of Doge Ranieri Zeno (ruled Venice 1253-1268) in my collection is one of my favorite coins because on both accounts, art and history, it forges a link between past civilizations and our own.

The central design on this coin's obverse features the facing figure of Christ Pantocrator (Christ enthroned as ruler of all), a motif copied from Byzantine coinage and maintained to this day in Russian Orthodox art. Christ's hair is long with a center parting. He has a beard and a mustache and is enthroned on a broad, square-backed, upholstered seat which has a frame embellished with patterns of pellets. He wears a tunic (simple slip-on garment belted at the waist) and himation (rectangular cloth draped over the left shoulder and about the body) and has a voided cross nimbus (outlined cross within a halo) behind his head. His right hand rests in the fold of his vestment, and his left hand supports a book of the gospel (the ornamented reliquary cover of which has a pattern of five pellets). His right leg is inclined to the left and his feet are bare. He is flanked by the legend IC -- XC (Greek abbreviation for Jesus Christ). In all of these details, this coin copies Byzantine gold histamenons minted in Constantinople two centuries previously. Although I may never be able to afford a nice histamenon, grossos are very common and affordable, and so I own this one.

On the reverse of my grosso, the doge (duke in English, dux in Latin) stands facing with Saint Mark, the patron of Venice. They grasp a pole between them, at the top of which flies a banner displaying a cross. Both have beards and mustaches. The locks of Zeno's shoulder-length hair cover his ears. He wears a loros (a richly ornamented robe) and holds an akakia (a short cylinder with jeweled ends and containing dust, first carried by Byzantine rulers in public processions and intended to remind the ruler that even he was mortal). Pellets on Saint Mark's right breast form a cross, and he is holding a book of the gospel. A halo frames his head, and his hair is cropped above his ears and shaved on top of his head in a monk's tonsure. The legend reads, RA(nieri) . CENO . S(an) . M(arco) . VENETI. To the immediate right of Zeno is his title, DVX (doge).

As for the history surrounding this coin, Venice had a republican form of representative government and a remarkably stable political experience in relation to other city-states of Italy at the time. A council composed of men of Venice's 200 patrician families elected a legislative Senate, small executive Collegio (cabinet), the doge, and the doge's six councilors. Once elected, doges ruled for life. The Venetian Marco Polo was born at about the beginning of Ranieri Zeno's reign. He spent 17 years in Kublai Khan's China and returned to write a book, which thanks to the printing revolution that began 40 years prior to Christopher Columbus's first transatlantic voyage, inspired the Genoan adventurer to seek a short route to the land where spices, silk, and gold were found in abundance by Marco Polo.

Thus, when I hold my little grosso in my hand, I admire the three figures posing in silver and think of two great adventurers who accelerated the historical and fateful contacts of the Asian, European, and Native American cultures.


ACTA ACCLA edited by Michael J. Connor.