Benedetto Pistrucci: The Italian Artist Behind the British Sovereign Coin

Benedetto Pistrucci, an Italian gem-engraver, medallist, and coin engraver, is renowned for his Saint George and the Dragon design featured on the British sovereign coin. He was commissioned by the British government to create the Waterloo Medal, which he spent thirty years completing. Born in Rome in 1783, Pistrucci began his career as a cameo carver and was favored by royalty. In 1815, he relocated to Britain where his exceptional skill caught the attention of William Wellesley-Pole, the Master of the Mint. Pole employed Pistrucci to design new coinage, including the sovereign, which received mixed reviews upon its initial release in 1817. Despite Pole’s promise of the role of Chief Engraver, it could not be granted due to nationality requirements, causing lasting resentment for Pistrucci.

Pistrucci’s reluctance to replicate the work of other artists became an issue in 1823 when George IV requested a new likeness of himself on the coinage. When Pistrucci declined to base the portrait on the work of Francis Chantrey, he was nearly dismissed. However, the Mint retained him, as it did not want to squander the funds already invested in the Waterloo Medal. Pistrucci remained with the Mint for the rest of his life, and the Waterloo Medal was finally completed in 1849, although its enormous size prevented it from being struck.

Benedetto Pistrucci: The Master Engraver Behind Iconic British Coins and Medals”

Benedetto Pistrucci’s involvement with the Royal Mint started shortly after the Battle of Waterloo in 1815. Born in Rome in 1783, Pistrucci was a highly regarded gem engraver with a significant reputation. During Napoleon’s final days, he was in France, and it is possible that William Wellesley Pole, the Master of the Royal Mint, was among those who persuaded him to move to England.

Pistrucci was swiftly tasked with producing portrait models of George III for the new gold and silver coins that were planned for release in 1817. Initially, he was unable to engrave these models directly into steel, and so the task was given to the Royal Mint’s own engravers. Pistrucci was not satisfied with the results and decided to learn the technique himself. When he created his timeless design of St George and the dragon for the new sovereigns of 1817, it was entirely his own design and is still in use today. Pistrucci’s St George design has endured the test of time and secured his name and reputation, maybe even more than when it was first used in 1817. In 1818, the design was extended to the new crown piece, creating a coin that was described by a contemporary judge as “the handsomest coin in Europe.”

Battle of Waterloo Pistrucci’s Medal.

The Waterloo Medal, which was intended to be awarded to victorious generals and allied leaders of the 1815 Battle of Waterloo, was created by Benedetto Pistrucci, an Italian sculptor. He worked on the design from 1819 to 1849, when the completed matrices were presented to Britain’s Royal Mint. Initially, the medal was commissioned by the British Government in 1819 upon the instructions of the Prince Regent (later George IV). However, due to the deaths of most of the intended recipients and improved relations with France, the medals were never struck. Nevertheless, modern-day versions have been produced for collectors.

The Prince Regent had first suggested the idea of a medal in 1816, and the Royal Academy recommended John Flaxman as the artist. However, Pistrucci, who was responsible for engraving the dies, refused to copy another’s work and presented his own designs instead. The Prince Regent and William Wellesley-Pole, Master of the Mint, were impressed with Pistrucci’s models, and he was given the commission.

In 1823, Pistrucci fell out of favor at the Royal Mint for refusing to copy another artist’s work for the coinage. He was then instructed to focus solely on completing the medal. However, he progressed very slowly and suffered from health issues, leading to repeated calls from the Masters of the Mint to finish the project. Despite the risk of being sacked, Pistrucci remained at the Mint and continued to work on the medal. Eventually, in 1844, an agreement was reached between the Master, W. E. Gladstone, and Pistrucci, and the medal matrices were finally submitted in 1849. Due to their large size, the matrices were only used to produce electrotypes and soft impressions. Pistrucci’s designs have since received high praise from experts in numismatics.

As a foreigner, Pistrucci was ineligible for the position of Chief Engraver, which he desired for the financial security of a good salary. Nonetheless, he continued to work for the Royal Mint in a lesser capacity. In 1820, he engraved a skillful but somewhat unflattering portrait for the first coins of George IV. This was followed by the official Coronation medals of 1821, but he refused to replicate a bust of the king by the sculptor Francis Chantrey. His overbearing conduct effectively ended his contribution to coinage, but he remained involved in medals on occasion. In 1828, the position of Chief Medallist of the Royal Mint was specifically created for him, but his official medalist output was limited. The portrait of the young Queen Victoria on her Coronation medals of 1838 did not appeal to everyone.

Benedetto Pistrucci’s Life and Career from 1783 to 1815.

Benedetto Pistrucci was born in Rome in 1783 to Federico Pistrucci, a Senior Judge of the High Criminal Court, and Antonia Greco. Unlike his elder brother Filippo, who displayed artistic talent from a young age, Benedetto showed little interest in studying. However, his father sent both boys to Latin schools. When Napoleon invaded Italy in 1794, the family was forced to move to Rome and enroll the boys in the Roman College. Federico Pistrucci‘s prosecution of Bonapartist rebels led to the family fleeing Rome when the French advanced towards it, stopping in Frosinone where the boys continued their education. Benedetto eventually began working with a painter named Mango, where he discovered his artistic talent, encouraged by Mango’s stories of his brother Giuseppe Mango, a well-known cameo engraver in Rome. Benedetto began his training as a cameo carver under Giuseppe Mango and Stefano Tofanelli, and soon began to sell his own creations, marking them with a secret Greek letter λ to protect against counterfeiting.

Pistrucci’s talent attracted envy among his fellow apprentices, and he was stabbed in the abdomen during a fight. Recovering at home, he taught himself to model with wax. His father secured a position for him with gem-carver Nicolo Morelli, but Benedetto left as he felt Morelli was not providing him with sufficient training. Benedetto worked from his family home and gained several prominent clients, including Napoleon’s sisters, Rome’s major art dealers, and Elisa, the Grand Duchess of Tuscany, who was so impressed with his work that she gave him studio space at her palace. In 1802, Benedetto married Barbara Folchi and had nine children with her. In 1814, Angelo Bonelli, a successful art dealer, convinced Benedetto to accompany him to Britain, where his future was said to be. Benedetto agreed and, with his brother Filippo, stopped in Paris on the way, where he began working and became known for his talent. After the Battle of Waterloo in 1815, Benedetto prepared to move to Britain, where he arrived on December 31 of that year.

Ascendance to eminence (1815-1819)

When Pistrucci arrived in Dover, he faced difficulties with Customs, which may have been caused by Bonelli’s malice. However, he made his way to London with letters of introduction to various people, and Charles Konig, Keeper of Minerals at the British Museum, proved to be a loyal friend who introduced Pistrucci to Sir Joseph Banks. Banks commissioned Pistrucci to create a portrait of him, and while Banks was posing for Pistrucci, Richard Payne Knight showed Banks a cameo fragment he had bought, which he claimed was from Ancient Greece. Pistrucci identified it as his own work and displayed the secret mark he had placed on it, which increased his reputation in London. Banks introduced Pistrucci to Lord and Lady Spencer, and Lady Spencer commissioned Pistrucci to reproduce Nathaniel Marchant’s model of Saint George and the Dragon in the Greek style as part of her husband’s regalia as a Knight of the Garter. Pistrucci suggested Saint George as an appropriate subject for the sovereign, a new gold coin equal to one pound that was to be struck. For a fee of 100 guineas, Pistrucci created the sovereign’s design, engraving it himself, and depicted the saint atop a fiery steed trampling the wounded dragon. Pistrucci was offered the position of chief engraver at the Royal Mint with a salary of £500 per annum and a house within the grounds of the Mint, but a law passed under William III prevented foreigners from holding the post, and it was left vacant.

The decline of Pistrucci’s career at the Mint.

Following the death of King George III in 1820, Benedetto Pistrucci created a coinage bust for the new King George IV. However, the King was displeased with the design and criticized it for its exaggerated features. Pistrucci also faced conflict with the King over the Coronation medal as the King objected to being placed on the same level as allegorical representations of his kingdoms. Despite Pistrucci’s refusal to copy another artist’s work, the Mint went ahead with another sculptor’s design for the coinage. Pistrucci was then excluded from work on the coinage and faced conflict with William Wyon, another engraver at the Mint. He repeatedly appealed to each new Master of the Mint for appointment to the post of chief engraver, but only received a compromise from the incumbent Master in 1828. This arrangement divided the salaries of the top two engraving positions between Pistrucci and Wyon, leaving Pistrucci with little to do at the Mint. Despite this, he continued to create medallic works and cut cameos, but worked slowly on the Waterloo Medal. His disinclination to complete the medal may have been due to his dissatisfaction with his position at the Mint and the fear of being sacked if he finished it. Pistrucci had a good relationship with Princess Victoria of Kent and created several cameos of her. When she became Queen Victoria, he was commissioned to sculpt her Coronation medal, for which he received mixed reviews. He also created the silver seal of the Duchy of Lancaster using a new process. However, by the early 1840s, the amount spent on Pistrucci was being questioned, and in 1848 a Royal Commission was appointed to reform the Royal Mint. Pistrucci submitted a report and was appointed a modeller and engraver to the Mint. He continued to work on private commissions until his death in 1855.

By Alexandre Laurent

Alexandre Laurentl is working in the jewelry and investment gold since 2002. Alexandre graduated from The Normandy School of Business and from the University of Perpignan a Bachelor of economics in 1995.

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