La Zecca, is a 16th century Venetian building in High Renaissance style, that once housed the mint of the Republic of Venice. It played a vital part in the city’s development and success; by developing innovative financial instruments.
Overlooking the Bacino, it is located adjacent to the Marciana Library; across from the Doge’s Palace on the Piazzetta.
Designed by Jacopo Sansovino and built between 1536 and 1548, the heavily rusticated* stone structure, was originally on two floors. It replaced an earlier mint, specifically to ensure safety from fire and to provide adequate security for the silver and gold deposits. Giorgio Vasari considered it the finest, richest, and strongest of Sansovino’s buildings.
After the fall of the Republic of Venice in 1797, coin production continued, but significantly slowed in 1852; during the second period of Austrian domination (1814–1866).
La Zecca was subsequently adapted and served as the seat for the Chamber of Commerce; from 1872 until 1900. Since 1904, it has housed the main part of the Marciana Library; whose historical building next door, is now largely a museum.
*Rustication: an architectural expression of Golden Age mythology, so popular within the High Renaissance period. Stone blocks are textured and bevel-edged, to emphasise structure and dimensionality.
Centre left: La Zecca Right: La Marciana Library. overlooking St Mark’s Basin.
LA ZECCA – HISTORY
The first mint was located in the parish of San Bartolomeo, close to the southern approach to the Rialto Bridge and the market complex on the other side of the Grand Canal. It may have existed since the 9th century and the first minting of a local coin, may have been a Carolingian silver penny; issued in the name of the emperor Louis the Pious. Evidence suggests that the minting halted, in the mid-twelfth century. During this time, the coinage of Verona was probably used for local transactions; while Byzantine coins were used for long-distance trade.
During the reign of Vitale II Michiel (in office 1156–1172), a local minting resumed when “ducal” coinage was first issued and increased significantly when the “grosso” was introduced.
By 1278, a new silver mint is mentioned in a resolution of the Great Council; located across the Piazzetta from the Doge’s Palace. Overseen by the appropriate magistracy, the Council of Forty; it also ensured greater security. It also followed a long-standing tradition in Italy that the mint, as a symbol of fiscal autonomy and economic prosperity; be located near the seat of the government.
By 1285, a separate gold mint, adjacent to the existing silver mint was established; following the introduction of the gold “ducat” coin; In the same year, the mint was referred to as “the Zecca”, from the Arabic noun “sikka”, meaning a “die”. By 1290, the name was also used for the silver mint, formerly known by the term “Moneta”. The gold ducat, was later known as the “zecchino”.
Over time, the mint facilities were expanded and floors added, as demand for coinage increased. The Reuwich woodcut (Mainz, 1486) and the de Barbari engraving (Venice, 1500) show the mint as a single, three-story building with a courtyard behind.
In July 1532, concerns within the mint were raised when fire broke out. Following a damage inspection by Doge Andrea Gritti, the Council of Ten authorised in 1535; that the entire mint was to be rebuilt with stone vaults, to eliminate the use of timber beams in construction.
Above: Detail from woodcut “Peregrinatio in Terram Sanctam” by Erhard Reuwich (1486); showing the earlier mint (shaded) in Saint Mark’s Square.
The New Mint. The need for increased production requiring increased furnace capacity, was made following a ruling by the Council of Ten in 1526. This obliged government offices in mainland cities under Venetian control, to accept only Venetian currency; effectively substituting local currencies for official business.
In addition, it was necessary to improve security when after 1528, private deposits earning interest, were accepted at the mint; primarily as a means of increasing the supply of silver for minting.
For the design, three projects were considered and in March 1536; the Council of Ten awarded the commission to Jacopo Sansovino. He had been already appointed as “proto” (consultant architect and buildings manager) to the procurators of Saint Mark; following the death of his predecessor Pietro Bon. Sansovino, had supervised the final stages in the construction of the Procuratie vecchie in Saint Mark’s Square. The mint was thought to be his first major commission in Venice.
Apart from the need to provide the space for increased production, greater fire protection and security; the mint was intended to symbolise Venice’s financial recovery from years of famine and war.
Doge Andrea Gritti, had instigated a large architectural program (renovatio urbis), of which the mint was an integral part. The program, included the library (1537) and the bell tower loggia (1538) and represented the transformation of Saint Mark’s Square; from an antiquated medieval city centre into a classical forum. Its aim was to express Venice’s renewed self-confidence and reaffirm its international prestige, after the earlier defeat, during the War of Cambrai and the War of the League of Cognac.
Venice, would be presented as Rome’s true successor; evoking the memory of the ancient Roman republic, in the aftermath of the Sack of Rome in 1527. Sansovino’s time in Rome and his understanding of Vitruvian principles and his direct knowledge of ancient Roman prototypes; provided the expertise necessary to enact the programme.
The 5,000 ducats required for construction, was raised by authorising the freeing of slaves on Cyprus (a Venetian possession); at 50 ducats a head. Despite additional funds similarly raised in 1539 and 1544; the final mint’s construction cost was said to have increases about six-fold. over.
Building of the mint began in 1536 and given its importance, was not hindered by the financial constraints at that time; despite the ongoing Ottoman-Venetian War (1537–1540).
Construction was staged to avoid halting minting operations and began with the charcoal depository on the northern side. The floor level was raised by approximately 1 metre; to protect the structure from high tides.
In 1539, the embankment stalls, were incorporated into the open lower arcade; to give greater dignity to the mint facade. The upper floor over the shops and provide additional space for the gold mint; which was located upstairs.
However, for security reasons, the shops were relocated in 1588, after which the open arcades on the ground floor were walled up and the space was annexed to the mint. Construction completed in 1548.
Sansovino’s original building had only two floors with a low attic above, lit by small rectangular windows. Unfortunately, the combination of sun on the lead roof and furnaces below; the attic became unusable during the summer.
In 1558, the Council of Ten consequently authorised and funded, the construction of an additional third floor. Thought not to be of Sansovino’s design; he was probably consulted on technical and structural aspects. Looking at the photograph at the top of the page, later criticism of the additional top floor design, was somewhat justified. It lessened the feeling of structural “strength and security” of the lower two floors.
Internal Layout of La Zecca
Layout of the ground floor (below) with front shaded area indicating location of shops; later relocated in 1588.
The front section was occupied by the offices of the silver officials and by the furnaces for the smelting and casting of silver. In the rear section, twenty workshops for the production of silver coins were located along the sides of a rectangular courtyard. Sansovino designed these workshops as small spaces so that the closely placed walls would provide adequate support for the heavy stone vaults. Charcoal deposits were located on the far side of the courtyard. A rain water collection system was built, with a cistern under the central courtyard pavement and with the water accessed through a wellhead. The upper floor, destined for the minting of gold coins, was similarly arranged but with larger and hence fewer workshops.
Sansovino’s design, was given a sense of “fortress-like” impregnability appropriate to the function of the mint. Heavy rustication of the blockwork on the ground floor, was extended over the Doric order on the floor above.
In Venice, the combination of heavy-cut Istrian limestone and classical orders had already been used by Mauro Codussi for San Michele in Isola. Sansovino was no doubt inspired by his visits to Rome and its ancient architecture.
The windows on the Doric level, originally protected by heavy iron grilles, create the impression of being deeply recessed in a thick wall. The effect is enhanced by the massive, protruding lintels above.
The later added third floor employs the Ionic order and although it continues the rustication, the exposed walls around the windows and the delicate tympanums overhead, somewhat diminish the overall massive feel.
Main Entrances. The heavily rusticated entry portal, is found about a third of the way down the Marciana Library side. It is flanked by two telamons supporting a Doric entablature and was subsequently incorporated into the seventeenth arcade of the library. In the resulting passageway are placed two colossal statues, carved by Girolamo Campagna and Tiziano Aspetti. A water entrance, is on the left side of the mint.
Officials and Staff of the Mint
Production of coinage fluctuated throughout the year, according to the availability of bullion and the commercial needs of the merchants; but peaked after the snow in the Alps had melted. German merchants brought silver and gold to the city and the departing merchant-galley fleets required large amounts of coinage, for trade in the East.
Below: Venice mint. Zecchino – Alvise Contarini (1676-1684). 3.49 gms. 21.00 mm.
Workforce estimates in medieval times was around 225 individuals, making the mint the second largest single employer after the Arsenal. The number of employees consequently varied with demand for both the silver mint (lower floor) and the gold mint (upper floor). Workers included salaried staff: gastaldi (foremen), fabri (blacksmiths who forged dies), intaidori (die engravers), pexadori (weighers), and fanti (unskilled workers with menial tasks). Included, were skilled labourers paid at a piecework rate: afinadori (refiners), fondadori (blank casters, mendadori (emenders who controlled the prescribed weight tolerances), and stampadori (coin strikers).
Masters of the Mint, separate for silver and gold (“Massari alla moneta e Massari all’argento e all’oro”); coordinated the technical operations and were usually of noble status; with responsibilities including acquisition of bullion, manufacturing supervision and distribution.
Above: Silver Grosso of doge Antonio Venier
In addition, several magistracies existed to provide oversight:
Provveditori in Zecca
The Council of Ten with its vital interest for the security of the state, was ultimately responsible for the control of the mint. Following the reform in 1582, the magistracy came under the jurisdiction of the Senate.
From 1522, supervisory functions were assigned to a magistrate, chosen from among the Council membership; with the title of “Provveditore in Zecca”. Initially charged with the acquiring and minting of gold and the refining of silver, the Provveditore quickly assumed responsibility for the general management and direction of the mint. In addition, the Provveditore was responsible for issuing government funds, deposited in the mint; to cities under their control and to the army and also, the payment of interest on private funds deposited in the mint.
In 1562, the Magistracy was expanded to two members of and in 1572, to three.
Depositario. Created in 1543, by the Council of the Ten and responsible for the mint’s cash accounts. It also maintained accounts for private capital deposits and ensured funds were not misappropriated by the government.
Provveditori a ori e monete. Created in 1551 to ensure that all forms of gold, was sold at the official rate, fixed by the government.
Provveditori sopra ori e argenti. Created in 1585, they intervened to ensure money was exchanged at face value.
Conservatore dei pubblici depositi. Permanently created in 1592, with responsibility for the reserve funds of the state, kept in the mint.
Provveditore alli prò. Instituted in 1639, they oversaw the payment of interest on private funds, deposited in the mint.
After the Fall of the Republic
Minting operations continued after the fall of the Venetian Republic in 1797, but ceased in 1852; during the second period of Austrian rule (1814–1866).
Chamber of Commerce. In 1872, the Chamber of Commerce rented the building and over a two year period, an extensive renovation was carried out; to prepare the building for its new function and accommodate the offices. Windows were inserted into the ground-floor arcades in the central courtyard.
On the front facade, the iron grilles of the windows on the upper two stories were removed. Furthermore, the principal entry for the public to the main facade along the waterfront was established; by the opening the central three blind arcades. These changes brought criticism, for altering the whole balance of the frontage. However, in 1892, the original aspect of the facade was re-established; when the remaining arcades were opened up.
Marciana Library. In 1900, the Chamber of Commerce vacated the building prior to ending the lease and the Italian government handed it to the Marciana Library.
The collection since 1811, was housed in the former Hall of the Great Council in the Doge’s Palace; which was unsuited for the needs of the library. The space for the expanding collection was insufficient, not well integrated, poorly lit, a theft risk and the weight was a structural threat.
Work proceeded rapidly to achieve the need for large, open space repositories. A reading room was created in the courtyard, by roofing the space with a skylight and installing heating. The wellhead was removed and the original pavement covered with flooring. A reading room for manuscripts was set up in the area originally occupied by the silver furnaces. Bookcases and other furnishing were brought in, mostly from the palace and modified to fit the new spaces.
The collection was transferred between August and September 1904 and the library was opened to the public on 19 December 1904. The official inauguration was carried out on 27 April 1905, for which the vaults were painted with themes that recorded the history of the library.
“Zecca – The Mint of Venice in the Middle Ages”, by Alan M Stahl.
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