Maria Stella Chiaruttini | Institut universitaire européen (Florence) – “Change of silver coins is an inexpressible agony in these places”: The money of the poor and Italian unification

« I’m not an expert of the money of the poor, rather of the money of the rich. » The sources on money are produced by experts and upper class people, and address mainly the monetary concerns of the rich and middle classes. But some marginal comments and ideas give an idea of what is going on at a lower social level.Notably, we can see the effects of monetary unification on social and regional areas. For example in Southern Italy where were high inequalities.

At unification point, Italy was a “Babel of coins”, with 7 states, 124 legal coins and 145 non-conforming coins, plus foreign coins (sometimes accepted, sometimes not, with or without legal tariffs) and notes. On the eve of unification, monetary standards divided the North where gold prevailed from the South on a silver standard. The Two Sicilies had the largest coin circulation both on per capita basis and globally. It was thus a good deal for the North to annex the South that had a large silver circulation to be sold on the international markets to move to the gold standard at a premium because of the declining price of gold relative to silver in the 1860s. And money managers could use the French market as the place of exchange between silver and gold.

In the south especially, there were losses: instead of full weight copper coins, people were given bronze coins of lower value. Soon, the situation degraded because of tensions between South and North and international crises: would the Bourbon come back? Civil strife and hoarding of silver developed in case the unification was reversed… That led to financial problems and large banknotes issuance after 1866. The Piemontese national bank obtained at that time the right to issue inconvertible banknotes. At the same time, minting stopped.

In Sardinia, monetary conditions were appalling. Ruled by Piemont and the poorest region of the kingdom, even relatively affluent there were poor compared to the rich Italians. They also had inconvertible paper money of very small denominations, issued at the time of Napoleon, and still circulating in very poor conditions.

In Sicily and Naples, the silver money was reformed after the Napoleonic War and Naples mint was excellent. Besides, convertible paper money circulated. But most of the money was concentrated in Naples and the rest of the country was little moneyed. There were no banks, but “corn banks” lending in seeds rather than money. The South was conquered and Garibaldi and Northern armies brought new monies, but in the absence of money changers, the Northern coins stayed in circulation. Because of the situation, the local good coins disappeared or were hoarded or exported. Good silver coins vanished.

Monetary unification and recoinage were a problem. The exchange rate was unfair for the smaller coins. See deputy Allieri, 1860: “at the expenses of the popular classes”, or Briganti-Bellini in 1862. Access to money changers was also expensive and it was very difficult to protest against changers dishonesty. Another problem was that was a fractional currency was made up of silver coins, and the state was slow in replacing it, which affected the poor.

A new devaluated bronze currency replaced the copper coins, against the will of Southerners. A temporary government in Sicily kept a bimetallic standard instead of the previous silver standard. Soldiers and employees were paid in gold but had to change to silver for their purchases. Francis 2nd, the flight king, continued to finance the war from Roma with small change and copper coins, mostly forged coins.

In 1866, note inconvertibility was declared, creating a huge premium on specie (10 to 20%) and fuelling prices increase. The inconvertible money of the rich was high denomination banknotes. That created a tension on small change supply. But it also took some time to produce small notes and more bronze coins, and the latter enjoying a premium over paper, were largely exported to France.

Then manufacturers either printed their own scrips, or they could stop producing, or even delay the payment of wages: the smaller 50 liras banknotes were about equivalent to a month wage, so people were paid only after one month (men) or two month (women). That created a strong premium in favour of landowners and speculating retailers. The poorer were always on the loss side. The rural labourers were more or less insulated, because they were paid in kind. But sooner or later, even farmers had to access money – it was not a purely barter economy. Once very small notes were printed, they were of very bad quality, but quickly circulated in huge quantity. They stayed in circulation for the whole decade so that the poor were always transacting in small pieces of paper, some unrecognizable to the point they lost almost all value. And because of that, they were very easy to counterfeit.

So in the end, scrips and small banknotes were the most counterfeited as well as the most ubiquitous means of payment, to the point that in Palermo there was a parallel market for counterfeited money.


Jérôme Jambu – What are the sources for the monetary breakout between gold and silver?

A.: From parliamentary sources gathered to calculate the cost of recoinage.

Patrice Baubeau – What are the sources on the money of the poor?

A.: For instance, paradoxically there are references to the money of the poor in the archives of Bank of Italy precisely because of remarks on the bad quality of notes. Or because the Bank of Naples complained about the quality of their own notes – comments of technocrats. Usually there was no concern about the money of the poor, but about that of low middle classes. There are also other kinds of records.

Catherine Baroin – Is there a link between money and Mafia?

A.: Mafia probably started before the Bourbons, and were used by them as a relay. It would be perhaps possible to study the monetary circuits of the Camorra, that controlled the transactions at the lower level in Naples. And for what I know regarding forgeries, the counterfeiting was particularly important in Naples. But priests were also involved. Was this specialization due to technicality or to mafia?

Jan Lucassen – Was there a high level of small money?


Abstract of workshop : Money of the poor (4 – 5 July / Juillet 2019)
Organization : Patrice Baubeau, U. Paris Nanterre / IDHES (UMR8533)
Grant UPL (Université Paris Lumières) 2019/2021

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Léo Barcet (2020, 18 avril). Maria Stella Chiaruttini | Institut universitaire européen (Florence) – “Change of silver coins is an inexpressible agony in these places”: The money of the poor and Italian unification. Art/Gens : valeurs et constructions sociales. Consulté le 18 juin 2024, à l’adresse

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