The 500 Lire Caravelle and the ancient charm of silver

Contributors We Wealth
Contributors We Wealth, Luca Alagna
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The 500 Lire silver coin, known as the Caravelle, is definitely an iconic coin of the Italian republic. Find out how to collect it
The notoriety of this coin is attributable to the famous minting error, which can be traced back to the direction of the flags, which would make the coin acquire an important value. This aspect has overshadowed other equally important contents; why is its genesis never mentioned? And again, why was there a mistake? Even less is said about the coins that were later minted to be put into circulation.

Let us go in order and start with 1957 and the then Minister of the Treasury, Giuseppe Medici.

The Minister had in mind a project for minting a gold coin worth Lire 10,000 to be given to parliamentarians as a substitute for the usual souvenir medal. Unfortunately, the political and economic difficulties of the period caused the project to be postponed, which was later reconsidered toward the end of the legislature. The new project called for a "Proof"[1] silver coin that was certainly less expensive.

The chief engraver of the Mint at that time was Pietro Giampaoli. He had prepared for a medal, a model with a female bust in the Renaissance style, drawing inspiration from his wife for the portrait.

The Minister liked this model very much and wanted to use it as the obverse of the new coin; however, it remained open to decide on the reverse. We relied on the then-young, later to-become famous medallist, Guido Veroi, who had the intuition to combine the Renaissance style of the obverse with the event that opened the door to that period: the discovery of America.

What design could unite the best Italian tradition given by perseverance from genius and daring, if not the three caravels? Therefore, the step from the models to the minting of the proof, dated 1957, was a short one, and finally, the desire of the then Minister to give all Parliamentarians the coin with the three caravels (Figure 1) was fulfilled.

Figure 1


This gift aroused not only clamor but also a flood of compliments and public appreciation; nevertheless, a naval officer, Giusco di Calabria, in a letter of his own addressed to a newspaper, complained that the position of the flags in the design should, because of the way the wind swelled the sails, be toward the bow and not toward the stern as in the coin engraving. Obviously, a debate was ignited that eventually led to the decision to change the position of the flags in the issues intended for circulation.

Let us now analyze technical data such as description, circulation, diameter, and weight. On the obverse, we have the Renaissance-style bust facing left, and in the lap, 19 coats of arms of Italian capitals. On the reverse, the three caravels with the flags facing left, in the bottom center the value, around REPUBBLICA ITALIANA, and at seven o'clock, the inscription PROVA. Finally, in the raised outline, the date is 1957. Many numismatics catalogs report several 1,004 minted examples, but this is a figure without official verification; instead, it appears to have been at least 2,500. It has a diameter of 29.5 mm and a weight of 11 grams with a silver title of 835 thousandths. This is a coveted collector's piece with a value that can range from €6,000 to €10,000, depending on the state of preservation.

Figure 2


Finally, in 1958 (Figure 2), to replace banknotes of equal value, after 21 years since the last silver issue dating back to 1937, a noble metal coin began to jingle in the pockets of Italians again. Issues intended for circulation were introduced that featured right-facing flags in the coinage.

They were minted until 1967, except for the years 1962 and 1963; in 1961 there was a double issue with the commemorative of the unification of Italy (figure 3) and in 1965 (figure 4) dedicated to Dante Alighieri. The print runs were relatively high, totaling 97,840,000, effectively making them not rare coins. When they were mothballed, they became treasury items because the silver's value exceeded the face value. To this day, their commercial value, if present signs of circulation, is precisely equal to the value of the metal. Should they be found in perfect mintage, particularly with reference to specific dates, they do not exceed a few tens of euros in the official market.

Figure 3

Figure 4


From 1968 to 1970 and 1980 to 2001, for the collector's market only,[2] the Mint continued to mint silver 500 lire caravel coins; these issues never circulated.

[1] Coin design is not intended for circulation.

[2] These were coins sealed in special packages issued by the 'istituto poligrafico e zecca dello stato.
Contributors We Wealth
Contributors We Wealth, Luca Alagna


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