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Ces pièces immortelles: Early Numismatic Books in the Dumbarton Oaks Research Library

This exhibition explores the foundations of numismatic study of Roman and Byzantine coins from the sixteenth to nineteenth centuries through numismatic catalogues and other publications held in the Dumbarton Oaks Rare Book Collection.

As early as the 14th century, scholars such as Petrarch recognized ancient coins as historical evidence, and individuals had begun to collect coins, medallions, and replicas of coins for their personal enjoyment and study. During the 15th century, a fashion for collecting coins, especially those linked to famous historical figures, led to the creation of large private, royal, and papal collections.

Renaissance humanism fueled scholarly interest in coins bearing portraits of historical figures and inscriptions. In many histories and biographies of Roman emperors published during this period, illustrations of coins were included with the text to allow the author and reader the opportunity to compare the evidence of the ancient texts with that of the coins.

The first illustrated books on numismatics appeared in the 16th century. Early scholarship focused on identifying authentic coins, comparing their value to modern coinage, and debating the history of coinage.

During the 17th century, renowned numismatists published handbooks that synthesized existing scholarship but to which the author added his own insights. As the prestige of major collections grew, the compilation of catalogs of such collections added further to the body of knowledge about ancient coins.

The Age of Enlightenment brought more rigorous methodologies to a number of academic disciplines, and numismatics was no exception. The 18th century also witnessed the rise of new areas of study, including diplomatics and sigillography, and areas of interest. The brilliant work of noteworthy scholars such as Charles Du Fresne Du Cange and Bernard de Montfaucon ignited interest in Byzantine subjects.

Numismatic research developed rapidly throughout Europe, culminating in the great 8-volume work of Joseph Hilarius Eckhel at the end of the 18th century. Eckhel laid the epistemological framework for modern numismatic study of ancient and medieval coinage.

As travel and archaeological exploration of the eastern Mediterranean became possible, 19th-century antiquarians seized the opportunity to study and collect coins from formerly Byzantine lands. Specialized studies began to appear. Since the 19th century, scholarship on Byzantine coins has flourished, with Dumbarton Oaks among the leading centers of Byzantine numismatics since the mid-20th century.

Dumbarton Oaks continues to promote the study of Byzantine coins and seals through regular summer seminars. This exhibition is in honor of the 2013 summer seminar's students and instructors.


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