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Vol. LXII, No. 25
Wednesday, June 18, 2008
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Firestone Library’s Curator of Numismatics Is Looking Forward to Research in Venice

Ellen Gilbert

“A medal can be a work of art,” observed Alan Stahl, Princeton University Library’s Curator of Numismatics, recently. “It can also be pretty trashy and commercial.” With its nobler aspects in mind, Mr. Stahl, who was just named a 2008 Guggenheim Fellow, is hoping to encourage university president Shirley Tilghman to begin the practice of issuing medals to mark special university events such as endowment campaigns.

The traditional definition of numismatics, the study of currency and its history, accurately reflects what Mr. Stahl intends to do with his Guggenheim award. His project, tentatively entitled “The Nexus of Wealth and Power in Medieval Venice,” explores the relationship between capitalism and republican government.

“Venice is one of the birthplaces of the institution of modern capitalism,” the curator said in a recent interview. “Banking, the concept of limited liability companies, insurance — they all developed in Venice in the late Middle Ages. Venice is the only one of the Italian city-states to remain a republic into the modern era. What’s the relationship?”

The Guggenheim award will enable Mr. Stahl to make three research trips to Venice where he will look at archival collections that will further his research on the relationship between the rise of capitalism and the maintenance of republican government in 14th century Venice. He has already entered over 10,000 documents in a biographical database he is creating on power and money brokers in Venice from 1375-1400.

Economic History

“Coinage is one of the keys to economic history, especially in studying antiquity and the Middle Ages where there isn’t much documentation of the economy,” observed Mr. Stahl. This sentiment is reflected in the current Firestone Library exhibit, which he curated. “Numismatics in the Renaissance” includes rare books, coins, medals, manuscripts, and prints and drawings from Princeton University collections that relate to the study of ancient coins in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. During a recent tour of the exhibit with returning alumni and their families, Mr. Stahl pointed out how Renaissance artists’ and thinkers’ images of ancient Roman buildings were derived largely from coins, which also served as a source for maps of ancient lands for later societies. The influence of coins on the history of the book is reflected in the example of the anchor and dolphin symbol derived from ancient coins, used by Italian printer Aldus Manutius (1415-1450) for his Aldine Press.


Mr. Stahl, who has curated Princeton’s numismatic collection since 2004, speaks Italian, Latin, and French, and can read German and Spanish. He received his PhD from the University of Pennsylvania where he studied the early Middle Ages. A second interest in archeology led to a summer seminar at the American Numismatic Society (ANS), where he immersed himself in a project that led to his dissertation. He remained at the ANS from 1980 until 2000 as Curator of Medieval Coins and Medals. Teaching stints at the Università di Venezia, University of Michigan, Rice University, Rutgers, and the University of Notre Dame, followed.

In addition to his current job as numismatics curator, Mr. Stahl is also co-director of the Michael of Rhodes Project at the Dibner Institute for the History of Science and Technology at MIT, and a lecturer in Princeton’s Classics Department. He recently became president of the Princeton chapter of the Archeological Institute of America, and he looks forward to welcoming “general audiences” for the six “not too-technical” talks the group will be sponsoring over the next year.

As a prospective member of the Citizens Coinage Advisory Committee, he was impressed by the “positive public response” to the new series of quarters issued by the U.S. mint, and he lauds the mint’s new director as “very committed to improving the program.”

A Great Collection

The University’s collection of old coins is “absolutely first class,” according to Mr. Stahl, and was further enhanced by the recent acquisitions of the Wu collection of Chinese coins and the purchase of an 800-piece collection of pre-Byzantine coins produced in the eastern Mediterranean. Speaking of the latter, Mr. Stahl noted that “There’s no other public collection like it.”

In order to keep Princeton’s collection open for use by students and visitors during the academic year, Mr. Stahl plans to carry out his Guggenheim supported research during summer and winter breaks. Among the pleasures of working at Princeton, he says, is “the student presence.” He enjoys both teaching and working with undergraduates, as attested to by the presence of rising senior Rebecca Katz who was working on some coins one recent morning in his office. Ms. Katz, a Classics major, got hooked after she took a junior colloquium in which Mr. Stahl was a speaker.

The exhibit, “Numismatics in the Renaisance,” will remain open through July 20.

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