See what Europe’s coins looked like before the euro

Before the euro was introduced, the continent featured a range of unique national currencies.

"Beautiful Coins" by filmmaker Alessandro Novelli.

See what Europe’s coins looked like before the euro

Before the euro was introduced, the continent featured a range of unique national currencies.

"Beautiful Coins" by filmmaker Alessandro Novelli.

Indifferently strewn about in the crevices of our belongings, coins are seen only when needed to serve their economic purposes. However, when looked upon more closely and beyond their purchasing power, coins, with their visual motifs, can reveal much about a nation’s governance, culture, and its past.

Coins are small vessels through which a state can legitimize itself. They also help a state to disseminate stories and connect with its people. When they circulate, they can contribute to the formation and strengthening of distinct national identities through their reach to all sectors of society and in their renditions, can capture the cultural zeitgeist of the time.

Director Alessandro Novelli recognized these overlooked capabilities of coins. Inspired by a commissioned project and a subsequent illustrated homage to the currency of Italy, his home country, Novelli and his team created “Beautiful Coins”, an animation of stylized former coins of eurozone nations.

The short film takes us on a journey through history introducing us to past monarchs like Beatrix of the Netherlands on the guilder. We meet the father of stoic philosophy on the Cypriot pound and Marianne, an emblem of France on the republic’s franc. We see traditional clothing of Austria on the schilling and glance into the natural world of Malta on its lira and into past empire on the escudo inscribed with a symbol of Portugal’s seafaring and colonial yesteryear.

We see how some of the coins were relatively new like the Slovenian tolar introduced in 1991 after the country’s independence from Yugoslavia and an allusion to how versions of the Greek drachma have been used since antiquity. (Read how the invention of currency was a milestone for humankind.)

And then we see that most of this was melted away.

The euro was adopted on January 1, 1999 and the first coins began to circulate three years later eventually replacing the national currencies that came before.

Europe saw a shared economic zone and a currency able to transcend national borders as a way to work towards goals of peace, stability, and ultimately, economic prosperity after the devastation of World War II. Discussions on how the vision would materialize in the case of the euro were contentious and decades long. Though uniform coins were considered, member states of the euro area were unwilling to part with distinguishing symbols of their nations.

The resulting iconography of the euro banknote and the common side of the euro coin, Dr. Oriane Calligaro notes in her monograph Negotiating Europe. The EU promotion of Europeanness since the 1950s, was deemed by academics and journalists to be “faceless, ahistorical, and empty”, a “symbolic failure.”

Yet the absence of certain motifs is itself symbolic. The euro symbolizes a balance, or a struggle, between identities of individual sovereignties and a shared European identity.

The euro and its predecessors are developments of economic theory that have very real political and social implications that are often only pondered when coins are being created or dissolved. (Watch how bitcoins might be the new way to pay.)

“Beautiful Coins”, Novelli says, repossesses somethings lost and presents them in a new light. In a brief instance, the work showcases coins of the past and illuminates the forgotten symbolism of currency.

The Short Film Showcase spotlights exceptional short videos created by filmmakers from around the world and selected by National Geographic editors. We look for work that affirms National Geographic's belief in the power of science, exploration, and storytelling to change the world. To submit a film for consideration, please email sfs@natgeo.com. The filmmakers created the content presented, and the opinions expressed are their own, not those of National Geographic Partners.