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Money and power. The mint of Alba Iulia

Alba Iulia was, for one-and-a-half centuries, not only the capital of the principality of Transylvania but also one of the centres of coin minting in central Europe. After the Habsburg conquest, the mint survived into the empire, acquiring the status of a first-class mint of the Austrian monarchy. The proximity of the mines in the Zlatna and Apuseni mountains, where the metals used in minting were extracted and processed, was a significant factor in the selection of this location. In Alba Iulia, an “old” and a “new” mint operated, the former with several interruptions throughout its history.

No information is known about a medieval mint. The first coins were minted in Alba Iulia during the reign of Prince Gabriel Báthory. The coins minted during the last years of his reign, 1610-11 and 1613, were few in quantity. The minting workshop was not official, as it was not authorized by the king.

From the start of Gabriel Bethlen’s reign (1613-1629), Alba Iulia’s mint played an important role in his plans for governance. His reign coincided with a “golden age” in the Principality of Transylvania, a time of intense economic activity and much construction of new buildings. His magnificent Renaissance project was supported by the mint operating in Alba Iulia, which started work for him in 1618-22. The unofficial character of the mint was still maintained: from 1618-20 it functioned illegally but with the acceptance of the prince. Tacitly, and supported by his closest noblemen, the prince obtained considerable revenues from coinage. Great quantities of gold coins were used to pay tribute or buy favours at the Ottoman Porte. Although pressed by the king to put an end to illegal minting, Gabriel Bethlen took only a few measures to stop clandestine mints, which were seldom applied (as in the case of a mint on Piatra Craivii) and never to his own mint. In 1619, the Diet of Transylvania adopted measures for the stopping illegal minting of coins.

The Principality mint issued diverse coins, ranging from small coins to ducats and thalers. Many golden coins were minted on jubilee occasions, such as the coin issued on 25 August 1620, when Gabriel Bethlen was crowned king of Hungary. Some of these coins demonstrate a high level of Mastery in the art of minting. Coins with a nominal value of 100 ducats, regarded today as numismatic rarities, were issued during the reign of Michael Apafi (1661-1690).

The location of the old mint cannot be identified. The only information is that it was located near the so-called “Báthory house”, probably in the area of the future Majláth High School. It may have been destroyed during the devastation of the fortress during the Tatar-Turkish invasions of 1658-62. Later, the mint operated from the building of the former Benedictine monastery after the minting workshops were re-established in 1699.

The mint was re-established as a result of the new political conditions imposed upon Transylvania by the Austrians. The military rearrangement of the fortress included the construction of a new mint, at a time when the former Transylvanian mints, such as those from Sibiu or Cluj, were no longer working.

The new mint was built on the site of a former nunnery, between the Arsenal and Intendance buildings. In 1714-17, a new complex of buildings was constructed. The complex was square, one storey high, surrounded by houses and workshops, and had access to two fountains. Two large gates opened towards the road. The main body was massive and buttresses partially supported its walls. In this place was one of the two gates, which had a simple pediment. The mint also had stables for horses, housing for carriages, cellars and garden plots.

Inventories of the workshops and rooms dating from 1718 to 1823 survive today, providing a wealth of information on the size of rooms, the equipment, and details such as the type of windows, details of the metalwork, the types of stove used and even the linen stocks. To give one example, in 1823 we know that the master minter used eight rooms, two of which were laboratories, and that these had 14 doors, 6 stoves, 25 hinges, and 13 padlocks. The mint had a laboratory for the sublimation of mercury and a flatting mill built in Micești in 1761-1799. Unfortunately, only the outer walls of the modern mint are visible, with their hollow Renaissance windows and the two gates on the northern side.

An irregular polygonal building—known from some photos taken by Adalbert Cserni (see photo)—was erroneously interpreted as a chapel, but was actually a horse-drawn winch for laminating ingots. This edifice was built in the Baroque architectural style, with two or three storeys and a pointed roof.

The revenues of the mint were lavish and its prestige increased with time. Alba Iulia’s mint was, at several periods in its history, second only to the mint in Vienna as concerned the minting of gold coins. The letters used by Alba Iulia mint most often were C-A, C, E, Gy.F.

The Alba Iulia mint was closed in 1871, and its equipment transferred to Kremnica (now in Slovakia). Around 50 boxes with archival documents were sent there in 1871-72. This archive is little known, even though it contains an important sequence from the history of Alba Iulia. After the mint was dismantled, the building became the tribunal (Appeal Court, Circuit Court, jail of the city). Finally in 1903, it was demolished.

Throughout its existence, the mint’s operations were strongly intertwined with royal, and later imperial, power. Its activities provided endless evidence for the opinion that money is power, that power is supported with money, legal or illegal. A competent prince, Gabriel Bethlen succeeded in using such money in order to build his famous palace, envied even by those who sacked and destroyed it. (C.I.P.)