Skip to main content

Antonio shouted at the donkey: “Come on, goldshitter! Giddy up, cacaurre! Get a move on!” and the animal responded by depositing a pile, not of manure, but of jewels….” So goes a Neopolitan tale of the 17th century about a golden donkey from which rained coins and jewels, just by saying the magic word…


In that time of collections of wonderful objects, curious artifacts, strange clocks and automatons that left the public astonished, there existed a manmade mechanism which, so it seemed, could fulfill the dream of infinite riches……if only the secret of how it worked was known.


Rather than an artistic marvel to be admired, this machine was of practical use, a technological advance in the production of coins that replaced the traditional hammered coinage, so saving time, money and labour; in every respect a prelude to the Industrial Revolution.


While nowadays one can pay with the euro in most European countries, in the past every king or prince minted his own coins, just like Enrique IV of Castile, who in 1455 ordered the construction of the Royal Mint in Segovia’s old part of town and to which was added at the end of the 16th century the new building beside the river Eresma.


At the same time, in 1477, a Royal Mint was founded in Hall in the Tyrol, funded by the archduke Segismundo.

It was in Hall that a coining machine using the new system of rollers was installed. It had been introduced to the Tyrol by a group of Swiss inventors in around 1564, in the time of the emperor Fernando I and his son, the archduke Fernando of the Tyrol, the uncle and cousin respectively of Felipe II.

Among the Swiss mentioned, Hans Vogler stood out, as it was he who managed, with the help of local technicians, to develop the design so that, as from 1569, it was possible to mint coins in a continuous and reliable way using the roller system. Sacked by the archduke in 1568, Vogler tried to sell the machine to Felipe II, without success. It was the same in the kingdom of Poland, where he was to die, heavily in debt, in 1574.

Although Felipe II knew that his cousin in the Tyrol possessed a machine for making coins, it was only in 1580 that the Spanish king decided to mint his own coins using this new technique and, a year later, in Lisbon, he was instructed in great detail about the operation of the machine in Hall by Gregorio Gerlin, the secretary of the imperial ambassador, Hans Khevenhüller. Gerlin was given the task of supervising the construction of the machinery in Hall for Felipe II, as well as its transport to Spain.


What today could be compared to the production, transport and installation of an industrial plant, had to be undertaken in record time.
Jacob Bertorf, manager of the Mint in Hall, and his collaborators, began the construction of the machinery in the spring of 1582, as a group of technicians led by Magno Mayr (Maier) travelled to Spain and designed the plans for the building and hydraulic installations, taking as a model the ones in Hall, set in the Castle of Hasegg. During those years the construction of a Mint in Ensisheim, Alsace, no longer in existence, was organized from Hall. Ensisheim was a city then located in archduke Fernando´s territory, and its mint had the same characteristics as the Royal Mint in Segovia. Bertorf built for Ensisheim other machinery which began work in 1584.


Two years later, and after a trial, the machinery was ready for its transportation. That was the starting point for an extremely long and arduous expedition of over two thousand kilometers, crossing mountain passes, rivers, lakes and the sea. The chosen route was the so called “Spanish path”, considered safe because it mostly ran through territories controlled by the Habsburgs (Absburgo), which back then connected Flanders with the Iberian Peninsula crossing the Tirol.


A convoy of 25 carriages left the city of Hall on October 2nd 1584, and got to the city of Como at the end of that month. The valuable cargo was guarded in a house belonging to the governor Pallavicini, possibly in Villa Pliniana.

The journey continued towards Milan at the beginning of December, and a few weeks later the convoy arrived in Genoa. That was where, after the Christmas celebrations, an unexpected incident halted the transport until February 1585.

From Hall the convoy had been accompanied by an experienced Italian soldier called Flavio Bordon. After discovering a murderous plot against the Lombard count Renato Borromeo, he tried to sell this information but did not succeed. This was a murky affair which would end up disastrously for Bordon, who was sentenced to the galleys for blackmail


On February 2nd 1585, the cargo embarked for Barcelona, this time without Bordon, who was substituted by Magno Mayr (Maier), who had already led the first group of technicians to Spain in 1582.The convoy arrived in Barcelona sixteen days later, with a sick, exhausted Gerlin, who would die shortly after this arrival.
Without any clear direction and heavily in debt, “Operation Mint” seemed to have come to an end. It was purely by chance that the owner of the machinery, King Felipe II himself, who was escorting his daughter Catalina Micaela on her way to Barcelona, took charge of the matter. Once the debts had been paid, they could continue their journey and, on June 13th 1585, according to the accounts of Mayr presented to Felipe II, the convoy finally reached Segovia.

On the banks of the river Eresma the first building for the Royal Mint was waiting. It had been built by Juan de Herrera with the help of the officials sent from Tirol. Once the machinery was assembled, the technicians from Hall could begin the trials and, finally, the regular production of coins, first silver and later gold ones.

Felipe II and the ambassador Khevenhüller (Kefenjiler) visited Segovia´s Mint in October 1587, and this visit left the king very satisfied and he offered the ambassador a sizeable reward..

So began the successful history of Segovia´s Royal Mint, whose technology, imported from Hall in Tirol, would even be exported to Potosí in Bolivia in the eighteenth century.

El Ingenio y su transporte