3 letters on Europe

Faces on Banknotes

Dear Sophie,

The European Union seems to lack sharpness. Everything about EU looks, more than anything, plump, foggy, generic, terribly out of focus. Look at the currency. Wasn’t it possible to put faces of Europeans on those banknotes instead of those ridiculous, fake bridges? And whose faces would you put on the banknotes?

Pier Paolo

Dear Pier Paolo,

Historical figures have been included on bank notes for decades, and next to the representation of some lovely women as industriously workers, mythological and allegorical figures, caring mothers, muses, duchesses, queens and wives, the vast majority have been men — apart from some acknowledged Rosas and Claras.*

To denounce on one hand this painstaking fact but celebrate the genesis of Europe on the other, I rather suggest to depict seven valuable breeds of cattle on the banknotes. A French Charolais, a Dutch Blaarkop, an Italian Chianina, a Spanish Sayaguesa, a Belgian Blue, a German Hinterwald and an Austrian Pinzgauer, for example…

Sophie Nys


* Rosa Mayreder, Rosa Luxemburg, Clara Zetkin and Clara Schumann…

Dear Sophie Nys,
Dear Pier Paolo,

In researching the logic behind the assessment of the designs submitted for the new European banknotes in 1999, two of the guidelines in the European Central Bank’s contest brief were particularly interesting to me:

• The designs had to ensure gender equality and avoid national bias.
• The banknotes had to be immediately recognizable as European both within the European Union and beyond it. Therefore, the European Union’s flag or stars had to be depicted, and in general the designs’ themes had to convey a sense of unity among the peoples and countries of Europe.

It would seem that these guidelines confirm what Pier Paolo and Sophye were trying to argue: there is a lack of European figures or symbols that can purport to represent all so-called Europeans and at the same time be recognisable as European outside Europe’s borders.

In my opinion, there is also another aspect that makes the task of finding good design solutions in this case more difficult: currency is one of the last means by which economic assets and citizenship are tied to a recognizable set of national values, but at the same time we live in a globalized context.
Recently the Central Bank of Norway announced two winning proposals for the design of the new Norwegian banknotes, one for the front of the bills and another for the back. While the front reassures Norway’s citizenry with its typically Nordic motives, the other side displays a very contemporary and rather unusual approach compared to the traditional design of banknotes. Snøhetta, the studio that submitted this beautiful, pixelated, abstract, almost impersonal design, explained the idea by saying: “Our cubical pattern first of all represents pixels, our times’ visual language.”

I always thought that banknotes should address identity, evoking or drawing upon the physical appearance of a territory, from its geological features to its cartographic representation, and upon the population that resides there, from its timeline of shared history to its prominent figures and achievements. As far as I am aware, pixels are representative only of a certain kind of media – the computer and other screen-based technologies – that almost every country in the world uses.

In the light of this, could it be said that language (in this case, visual language) is becoming more important, shareable and understandable than the specific content it is used to convey? And is globalization blurring the entire heritage of symbols that were once representative of local communities?

Elisa Pasqual