Introduction to the Philately of the Roman States

by Rev. Fr. Floyd A. Jenkins, S.J.  [1]




The ever-increasing popularity of Vatican City stamps among collectors is well known.  Only an intrepid few, however, seek out their forerunners, the postal emissions of the so-called Roman States [2].  These 150-year-old stamps have been neglected for so long in this country that they represent a brand new area of expansion for those interested in Vatican stamps or in religious topicals; moreover, the collector who delights in the minutiae of classical varieties will discover here unlimited possibilities. It would be hard to find a richer or more fascinating field for the student of political and philatelic history than this country, which spans the most important years in the unification of the Italian peninsula.

The majority are afraid of these stamps, however, and among the reasons they allege for their fear are the following: there is too little variety of color and design; it is almost impossible to distinguish the genuine from the fake; the stamps are too expensive. Actually all of these objections vanish on close inspection. The easiest to dispose of is the last one. The average catalogue value (2005) of sixteen of the major varieties listed in Scott is about $50—modest by the standards of classical philately.  And these, unless in really exceptional condition, are commonly sold at a discount from catalogue value. Even the nine more expensive stamps can be had for reasonable amounts, in time, at auction and from dealers.


Perhaps the best way to allay the remaining fears of the cautious is simply to tell the story of Pontifical State postage.






The Pontifical State once comprised 16,000 square miles of central Italy [Fig 1] over which the Pope had ruled as a temporal sovereign for more than a millennium.  It was bounded on the north by the Kingdom of Lombardy-Venice and the Duchy of Modena, on the west by the Grand Duchy of Tuscany, and on the southeast by the Kingdom of Naples. The population of the country was just over 3,000,000 persons.


The philatelic period of Pontifical State history (1852-1870) is a time of great historical interest because it coincides with the struggle for unity in the Italian peninsula.  During this whole period, the reigning Pontiff was Pius IX (crowned 21 June 1846).  Three years into his reign, Italian nationalist ferment led to public disorder in Rome and the declaration of a “Roman Republic” under Mazzini and Garibaldi.  Pius IX was trapped in the Quirinal Palace by a mob of radicals and forced to flee south to Gaeta.  Although French troops under Louis Napolèon Bonaparte eventually put down this revolt, it was a sign of the ultimate downfall of the old political system in Italy.  In 1859 the northernmost section of the Pontifical State, Romagna, declared its independence. Shortly afterward the central portion, the Marches and Umbria, also broke away.  This left only the portion surrounding Rome itself [3].  Although French and Austrian infantry were again called in to maintain order, Rome fell to Sardinian troops on 20 September 1870.  This event, which Italian nationalists regarded as a liberation, was in fact an invasion and a conquest.  Pope Pius declared himself “the prisoner of the Vatican” and sequestered himself in the Lateran Palace to protest the loss of his realm by force of arms, creating a seemingly irreconcilable dispute with the Italian government known as the “Roman Question.”






These political events are reflected in the postage stamps of the country.  On 21 November 1851, Cardinal Secretary of State Giacomo Antonelli announced the introduction of bolli franchi (postage stamps) in the Pontifical State. Various regulations concerning rates and usage were published and the accepted design showed the chiavi decussate (crossed keys of St. Peter) surmounted by the triregno (triple tiara) which had for centuries been the official coat of arms of the popes [4].


The Palazzo Madama was the home of the pontifical post office from 1851 to 1870.  Today it is the meeting place of the Italian Senate.  Click to enlarge.


Each value has a different border and bears the inscription "FRANCO BOLLO POSTALE'' and the value in bajocchi (100 baj. to the scudo). The values from ½ to 7 bajocchi were issued on 1 January 1852, printed in black on colored paper. Three higher values were added later in the same year: the 8 baj. black on white paper (October 1); the 50 baj. blue on white paper; and the 1 scudo carmine rose on white paper (both July 12).


The dies were engraved by Doublet and Decoppet and Co. and the stereotypes derived by the foundry of P. Couppet and Co., both of Rome. The paper, made mostly by Cartiera Graziosi of Subiaco, was at first handmade; later smoother and heavier machine-made paper was employed. The values up to 8 baj. were typographed at the Vatican’s own print shop in sheets of 100 (divided into four panes of 25).  The 50 baj. and 1 scudo were printed in sheets of 50 (10×5) without any division into panes. The ½, 1, 3, 4, and 8 baj. values, since they were designed with curved outer borders, were printed with straight separation lines between the stamps as an aid in cutting. The 1 baj. occurs in two compositions, one in which the cutting lines are continuous vertically and interrupted horizontally and a second with the opposite arrangement.






The authorities soon discovered various fraudulent practices. First, cancellations were washed off so that the stamp could be reused.  Then in 1855, the 1, 5, and 8 baj. values of the 1852 issues were forged at Bologna by lithography.  The 1 baj. Bologna forgery is by far the rarest (only three copies are known). Of the 5 baj. and 8 baj. forgeries, there are two types each. One should learn to identify these as they are considerably more valuable than the genuine stamps; see the guide to building a Pontifical State reference library, below.


To combat these practices, it was suggested in 1856 that watermarked paper be employed; this was supplied by Canson Frères for the 50 baj. and the 1 scudo. The name “Pietro Miliani Fabriano” can be found once in a sheet on the 3 baj. (chamois and orange ochre) and one copy of the 6 baj. light blue is known with the watermark “BATH.”  To discourage the washing off of cancellations, white paper was used for the three highest values and a special greasy gray ink that made the detection of washing very easy.  (These stamps are highly prized, especially in mint condition.)  The introduction of a grill cancellation also made the washing off of postmarks very difficult.


Early twentieth-century philatelic forgeries are more common than mid-nineteenth century ones.  François Fournier produced many of these in typography.  Most commonly encountered are the ½ baj., 50 baj., and 1 scudo.  The ½ baj. forgery is a dark olive color unlike any genuine color and often surrounded by an uninterrupted frame line.  It is well drawn.  One also has to be careful of mint copies of the 7 baj., with or without gum.  The Fournier forgery of this value is well drawn but has a telltale blob of ink at the left end of the horizontal line of the 7.  Some of the 50 baj. and 1 scudo Fourniers are excellent and should be expertised. 






The collector who wishes to go beyond assembling a collection of major varieties will find that this 1852 issue is one of the richest and most varied fields for specialization in Pontifical States philately.  This is due partly to the fact that the colored paper used was produced in small batches, resulting in a glorious range of color varieties.  The dates of use of these colors are well known and listed in the specialist catalogues.  (Most of these are not listed in Scott’s Standard Catalogue, so educated collectors can sometimes pick up rare varieties at Scott prices.)  The accurate detection of colors requires some experience and, usually, comparison with an expertised example.






The most spectacular printing varieties of the 1852 issue are the tête-bêche pairs of the ½ baj. pale blue gray.  Since this error was soon discovered and corrected by the printers, these pairs are very rare.  Various defects appeared in the stereotypes of all values, many of them becoming more pronounced with use.  As a result, it is possible to plate most of the values.  One of the easiest of the sheets to reconstruct is that of the 2 baj.  Here the most sought-after position is number 9 in the first pane in which the period after BAJ is missing.  For a listing of the many printing varieties, one really needs to consult a specialized catalog.






The various printings of the 1852 issue enjoyed the rather long usage of fifteen years.  Still, fewer than 35,000,000 stamps of all values were printed.  Three of these values—the 7 baj., 50 baj., and 1 scudo—were produced in quantities of fewer than one million each.  Even so, as a whole, this is not the rarest issue.  A new postal emission became necessary when, in June 1866, the Pontifical State officially adopted a metric currency.  The lira of 100 centesimi replaced the bajocco-scudo monetary system, and the basis of exchange became 20 bajocchi for one lira or 5 centesimi for one bajocco. 


On 21 September 1867, a new set of stamps with values in centesimi was issued to correspond to the changes in currency. No new designs were made; the old dies were used with appropriate changes in the values.  The new values were 2c. (using the old 2 baj. design); 3c. (using the old ½ baj. design); 5c. (using the old 3 baj. design); 10c. (using the old 8 baj. design); 20c. (using the old 4 baj. design); 40c. (using the old 6 baj. design); and 80c. (using the old 1 baj. design).  Coccapellier cast the new stereotypes and the stamps were printed on “German paper,” surface-colored white paper supplied by Schmitt and Wast. (Experiments showed that it was impossible to wash the cancellation from this type of paper without also removing the surface coloring and exposing the white paper beneath.) Though some varieties of this paper are considerably less glossy than others, there are no completely dull papers known for this issue.


The composition was altered from the 1852 series.  The 1867 sheets contained 64 stamps divided into four panes of sixteen (4×4) [Fig. 3]. All stamps were divided by double lines (for cutting), continuous horizontally within a pane and interrupted vertically [Fig. 4]. A double line continuous on all sides surrounded each pane. This is the same arrangement of lines as is found in the ½, 3, 4, and 8 baj., as well as the second composition of the 1 baj., and is important in the authentication of the 1867-8 stamps. Most of the reprints, as will be seen, have vertical lines continuous and the horizontal lines interrupted [Fig. 5].


These imperforate stamps were sold for less than one year but valid for use until the end of 1870. Due to the short printing, the 1867 set is relatively rare. The imperforate 3c. is especially scarce because it was intended to pay a postal rate for printed matter that became obsolete before the stamps were issued.  Genuine postally used copies of this value, especially on cover, routinely sell for more than three times the price of unused examples.


Various defects of the stereotype can be found, especially missing periods after the value or after the abbreviation "Cent."  For example, there are two types of the 40c., found in the same sheet and of about equal value.  In the first type, the "ent" slants upward from the "C" of "Cent." so that the serif of the "t" ends up on a higher level than the period. In the second type the serif of the “t” is level with the period [Fig. 6].


Since not much time was allowed to exchange the old bajocchi stamps for the new centesimi values, many people attempted (and succeeded) in using them up long after their validity expired.  This resulted in some very interesting covers on which combinations of bajocchi and centesimi stamps are found.






Toward the end of March 1868, a perforated edition of the centesimi set appeared, and was used continuously until the end of 1870. The stamps were perforated 13 on a machine purchased from England (examples with perf 13¼ are known, but it is speculated that this variety is the result of paper shrinkage). Although the designs were the same as the 1867 series, a new composition of sheets of 120 (15×8) [Fig. 7] was used for all stamps except the 3c. rose gray which retained the same composition as the stamps of the 1867 issue (64 stamps divided into four panes of sixteen) and the 3c. pale gray which was printed in sheets of 64 (8×8) without division into panes.


As in the 1867 stamps, so in this issue the horizontal dividing lines are continuous and the vertical lines are interrupted [Fig. 8]. In genuine stamps continuous vertical lines on one side only indicate the edge of the sheet or pane [Fig. 9]. The paper used was like that of the 1867 issue, although one can now distinguish three types: glazed, semiglazed, and dull (the last found in some varieties of the 10c. and 20c.). As one might expect in an experimentally perforated set, there exist various perforation errors, such as partial imperfs and double perfs. But more common are color varieties. At first the colors tended to be like those of the imperforate set. For example, the 20c. was first printed in indian red and dark indian red, the only colors to appear in 1867. But these were now followed by magenta, solferino, and a host of other shades.  (Sometimes one finds one of these later shades with the perforations carefully cut off in an apparent attempt to imitate the scarcer imperforate stamps of 1867. The color, however, is a dead giveaway in most cases.)  There are, of course, the usual stereotype defects, especially the missing periods. The type II of the 40c. perforated is valued at double the type I.


When Italian troops conquered Rome on September 20, 1870, Italian stamps immediately replaced the Pontifical State stamps. However, many who retained stamps of the Pontifical State continued to use them until the end of 1870, in which period we find covers with mixed Papal and Italian postage. Italian stamps only were used until the Concordat in 1929 between Vatican City and Italy again provided for separate postage stamps.






By November of 1870, shortly after the fall of Rome, the dies, plates, and cliches used to print the Papal stamps were sent to the director of posts in Florence, where a Signore Usigli somehow came into possession of them.  In 1878 he made reprints of the 2c, 3c, 20c, 40c, and 80c. in colors resembling the original stamps. He also made other fancy printings of all the stamps in the same color. Usigli sold the cliches to Bonasi, who passed them on to Moens, Gelli, Tani, and Cohn, all of whom made reprints. Usigli was the only one who kept the original continuous horizontal lines [Fig. 10] but his reprints can be distinguished from the originals by the color, paper, and gum. The reprints of other printers may be recognized by their horizontal dividing lines that interrupt the vertical and by their incorrect perforation (Gelli and Tani did print a very few copies accurately perfed 13, but the perforations on the reprints are cleaner and more well defined than on the originals.)  Ninety percent of the reprints will be detected by their perfs and/or their dividing lines. The others can be sent in for expertisation until one has had enough practice to make himself his own expert.  In brief, the points to look for are these:


Originals will have irregular gum with tiny cracks; be printed on shiny to dull paper; conform to Bolaffi’s color classifications; have very rough-looking perfs 13 or 13¼; and exhibit horizontal, continuous dividing lines.


Reprints will have smooth, usually yellow gum; be printed on shiny paper; not conform to Bolaffi’s color classifications; have regular looking perfs that are usually not 13; and exhibit vertical, continuous dividing lines (except the Usigli reprints). 


Remainders are different from reprints. They were produced by the Papal postal authorities less than three weeks before the Italian conquest, but had not been gummed or perforated when the Italians confiscated them from the Apostolic printing shop.  They were the 5c. blue, 10c. vermillion orange, and some shades of the 20c. (magenta, solferino, dark solferino, and deep purple). They are collectable items and, except for the 5c. blue, are quite common. Their color and paper glazing distinguish them from similar stamps of the imperforate issue of 1867. There have been attempts to gum these and forge the perforations, but the perforations are almost always incorrect.


One other remainder, the 80c. dark lilac rose, enjoys the somewhat more respectable status of an unissued stamp. It was gummed and perforated, but not put into use. Scott lists it as #25b, mint only.  Any cancellations found on this stamp are forgeries.






Another possible specialization is the collecting of Pontifical State postal markings, either on stamp, piece, or entire cover. Various types of cancellations were employed.  The name of the town of origin might be included in a circle, usually with the date (a), or printed in a straight line (b).  Also common are the "cross" cancellations of Ferrara (c) and Comacchio (d).  One can also occasionally find various other postal handstamps used as cancellations (e), although these are rare because the practice was not sanctioned by the postal authorities.  Another common practice was to use one of the various types of grids [Fig 2] to cancel the stamp and then place one of the other types of markings elsewhere on the envelope (f)


Cachets are another type of Pontifical State postal marking.  Since many of those engaged in correspondence were government or religious officials who had their own cachets, covers bearing these designs are not hard to come by.  The police, the army, and certain religious and civil groups used them (g).  After postage stamps were introduced in 1852, these cachets became a way for senders with free franking privileges to identify their mail (h).


When collecting postal history, full covers are especially desirable.  However, it is possible to assemble with very little expense a quite satisfying collection of postmarks in the form of single stamps and pieces.


There are, of course, many other avenues of philatelic interest that could be explored in the Pontifical State area. Once one becomes acquainted with the field he will discover these for himself. It is hoped that these paragraphs will have started someone on the road to a most interesting and intellectually satisfying pursuit.






General introductions to Pontifical State postage may be found in Clemente Fedele and Mario Gallenga, Per Servizio di Nostro Signore: Strade, Corrieri e Poste dei Papi dal Medioevo al 1870 (1988); Georges Brunel, Le Service Postal et les Timbres des États de l'Église (Paris, 1942); and William Ward, Postage Stamps of the Papal States and the Vatican City (Lytham, 1929).


An excellent aid in authenticating the stamps of the Pontifical State is Otto Stiedl and Fritz Billig's Die Fälschungen und Neudrucke der Klassischen Kirchenstaatmarken, originally published in 1933 and translated into English for Volume 1, Part 2 of The Stamp Specialist, published by H. L. Lindquist in 1940.  It reproduces photographs of the genuine originals and of many philatelic forgeries with their distinguishing marks.  Large photographs of genuine stamps also appeared in the July 1956 Vatican Notes, and a series of articles on forgeries by Rev. Herbert Phinney begins in the January 1963 issue of the same journal.  Also good, but out of print for nearly a century, is Volume IV of Rev. Robert B. Earee, Album Weeds; or, How to Detect Forged Stamps, published in Australia by the Manuka-Ainslie Press in 1882 (subsequent editions 1892 and 1906; also some facsimile editions).   


More recently, three works by Frederick J. Levitsky are invaluable: Roman States Forgeries: The Issue of 1852 (1986); a supplement to the same work, published in 1990; and Roman States Forgeries: The Issues of 1867-1868 (coauthored with Rev. Floyd Jenkins, 1990).  Father Jenkins’ own monograph, Roman States Essays and Reprints: The Issues of 1867-1870 (1997), is essential.  See also Peter Rayner, The Stamps of the Papal States 1852 Issue (1996).


Useful in identifying postmarks are monographs by F. Ceccarelli, Studien Uber die Postempel des Kirchenstaates (Vienna, 1927); Alfonso Burgisser, Stato Pontificio: Bolli ed Annullamenti Postali (Florence, 1960); and Francesco Ramella, Catalogo Degli Annullamenti Dello Stato Pontificio, 1852-1870 (Genoa, n.d.).  More recent, though also out of print, is the study of Roman State postmarks by Mario Gallenga in three volumes: one for Umbria and Sabina, another for Romagna, and a third for the Marches (c. 1973). 


These books, a specialized catalogue such as those by Bolaffi or Sassone, and a subscription to Vatican Notes will serve as a basic library for anyone seriously interested in this specialty.  All he needs then is a few hundred assorted stamps and he will soon be his own expert!






Floyd A. Jenkins entered the Jesuit novitiate at age 18, studied theology at Alma College, and was ordained a priest in 1948.  After ordination he took his Ph.D. in biology at St. Louis University.  From 1954 to 1987 he was professor of biology at Loyola University in Los Angeles and afterward was emeritus professor.


A noted philatelist, Fr. Jenkins collected extensively in the fields of Pontifical State, religion on stamps, and Jesuits on stamps.  He was a member of Collectors of Religion on Stamps (COROS) and the Vatican Philatelic Society.  He contributed numerous articles on Pontifical State stamps to Vatican Notes, and was the Society’s longtime Roman States chairman.  In 1998 he received the VPS President’s Award for “loyal and valuable service” to the Society.


Father Jenkins died 21 August 2002 at the age of 86.




[1] This article originally appeared in serial form in the COROS Chronicle, the journal of the Collectors of Religion on Stamps, between October 1963 and October 1964.  It has been revised and updated for posting on the Web by Daniel Piazza.  Numbered illustrations that are preceded by the abbreviation "Fig." were present in the original article.  Illustrations denoted by a lowercase letter inside parentheses are new to this edition. Many thanks to Gregorio Pirozzi, Frederick J. Levitsky, and Rev. Fr. Edward Mullowney for reading and commenting on the revisions.


[2] The official name of this territory was the Pontifical State (Stato Pontificio); however, this is rarely encountered in the Anglophone philatelic literature.  More commonly found are the terms Roman States or Papal States.  Sometimes, particularly in foreign-language publications, one also see the term State of the Church (Lo Stato della Chiesa in Italian; Kirchenstaat in German; l'Etat d'Eglise in French).  See the article in Vatican Notes Vol. 8, No. 3 (Nov-Dev 1959), p. 5.


[3] This section, known as the Patrimony of St. Peter, was gifted to the Church by various sovereigns and landowners prior to the eighth century. 


[4] For a discussion of the symbolisms attached to the triregno and chiavi decussate, see Thomas Boland, “Papal Tiara and Crossed Keys,” Linn’s Stamp Weekly 28 May 1956.