The Old Bankers of Florence

WE are so accustomed to trace the cultured prosperity of mediæval Florence to the tasteful, though unscrupulous despotism of Lorenzo de Medici, that we are apt to forget the real source of that wondrous development, civic and artistic; we lose sight of the germ in contemplating the flower, and neglect the auspicious source of intelligent labor, whence springs all that is original and memorable in the life of the old Republic. It was reserved for a lineal descendant of one of those enterprising Florentine families through whom the commercial influence and wealth of the city were achieved, to draw from her archives and his own ancestral documents the material proofs of that unique prosperity, and the details of the processes and principles whereby it was attained. Not only is the record curious and interesting, as one of the most remarkable chapters in the history of the Middle Ages, and as suggestive of the essential facts which initiated modern civilization, but the chronicle illustrates with peculiar and fresh emphasis many laws of political economy and throws new light upon social and civic problems which the best thinkers of our day are earnestly seeking to solve. As the philosophic insight of Niebuhr gave a new aspect to Roman history in its relation to later civilization, as Ritter made geography interpret national development, and as the precedents and instincts of political life in free communities have been shown by Grote to be identical with those that swayed parties and inspired policies among the ancient Greeks, so the facts of the dawn of commerce on the banks of the Arno in the thirteenth century convey the same lesson which may be drawn from the actual life of this Republic to-day ; for we therein behold the first grand demonstration of the vital truth that labor is the true basis of citizenship, and that liberty is born of self-reliance in the economical not less than in the moral resources of society. That ancient and fierce controversy between the adherents of Emperor and Pope, — the German and Latin element, — the aristocracy and the people, — whence sprung the mediæval Republics, and which, under the names of Guelf and Ghibelline, rent the community and moulded the destiny of Florence, culminated in the Guelf ascendency for eighty years, — the heroic period of the state, — by and through the victory of labor over caste. It was an industrial triumph ; the mercantile element was the normal life of the Republic; the essential principle was established that only those enlisted in the Guilds or Arts, only those who worked, should rule ; the nobles could have no share in the government unless they became merchants or artisans ; patriotism and ambition were thus brought to an economical test; it was a civic privilege to be engaged in a practical and profitable vocation ; it was a civic disability to be an idler of rank. Nor was this all. The merchant, manufacturer, and artist by virtue of his occupation became not only a magistrate, but a soldier; not only received a political education by the performance of municipal duties, but was trained to arms by the militia system, that organized and kept in drill the busy citizens, in anticipation of any exigency requiring the defence of life, property, or honor. Thus all principles that have proved efficient in later times, as equipments and distinctions of free citizenship, are found combined in the laws and customs of those sagacious and energetic Florentines, six centuries ago: municipal privileges based on and identified with labor ; official honor confined to an industrial class ; and patriotic discipline in camp and forum associated with mercantile enterprise as the material source of state and individual prosperity. From this union of work and honor, of private and civic duty, sprang the fame and fortune of mediæval Florence ; and the study of the origin and influence thereof will reveal every germ of modern civilization : co-operative societies originated then and there ; citizens associated for the sake of religion, of art, of trade, and of family welfare ; the bankers of Florence were the indispensable auxiliaries of popes, emperors, and kings. The system of exchange ; book-keeping by double-entry ; the consular system of national representatives in foreign lands to protect home interests ; the barter of the raw material for its skilful reproduction in forms of use and luxury; a recognized and universal circulating medium in the shape of coinage; laws and usages of credit; the patriotic devotion of private fortunes to the national defence or aggrandizement. whether by art or arms ; unity of public spirit with indomitable private enterprise ; and, above all, the identification of material, political, and social interests under a government of the people;—these and such as these fundamental principles of national growth and civic virtue were practised and proved for the first time in their entire scope and significance in Florence, during that memorable thirteenth century, when, as Taine says, “a shoemaker gave his money in order that the church of his city might be beautiful, and a weaver polished his sword in the evening, determined he would not be the subject, but one of the lords, of the rival city.”

The history of the maritime commerce of Italy in the Middle Ages,— induced by the auspicious geographicai position of the peninsula, washed by two seas, and with a coast-line affording frequent and facile access,— is a familiar chapter in the annals of civilization; by that early intercourse and exchange of products with both the Orient and the Occident, Venice, Pisa, and Genoa drew unto themselves the resources of wealth and culture which enterprise disseminated and republican valor enlarged ; but we are less familiar with the causes of the prosperity and prestige of Florence, — an inland community surrounded by feudal castles and having to develop from within before seeking abroad the means of growth and grandeur. Her family documents afford the clew to her civic history and industrial expansion ; and although many of these have perished, enough remain, to serve, in connection with the state archives and local relics, as a satisfactory revelation of the mediæval economies and mercantile enterprise of the old Republic. These, indeed, were so exceptional that they are part of the political history of Europe. From the time of the Crusades, when the scarcity of money induced such extensive Papal contributions, which were collected and transmitted by Italian bankers, the financiers of Florence were a recognized power in Europe; and one of their posterity, a genial, accomplished septuagenarian, having retired from a long and honorable diplomatic career to his beautiful ancestral city, has beguiled his leisure by weaving, from family records, the complete history of the commerce and bankers of Florence between 1200 and 1345The work is most appropriately dedicated to his fellow-citizens, whom he patriotically invites to examine the admirable industrial and civic energies of the Middle Ages, and to profit by the example, now that their long-oppressed country is united and free.

The principal merchants of Florence, in the thirteenth century, were the Acciaiuoli, the Alberti, the Baredi, the Bonaparti, the Frescobaldi, the Pergolatti, the Sassetti, the Scali, Amieri and Petri, the Villani Stoldi, and the Peruzzi. The latter are one of the most ancient Guelf families of Florence ; they resided near the Porta della Pera, at the limit of the second wall, and their windows and loggia overlooked a piazza which bore their name ; they had a cloth-factory near the church of St. Cecilia, — one of the twenty original woollen establishments ; in one of their mansions was entertained Robert of Naples — the protector of the Guelfs — the princess of Taranto, and the emperor of the Greeks, Paleologus, when he visited Florence, in 1438, to attend the council convened by Pope Eugenio IV. to unite the Latin and Greek Churches. The Peruzzi erected many palaces and dwellings from the débris of the old city wall, which they purchased of the municipality when it decreed the enlargement of Florence, in 1282 ; they figure honorably in the local magistracy of the Middle Ages ; despoiled by their royal creditor Edward the Third, of England, and persecuted by the Medici, they sought refuge from the fallen fortunes and lost liberties of their beloved commune and settled at Avignon in 1438. A branch of the old family still exists there in the person of Ridolfo Peruzzi, recently governor of the fortress of Vincennes. Among the many curious documents cited by the author of this early financial history of Florence are two posthumous manuscripts of his progenitor, Simon Pe~ ruzzi, which are characteristic, at once, of the family patriotism, and of the exigencies of the period when the glories of the Republic waned beneath the ban of anarchy and despotism. The first is what he calls his Protest of Political Innocence, in which he explains his conduct as an official and vindicates his course as a loyal citizen, when compelled to yield to circumstances which eventually led to the eclipse of freedom in Florence ; the other document is an act of disinheritance or malediction consigned to Fra Simon Of Montepulciano against his son Benedetto in favor of Niccolò, the former having proved an unfilial traitor. The scope, style, and intent of these writings, which are dated 1378 and 1380, are noteworthy illustrations of the political crises, and of family as well as civic life and customs, of that era and country.

The manufacture of and traffic in silk and woollen were prosperously established in Florence early in the year 1200. Documents of four years’ later date show there were then consuls of the art of silk. This industry was introduced into Italy by Roger of Sicily, who imported a few silk-weavers from the East into Palermo, whence their vocation spread through the peninsula. A band of Lombards confined in Germany by Arrigo the Second founded a religious society called the Umiliati in the eleventh century, adopting the rules of St. Benedict, and, as a means of subsistence, practised the art of cloth-making, and enlisted laymen in the work, who subsequently carried the art to Florence, where the convent of San Donato, near the Prato gate, was ceded to them in 1239. Both industries flourished and attained a perfection before unknown. In 1472 there were fifty silk-establishments in the city. In 1252 the golden florin, with the Florentine lily for its device, had become the standard coin of Europe ; in 1495 the Republic had established the Monte di Pietà, — the germ of modern savings-institutions ; the system of exchange had also been successfully initiated ; the great commercial houses of the Bardi, Alberti, Peruzzi, and others had furnished eminent magistrates, — Priors, Gonfalonieri, and Knights of the People ; their correspondence extended to the northern extremity of Britain and the farthest East, and included every important city and mart in Western Europe. The evidence of the extent and magnitude of their financial transactions is historical. There are recorded, for instance, twenty-five reimbursing decrees from the royal treasury of England between 1327 and 1348 to the Bardi, and eleven to the Peruzzi. Treaties, invasions, and defences of dynasties and cities were dependent on the “ sinews of war ” furnished by the bankers of Florence ; heavy loans and large interest were the means of rapid enrichment. One year it is Philip of Valois, and another the Pope, and then Edward the First, whose name figures in the ledger of the Tuscan merchant-princes. In a single year the list of Florence bankers to whom the last-named ruler ordered payments numbered twenty-four. In 1298 was recorded an order on the Dublin treasury to pay the Frescobaldi eleven thousand sterling ; and the accounts of the different leading houses show large transactions with the house of Savoy, the Duke of Calabria, the Order of St. John, the Tolommei of Sienna, and other great families and sovereigns. In 1310 the Peruzzi, with a capital of one hundred and thirty thousand florins, in two years gained forty per cent.

The process of this trade and the method of this prosperous activity form a curious illustration of the birth of those civilizing agencies, — intercourse, exchange of products, credit, and accumulation, — whereby we have reached our present social condition. Under the loggia of the Florentine banker’s palace, in the thirteenth century, gathered the workmen, agents and factors, to hear the news and receive orders. By a system of primitive poststations, some of them dating from the days of Charlemagne, the couriers crossed the mountains to purchase wool from the convents of Britain, or embarked at Genoa for the Levant, carrying their tessera, — a medallion of silver, ivory, or bronze, which served as an authority from their employers,—as a passport. Long journeys on horseback and tedious voyages to the Orient gradually built up a wide and lucrative trade ; foreign merchants who came to the famous Fair at Florence, in October and November, brought millions to pay for their purchases; while the Florentine agents abroad remitted large sums. Although an inland city, Florence, by a treaty with Genoa, secured the privileges of a seaport, and it was by her wealth that much of the navigation of that age was supported ; and the navigator who gave a name to our continent was a native citizen of the old Republic. In France they were too busy fighting, and in England the monks owned the largest flocks, and both priest and warrior often preferred to have their workdone by subsidy ; and so the wool was bought up by the Florentine commercial travellers, and turned into fine cloth by their workmen, and then re-distributed at an immense profit. Meantime commercial law was strictly enforced, that the credit of the free city might be secure ; manuals of trade were published and observed; the bankers opened their accounts with a religious invocation, as if they were a last will and testament,— “ In the name of God, Amen.” Their dry entries, made six hundred years ago, have now an historical significance. It is marvellous to consider how patience and energy overcame the difficulties of communication before the days, not only of telegraphs and steam, but of post-roads. Among the items of expense noticed in the Peruzzi books, we find the cost of an armed bark sent from Barletta to Rodi, in 1338, ‘‘to inform our correspondents of the news of war between England and France.” Their descendant gives us a list of the agents of his ancestral Bank between 1335 and 1338, with the amounts of salary, indicative at once of the exigencies and the primitive system of commerce in its first palmy days. The great fairs, held annually in London, Paris, Flanders, and minor towns of Britain and Italy, were the grand resource of the banker and trader of those days ; but the centres of capital were the Italian republics, and especially Florence ; not only because of the sagacity and diligence of her citizens, but because they had united the material with the civic interests, the pecuniary with the patriotic aspirations, and so had reared a community where industry was not only an economical resource, and capital a private distinction, but both were elevated and concentrated by public spirit and local loyalty. It is curious to remark the directions given in one of the best accredited trade - manuals of the time in regard to the transportation of money ; it is easy at Pisa, we are informed, during Easter, because the soldiers are then paid ; dearer in Venice from May to September, because the galleys then go to the Levant; while the fair of Salerno makes it dear at Naples from September to March. Cathay and Armenia were as familiar in the correspondence of the old bankers as London and Paris.

These ancient commercial data throw specific light on the domestic economies of the thirteenth century. Count Peruzzi has collected from his ancestral financial record the household as well as the business expenses ; so that we learn what it cost to live then and there : and what were the viands, the dresses, the festas, and the civic dues, — a valuable chapter for the student of political economy. In her best days, as Dante memorably testifies, Florence was frugal ; indeed, we learn from Peruzzi’s reference to the code that sumptuary laws were stringently enforced ; the amount expended on gems and gold ornaments for a married woman was limited by law, as were the expenses of fétes given by individual citizens, for which, in the case of illustrious strangers entitled to a grander hospitality, a special license was issued. These arbitrary laws (as we should regard them) were then cheerfully adopted to prevent the encroachments of luxury ; but they became a dead letter when the. large influx of the precious metals incident to the discovery of America induced extravagance with which it was useless to contend.

Meantime the goldsmiths, whose quaint shops on the Ponte Vecchio so long after constituted a characteristic feature of the old city, were attaining the perfection still attested by the chalices, salt-cellars, and coinage of that faraway time; the festive luxury of Florence was again and again made manifest in honor of Papal, imperial, or royal visitors ; the rich bankers were vibrating between their counting-houses and the Palazzo della Signoria, from mercantile to civic functions, and the people, by the skilful discipline of the factory, and the shrewd bargains of the mart, and through the performance of their frequent duties as counsellors of the state, were receiving that industrial and political education which raised their inland community to such pre-eminent influence and wealth. The statistics of this experience are given in detail and with authenticity by Chevalier Peruzzi. A mediæval physician’s bill reveals the medical practice of the time, the drugs and perfumery of the spezieria then in vogue ; the bust of the organist in the cathedral and the tributary verses to the harpist suggest how early music became a national economy and popular pastime ; dowries, bridal outfits, church fees, and funeral expenses are carefully noted ; rates of money values, the history of the sequin and florin, and the cost of commodities, give us a clear and correct idea of the public and private economies of Florence in the thirteenth century; and, associated therewith, we have brief memoirs of the leading bankers and merchants, a list of those established in England in 1228, and an account of the great fairs held at stated times, which served as the links and the arena of commercial intercourse and activity. We might imagine ourselves peering over the shoulders of the confidential clerk of the great house of Peruzzi, and learning the secret of their balances from 1331 to 1338 ; how much the family spent for dinner and wedding-feast, real estate and masses, in charity and in journeys. We trace the course of mediæval trade by the locality of their agencies and regular correspondence, which included Avignon, Barletta, Bruges, Chiarenza, Cyprus, Genoa, London, Majorca, Naples, Paris, Pisa, Rodi, Castel di Castro in Sardinia, Sicily, Tunis, and Venice. Political events are interwoven with this programme of mercantile activity, and more or less modify it ; not only a greater share in the political destinies of other states belonged to Florence, in her palmy days, because of her financial resources, but a larger meed of independence and a rare civic virtue were born of her freedom and self-reliance ; the reforms of Giano della Bella, the measures to restrain clerical power, and the sagacious moderation of Michele di Lando during the memorable Revolution of the Ciompi, are among the fruits of popular civic training. It is amusing to mark the contrast between the costumes and physiognomy of those times and this record of hard work and social transitions. The illustrations of this volume indicate how the men and women of the thirteenth century, with all their republican pride and industry, delighted in fine fabrics and gay colors ; and how far they had gone in reaching the luxury of tint and quality which is to-day the boast of French looms. A dyer of crimson looks, in doublet, hose, and mantle, like an operatic hero, a gonfaloniere di ginstizia as if he had walked out of Titian’s canvas, a silk-winder as if she were a modern lady amusing herself with crochet-work and arrayed for a tryst ; the Florentine noble gentleman of that day, perhaps as a satire, is portrayed with a face of amiable vacuity, but a rare dignity and taste distinguish the mien and toilet of the lady of rank. The mercantile traveller’s pouch and girdle, the fac-simiies of coins, chirograpby, and of the marks (tessere) or the talismans of financial agents, are all given, and bring singularly near to us the life of the time.

This period of Florentine grandeur, and its sources, are chronicled, not only in her renowned architectural trophies, but on her by-ways and in minor buildings : although the edifices devoted to cloth-weaving in the streets of Prato, Alfani, Pinta, Pergola, etc., have long since given way to dwelling-houses, at some palace windows may yet be seen the iron rails of the weavers. An inscription in the Via Boccano, now Porta Rossa, attests its ancient industrial occupancy ; the Corso dei Tintori and the Via Caldare are still suggestive of the days when labor won the palm of civic distinction ; Florence had her streets Velluti and Vellutini, named for the family who gave their patronymic to the superior quality of cloth there first manufactured in the Middle Ages, — names afterwards changed to Maggiore and Maggio, on account of their great houses ; coinage of the old Republic is preserved in her Galleries, records of her mercantile prowess in the archives of her public libraries ; and the Via Bardi identifies the scenes of the mediæval sway of prosperous bankers of that name. Not many years since, there still remained one of the original dyeinghouses in the Borg’ Ognissanti ; while the old portraits and elaborate sepulchral monuments commemorate the aspect and chronicle the departure of the illustrious merchant citizens. If the distinctive architectural signs of mortal feud which marked the towers of Guelf and Ghibelline have disappeared with their faded banners, in the massive walls and gateways and iron-grated windows of the palaces we can yet trace the defensive precautions of civil war ; and that old republican process of enlargement, wherein the growth of Florence was signalized by a new and wider circuit of walls, has, in our day, been repeated by the levelling of the venerable barrier and the spread of the old city far into its suburban vicinage.

The most remarkable chapter of Chevalier Peruzzi’s work, in an historical point of view, is that which records the loans to Edward the Third of England by the Florentine bankers, especially the house of Bardi and his own, and the failure of their royal debtor to pay his just debts. To this misfortune our author refers not only the downfall of his family fortunes, but the civic ruin of his native city. Edward’s debts were the exigencies of a war which is described as the unjustifiable attempt of “ English ambition to triumph over French patriotism,” in other words, to unite the crowns of the two kingdoms in the person of the hero of Crecy and Poitiers, who already held John of Valois and Bruce of Scotland prisoners, and had laid the foundation of his country’s greatness by his law reforms, concession of Parliamentary privileges, and resistance to Papal encroachments. Dependent for financial support on the appropriations made by the representative assembly, whose authority he had thus been obliged to propitiate and therefore increase, when failing to obtain the requisite funds he had recourse to the bankers of Florence, and borrowed one hundred and eighty thousand sterling of the Bardi, and one hundred and thirty-five of the Peruzzi. A royal decree in 1339 ordered the suspension of payments to the creditors of the state ; hence the failure of the two leading and hitherto marvellously prosperous houses, involving numerous citizens in the downfall of these “pillars of Christian commerce and credit.” The financial ruin thus initiated led to anarchy and thence to despotism : between that fatal year and 1346, the Republic vainly struggled against these subversive elements. The Duke of Athens, called by the factious citizens to temporary rule, by a coup d'état, usurped the civil authority, and, though soon displaced by popular revolution, his brief success and the consequent political divisions opened the way for that absolute rule of families which destroyed republican freedom in Italy: their wealth bought the sympathy of the people and maintained the sway thus basely obtained, through those dark and degraded eras when Lucca and Pisa so constantly changed their lords; when the Visconti were allpowerful at Milan, and allied to the royal families of France and England ; when the house of Della Scala ruled in Verona, that of Carrara in Padua, of Gonzaga in Mantua, of Malatesta in Rimini, and of Este in Ferrara; and when Florence fell under the epicurean and intellectual, but none the less absolute, rule of the Medici. In tracing these political transitions in the Republic to the bad faith of Edward the Third of England, Peruzzi dwells indignantly upon the silence of the British historians in regard to a catastrophe which, according to Philip de Commines, French ambassador to Edward the Fourth, was fresh in the minds of the English people a century later. The immediate personal and public consequences thereof are cited by documentary evidence concerning the details of sales of the Peruzzi estate to meet their obligations ; the decree that certain duties paid to English customhouses “ shall not be conceded to the king’s creditors”; feuds with the Medici and Albizzi, with the Strozzi for allies; imprisonment for debt in the dungeons of the Badia and Stinche ; and, above all, the blindness and madness of the people despite the episode of the revolution of the popolo minore and the patriotic but brief ascendency of Micliele di Lando,— the shame of degenerate republicans who, from cupidity, lost their independence and ushered in the long unhappy history of the little principalities into which Italy was miserably divided. If thenceforth, in Florence, “there were intervals of prosperity and acts of wisdom, they were the last fruits of past greatness.”

In the old sala, which corresponds to the Guildhall of London and our Chamber of Commerce, at Perugia, the decorations by Perugino include a symbolic delineation of pagan literature and Christian faith ; Mars and the Madonna, Socrates and St. John, the adoration of the Magi and the Sibyls. Here the merchants used to meet, unite to hear mass, and rise from their knees to engage in the discussion of the exchange and the arrangement of commercial enterprises; and the apparently incongruous but really coincident agencies thus typified suggest how intimately, in mediæval times, trade, art, and religion were associated in their pristine and simultaneous development. The thirteenth century has been truly called the “ flower of living Christianity ” ; and the age of Guelf ascendency not only crowned Florence with material prosperity, but was the era of her greatest intellectual benefactions; for then and there Dante, Petrarch, and Boccaccio, while initiating the standard verse and prose of their native literature, also revived the learning which gave birth to modern European culture ; while art’s pioneers in Italy appeared in Cimabue and Giotto. The original vigor and beauty of these intellectual triumphs owe their purity and power to the civic freedom and the industrial activity which gave vital scope to the social development of the time. The victory of Campaldino had confirmed and concentrated the sway of the Guelf party ; the strife of families and factions was appeased by a truce based on mutual interests and emphasized by intermarriages. The adjacent feudal strongholds were gradually absorbed into the enlarged circle of the city’s walls ; beautiful churches — Santa Maria de’ Fiori, Santa Maria Novella, Santa Croce and San Spirito — arose; the matchless Campanile was uplifted in graceful aspiration beside the grand Cathedral and the Baptistery ; the Palazzo della Signoria, where free Italy now convenes her representatives, was reared on the site of the razed abode of the obnoxious Uberti ; the Arti Maggiori and Minori were sagaciously organized under their respective banners ; and a commission of five citizens belonging to the former guild compiled a commercial code, to preserve the discipline and good faith essential to the credit of the Republic. Allied to the Church, but more independent of her than any other state ; with many of the European sovereigns under financial obligations to her merchants or looking to them for the means of conquest and self-preservation ; the encroachments of her own nobility effectually checked by the supremacy of industry over rank; and freed from immediate danger by the opportune demise of the most powerful enemies of the Republic, — circumstances and character at that memorable epoch had placed her fortunes on a firm basis of civic independence and external influence, which at once preserved her freedom and fostered her resources.

The great practical lesson we derive from this unique local chronicle is that social like individual prosperity is the fruit of that equilibrium of moral instincts we call character, industry being exalted by patriotism and refined by culture in the recognized interest of faith and freedom ; and that when this benign harmony of the elemental forces of a state is vitally disturbed by the supremacy of selfish ambition or the encroachments of material luxury, civic virtue wanes, and republican integrity ceases to inspire and uphold national life.

  1. Storia del Commercio e dei Banchieri di Firenze in tutto il monde conosciuto, dal anno 1200 al 1345, compilato su documenti in gran parte inediti. Dal Comm. S. L. Peruzzi. Firenze : 1868.