Medici Money

From chapter 2 – The art of exchange

Tim Parks
June 23, 2005

‘Bank,’ Italian banco, (later banca), a bench, table, or board, something to write on, to count over, to divide two people engaged in a transaction. That was all the furniture you needed. For some people a bank was just a tavola, a table. The Medici have their table in via Porta Rossa, they would say. Some things passed above board, and some below.

 

Since the bankers often did business together, they set up these tables in the same neighbourhood - Orsanmichele around what is now the Mercato Nuovo. There were about seventy all told. Half way between Ponte Vecchio and the still unfinished duomo under shaded porticoes, or behind the massive doors of the palazzi, the money men stood or sat, wrapped in their long red gowns, bags of coins at their sides.

 

Above the table, on a green cloth, lay the big official ledger. The Exchanger’s Guild rules that every transaction must be written down. The banker has ink-stained fingers. ‘In the name of God and of profit!’ the book begins. Or: ‘In the name of the Holy Trinity and of all the Saints and Angels of Paradise.’ Every angle was covered.

 

The written cheque existed, but was not the norm. Too risky. Every transaction must be ordered orally by the client in person and written down in his presence, with Roman numerals, in careful columns, because these are more difficult to alter.

 

No sooner does money project itself through time and space than it generates vast quantities of writing. It becomes a thing of the mind, fluid and fickle. Write it down!

 

The merchant watches patiently as the quill scratches out his entry. Literacy is on the increase. The silence of men concentrating on numbers, dates, is invaded by the clatter of carts in the street, the cackle of caged poultry, the occasional shouts of the town crier. Downtown Florence is a busy place. In the Mercato Vecchio a couple of hundred yards away bales of silk and barrels of grain are changing hands. The bakers shovel their bread from the communal oven.

 

Once completed, the entry is read out loud. Any member of the Guild found to have destroyed or altered his accounts is expelled without appeal. Whereas the church’s rules may be open to debate, these are not. And when a banker dies leaving no one to carry on the business, his ledgers are held by the Guild in a chest with three locks so that three officials each with his own key must all be present before the accounts can be consulted. Money, like mysticism, thrives on ritual.

 

Not all banks are in the same league. Where a red cloth hangs from the arch of the door that’s a pawnbroker making modest loans in return for a declared interest rate and against the security of some object that can be resold if he is not repaid: a pair of wooden clogs, perhaps, topped with embroidered cloth; or a wedding chest painted with Biblical scenes; or the detachable brocaded sleeves for a lady’s dress. Such items are desirable. It is not a throw-away society.

 

Making no attempt to hide his profit, the pawnbroker whether Christian or Jew, is a ‘manifest usurer’ and so cannot belong to the Exchangers’ Guild and cannot be given a license to trade. But he can be fined. Or rather they can. For this “detestable sin,” as the city’s government deems it, a fine of 2000 florins a year is imposed on all the Florentine pawnbrokers as a group. Payment exempts them from any further tax or punishment. The theologians can debate whether this arrangement amounts to granting a license or not. Once again language is used to perpetuate a contradiction rather than offer clarity. Is usury forbidden or isn’t it? Could it be that a manifest usurer is actually more honest than the non-manifest variety? Deplored and indispens-able, the pawnbroker, like the prostitute, continues to trade. Only after 1437 would Christians in Florence be banned from the business altogether. This eliminated a contradiction – if the church says you mustn’t, then you really mustn’t - and focused all the poorer community’s resentment on the Jews.

 

Unlike the pawnbrokers, the banche a minuto were regularly signed up members of the Guild. These were small and strictly local banks with three main functions: they sold jewels, accepting payment by instalment; they held tied deposits, on which they handed out annual ‘gifts’ amounting to 9 or 10 %; and they changed silver piccioli into gold florins and vice versa.

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