Honors in Rome - Winter 2006
As you walk through the halls of Villa Farnesina in Trastevere, you are immediately led to the conclusion that the resident of this house must have been a great man, a patron of luxury and elegance, a man unafraid to dazzle his guests with lavish opulence. The vivid frescoes on every wall and ceiling draw the visitor into other worlds, suggesting that he or she is amidst a heavenly realm here on earth. This was no villa for casual tea or low-key gatherings – this was a palace away from home, a place for Agostino Chigi to show the world the wonders he had received from his grand successes in banking and his convenient relationship with the most powerful institution at that time – the Holy Roman Catholic Church.
The Earliest Bankers in Rome
Italy is well known as the birthplace of modern banking. The oldest forms of banking trace back to ancient Chinese pawnbroking, or lending money in exchange for the physical pledging of household items. Pawnbroking was not organized, however, until the practice became more prevalent for trading purposes during the Middle Ages. The word “pawn” probably comes from the Latin word “pannus,” which means cloth; in the earliest times, people borrowed money by pawning clothes.
The Jewish community has commonly been associated with pawnbroking and moneylending. Because of the essential services the Jewish population provided to the community, the Catholics have historically tolerated their presence in Rome. Jewish moneylending originated in the 11th and 12th centuries during the urban and commercial revolution. As population density dwindled following the Plagues in Europe, money actually became more concentrated in the hands of fewer people, and private wealth shot up, bringing with it demands for investment and financing opportunities. Jewish pawnshops and moneylending brought huge benefits to the economy. The presence of credit helped economic growth and prosperity, especially as cities accumulated private wealth. There was a catch to their lending practices, however, that would become the center of a huge debate over the next hundred years or so: the Jews charged interest, called usury, which was a complicated issue in the eyes of the Catholic Church. As usurers, they helped to stimulate the economy, yet the idea of interest went against some very clear rules laid out in the Bible. Luke 6:35 states, “Lend freely, hoping for nothing thereby.” However, the Church became divided over this seemingly clear statement because of its apparent conflict with an earlier passage in Deuteronomy, which forbids usurious lending “to thy brother” but permits it in dealings with “strangers.” It became difficult for the church to reconcile “strangers” with Christ’s new covenant of universal Christian brotherhood. The two mendicant orders of Christianity, the Franciscans and the Dominicans, took opposing sides of the issue. The Dominicans strictly believed all lending was bad – the passage from Luke should be understood literally, surpassing the earlier writings of Deuteronomy. As such, interest of any kind was wrong. The Franciscans, however, took a slightly different angle: they believed that charging interest for the sake of profit was a sin, but they understood that it was necessary to charge reasonable interest at times to cover general costs. They believed that the Jewish lending practices of charging exorbitant interest were unacceptable, but lending at “reasonable rates” could be acceptable under the laws of the Catholic Church.
Prior to the 14th century, Christians were permitted to lend money with interest, and actually rivaled the Jewish community as far as their success in banking. Soon after, a shift in the church back to a more Christian lifestyle increased criticism from religious leaders and led to an enforcement of the usury ban for Christians. Jewish moneylenders, however, were exempt from this ban, since they were non-Christians. Christians began to despise the Jews as they continued to charge exorbitant interest, sometimes up to 60% of the loan, and amassed huge fortunes. Christians started to hold the belief that the Jews “trafficked in other people’s misfortunes,” despite the fact that until recently, they had been allowed to charge interest as well.
Franciscan leaders tried to keep Christians away from Jewish lenders because lending at an interest rate was a mortal sin and an insult to the ideals of charity, brotherhood, and economic justice. One monk preached, "[I]f this concentration of wealth in the hands of the few is dangerous to the health of the city, it is even more dangerous when this wealth and money is concentrated and gathered into the hands of the Jews. For in that case, the natural warmth of the city – for that is what its wealth represents – is not flowing back the heart to give it assistance but instead rushes to an abscess in a deadly hemorrhage, since all Jews, especially those who are moneylenders, are the chief enemies of all Christians" (Katz, The Art Bulletin. 2003). Other preachers also spoke out violently against the Jews. The common belief among the Franciscans was that Jews were the “enemies of Christianity, and robbers of Christians through usury.” For a while, the Papacy spoke strongly in defense of the Jews, and issued letters in the early to mid-1400s denouncing the accusations on the part of the Franciscan preachers.
Pope Leo X, the Medici pope, was a strong supporter of moneylending. This makes sense, given that he came from a banking family. His policy towards the Jews, then, was decidedly less forceful than later popes. Even as he received criticism from various Franciscan leaders, Leo employed Jewish physicians and granted them the right to hold teaching positions at various universities. Two Franciscan monks in particular prodded Leo to implement a stronger strategy for converting Jews, including prohibiting them from charging interest. They suggested that Jews should be “handled with bitter and harsh measures” so that “they will be more easily incited… to seize the way of truth and of life” (Stow, Catholic Thought and Papal Jewry Policy. 1977). Pope Leo did not adopt these policies, but later popes did.
The tide turned in the mid-1500s when Paul IV issued a bull forcing all Jews to live in the gated Ghetto and restricting them to work only in used clothing sales and moneylending. Venice had created the first Jewish ghetto in 1516, but Paul IV’s order was still a surprise to the Roman Jewish community. It meant a shift from tolerating Jews solely for reasons of Christian piety or charity, to tolerating them in the hopes of converting them. The Jewish ghetto was not as successful as Paul IV had hoped, however. The Jewish community stayed vibrant within the ghetto, and even as other banking institutions were created in response to their moneylending practices, the Jewish consistently had to “bail out” troubled banks and indebted popes.
Monte di Pieta: The Church’s Response to Jewish Lending
In response to the Church’s issues with Jewish moneylending, the “monte di pieta” were introduced throughout the late-14th and 15th centuries. “Monte di pieta” roughly translates to mean “mounds of pity or charity,” which refers to the piles of donations and funds collected by Tuscan clerics to be used for charitable works. Originally, any profits received by such an organization would be used to pay employees and extend the scope of charitable works. As described by Federico Arcelli in Banking and Charity in Fourteenth Century Italy, "The monti di pieta... sought to bring together solicitude for the poor and the needs of the economy, the objectives of politics and the resources of finance – all this with the explicit blessing (and implicit approval) of the Catholic Church, which continued to wield major influence in economic affairs."
Supported by the Franciscans, the Italian monte di pieta were expected to not only replace Jewish moneylenders but to also set up the conditions for their expulsion. Though the monti had many internal problems (frequently relying on the Jewish moneylenders to bail them out), they represented a symbolic attack against the protections given to the Jews throughout the Middle Ages.
From 1462 to 1515, several monti were founded by the Church. The Banca Monte dei Paschi di Siena, considered the oldest bank in the world still in existence and the 6th largest bank in Italy today, was founded in 1472. Because the monti operated as “pawnshops” in the beginning, only later changing to “banks,” the Catholic Church supported them for charging reasonable interest. In addition, the monti also provided foundations for mass propaganda against the Jews.
During these times of harsh Jewish criticism, the propaganda against them was fierce. Near the end of the 15th century, artwork occasionally depicted the expulsion of the Jews and their villainous practices from Roman society. Altarpieces depicted Jews burning at the stake, showing usurers as evil, decrepit, Godless characters and casting the main members of that profession in an unfavorable light. Portrayals like these simply perpetuated Christian fear of Jewish violence and supported the Pope’s decision to place all Jews in the ghetto where they could be monitored. Often, altarpieces like these sparked rumors of Jewish violence in regions where such accusations had not existed previously. Jews were implicated in usury charges while Christians were spared, since their use of interest in lending was “charitable” and “justified.”
Any opposition to the Monte itself was not based on the idea of the institution but on the particular necessity of interest. The employees of the monti needed to be paid. Strict followers of the Dominican order argued that the use of interest to maintain the charity did not justify the usury, since a good end could not justify evil means. Supporters of the monte di pieta, however, argued that their loans consisted of two contracts: one concerning the loan, which should be gratuitous, and one concerning the custody of the object pawned and the use of space and personal responsibility to take care of it, which should not be gratuitous. While the Monte di Pieta originally existed solely to receive donations, requests in wills, and to distribute charitable funds, eventually the funds received were inadequate to meet demands, and so they had to start accepting deposits on a commercial interest-bearing basis. This required papal permission, which was achieved through Leo X in 1515 in a papal bull that declared the institutions in no way illicit or sinful, but on the contrary, beneficial and worthy of praise, such that whosoever preached or wrote against them in the future would incur excommunication. This was a powerful statement of support from the papacy, legitimizing the use of interest within certain bounds, and establishing a connection between the papacy and the banking institutions now rapidly on the rise.
The Monte di Pieta in Rome moved to its present location in 1604, a palace built by Pope Clement VIII on one side of a square filled with tiny jewelry shops. Catholic cardinals directed the bank until the unification of Italy in 1870, and it has since then merged with Banca di Roma. The cardinal connection explains the small oval chapel inside the bank – a showcase of Baroque art with statues of Faith, Hope, Charity, and Mercy and bas-reliefs depicting the abolishment of usury. Valuable paintings and antique furniture decorate the marble-tiled halls. Throughout the years, the bank has collected its share of valuable art and treasure. One Monte di Pieta commissioned a fresco to be done by Giovanni dei Guasta of the Madonna della Misericordia, which now hangs in the bank. Other works have also been commissioned to various artists to commemorate stages in the bank’s history.
Italian bankers became key figures in Rome after the 15th century. They were responsible for a variety of services, including managing the deposits and affairs of the papal offices, farming taxes in Rome and throughout the papal states, dealing with international exchange and the transfer of money, contracting to provide Rome with grain, and acting as principal lenders to the pope and funders of the church debt. Cardinals and popes were expected to be patrons of the arts, and thus often needed help funding artistic commissions. This close connection to papal financial affairs meant that the presence of bankers in the papal court was not unusual. It was a new development of the 15th century to have such frequent acquisition of the cardinal office by members of prominent banking families. While it could be useful to have a cardinal member in your banking family, patronage and nepotism worked both ways. When popes brought pressure on bankers for huge loans to fund their massive art commissions, how could they refuse? One banking family “practically ruined themselves” through unsecured loans to Pope Leo X. To ensure continued prosperity for your family in Rome, a cardinal’s hat or an election to the papacy was the most useful position to obtain, and becoming the pope’s banker was the best place to start.
Banking and Patronage of the Arts: Agostino Chigi
As banking rose in importance during the 15th and 16th centuries, the rise in the patronage of artists was growing as well. The extravagance of popes like Alexander VI, Julius II, and Leo X led to the need for huge loans to support their patronage of the arts. As such, they often developed personal relationships with trusted banking families, such as the Chigi family in Rome.
Agostino Chigi, born in Siena in 1466, was often called “Il magnifico” because of the grandeur he displayed in every aspect of his life. His success and prosperity were known throughout Europe as he lent money to princes and cardinals and conducted business with the Kings of Spain, France, and England. Chigi especially prospered under the papal rule of Alexander VI, the Borgia pope. The Sultan of Turkey once called him “the great merchant of Christendom.” By assisting in the election of Julius II, a Della Rovere pope, Julius accepted him into the papal familia in 1509 and allowed the Chigi arms (6 hills crowned with a star) the honor of adding the Della Rovere name and oak symbol.
Using money borrowed from Chigi banks, Pope Leo X certainly supported well-known artists, such as Michelangelo, but he was also a great patron of the newcomer, Raphael. Raphael was willing to do anything, profound or trivial, for his patron, from painting portraits to painting pictures of Baraballo’s elephant. Because of this, Leo X openly preferred Raphael for many of his projects, and this support was mirrored by Agostino Chigi when he was deciding who should decorate his grand vacation villa.
In 1505, Chigi purchased land on the Tiber River that was full of vineyards and gardens. He commissioned Baldassare Peruzzi in 1510 to build his new house on the property. The house was designed to portray luxury and elegance, and as such, was lavishly decorated and furnished. The construction was meant to be seen as a re-evocation of the classical world, with rare plants, marble fragments, and antique statues. Chigi commissioned some of the most famous artists of the time, including Baldassare Peruzzi, Sebastiano del Piombo, Sodoma, and Raphael, to decorate the villa. These artists created frescoes based almost entirely on classical mythology, much of it taken from Ovid’s “Metamorphoses.” Inside the house, Chigi eventually received artists, poets, princes, cardinals and the Pope himself. Chigi had plays performed in gardens, and his court met there to read classical poetry and discuss philosophy and astrology in rooms where classical myths and gods were painted on the walls. The villa was intended to display Chigi’s own personality and high culture, clearly showing his great wealth and success to all who were invited to view his lavish lifestyle.
In the first and most important room of Chigi’s Villa, visitors will find the Triumph of Galatea, located in the loggia at the east side of the villa facing the Tiber. Raphael’s fresco was inspired by a verse from a poem by the Florentine Angelo Poliziano, the same poem that inspired Botticelli’s “Birth of Venus.” The poem describes how the clumsy giant Polyphemus sings a love song to the fair sea-nymph Galatea, and how she rides across the waves in a chariot drawn by two dolphins, laughing at his foolish song in the company of other sea-gods and nymphs. Some scholars believe Polyphemus was intended to symbolize Chigi and his futile love for a wealthy countess, Margherita Gonzaga, who refused to marry him despite his offers to give up all of his business interests. In the loggia, Raphael was responsible for the drawing of Galatea and her companions, while the giant depicted in the fresco to the left was done by Sebastiano del Piombo. In the vault of the Loggia di Galatea, Peruzzi translated Agostino’s own horoscope into images, organizing the arrangement of constellations, divinities, and signs of the zodiac into a complex, airy design. The work of these three great artists with their respective special talents amazed and dazzled Chigi’s distinguished guests, aiding in his mission to impress society with his grandeur.
There are several other rooms in the Villa open to the public, and all were completed by the same group of artists, giving the building a consistent theme and design all the way through. In the Loggia of Cupid and Psyche, located at the back of the villa, Raphael depicted a continuous narrative alluding to Chigi’s upcoming marriage. In the Hall of the Perspective Views, Baldasarre Peruzzi created illusions of columns dividing the apparently open walls in a truly Renaissance style, framing landscapes of quiet, detailed villages, groups of houses, ruins of aqueducts, and a view of Rome. Peruzzi uses a milieu of Renaissance techniques to accomplish this perspective, including shading, vanishing points, and the extension of room features like the tile floor out into the picture. A fresco cycle of the wedding of Alexander the Great to his bride, Roxana, were chosen for the bedroom upstairs, perhaps in an attempt to compare Agostino “Il Magnifico” to Alexander the Great.
Upon completion of all the decorations in his villa, Chigi could finally impress all his guests, and wasted no time in doing so. Chigi was well known for his “eccentricities,” which were most evident in the ridiculously lavish banquets he held at his villa. At one banquet, Chigi had his guests dine on fine china to live music, surrounded by golden tapestries on every wall. At the end of the meal, when the Pope asked why Chigi was treating his guests so lavishly, Chigi pulled down the draperies to reveal the naked walls and stables behind them, replying that he had felt that he was being too bold when he asked his holiness to dine in a stable. At another banquet, Chigi had his guests throw their gold and silver dishes in to the Tiber at the end of the meal to spare his servants from having to clean them. This blatant lavishness actually disguised the shrewd businessman, who is said to have had nuns from across the river spread nets underneath the water to catch the precious dishes and pull them up after his guests had all left. Chigi’s most lavish recorded banquet was held on the Day of St. Augustine, August 28, 1519, where his distinguished guests were served rare birds or fish from their own countries on silver dishes decorated with their respective coats of arms. At the end of the banquet, Agostino surprised his guests by celebrating his second marriage, blessed by the Pope himself, to a modest young Venetian woman named Francesca.
Raphael’s last great work done for Agostino was the completion of the Chigi Chapel in Santa Maria del Popolo. Agostino died on April 20, 1520. Following a string of various owners, the villa was purchased by Cardinal Alessandro Farnese, who already owned a piece of land in the area and wished to turn the villa into an annex of their palazzo. Thereafter, the villa was known as Villa Farnesina, or “Little Farnese.” The building underwent many attempts at restorations, and sadly, many alterations. The Villa Farnesina is currently owned by the Accademia Nazionale dei Lincei.
As you walk through the rooms of Villa Farnesina, it is impossible to ignore the message behind the great works of these artists: ancient gods, symbols and myths, all imitating the greatest patrons of antiquity. Chigi’s magnificent personality shines through this return of classical art, making it impossible to deny the extent of his great wealth and embodying the essence of the Renaissance in one exquisite villa. Chigi’s goal, like that of so many other great patrons during the Renaissance, was to protect his artists while they built his grand villa, creating exquisite art to astonish his guests and display his magnificence. With the advent of modern banking, it became possible to continue this patronage tradition on a much grander scale, both in public villas and in papal splendor. The Monte di Pieta in Rome helped to usher in the new era of artistic spending and extravagance that really captured the “rebirth” of culture in Renaissance Rome.
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