Armando Antonelli
Mauro Carboni
Pietro Delcorno
Maria Giuseppina Muzzarelli

Centro Studi sui Monti di Pietà e sul credito solidaristico, Bologna

The Monte di Pietà
of Bologna
and Its Archive:
Paper, Credit
and Solidarity

The first monti di pietà (mounts of piety) date back to the 1460s. They consisted of newly founded institutions, which we could define as civic or ‘public.’ When they came into being, they offered pawn loans with considerably lower rates than the ‘market,’ designed to be accessible to the less wealthy. It is assumed that the first mount was created in Perugia in 1462. Around ten years later, in 1473, the Sacred Mount of Piety of Bologna, whose documents this exhibition displays, opened its doors.

The pious mounts offered a similar service to that provided by banks of pawn credit, institutions active since the thirteenth century in almost every Italian city, mainly managed by Jewish bankers. It is worth noting that the invention of agreed-upon loans with Jews, through condotte – contracts signed between private lenders and the city to guarantee and regulate their presence – in the communal period was courageous and successful. One of the key differences between private banks – whether managed by Jews or not – and the pious mounts is that the latter were public from the outset. In fact, the mounts put the credit to the service of the community instead of seeking individual enrichment. The goal of these institutions was to provide for the economic needs of the lower classes, offering them a service pertaining to the goals of city welfare. For the less wealthy, pawn loans represented a simple and quick way to access small sums of money, by temporarily pawning objects that guaranteed the debtors’ solvency. Thus, each mount that operated by ‘asking for pawns to provide to those in need, prevented others from abusing of similar operations.’

Another distinguishing feature of the mounts was the desire to privilege the paupere pinguiores, that is, the ‘less poor of the poor,’ as its potential clients. The lower economic segments of society, who practised modest artisanal and commercial activities, but did not benefit from corporative protection, were the mounts’ natural users. They were the target of a credit service offered at the sole cost of reimbursing managing expenses, charging a modest interest, called denarino (literally, a coin of little value), often equivalent to 5% per year, a percentage clearly lower than the one requested by private bankers. These policies were not designed to permanently eradicate poverty among a great part of the population, but instead served to contrast negative circumstances. They intended to alleviate the conditions of the less wealthy segments of society in moments of temporary economic difficulty, preventing them from falling into a state of structural deprivation which could force them into constantly asking for alms.

The real innovation in the services offered by the mounts consisted of their solidaristic nature and their assistance aims, goals that the institution achieved by granting loans and boosting the number of initiatives designed to support citizens in case of need. Credit, thus, gained an ethical dimension and started being recognised as an indispensable service that the city should guarantee. In order to give life to this new institution, it was necessary to convince the authorities and the population to provide it with a location and the required initial capital, but, most importantly, to accept the logic of the payment of a small interest rate. This interest was justified by the need to cover expenses without compromising the institutional capital, but this explanation did not suffice to avoid traditional prohibitions and vivid ideological repulsion, as it became perceived as a hidden form of usury. The Observant friars played a crucial role in defeating this resistance, and in convincing, not only of the benefits, but of the necessity of such an institution and system. Drawing from their previous experiences, these minor friars knew how to provide efficient explanations (often by strongly attacking the Jewish moneylenders) to the population gathered in the squares where they used to preach. Apart from their strong words and personal charisma, these friars were capable of exploring the alluring power of images to found the pious mounts. 

The mounts of piety constituted a paradigmatic example of a new model, which also managed to bring about a definite update in iconographical strategies. These institutions were, on the one hand, firmly rooted in local communities, but, on the other hand, they adhered to a common matrix and made use of the same iconographical apparatus. There are two main images of reference. The first one includes the representation of a mount, understood both as a pile of resources earmarked for solidaristic loans, and as Calvary, the place symbolising the redemptive suffering of Christ. The second presents Christ as the Man of Sorrows, the ‘most virtuous thing’ that could be represented, the imago pietatis. Doubtless, Christ in Piety is the image that appears the most in the sources: on the cover of the statutes of the mounts, on alms chests, in the institutes’ entrance lunettes (including the one in Bologna), on banners that were paraded in processions promoted to gather funds. These processions – sometimes organised under skilful directorship – marked the passage from possibility to action and were crucial moments of devotion and fundraising. Once they gathered the initial capital (the ‘mount’ of resources) – also achieved thanks to the attractive role of moving images that convinced the people – the mounts could start their operations. 

The Christ in Piety that presided over the money collected for the mounts also served as a guarantee of this powerful transformation. This image distinguished buildings and places that hosted the activities of the mounts, which became ‘holy receptacles of credit.’ These places were recognisable everywhere, thanks to the use of a shared symbology – one could speak of a veritable ‘logo’ – and their location, quite often close to prestigious buildings and spaces in towns and cities. Their sacrality, together with the civic dimension, helped to reinforce the publica fides.

The mount of piety statutes continued to put forth the image of Christ in Piety over the years. It was a way to highlight both loyalty to the original inspiration and to reinforce the identity of the institution. The statutes emblematically synthesised the institution’s desire to last in time and remain consistent with the original project. Therefore, these texts are of central importance for the life of the mount. Their magnificent exterior and careful conservation attest to the importance given to them. 

The statutes (sixteenth to seventeenth centuries) of the Mount of Bologna, approved in 1514 and reformed in 1576 (doc. 92), possess a precious wooden binding from the sixteenth century, covered in leather and metal upholstery nails. The splendid composition contains, apart from the statutory norms, copies of documents of vital importance for the mount: privileges, notary briefs and papal bulls. The statutes contained the rules governing each mount. Once again, we find similar matrices, adapted, however, to the reality in which each mount operated, since each institution depended on and was connected to the community that had founded it. These documents allow us to reconstruct the original idea of the founders and provide us with knowledge of specific urban realities. Rules were often revised, updated and modified to respond to changing times and conditions. We can obtain important information by comparing different versions of these texts and the norms promulgated in different cities. 

These pages thus talk to us and do so also through their images. 

The representation of Christ in Piety also appears in the Breve Compendio et Regola del Signor Priore del sacro Monte della Pietà di Bologna, written in the seventeenth century (doc. 93). It consists of a paper register that recorded the activities to perform each month and the norms of the prior (a position held by the twelve presidents of the Mount of Piety of Bologna for one month each) should respect. The goal was to ensure the proper management of the institute according to the statutes and deliberations of the congregation of presidents. This register also provides us with the tasks performed by each minister of the mount.

The representation of Christ in Piety does not only appear on books of norms, that is, the statutes, but also on expense records. This is the case of the Campione or Libro Mastro (2 January 1606 to 30 December 1609) of the Mount of Bologna (doc. 78). It consists of a paper register, bound in stiff leather, reinforced by a binding of five straps and labelled with the letter ‘P.’ On the upper cut of the register appears an embellished representation of Christ in Piety. Under the responsibility of the campioniere maggiore, the register gathered the accounting evidence of the mount of piety operations, divided into allotted accounts. Each account is composed of opposing sections of ‘debit’ and ’credit,’ according to double-entry trading rules. Each Libro Mastro was preserved in the Archivio del Monte di Pietà, and identified by a letter of the alphabet inscribed in the upper cut of the register. Each Mastro was connected to a Libro Giornale, in which all of the accounting operations appeared chronologically. The Giornale also contains the same alphabetic letter of identification, for the same timeframe. Entries in the Giornale refer to other accounting books, such as the Quaderni di Cassa, which list all cash flows in chronological order and are marked by the same letter of reference.

The image of the Mons Pietatis was new and traditional at the same time. The innovation, however, mainly lay in the systematic use of this image to provoke emotions and to deeply root the mounts in the original idea. The idea was for a large amount of resources, as high as a mount, to lend to the poor and in this way help them. It also consisted of a particularly commendable form of support for those who gave their assets, because it guaranteed lasting fortuitous outcomes, as friar Bernardino da Feltre highlighted: if you gave to the mount, you supported your own person. The idea to act rationally and professionally to aid those in need of loans, but who could not afford the high interest rates of private moneylenders, was also a success. The mounts acted rationally in the sense that competent and trustworthy people were involved in the institution: this congregation should be placed in good hands, recommended the same Bernardino da Feltre, preaching at the Monte di Pavia on 15 April 1493. Trustworthy hands had to gather the pawns, value and keep them, hand over the money and carefully note every action involved. Hence the suggestion and, as we would argue, the duty to keep many written records: to write down and account for everything.

Bernardino da Feltre supported and founded many mounts in the last ten years of his life (he died in 1494). In one of his sermons on this theme he upheld the necessity to write down everything concerning the life of the mount. According to him, there had to be a safe house to preserve all of the pawns as well as a book and many written documents etc., an officer to serve and to write everything down etc., who, if he wanted, could serve for free in the name of the Lord: if not, who was to pay? (sermon 55, p. 186). Much reflection is required on the old question concerning the request for the reimbursement of expenses, criticised by many who considered it a form of usury, but this is not the place to explore the debates and controversies that emerged around this. 

Our goal is to highlight the documentation of the mounts, the written materials requested and produced, their significance and the consequences of this practice. The abundance of written sources suggests several meanings. The mounts were public institutions, governed by rules described in the statutes, documents that were carefully preserved, periodically updated, publicised and rendered available for consultation. All gatherings of those responsible for the mounts produced written minutes: thus, creating another type of written source. Notaries registered all of the operations executed and carefully described all of the pawns received. The mounts produced many written documents and this indicates the desire to publicise the actions of those involved, rendering them verifiable.

The Mount of Imola offers a clear example of the acknowledgement of the public role of the mounts and the consequent desire for absolutely transparent management, a transparency imposed by their role of serving the poor. In the middle of the sixteenth century, the Mount of Imola commissioned a series of precious tables, displayed inside the institute, which publicly accounted for all the money handled, its uses and all those who helped finance it.

Since the origins of the mounts, the statutes determined that they should all keep a diverse number of books – from one to seven – a variety testifying how these institutions were similar, but at the same time quite different. In Assisi the mount only kept one book, and the same was done in Sansepolcro, where all the money received ‘should be registered in an authentic book produced for this purpose, which separated revenues and expenses, according the good and legal trading manner.’ The formulary used is interesting because it demonstrates how the composers of this register acknowledged the necessity for rational and efficient action to be applied to the field of solidaristic credit. A single book was also in use in Spoleto, where it had to be kept in a money chest. In this book, the city chancellor also had to account for all the money deposited in the mount, the cash left for the institution, the amount reserved in the cashier and the sums available for loans, with general indications concerning clients. This source demonstrates an important collaboration between the city and its mount, since the communal chancellor was in charge of the mount’s written registers. One also notices that the written documents were considered as precious as the money itself, so much so that both had to be kept locked in the same chest. The Mount of Cesena possessed two books. While the first, the book of pawns, had to be kept by the receiver – an officer of the mount – the second belonged to a notary responsible for every publicly written document of the institution who had to write down all of its income. More than one mount had to have three books according to their statutes: this was the case of the Mount of Faenza and that of Piacenza. In Faenza one of these books served to write down all of the money and properties received by the mount. When these notes survive time and are available for consultation, they allow us to reconstruct the assets of these institutes, and also to identify the benefactors, who are not seldom portrayed in drawings kept inside the mounts. To destine resources to a mount brought fame to donors, thus the importance of writing down their identity. It served to remember who they were and to encourage others to act likewise. Again according to the statutes, every notary was to remind whoever wrote a will to leave something to the mounts. Therefore, the study of testaments could also provide us with information regarding the institution: thus, providing us with many more talking documents.

In Fabriano, the statutes of the mount of 1470 stated: ‘in the chest called the money chest there should always be four books.’ One of these books had to contain all of the revenues: who gave what, how and when. Another one, also regarding revenues, contained registrations of the loans and their respective duration. To lend or deposit money in the mounts was an important practice which boosted their actions. To deposit sums in the mounts allowed the institute to possess assets useful to develop its initiatives, but it was also useful for depositors, who – apart from the promised spiritual benefits – obtained the safekeeping of their resources, and after the sixteenth century, interest on what they deposited. A third book accounted for all expenses, indicating how much money the officer in charge used for each loan. The fourth book contained records of the return of the sums borrowed.

The statutes of Pistoia required five or more books in which all operations had to be registered, and these books served as legal evidence in court in cases of disputes. In Reggio Emilia, there were as many as seven books. The notary of the so-called Provvisioni – registrations of all of the measures taken and to be taken – kept one of these volumes, while the treasurer and the guardian had two books (one for revenues: cash, donations, bequests, and another for all money received for the running of the institute, which had to be given to the massaro, a sort of manager). The massaro kept four books: one for the money lent and the pawns accepted, a second for the money received from the treasurer and earmarked for loans, a third where he wrote all of the pawns collected by the communal nuncii, and a fourth containing smaller expenses. The contents of the third book attest to active collaboration between the commune and the mount, way beyond the assistance the latter institution provided to the ‘less poor.’ The massaro’s fourth book regarded the proper management of the institution.

For the Mount of Bologna, we possess the first Libro Giornale. It is the oldest accounting register of the mount preserved from the period 1473–1519. The first ‘governor’ of the mount, the merchant Giovanni Bolognini, summarised in the first page of the Giornale the mission of the sacer Mons: ‘to help as much as possible … the poor and the miserable.’ In reality, this book functioned as a mould for an impressive archival corpus, developed through the centuries and significantly organised and described since 1705. Apart from the valuable accounting documentation, which allows us to understand the institute’s intense and multiple financial operations, the Archivio del Monte preserved valuable, rare and varied documents. There are collections of acts and norms, which defined the juridical physiognomy and managing structure of the mount. There are written documents produced by the mount’s ministers themselves in their bureaucratic and administrative tasks, such as the Verbali. These registers offer a glimpse into the operations of the mount, through the detailed documentation of its internal life, discussions, affairs and the resolutions made.

 The words of preachers, particularly those we know of Bernardino da Feltre (1439– 94), who ‘specialised’ in making propositions to found pious mounts, had to impress, involve, but also disturb. This efficient preacher delivered more than 3,600 sermons in his lifetime, for a total of almost 7,000/10,000 hours of preaching, walking by foot almost 17,000 km from 1471 – the year of his first cycle of Lenten preaching – to 1494 – the year of his death. Almost 6,000 of these hours were concentrated in his last five years, the period of his most intense involvement in favour of the mounts. While Bernardino physically walked to spread the idea, it continued to spread much further by itself: indeed, new mounts were still being founded all over Italy over a century later. From 1462 to 1562, almost 215 were created. Mounts appeared outside Italy, in France and Spain, the Netherlands and even the New World, such as the institution still present in Mexico. In the Mediterranean area, we find them in Malta, Istria and Dalmatia. In Greek territories under Venetian rule, mounts were established early on and in Rhodes a mount operated from 1505 to 1552, when the island fell into the hands of the Ottomans. The first mount in Crete was created in 1613 and from there these institutions spread to the rest of the Domains of the Sea in the East. What is more, the idea continues to flourish in times closer to our own if we think that microcredit presents many similarities to the intuitions and initiatives of the Middle Ages. One of the most fruitful forward-looking intuitions was the idea to give credit an ethical and public dimension, and to equip the mounts with powerful images of reference, which connected the institution to the city and its needs, its founder, and values such as the necessity to take care – also financially – of those in greater difficulty.

Carboni, Il credito disciplinato. Il Monte di pietà di Bologna in età barocca (Bologna: Il Mulino, 2014); M. Carboni and M. Fornasari, ‘Learning from Others’ Failure: The Rise of the Monte di Pietà in Early Modern Bologna,’ in The History of Bankruptcy. Economic, Social and Cultural Implications in Early Modern Europe (Abingdon: Routledge, 2013), 108–25; P. Delcorno and I. Zavattero (eds), Credito e Monti di pietà tra medioevo e età moderna: un bilancio striografico (Bologna: Il Mulino, 2020); C. B. Menning, Charity and State in Late Renaissance Italy: The Monte di Pietà of Florence (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1993); M. G. Muzzarelli, ‘Pawn Broking Between Theory and Practice in Observant Socio-Economic Thought,’ in B. Roest and J. Mixson, A Companion to Observant Reform in the Late Middle Ages and Beyond (Leiden: Brill, 2015),  204–29; M. G. Muzzarelli, Il denaro e la salvezza: l’invenzione del Monte di pietà (Bologna: Il Mulino, 2001); M. G. Muzzarelli and M. Carboni, I conti dei Monti. Teoria e pratica amministrativa nei Monti di pietà fra Medioevo ed età moderna (Venice: Marsilio, 2008).