In The Architecture of Banking in Renaissance Italy, Lauren Jacobi aims to investigate buildings and other urban complexes related to banking activities and coinage in Italy from the thirteenth through the sixteenth centuries, an undoubtedly ambitious undertaking requiring reconciliation of multiple skills and diverse areas of research. The title refers to Italy as a whole, but it quickly emerges in the introduction that the conditions analyzed are mainly those of Florence and Rome (especially the Rome of Florentine businessmen), with occasional reference to Venice, Milan, Genoa, and the European financial centers where Florentine merchant bankers were particularly active (e.g., Bruges).
In the first chapter, “Networked Agglomerations,” the central theme is less architecture than urban planning as linked to the development of banking and credit activities in Florence and Rome. In fact, as Jacobi acknowledges, there was no specific type of building for a bank. The same kinds of spaces—generally rented from ecclesiastical bodies, guilds, or private individuals—could be used by silk merchants, manufacturers of wool cloth, or bankers. Moreover, pure credit institutions did not exist; both large mercantile banking companies and more modest money changers were involved in varied transactions, ranging from loans and currency exchanges to trade in raw materials, manufactured goods, spices, and precious metals. The author's contribution here is therefore limited to explaining three points: that companies carrying out banking activities tended to concentrate in certain streets and squares according to principles and regulations of a corporate nature (a characteristic of almost all trades organized by guilds, whether in Florence, Italy writ large, or elsewhere in western Europe); that some firms suspected of usury did not work in open spaces; and that access to the sanctum sanctorum of a large merchant bank was not a simple matter, given the need for secrecy that drove such companies.
The second chapter, “The Technology of Money, Architecture, and the Public Good,” shifts to the design of buildings housing mints and to the functioning of mints and the execution of monetary policies. Money and banking are clearly two related realities, yet it is also obvious that if the first pertains to the exercise of public and sovereign authority, the second is often the realm of private companies. The aims and the modus operandi of each are different, even if there are points of contact. Jacobi's observations on the fascination that money and precious metals hold for many are interesting, but the main activity of bankers in this period did not involve cash; rather, it consisted in granting credit through written instruments. Moreover, her insistence on the concept of bonum commune—a term now used for any subject related to the development of public institutions in the late medieval period—limits her to but a part of a wider phenomenon: studies of urban wages and small artisans highlight a state of permanent conflict related to continual devaluations of currency induced by economic needs (lowering real wages) and fiscal needs (increasing revenue through more costly minting rights) as expressed by the dominant social classes.
With her third chapter, “Across Economic Geographies: Trade Sites beyond the Peninsula,” Jacobi turns to the world of private enterprise, analyzing the sui generis building activities of the Medici banks in Bruges and Milan. International companies like these operated with methods and criteria that differed from those of more regional or localized firms. The author focuses on the commercial diplomacy of the Italian states during the Renaissance, a subject that has recently received considerable scholarly attention.1 This is followed by a detailed description of the buildings used abroad by the directors of the Medici branches, with emphasis on artistic aspects and visual representation. Europe's largest mercantile banking company could hardly have avoided magnifying its presence abroad before a small, demanding clientele with refined tastes, as was the case with the court of the Dukes of Burgundy; further, the Milanese branch functioned as a sort of diplomatic agent to maintain political alliances between Francesco Sforza (the Duke of Milan) and the Medici (de facto lords of Florence).
The fourth chapter, “The Transcendental Economy,” focuses on the phenomenon of the monti di pietà: public pawnshops and banks of deposit. Jacobi thus moves away from the economic and political geography of previous chapters, for it was in small and medium towns of the Papal State (especially in Umbria and Romagna) and on the Venetian mainland where these credit institutions were first established. Her discussion of the Franciscan Observants and the late fifteenth-century anti-Semitism conveyed by preachers such as Bernardino da Feltre has little to do with republican Florence or with the Florentine banks operating at the papal curia: the monte di pietà in Florence scarcely began to function before the fourth decade of the sixteenth century, when the payment of interest to depositors became the norm and the institution began to provide Florentines with a relatively safe, if not especially profitable, place to invest.
While Jacobi claims originality for her research, she does not appear to be in full command of the recent Italian bibliography on her subject. In fact, she gives little attention to most of the Italian (and other non-English) academic production of the last three to four decades. For example, she fails to cite the 2011 collection Nati sotto Mercurio, edited by Donata Battilotti, Gianluca Belli, and Amedeo Belluzzi.2 Jacobi engages with humanistic disciplines such as sociology, anthropology, and numismatics, but her bibliography is less than fully adequate when it comes to economic and social history. She refers to Richard Goldthwaite's work on the link between economics and construction, but this remains largely abstract, given that she mentions Goldthwaite's contributions—in particular The Building of Renaissance Florence (1980) and The Economy of Renaissance Florence (2009)—only occasionally and does not address them in depth.3 The problem is further aggravated by Jacobi's interest in the entrepreneurial dimension of banking, which too often overshadows her attention to architecture and urbanism. Overall, she seems largely unaware of having entered into densely populated scholarly territory. Such is the case, for instance, when she claims to have demonstrated that Max Weber's thesis on the combination of Protestantism and capitalism is substantially wrong and that the origins of the modern economic development of Europe can be found in Italy during the late Middle Ages (the continuing adherence of many scholars to Weber's views notwithstanding): a century of research, publications, historiographical debates, and international conferences is passed over in silence. Despite Jacobi's good intentions and the potential of her topic, it is unclear—particularly in terms of economic and social history—just where the originality of her work lies.
Finally, the book includes several mistakes that could have been avoided had the author engaged in more dialogue with experts in various relevant fields. There are, for instance, several errors pertaining to double-entry accounting, as in the discussion of matching ledgers to income-expenditure journals (39). It is erroneously asserted here that scrittura mercantesca (a form of writing peculiar to Tuscan and Northern Italian mercantile society) was also used by notaries, amanuenses, chancellors, and humanists (4). Florentine names are sometimes inaccurately transcribed or distorted, as when the patronymic is transformed into a second name (26, 30, 31, 49–51, and elsewhere). The mercanzie are presented as corporate agencies that dealt with commercial information, whereas in reality they were mainly business courts (60). And, in a discussion of the well-known interventions carried out at the loggia of Orsanmichele, the architect and stage designer Bernardo Buontalenti is said to have worked on the Florentine loggia of the Mercato Nuovo (a privileged meeting place for businessmen), creating an archive of notarial deeds, or “instrumenti pubblici rogati da' Notai” (improperly translated as “notarized public ordinances”) (86–87). In fact, the Mercato Nuovo contained only copies of the deeds, and then only from the seventeenth century; no such deeds were kept there during the age of Cosimo I.
See, for example, Elisabetta Scarton, Giovanni Lanfredini: Uomo d'affari e diplomatico nell'Italia del Quattrocento (Florence: Olschki, 2007); Maria Paola Zanoboni, “‘Et che … el dicto Pigello sia più prompto ad servire’: Pigello Portinari nella vita economica (e politica) milanese quattrocentesca,” Storia economica 12, nos. 1/2 (2009), 27–107; Federica Veratelli, À la mode italienne: Commerce du luxe et diplomatie dans les Pays Bas méridionaux, 1477–1530 (Villeneuve d'Ascq: Press Universitaires de Septentrion, 2013); Isabella Lazzarini, “I circuiti mercantili della diplomazia italiana nel Quattrocento,” in Il governo dell'economia: Italia e Penisola Iberica nel basso Medioevo, ed. Lorenzo Tanzini and Sergio Tognetti (Rome: Viella, 2014), 155–77.
Donata Battilotti, Gianluca Belli, and Amedeo Belluzzi, eds., Nati sotto Mercurio: Le architetture del mercante nel Rinascimento fiorentino (Florence: Polistampa, 2011).
Richard A. Goldthwaite, The Building of Renaissance Florence: An Economic and Social History (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1980); Richard A. Goldthwaite, The Economy of Renaissance Florence (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2009).