The Moneylenders

Written by  Laura Graziani Secchieri
Pawnshops and Jewish families in Ferrara and in the Este politics.
Pawnshops: an expression that arouses hostility and suspicion. Feelings that arise from the Christian concept about loans against pledges, a concept that determines a relationship differing from that holding in other cultures with regard to this system of credit.

In 1434, a certain Bonaventura, along with Salamon Zudie, son of Manuele Norsa, ran a pawnshop in the building on the corner of what is today Ripagrande and Porta Reno.

This form of credit agency, run by Jews, offered loans in commodatum and loans at interest. Often, by establishing economic contacts with their counterparts in every town, Jewish moneylenders became merchants dealing in the most diverse kinds of goods. But the Christian and Muslim worlds had prohibited the Jews from pursuing any "superior" business, trade or profession, and had also forbidden them from purchasing property.

Such merchants, who lived with the risk of being driven out and despoiled of all their goods, preferred to be able to flee with all, or almost all, their assets in coins, rather then find themselves obliged to leave buildings or agricultural holdings. Finally, the Church had declared the lending of money to be a sin against God and as a result the business of lending was left solely to Jews, for whom it occasionally defined the interest rates to be applied and the mechanisms by virtue of which the lender might come into ownership of items left unredeemed.
Through inheritance estimates we know that the items pawned were very often extremely modest: of course, the hungry plebeian who had brought his domestic chattels to the pawnshop, knowing that he was unlikely to be able to redeem them, took the dimmest possible view of Jews, even when they required no more than the legal interest rate. But the situation was different for members of the ruling classes, who obliged the moneylender to accept the procedures and the entity of loans in their favour, without leaving any pledge and, often, without paying back the sum lent.

To return to Bonaventura's pawnshop, it was known as the banco della Ripa (or Riva) and the banco da Po, because of the branch of the river that used to run hard by the south of the city. Some called it the pawnshop on the via Grande, because access to it could be gained from that street, and it was also known as the banco della Gabella, because of its nearness to the Gabella Grossa et Grassa or the Gabella da Riva, customs posts set at the city limits.

By 1434 there were another two pawnshops in Ferrara; one run by Davide di Consiglio took the name from the strada dei Sabbioni (today via Mazzini) on which it stood. This was in the heart of the city, a stone's throw from the cathedral and the courts and right in the middle of a lively business and trading quarter.
Some heirs of Consiglio ran a pawnshop known by a variety of names: a la bocha del Canal, del borgo vecchio,dei Carri. This third pawnshop also took its name from the district where it stood, one of the oldest parts of the city, the borgo vecchio, and from the Christian family, the Carri, who had owned the building for many years.

In the 15th and 16th centuries, these three pawnshops were distinct from one another, each one located at a strategic point in the business life of the city.

Why were there so many pawnshops in Ferrara? Este politics were expensive, requiring as they did urban development programmes, armed conflicts, the fortification of the city, the construction of pleasaunces, the draining of the valleys, and the splendours of the court. All this generated an ongoing demand for ready cash and long term loans; the solution to this problem lay in Jewish moneylenders who were prepared to meet all requirements: this is the main reason behind the Estes' willingness to welcome refugee Jews from half of Europe and to propose Ferrara as their new home.

The pawnshops flourished so prodigiously and the annual income for the ducal coffers was so plentiful that, in 1560, Angelo Fano was granted permission to open a fourth pawnshop, called del Paradiso owing to its nearness to the palazzo of the same name on strada San Francesco.
Pawnshops and Jewish families became inseparably linked. For the client, more often Christian than Jewish, and often noble, the lender had to be a person of absolute reliability, to whom one might consign valuable goods, sometimes even entire estates or inheritances, in the certainty, first, of a correct valuation and, second, of restitution when the pledge was redeemed.

For the Jewish community, to be a moneylender meant wielding a certain power: moneylenders enjoyed decidedly exclusive rights; for example, they were exempted from wearing the "mark" of recognition; they could bear arms for self defence and were allowed to gamble; they could be judged only by a session of the XII Wise Men and were not subject to the rules applying to "common Jews".

A wide variety of people and posts depended on these privileged families: bank agents and employees, clerks who drew up the accounts for private individuals and bankers, and even tutors for the boys. As a result, even members of the same family enjoyed different levels of the wealth generated by these pawnshops.

Economic liquidity, moreover, allowed the banker's family to keep a rabbi and to set up a scola or an oratory for study and prayer in the building where they both lived and plied their trade: the first synagogue in Ferrara was created by that Ser Mele who in 1481 purchased the banco dei Sabbioni while the Fanese oratory was built by the Fano family, who ran the banco dei Carri at the time.
After the freedom of action enjoyed under Este rule, and after the trust and respect accorded them by the ruling class, when power was handed over to the Holy See in 1598 a period of uncertainty and fear began for the Jews and it was not long before troops had to be called in to protect the frightened community. This led to the creation of the ghetto between 1624 and 1627.

Despite the heavy restrictions imposed with the creation of the ghetto, the importance of the Jewish pawnshops, which offered liquidity for aristocrats and plebeians alike, did not diminish.

In the meantime the new mons pietatis (charity bank) had been created but it had failed and the Jewish merchant moneylenders were now joined by the first Christian bankers.

The profession was beginning to achieve social recognition and, while Ferrara's Jewish community cannot say it produced a financial family on a par with the Rothschilds it is only fair to recognize how the pawnshops contributed to the realization of the humanist dream that the House of Este had conceived for Ferrara.