Hark! the Herald Angels Sing
Four Musical Angels, a detail from Coronation of the Virgin triptych, c.1430, by Giovanni di Marco also called ‘dal Ponte’; tempera on wood. The triptych was part of a special exhibit on Florentine Painters from 1370-1430 at the Galleria dell’Accademia in Florence, Italy. The altarpiece belonged to the Monte di Pietà in Florence and is now housed at the Galleria. You might wonder how such a special worked ended up belonging to a charitable organization meant to serve the poor. I did a bit of research and found some interesting information on both the Monte di Pietà movement and also the organization in Florence.
A Monte di Pietà is an institutional pawnbroker run as a charity in Europe beginning in the Renaissance; some still operate today. In 1462, the first recorded Monte di Pietà was founded in Perugia, Italy. Between 1462 and 1470, an estimated forty more were developed in Italian cities as an early form of organized charity to aid the less fortunate. Their intent was to reform money lending by providing an alternative to practices the Catholic church viewed as socially unacceptable. Many were organized and operated by the Catholic Church and offered financial loans at a moderate interest to those in need. Some were run as civic organizations by the cities. Basically charitable pawnshops, the Montes were to benefit the borrower and not the lender, and were viewed as a benevolent alternative to loans provided by moneylenders. The organization of the Monte di Pietà depended on acquiring a monte, a collection of voluntary, permanent donations from citizens and benefactors. The Monte di Pietà would then lend funds against an item of value. The term of the loan would be a year, and the amount lent equal about two-thirds of the value of the borrower’s item. Profits were used to pay operating expenses. The Florentine Monte di Pietà was established in 1496 and existed until the 19th century. Over the centuries, the charitable lenders began to make other loans and to take deposits. After the unification of Italy, many were merged with or purchased by banks or state run organizations. I couldn’t find much information on how many still exist in Italy, though there is an operational organization in Malta. The following excerpt below is an interesting perspective on the Florentine Monte di Pietà. It is unclear where the office in which this triptych was displayed was located.
From Charity and State in Late Renaissance Italy: The Monte Di Pietà of Florence, by Carol Bresnahan Menning, Cornell University Press, 1993:
“In the minds of its founders, there was no doubt about the purpose of the Florentine monte di pietà: it had been created, in the words of the statutes, “to be able to lend against pawns to poor persons with as little interest as possible.” Until its demise in the nineteenth century with Italian unification, the monte di pietà continued to accept pawns and to offer low-cost small loans. Yet less than half a century after its founding in 1496, the monte also began to undertake other functions far different from those envisioned by its founders and to serve social groups other than the poor. By the late 1530s it agreed to pay 5 percent interest on deposits and by the next decade it was flooded with income, the bulk of which came from middle-class persons seeking a safe if conservative investment. the establishment’s liquidity quickly attracted the attention of Duke Cosimo I de’ Medici who, seeing the monte, as his son and heir Francesco bluntly put it, “abounding in money,” used its resources to finance loans to himself, his family, and friends. the duke’s personal, dynastic, and public financial schemes were, in essence, subsidized by the monte di pietà, which was in turn supported by its poor clientele and its middle-class depositors.”
For further information on the history and the demise of the Monte, the following links are interesting:
“THE DISPERSED ART COLLECTION AT MONTE DI PIETÀ AND THE MISFORTUNES OF MARQUIS CAMPANA”