The ingenuity of modern Jewish Italian bankers

By Brandon Moyer*

As an Economics and Finance student living in the U.S., I have always been fascinated with the financial structures of our economy and its history. Being of Italian descent myself, I thought that it would be great to start there, as many historians have pointed to Florence, Italy as being one of the earliest financial centers in the modern world. What really drew me to the subject was the history of the Florentine Jewish community in developing financial strategies in order to lead safer lives in Italy. The ingenuity of the Jewish-Florentine bankers kept not only their community relatively stable, but allowed for the growth of Judaism in Italy that would soon come.
After the death of Pope Martin V in 1431, the new Pope Eugenius IV reenacted the persecutory laws against Jews, forcing many Roman Jews to flee the city. However, many cities in Italy disregarded the new Pope’s declaration, and cities like Florence, expanded their Jewish population. Having left behind their homes and livelihoods, the Jews searched for ways to refashion their lives, and an opportunity soon presented itself. During this time in Italy, Christians were forbidden from lending money at interest, as this practice contradicted Catholic teaching. This differed from the Jewish doctrine, whereby Jews were prohibited from lending money to fellow Jews at interest, but were free to do so to non-Jewish customers. The prohibition against lending money made raising capital very difficult for Catholics interested in growing their businesses, so the Christians sought out exceptions to the law. Christian business owners in Florence demanded that the laws be changed, and in 1437 Jewish bankers were officially permitted to loan with interest in Florence.
Under the new Florentine law Jews were able to establish a community there, but the Florentine Jews now had their fate completely in the hands of the Medici and the Christian banking elites. The Medici family was an Italian banking family and political dynasty that ruled Florence. The Medici amassed their vast fortune by way of another loophole in the anti-interest laws, which allowed them to engage in what effectively amounted to loaning money at interest through the use of promissory notes and foreign currency exchange — a practice only viable to wealthy customers, and out of the reach of smaller merchants and tradesmen, who relied on the Jews. The Jews were tolerated by the political rulers as their banking prowess facilitated economic expansion under the Medici reign.
The Medici family had many enemies that tried to force them from power and banish them from Florence. In 1494, the Medici family was overthrown during the invasion of Charles VIII of France. A Dominican monk, Friar Girolamo Savonarola, emerged as the new leaders in Florence, and instituted a theocracy of sorts, banishing the Medici family and calling for the same treatment for the Jews. Due to their experience in finance, the Jewish bankers avoided expulsion by offering a loan to the Republic of Florence as the city attempted to rebuild under new rule. The loan was accepted, which granted the Jews a reprieve for a short period of time. The Medici family returned to power in Florence in 1512 forestalling the expulsion that the Jews would soon have faced, but not for long.
After another power struggle, Florence was once again led by the Medici family as Cosimo I de’ Medici became Duke of Florence in 1537. This coincided with the arrival to the Italian peninsula of Spanish and Portuguese Jews fleeing persecution on the Iberian peninsula, and Cosimo sought advice from a Jewish friend, who convinced him of the advantages of guaranteeing the rights of these refugees. Thus began the large-scale growth of the Sephardic Jewish community in Florence and the Tuscan port city of Livorno.
This was a period of relative prosperity, but as with most of Jewish history, it was to be temporary. Once he was given the title of Grand Duke of Tuscany, Cosimo changed his stance on the Jews, enacting persecutory policies in 1567. The Jews were forced to wear badges, their banks were burned down to the ground, and they were eventually forced to live in a ghetto in 1571. The residents of the ghetto of Florence continued their Jewish traditions, and the community built synagogues, schools and markets, but they would not be released from this open-air prisons until a new constitution was promulgated in 1848.
The ghettos of Tuscany were finally abolished and the Jews given full citizenship. As a symbol of their newfound freedom and civic equality the Florentine Jews constructed the Great Synagogue of Florence, which still stands as one of the largest and most beautiful synagogues in Southern Europe, decorated in a moorish style that recalls the Spanish and Portuguese origin of much of the community.
The Jewish bankers that established themselves in Florence were able to survive threats from many different enemies over the centuries, due in large part to their banking and financial know-how. Now, the city of Florence is home to over 1,400 members of the Jewish community and their traditions continue today.

Above, the gorgeous dome of the synagogue of Florence.

* This piece is part of a series of articles written by students of Muhlenberg College, Pennsylvania, USA, enrolled in a course on the history and culture of Jewish Italy, taught by Dr. Daniel Leisawitz, Assistant Professor of Italian and Director of the Muhlenberg College Italian Studies Program.