The Market and the Temple

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Not to love the world but to take care of humanity

The Market and the temple/2 - Monti di Pietà and Monti Frumentari speak of an original plural finance and the equity action of the Church.

By Luigino Bruni

Published in Avvenire 15/11/2020

"It is forbidden for appraisers to accept gifts or courtesies from pawn owners, or from other people in order to give effects a higher or lower estimate, but they must be loyal, just, and sincere in their duties, under penalty of ten Scudi for each altered estimate".

From the Archives of the Monte di Pietà of Imola

In the Middle Ages, divine mystery was contemplated in the mystery of the human condition and the poor, not the Pope, were the real first representatives of Christ on earth.

The Renaissance, a golden age in Italian history, was not only the time of Michelangelo, Leonardo, Leon Battista Alberti, Pico della Mirandola, Machiavelli and the Medici. It was also an extraordinary age for the work of the many Franciscan builders of the Monti di Pietà. Without taking this charismatic humanism into consideration, we cannot really understand modern Italy and Europe, and we cannot really understand what the Catholic Church really represented between the Middle Ages and modern times. These various credit institutions radically changed Italian finance from the mid-fifteenth century until at least the nineteenth century, when those seeds flourished into rural banks and savings banks. The bank in Italy was born plural, and not just for profit.

Let us dwell on these images of the Monti di Pietà. First of all, piety, that is, the image of the dead Christ in the arms of Mary. Why piety as an image of the buildings, chapels, banners of the Monti di Pietà? That image was already used by aid agencies and medieval hospitals. It symbolized one of the central moments of the Christian faith, much loved by the people of those centuries who knew the pain of life especially well, in particular the mothers and women who came to experience the death of so many, too many, sons and husbands. It was represented in almost all churches and by the greatest artists (Titian, Rubens, Michelangelo). A meeting between Christian piety and what was inherited from the Romans (the "pious" Aeneas), which linked it above all to children caring for their elderly parents. Its symbol in the icons was the pelican or the stork: the Roman civilization called the law that obliged children to take care of their parents, lex ciconiaria, as legend had it that storks did just that, take care of their parents. Popular piety is always greater than the theologies and dogmas of religions.

In those centuries, that central scene of faith was therefore translated as a form of piety-love towards one's neighbour, in particular for those who suffered: «The other wept, so that - because of pity - I fainted, as if I had met my death. And then I fell as a dead body falls» (Dante, Inferno, 5). Theology immediately became anthropology, Christianity itself revealed the face of God together with the face of the poor. Those believers, much more interested back then than we are today in heaven and hell, were able to give the name of "piety" to the most intimate embrace between man-God and his Mother. The divine mystery was eagerly contemplated and the mystery of man was beloved. In this aspect, the Middle Ages were all light. For the Franciscans, teachers of piety and charity, it was so natural to see a fruit of the same root of piety and mercy in the birth of those different Monti - piety, charity and mercy, three different words for theology, deeply intertwined and superimposed in popular piety.

The most popular effigy of Bernardino da Feltre, which represents him next to a mountain and holding two drapes with two phrases from the New Testament (in Latin) on them, is stupendous. The first: «Do not love the world» (1 John 2,15), the second: «Look after him» (Luke 10,35). Two phrases that together express the humanism of the Monti di Pietà. They did not love or follow the logic of the world (which in John is a symbol of evil), yet they took care of it. «Look after him» is in fact one of the sentences with which the parable of the Good Samaritan concludes, when he entrusts the half-dead man to the innkeeper: «‘Look after him,’ he said, ‘and when I return, I will reimburse you for any extra expense you may have’». A perfect phrase for the Monti, because in it the Gospel of Luke associates an entrepreneur (the innkeeper) with the most beautiful act of piety in the New Testament. The Samaritan does not ask the innkeeper to host the victim for free - according to a certain logic he could have and should in fact have done so. No, instead he recognizes a fair price to be paid to those who were doing their job. And those "two pieces of silver" served to reconcile piety with economy - if money in the Gospels had only been represented by the thirty coins paid to Judas, it would have been a terrible message for all those who have to use money to live and let live. Perhaps it was not intentional, but those two sentences also represent the distillation of the battle of the Franciscans in favour of the payment of an interest rate on the loans of the Monti.

Other details help to enrich the story of that first spring season of solidarity finance. After a long period of preparation - the process often began with the preaching of the friar in time of Lent – the day the Bank was finally inaugurated, the community made a procession from the Franciscan church to the seat of the bank. With girls cheering and with children dressed in white holding the banner of the Monte. Wondrous. Pietro Avogadro described one of them, which took place in Verona in 1490: «An image created with such artistic skill and admirable genius as to be estimated among only the rarest masterpieces, was carried in procession to the sound of trumpets and flutes, towards the Monte di Pietà. The work was set on a broad base made up of canvases. The sides contained the symbols of all the virtues, of admirable splendour: in the centre, the Pietà, the inanimate body of Jesus in the arms of his mother, and then his favourite apostle. This sacred rite was overseen by thirty men assigned to worship, who, while carrying the image from the Monte itself, showcased this highly sacred moment, with the greatest of commitment and edification». Sacred, beautiful and solemn processions such as those in honour of the patron saint, the Madonna and Corpus Domini. For those Franciscans and the people a procession to honour the foundation of a bank was no less sacred than other functions - let us not forget that in the Middle Ages the first representative of Christ in the world was not the Pope: it was the poor. Even a different kind of bank can become a piece of heaven. The processions to celebrate the Eucharist and the Saints, which are never alternated with processions that celebrate the poor, too often end up losing the scent of the Gospel. This too speaks of the prophetic force of Francis' charism.

All this in the Centre-North part of the country. What about the South? The Monti had the greatest diffusion especially from the beginning of the seventeenth century (although Monte de l'Aquila was among the first, in 1466) in the Kingdom of Naples, also following a difficult and long economic crisis. With two characteristics: they were not always born from Franciscans or from ecclesiastics at all, and they were almost all free loan institutions, despite the Church having made the interest rate lawful with the Decree of Pope Leo X in 1515 regarding the Monti di Pietà. Being small institutions in general, most often housed in Convents and in parishes, they did not have large expenses, and were often supported by philanthropic institutions. This absolute "gratuitousness" did not help the duration and growth of the Monti di Pietà in the South, on the contrary, it complicated it. Antonio Genovesi wrote the following on the matter: «Around the beginning of the 16th century, the so-called Monti di Pietà were born in some parts of Italy... To relieve these bloody wears, a group of men who loved humanity established private entities with little funding, in which small sums were lent for free and larger sums with not much interest at all. These Monti were first administered with unscrupulous fidelity, since they are all the very first human establishments made in the fervour of virtue» (Lessons in Civil Economy, 1767).

However, what really developed the most in the South, also given its particular economic-productive structure, were the Frumentari Monti (also called wheat or numerary banks, and other similar names, in Sardinia, and in other Catholic countries of Europe). They were rural credit institutions, which also grew thanks to the great incentive provided by Pope Orsini (Benedict XIII), born in Gravina di Puglia, (the first one was founded when he was still the bishop of Benevento, in 1678). Even Lucerne Franciscan St. Francesco Antonio Fasani (1681 -1742), dedicated himself to the birth of credit for the poor. This wheat was honoured with the same care as the manna and the Eucharistic bread, because even this grain provided to give life.

The Frumentari Monti used wheat as a numerary. Sometimes they were born as complementary entities to the Monti di Pietà (which provided monetary credit). In fact, credit piety took many different forms in that civil and economic renaissance in Italy. Among these, the Monti of the dowry, Monti of the damsels or matrimonial Monti that were born with the main purpose of guaranteeing a dowry to the poorest girls.

In the second half of the eighteenth century, there were over 500 Frumentari Monti in the Kingdom of Naples, encouraged and supported by the main theorists of civil economy (A. Broggia, G.M. Galanti, J.B. Jannucci and D. Terlizzi de Feudis). The Wheat Banks were not free of charge, in part because interest paid in kind had always been less controversial than interest paid in money. The farmers estimated the grain "at level" (with the container) and returned it "full", the difference between the two quantities constituted the interest, estimated on average to around 5%.

The Frumentari Monti developed as a way of overcoming a type of agrarian contract, called “alla voce”, which was very widespread in the South since the Middle Ages. This contract was particularly vexatious and usurious for peasants, and fuelled the development of veritable parasitism and exploitation against the workers of the land. Trojano Odazi, a pupil of Genovesi and editor of the Milanese edition of his "Lessons" (1768), helped to demonstrate that the "alla voce" contract was a halter contract. In fact, in those contracts the merchant, who possessed the precious required liquidity, advanced money to the farmer at the time of sowing. The farmer then had to deliver a certain amount of wheat (or oil, wine, cheese) at the time of harvest to the merchant. The contract did not actually mention an established price, because that would have been established "verbally" (alla voce), that is the price announced in the square (the most important ones were Crotone, Gallipoli and Potenza) during the time of harvest. Obviously, however, the price of a product is lower at harvest time, as there is an excess of supply; and so the farmer ended up paying an interest of around 100% (per semester) on the cash advance received.

The observation of these injustices led those Franciscans, bishops, and men of good will to imitate the prophets: to observe, denounce, and act. Today there is no lack of new "alla voce", verbal contracts in our post-modern financial system. Unlike in past centuries, these oppressive contracts are not visible to the naked eye. But there are there. What is lacking are new Franciscans, new bishops, and men and women of good will to create new Frumentari Monti, wheat banks. There are some, but they are few and far between.

One of the places that will host the "Economy of Francesco" from November 19 to 21 will be the old Monte Frumentario in Assisi. A sign, a hope, and still the same call: «Take care of him».

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