Monte di Pietà or “Pawnbroker”

Something not to overlook when visiting any Italian city are the Monte di Pietà buildings. Often they are the most prominent buildings of the city.

The “Monte di Pietà” was nothing more than the common “Pawnbroker.” What makes it very different in Italy is the beautiful, richly decorated building that once was the “Pawnbrokers” of Medieval Italy.

The history of the Monti di Pietà is very fascinating, although long. These are the institutions that ultimately started what modern banks are now.

Just Like a Pawn Shop

The function of the Monti di Pietà was to finance people in difficulty, providing them with the necessary liquidity. Because of this characteristic, the Monti serviced the city populations, where many lived in conditions of pure subsistence but still had assets that could be given as collateral; the peasants, on the other hand, usually had nothing to commit but goods indispensable to their activity, such as seeds and work tools.

Loans in the Late Middle Ages

Despite the ecclesiastical prohibition, even before the invention of the Monti di Pietà, usury was common among Christians; the real interest [rate] was often disguised by declaring to grant a loan higher than the one disbursed. Some Italian families came to power by lending money and left the sector once they became part of the city’s ruling class: the Medici of Florence are the most famous example.

Starting from the end of the fifteenth century, the Monte di Pietà was founded in numerous small and medium-sized cities, which due to their economic activity presented a credit application, especially in Lombardy, Veneto, Tuscany, Liguria, Umbria, Marche, and Romagna.

Vicenza, Piazza dei Signori

Monti di Pietà in the 15th Century

The inventors and spreaders of the Monti di Pietà — between 1450 and 1500 — were the friars of the Mendicant Orders and Observant Friars Minor. [liberally translated!]🙂

The history of Monte dei Paschi di Siena (still today a bank with the same name), offers an example of the evolution from Pawnbroker to Bank. Siena had different “Monti;” “Monte Pascuorum,” with reference to the income obtained from the pastures of the Maremma, a “Monte del Presto,” operated with and without a pledge, which granted loans for sowing and livestock breeding.

These “Monti” were also local banks that acted as real agents of the development of the territory. Their services weren’t limited to financing and collection but extended to the support of political and cultural activities, support of religious activities, and assistance to the poor and the sick.

Evolution in the 19th Century

In modern times, therefore, the Monti di Pietà began to evolve to become real Savings Banks.

Nowadays

Almost every Italian city has one such building, often now occupied by a full-fledged bank, usually a “Savings Bank.” Many have also a chapel within the building.

It is worth to visit these buildings as they are real architectural jewels and often with great works of art in their interiors

Notable Buildings

Mantua, Padua, Faenza, Pavia, Montagnana, Orvieto, Viterbo, Siena, Bologna, Brescia, Ferrara, Vicenza, and Udine. Among the oldest of the Monti di Pietà in Italy is that of Ascoli Piceno (January 15, 1458)

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I lived the most part of my life in Washington DC, now in Italy getting to know again my country. Plenty of surprises, for good and bad, and lots of nostalgia for DC.

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