Pope Eugenius IV and Jewish Money-Lending in Florence: The Case of Salomone Di Bonaventura during the Chancellorship of Leonardo Bruni
Gow, Andrew, Griffiths, Gordon, Renaissance Quarterly
IN HIS Eulogy of Florence (Laudatio Florentinae Urbis) Leonardo Bruni praised her constitution for giving first place to justice, "without which no city can exist or deserve the name." Moreover, he said, "Not only citizens, but aliens as well are protected by this commonwealth. It suffers injury to be done to no man, and endeavors to see to it that everyone, citizen or alien, shall receive the justice that is owing to him."(2) During Bruni's own tenure as chancellor of Florence, however, we hear of a Jewish banker who was ruined by the heaviest fine in the history of the city after a trial that one modern scholar has described as a monstrous miscarriage of justice.
On 16 January 1441 Salomone di Bonaventura was condemned to pay the sum of twenty thousand florins for violating the Florentine law of 1406(3) that prohibited Jews (and others) from engaging in usury in the city. Exaction of the fine put him out of business but enabled Florence to acquire the strategically important town of San Sepolcro. In the first study devoted to the case, Antonio Panella alleged that the trial had been a travesty of justice, that the government of the city (the Signoria) had colluded with the judge (the podesta) in advance of the trial with a view to obtaining the desired funds. If the allegation is valid, why did no contemporary protest the injustice? Chancellor Bruni was acquainted with the details of the case, as we can see from the letters he devoted to the subject, but in these there is no suggestion of a miscarriage of justice. In the Commentary he wrote on the events of this time (Rerum suo tempore gestarum Commentarius), he makes no mention of the case.
Panella's study was published in 1909. In 1918 Umberto Cassuto argued with the support of new documents that Salomone's trial had after all been conducted within the bounds of correct legal procedure, but that the sentence had been based on a very fine point of law.(4) Cassuto agreed with Panella that the government's real motive for bringing Salomone to court was political, that is, a desperate financial situation had prompted the government to pounce upon the first wealthy victim who could be found to be in technical violation of the law.
But what was "the law"? In 1437, within three years of the advent of the Medici regime, the government of Florence modified the law of 1406 by entering into a contract (a condotta consisting of numerous capitoli, a term that served as a pars pro toto to refer to the contract) with one Abraham Dattill, a Jewish money-lender, inviting him and those he named as his associates to inaugurate their business in Florence and providing for their protection against Prosecution.(5)
Why was Salomone not protected by the capitoli? The document authorizing the establishment of his bank has survived, and it supplies a part of the answer. In this document, drawn up before the appropriate office of the Florentine government in the Palace of the Signoria, Abraham Dattili (through Manuel, his son and procurator) named as his associates not Salomone but Salomone's sons, who were thus authorized to establish their bank in accordance with the procedures laid down in the capitoli.(6)
The sons, presumably minors, were not present, but Salomone was, and he accepted and ratified the document "as their father and legitimate administrator." In this capacity Salomone carried on the business of the bank with notable success. Why after two years was he arrested toward the end Of 1440? If his activity was only in technical violation of the law, did his punishment not reflect an attitude that justice need not be meted out to Jews?(7)
We are concerned here with the question of what rights and what status the Jews enjoyed in Florence. These issues are not marginal but an integral part of the history of the city. Since our documents were not produced by Jews, we cannot claim to present a Jewish voice. Our purpose here is to present the new evidence we have found relating to Salomone's case and to place the case in the context of Florentine-papal relations. …