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Chapter 11 - The archives of the Bank of St George: a goldmine for sources of information on the history of finance (… and more)
The archives of the House of the “compere” and banks of St George, come to us largely intact, provide an extraordinary source of information on local history, on the history of finance in general and on aspects of social equilibrium, business organisation, customs administration, etc. In order to make this documentary heritage easily accessible to scholars, a detailed catalogue is being prepared to illustrate its components, contents and potential.
Archives. Old papers, such as records, reports, lists, and letters of a particular group, family, country, etc., kept esp. for historical interest. The place where such papers are stored, esp. the place where government and national records are kept (Longman Dictionary of Contemporary English)
Banco di San Giorgio. This is the name by which the House of the “compere” and banks of St George is commonly known (see chapter 4).
“The Bank of Amsterdam, sometimes called the Wisselbank or Bank of Exchange, was begun in 1609. The first state deposit bank, the Casa di San Giorgio (Bank of St George) in Genoa, had been established, however, two centuries earlier, in 1407. The same century saw the development of deposit banks in Spain … For a long time, and largely inspired by the Bank of Amsterdam which itself drew on examples of the Bank of Venice and the Casa di San Giorgio in Genoa, proposals had been made for the establishment of banks in England” (C. P. Kindleberger, A Financial History of Western Europe, London, Allen & Unwin, 1984, pp. 47 and 52).
“The business circle of the House of St George resembles the organisations of creditors of the State in England in 1694, the Bank of England and the East Indies and Pacific Companies” (H. Sieveking, Studio sulle finanze genovesi ... cit., p. XVI). “The Bank of England, at the time, was unlike any of the others, except possibly, in some ways, the House of St George” (F. Braudel, Capitalismo e civiltà materiale, Turin, 1977, p. 372)
“In the State Archives of Genoa, one of the most important sections for the history of economics, finance and bookkeeping is the Bank of St George. ... The incomplete analysis which we unfortunately find in the studies of Sieveking and Marengo... is due, in our opinion, to the lack of a sound knowledge of the qualitative and quantitative importance of this section of the Archives and to the absence of an inventory drawn up using modern criteria and offering examples from the archives such as synopses of ancient documents, indices, roles, etc. ... It is clear that, given the importance of the Bank, its entire archives ought to be reorganised and inventoried ... It is an enormous task and one which will take many years” (M. Chiaudano - G. Costamagna, "L’archivio storico del Banco di San Giorgio di Genova (1386 - 1845)", in Archivi storici delle aziende di credito, vol. I, Rome, 1956, pp. 115-117).
As previously described (see chapter 4), the House of St George was a unique institution which, for four centuries (1407-1805), combined a number of government functions (such as fiscal administration, management of public debt and, for quite some time, sovereignty over territories) with the running, from 1408, of a public bank which was the first of its kind in Italy and the second (or maybe even the first?) in Europe.
When similar structures began to appear elsewhere (in the late 16th century in Italy and in the early 17th century abroad) the banking activities of the Bank of St George had by then undergone various mutations and adaptations (banks dealing in “paghe”, in cash, in gold, etc.) and the House of the “compere” had accumulated centuries of experience which would continue to grow, producing essences of imaginative technique and administrative wisdom: original solutions for the handling of financial emergencies, rotation and assignment by lottery of the top jobs to prevent the formation of personal cliques, carefully planned changes to internal organisation to resolve major management problems in the most economic way possible, practical steps to surmount minor problems. The life of the Bank, spanning over four centuries, was marked by countless innovative operations which, combined with a rigorous respect for the rights of the depositors, earned a notorious reputation, all over Europe for technical skill and solidity.
Like the organisation from which it was generated, the archive of the Bank of St George, now part of the State Archives of Genoa, has certain unique features: Firstly, the period of time covered, spanning with a rich continuity the period from the 14th to the early 19th century; secondly, its content given the many functions it performed; and finally, its size, which currently amounts to some 39,000 items, mainly comprising of accounts 36. The Archive had been even larger in the past, when the current section had two additional blocks of documents consisting of 2800 items. They were separated out in 1880 and inventoried as separate archives under the headings "Compere e mutui” and "Antico commune” 37.
Custody of the papers relating to earlier “compere” and of the much larger collection produced by its own management was initially entrusted to the Office of St George which handled residuals, and later to a specially designated officer, aided both by scribes and a sparingly fed cat (in charge of protecting the documents from mice). A number of partial inventories survive from those days, indicating the interest of the “Protectors” (the supreme authority of the Bank) in cataloguing and preserving the documents.
At the beginning of the 18th century, the archive was located in a number of large rooms where it could still be found, albeit without adequate protection, at the time of the union with France (1805), and at the time of annexation to Piedmont.
Putting the archives of the former republic, now Duchy of Genoa, into order was arranged through letters patent on June 18, 1817, which indicated, for the first time, the distinction between the three archives, i.e. government, notarial and former Bank of St George.
The criminal building and the so called “Archive of the Notaries”, a room next to the Archbishop’s palace, were chosen as the location for the first two of the aforementioned archives, which according to the laws of Piedmont were under the jurisdiction of the Ministry of Interior. The buildings were later assigned to the municipal government and were restructured according to the plans of the architect, Carlo Barabino.
The archive of the former Bank of St George remained in the building of the same name (sometimes also called Customs building) and at the disposal of the commission created in 1816 to liquidate Genoa’s public debt and, for that reason, came under the Ministry of Finance.
The liquidation of the “luoghi”, involving an enormous amount of deeds, required recourse to years and years of claims, applications and recommendations, and was achieved, for the majority of the debts, in 1833 and for the remainder in 1856. During this prolonged period, the condition of the archives of St George (known in the plural, as they were at the time) suffered ongoing deterioration to the point that, on the eve of the political unification of Italy, "thousands of precious ledgers (lay) strewn in heaps on the brick floors, covered in thick layers of dust" 38. This was the worst time in the history of the archive, because neglect lead to removals by theft and to physical deterioration.
Recovery, however, was at hand: In 1856, when liquidation of public debt was complete, the archive of St George was taken over by the Ministry of the Interior and formally reunited with the other two (the government archive and the notarial archive), although still remaining physically apart. A short while later the work of cataloguing the material chronologically and by subject got under way, and in the '70s about 20,000 ledgers and files had already been recovered "placing them on shelves, redoing their classification -of which no trace had remained- (and) completing them with an index of the respective subjects” 39.
While the work of salvaging the documents continued, thoughts turned to the issue of finding a final home for the material. Via a deed dated 3 April, 1874, the state granted the city ownership of the St George building, receiving in exchange the former criminal building which already contained the government and notarial archives and where the archive of the ancient bank would also be housed 40. In 1879 the work of refurbishing the building began and in 1880 the new material was transferred. The transfer and arrangement of all the archives was completed by 1882 and has changed very little since, as we discovered in 2003. 41
In spite of the two divisions made in 1880 with questionable and unscientific criteria, the archive of the Bank of St George remains a unique documentary collection unrivaled anywhere in the world. To give an idea of its content it is sufficient to describe the two basic sections into which it is divided.
The first is the fiscal section, which pertains to political relations with the government and the papal authorities, as well as to contracts of loans to the government and the privileges obtained in exchange, the establishment of and accounting for a wide range of taxes (providing us with some very useful statistics on the economic situation and economic structure!), the administration of territorial possessions, etc.
The second section refers to the banking activities carried out by the Bank of St George directly with private individuals or as their broker, recorded day after day for almost four centuries in thousands of master ledgers with the relative journals. If we consider the role of Genoa in the economy of the time and the intense pulsing of its financial life, the importance of this material becomes obvious, not only for the history of the city and the horizons within which it operated, but also for the study of financial techniques and their interdependencies.
The existence of excellent historical material does not necessarily mean, however, that it has been adequately exploited. With the exception of the few specialists who have devoted years of their energy to achieve limited results, we can say that the archive of St George has been studied much less than its importance, though universally acknowledged, deserves.
The reason, very simply, is linked to the scarcity of the instruments of research which historians can use to find their way through the documents. Until a few years ago the only tool available was a set of very sketchy indices (“pandette”) compiled in the late 19th century and referring to only a part of the archive: The most elaborate ones are merely lists of items numbered consecutively, assembled in apparently homogeneous series and – within each series – arranged in chronological order by the year in which they were started; the others are lacking in any numbering and provide, at the most, the year of the start and the end of each block. Moreover, there was, and still is, no inventory at all for the remainder of the archive, consisting of thousands of ledgers, indices and files stacked in cubbyholes in the storage areas or which went unnoticed during the cataloguing efforts.
For those ancient indices, with all their gaps and errors, we have to be grateful to the 19th century archivists, all the more if we consider how few and how lacking in adequate means to catalogue such a volume of material they were, how few had the professional skills to interpret its administrative-accounting nature and how little time they had to do the job. But our appreciation for the work done should not make up for nor hide the poor quality of the results obtained: In spite of the “pandette”, the contents of the archive of St George remain little known and are not easily accessible; in many cases the items are scattered across the storage areas, making it difficult to physically locate them; many books that were never inventoried remain, of course, unaccounted for.
Much has happened in the meantime: The sensitivity of historians, their methods and manner of doing research have changed. Many archives are now equipped with detailed printed inventories, synopses of the most important document collections and sources that can be consulted on-line. Even in Genoa the need has finally been acknowledged to develop more sophisticated tools for studying the archive of St George, and for this purpose a systematic operation is now in progress, made possible by a fortuitous combination of cultural sensitivity and complementary energies.
This operation started to take shape in 1982, when the local Ligurian Historical Society and the Central Office for the Archives’ Wealth (“per i beni archivistici”) agreed to conduct a test on part of the archive. Its positive results led in 1985 to an agreement extended to the entire archive, formalising a triple contribution of forces, required to complete the job.
In the first place, financial coverage for the salaries of the collaborators, which was provided by the Province of Genoa and the Ministry until 1995, but was soon after curtailed except for a brief biannual contribution from the Province. In 1999 a new four-year agreement between the Ligurian Historical Society and the Ministry guaranteed funds for the period 1999-2003, at the end of which a contribution was spontaneously made for 2004 by today’s Bank of St George, the only local credit institution to show any awareness of the importance of the initiative. A further grant from the Ministry for Cultural and Environmental Heritage for the period 2005-2006 should enable the completion of the indexing of the archive.
In the second place, the scientific direction of the work, organised according to a draft plan drawn up by Prof. Puncuh (president of the Ligurian Historical Society) and myself (consultant) and for which I have taken personal responsability, with the help of a team of collaborators trained in the appropriate disciplines (paleography, diplomacy, accounting, etc.).
And in the third place, logistic support provided by the management of the State Archives of Genoa, which has made rooms and equipment available for the examination of the material.
From a methodological point of view, it was firstly necessary to organise the many activities carried out by the House of St George, which have been arranged into six main categories (General affairs, Banks and treasury, Public debt, Taxes and duties, Property and land, Private foundations and others). The next step was to catalogue, one by one, each item in the archive, describing its material characteristics and interpreting its content in economic terms. The items were then grouped in uniform series, the series were grouped by type, the types by sector and lastly the sectors by the sphere of activity to which they pertained.
To ensure that this was done in a uniform manner, we established some general guidelines and a thesaurus of flexible formulas which could be adapted to the various types of content. The list of materials found and our progress in its classification were recorded on a computer as we went along; prior to the advent of the computer, proclaimed "friend of mankind" by Unesco in 1984, it would have been difficult if not impossible to undertake this work and to keep it under control.
As we proceeded with the organisation of the items into series, types and sectors, the Ministry published them in the form of volumes corresponding to the different spheres or categories of activity. Each volume consists of a variable number of items numbered in consecutive order and assembled in tomes. To date (2005) there are sixteen tomes available, for the categories of General affairs (vol. II), Banks and treasury (vol. III) and Public debt (vol. IV) 42. To complete the volumes which are already “work in progress” and those which have not yet been started, we expect to publish another twelve tomes.
The work has taken longer than we expected. The number of items to be studied, which based on the “pandette” was estimated initially at 33,000 pieces, has grown over time with the discovery of many that were never inventoried and which now take the total up to around 39,000 items.
Thanks to sporadic (and often non existent) financial support from various sources, since the operation started (in 1983) and up to the present time (late 2005) 99% of the items in the archive have been identified and more than 85% have been catalogued. I have good reason to hope that this work, which has already taken twenty years, will be finished before the end of 2007, the sixth centennial of the foundation of the bank. At that time, provided that the small amount of money still needed for printing can be raised and, of course, with the help of St George, we will finally have a research tool adequate for the needs of scholars and worthy of honour for the city of Genoa.
36 It may help to make sense of these considerations if we think that purely the banking activities performed in the 15th century are documented for the House of St George by almost 200 ledgers covering the period from 1408 to 1445; the archive of the Taula Bank of Barcelona, by comparison, consists of only five ledgers relative to the years 1401-1407 (Esteban Hernandez Esteve, "The public banks of Naples compared with the public bank of the crown of Aragon", in Gli inizi della circolazione della cartamoneta e i banchi pubblici napoletani, edited by Luigi de Rosa, Naples 2002, p. 479; but see especially Josep M. Passola, Els Origens de la Banca Publica. Les Taules de Canvi municipals, Barcelona 1999). ^
37 The reason they were originally kept together is simple: When the government proceeded to reform public debt, the unified “compera” legally took the place – in relations with third parties – of all the “compere” of which it was composed, and this implied the transfer to the new organism of their complete archives: deeds of right, laws, privileges, notarial documents, creditors' roles, ledgers, etc. In addition to the documentation relating to its management, the so-called “compere del Capitolo”, established in 1340, took over custody of the ledgers of government administration, of the magistrature or of temporary transactions (embassies, arming of fleets, etc.) which the officers of the “compere” (the Visitatores comperarum Capituli) controlled regularly in form and in content and which, at the end of the management, they received to keep in storage. Thus, at the time of its establishment and of its subsequent absorption of the residual “compere”, the House of St George received the material pertaining to all the “compere” (which because of the fire in 1339 only really dates from 1340) and the material pertaining to the government over which the “compere” exercised control. ^
38 A.S.G., “busta” G 1. ^
39 A.S.G., “busta” G 3.
40 A.S.G., book F 1. The operation was sealed by a deed dated April 3, 1874. In fact, the scheduled demolition of the front section of the building to widen the street between Caricamento Square and Raibetta Square caused such divided opinion among the citizens that in 1889, to settle the issue, the Minister of Education, Paolo Boselli, appointed a special committee consisting among others of Francesco Genala MP as president, of Giosué Carducci and of Salvatore Cognetti de Martiis. Accepting the suggestions of the committee, the front section was not demolished and the plans were changed simply to the opening up of two side archways in the lower arcade to enable pedestrians and vehicles to pass (The St George building in Genoa. Demolition or conservation. Report by Francesco Genala MP on behalf of the committee appointed by the Ministry of Education Boselli, Florence, S. Landi, 1889). ^
41 In 2004 the State Archives of Genoa were transferred to the St Ignace complex and the St George collection was temporarily stored elsewhere awaiting relocation. ^
42 State Archives of Genoa, Inventory of the Archive of the Bank of St George (1407-1805) under the direction of Giuseppe Felloni, vol. II (General affairs), tomes 1 and 2, vol. III (Banks and treasury), tomes 1-6, and vol. IV (Public debt), tomes 1-8, Rome 1989-2002. ^