publisher colophon

MANTUA

170. Seal of Mordechai ben Abraham/Angelo Finzi

Dimensions: 11 mm. Impression.

Location: Gonzaga Archives, State Archives of Mantua, F. II. 8, b. 2394, c. 6.

This small seal without doubt was the signet of a signet ring. It shows the craggy face of an elderly man with a pointed beard to the right, as can be seen in the detail. A possible model for such small seals in a coin from Palestine is shown here. The seal was stamped on a document dated April 10, 1460, signed by “Angelo de finas.”* It is a short letter to Ludovico Gonzaga appealing for the right to continue the writer’s loan business at Viadana, a small town in the province of Mantua. The document is folded and sealed at the fold line.

Mordechai ben Abraham, known as Angelo Finzi in the Christian community of Mantua, was the first member of that distinguished Italian Jewish family to achieve prominence. Though a prosperous loan-banker, he was also gifted as a mathematician, astronomer, and translator—an extraordinary man of the Renaissance. Included among his works was a book of astronomical tables demonstrating the length of days. Published in Mantua around 1479 by Abraham Conat, this is one of the 175 books printed in Hebrew letters before 1500 and also one of the earliest Hebrew books ever published. Indeed, Cecil Roth calls Finzi the most distinguished Jewish scientist in Italy during the latter part of the fifteenth century and adds that his was the earliest scientific book printed anywhere in Hebrew (Roth, 1959).

No. 170, enlarged.

City coin of Ascalon, Palestine, showing bust of Emperor Antoninus Pius, 2d century A.D.

Angelo Finzi translated from Latin into Hebrew works on mathematics and astronomy in which he explained newly invented scientific instruments. He himself wrote on grammar and memory; many of his manuscripts remain unpublished. Solomon Finzi, son of Angelo, had some two hundred manuscript volumes in his library at Viadana, at that time an enormous collection for an individual. The intellectual prominence of this family continued for almost five centuries, which may make it unique in the annals of Jewry.

In the letter to which No. 170 is attached, illustrated here, Angelo Finzi is appealing to the Marquis Ludovico Gonzaga, the ruler of Mantua from 1444 to 1478, to be allowed to continue his loan-bank (in effect, a high-class pawnbroking establishment), which he had opened in 1435.* Italy in this period was starting to be deluged by popular preachers inveighing against money lenders, all interest being regarded as usury. Girolamo Savonarola, who had the temerity to attack the Medicis, money lenders like the Jews (and who was burned as a heretic), was the most notorious of the lot. The other preachers wisely concentrated their attacks on the Jews. In time they were successful, and, with rare exceptions, the Jews were broken economically and sequestered in the ghettoes. When this movement was only beginning to gain momentum, and in particular in certain northern provinces ruled by local autocrats, the Jews could still exert enough influence, obviously through participation by the rulers in their profits, to fend it off.

Appeal to continue a loan business, Mantua, April 10, 1460, sealed by Angelo Finzi. Gonzaga Archives, State Archives of Mantua, F. II. 8, b. 2394, c. 6.

As emphasized above, this mid-fifteenth-century seal from northern Italy had no legal function, and would have served merely to indicate that its owner was a burgher of importance. The Italian Jewish scholar Vittore Colorni has suggested to the writer that this tiny head may be a portrait of Angelo Finzi himself. If so, this would be the only known portrait of that eminent figure. However, most such seal designs were general in nature and did not attempt to represent the personal lineaments of the seal owner.


*The surname, whose first letter is not capitalized, is scrawled so that the last two letters are not clear. The Mantuan archives lists the name as “Finas.” Vittore Colorni wrote the writer to say that it is “Fincis,” the name deriving from “da Fincis” or “from Fincis,” corrupted to “Finzi.” The 1907 Jewish Encyclopedia, s.v. “Finzi,” states that the name probably derived from “Pincas” through the Latin “Finea” (the English name being “Phineas”). Angelo Finzi was also known to the Christian community in the early days of his financial career as Angelo di Abramo.

This type of small seal is called sigillum parvum. Because the letter was sealed by the strip of paper to which the seal was attached, one had to cut the strip along the edge to open the letter, like airmail letter forms today. This strip, which was on the back side of the letter, also bore part of the address. The seal itself was imprinted on the strip with sealing wax.

*The document by which the Duke of Mantua admitted Angelo and his brother to the city in 1434 is still extant: “With certain knowledge and full deliberation we admit Benjamin and Angelo, as well as their children and descendants, both present and future, and make and create them burghers of our aforementioned city of Mantua” (Baron, 1965–67, vol. 11, p. 16). This document illustrates how northern Italy in the fifteenth century had evolved beyond the medieval conception of the Jew. The two Jews here are given unequivocal status as burghers, with no hedging limitations.

*The surname, whose first letter is not capitalized, is scrawled so that the last two letters are not clear. The Mantuan archives lists the name as “Finas.” Vittore Colorni wrote the writer to say that it is “Fincis,” the name deriving from “da Fincis” or “from Fincis,” corrupted to “Finzi.” The 1907 Jewish Encyclopedia, s.v. “Finzi,” states that the name probably derived from “Pincas” through the Latin “Finea” (the English name being “Phineas”). Angelo Finzi was also known to the Christian community in the early days of his financial career as Angelo di Abramo.

This type of small seal is called sigillum parvum. Because the letter was sealed by the strip of paper to which the seal was attached, one had to cut the strip along the edge to open the letter, like airmail letter forms today. This strip, which was on the back side of the letter, also bore part of the address. The seal itself was imprinted on the strip with sealing wax.

*The document by which the Duke of Mantua admitted Angelo and his brother to the city in 1434 is still extant: “With certain knowledge and full deliberation we admit Benjamin and Angelo, as well as their children and descendants, both present and future, and make and create them burghers of our aforementioned city of Mantua” (Baron, 1965–67, vol. 11, p. 16). This document illustrates how northern Italy in the fifteenth century had evolved beyond the medieval conception of the Jew. The two Jews here are given unequivocal status as burghers, with no hedging limitations.

Previous Chapter

Verona

Next Chapter

171. Seal of Angelo

Additional Information

ISBN
9780814344859
MARC Record
OCLC
1055142843
Pages
339-341
Launched on MUSE
2018-10-02
Open Access
Yes
Creative Commons
CC-BY-NC-SA
Back To Top

This website uses cookies to ensure you get the best experience on our website. Without cookies your experience may not be seamless.