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LUCCA

173. Seals Used by Isaac da Pisa and David da Tivoli

Dimensions: all 11 × 9 mm. and oval. Impressions.

Location: State Archives of Lucca, Stack 57, Letters 1, 3, 10, 37, 38.

Bibliography: Lonardo, 1899; Cassuto, 1906–7; Roth, 1959; Rosenthal, 1962.

The da Pisas were the most important Jewish bankers in the period before the eighteenth century. We are fortunate to have seals belonging to a leading member of this family, as well as his brother-in-law, attached to correspondence of a most revealing nature. The da Pisa records are clearly established over the 150 years during which the family had financial power.

The founder was Matassia (Mattathias) di Sabato from Rome, of a distinguished lineage, for according to legend he descended from one of the four noble families Titus brought back with him to Rome from Jerusalem. In 1393 Matassia settled in San Miniato, a small town of Tuscany. His son Jehiel was called Vitale in Christian society and is sometimes referred to by the two names together, as well as by one name or the other. The fathers in the family named their sons after their own fathers, which has caused considerable confusion to students of the family history. Jehiel (Vitale) opened a loan bank at Pisa in 1416; as a result his descendants were known as da Pisa (the family was also referred to as “da Miniato,” the name of the small town where they originally settled). The first of an interesting line of banker-scholars, he died in 1422 or 1423. A festival prayer book dated 1397 from Pisa and ordered by him—it bears the name Jehiel b. Matassia—is still in existence (David Solomon Sassoon Ms. 1028).

Following the death of Jehiel (Vitale), his son-in-law Isaac di Manuele da Rimini carried on the business and in the course of time assumed the name of da Pisa.* In 1448 he received a concession to open another loan bank at Florence in partnership with his son, who was called variously Jehiel or Vitale or Jehiel Vitale, as was his grandfather. The da Pisa family reached its economic zenith under this Jehiel, who greatly advanced the business from approximately 1450 to 1490, the year of his death. Jehiel (Vitale) established da Pisa as a foremost Italian Jewish banking family, in the same stratospheric economic region as Manuele da Volterra in Florence, Anselmo del Banco in Venice, and Immanuel Norsa in Ferrara. Branches or joint participations involving the business were, aside from Pisa, now located in Florence (to which the home office of the family had moved as the importance of Pisa declined), Rome, Arezzo, Ferrara, Bologna, San Gimignano, Rimini, Forli, Siena, Prato, Venice, and Lucca. Following the model of the Medici bank, which also had headquarters in Florence, there were senior and junior partners in the da Pisa firm, each partner investing money and receiving a proportionate share of the profits—in effect, a continuation in a more sophisticated form of the monied syndicates used by Jews throughout the Middle Ages.

Jehiel (Vitale) da Pisa not only moved the bank home office to Florence but became a friend and associate of Lorenzo the Magnificent, the greatest of the Medicis. When the Franciscan Bernardino da Feltre preached in Florence against the Jewish moneylenders, Jehiel was head of the delegation which went to Lorenzo in 1488 to protest, and succeeded in having the edict of eviction stopped. Earlier, in 1471, when some two hundred and fifty Jewish captives were brought to Portugal after Alphonso V’s victories in North Africa and the great Isaac Abravanel could not raise sufficient money to free them, he appealed successfully to Jehiel for aid. Leader both in riches and culture among the Jewish bankers of his time, Jehiel (Vitale) da Pisa has been called the Lorenzo the Magnificent of the Italian Jewish community.

This second prominent Jehiel had two sons, Isaac and Samuel (the latter sometimes called Simone). Isaac is the one figuring in sealed documents from the early 1490s grouped here as No. 173. Their sister married Immanuel Norsa of Ferrara, the cantankerous individual involved in the Finzi-Norsa controversy referred to earlier. It was in the time of Isaac and Samuel that the family bank started to decline, perhaps in part because the senior partners in the business were less hard-driving, as often happens in a later generation. They were also dealt a severe blow by the Franciscan drive against Jewish loan-bankers which led to the creation of the Monti di Pietà, the government-supported pawnshops which loaned money at nominal interest rates. The five documents presented here tell how the da Pisa bank at Lucca was driven out in 1494 as part of this campaign. The next year an even more severe blow occurred, when the da Pisa family was expelled from Florence, where it maintained its headquarters. Though the family returned to Florence with the restoration of the Medicis, it never regained its former glory.

Isaac’s younger brother Samuel was the father of the best-known member of the da Pisa family, born in 1507. He was Jehiel (Vitale) Nissim, distinguished from his grandfather by the addition of “Nissim.” An annotated edition of Jehiel Nissim’s study of usury, with a chapter, the first of its kind in this history of economics, devoted to the function of bills of exchange and of the stock exchanges which were just beginning to function, was published by Gilbert S. Rosenthal in 1962 and generated renewed interest in this extraordinary man. However, Jehiel was famous long after his own time not only for his writings but also for his style of living, so unusual for a sixteenth-century Jew. Though the family fortune had declined, much private capital remained in the hands of Jehieľs father and uncle. This was augmented for Jehiel when he married the daughter of the rich Paduan banker Asher Meshullam del Banco. Gifted with noted ancestry, riches, and a superb education, Jehiel possessed a mansion in Pisa and a summer estate on the Arno River outside the city. His home, like that of his grandfather, was always open to Jewish scholars. When the messianic adventurer David Reubeni came to Italy, he spent seven months as the guest of Jehiel and left a vivid account of this aristocratic life style.

Though weakening, the influence of the family permeated yet another generation. Two sons of Jehiel are recorded: Obadiah became a rabbi in Vercelli; Samuel (like his grandfather, also called Simone), the better known of the two sons, graduated as a physician from the University of Florence in 1554,* indicating the extraordinary leverage this family still could exert in the surrounding Christian society. But the da Pisa bank was ruined, and the family fortune largely dissipated; the da Pisa banks in Tuscany closed their doors in 1570.

Cecil Roth attempted to evaluate the da Pisa fortune, of particular interest in Jewish history because it represented the first monied family dynasty, as distinct from individual rich men, before that of the Rothschilds. At its height under Jehiel (Vitale) in the late fifteenth century, the family is estimated to have commanded a combined capital of some 100,000 florins. Much the same was held by their competitor in Florence, Manuele da Volterra. Somewhat wealthier was Immanuel Norsa of Ferrara, whose wife, as noted above, was a da Pisa. The wealthiest Jewish individual at that time was considered to be Anselmo del Banco of Venice, into whose family Jehiel (Vitale) Nissim da Pisa married. Thus, at this apex of the small pyramid of Jewish wealth, almost all the great families had intermarried; and it was the maintenance of a large Jewish fortune from the early part of the fifteenth to the later part of the sixteenth century which attracted the attention of observers, rather than one particular Maecenas in the group. The Medicis are supposed to have controlled some 500,000 florins at this time; the Roman banker Agostino Chigi (died 1520) left 800,000 florins to his heirs. These Christian fortunes were far greater, yet the maintenance of a fortune of some 100,000 florins in a hostile environment was not an inconsiderable achievement.

The sealed letters to be considered here all date from 1493 and 1494. Two are written in Hebrew and three in Italian. They form part of a correspondence between Isaac da Pisa and his brother-in-law David da Tivoli. This series of letters passed between Pisa and Lucca. We are viewing only one side of this correspondence, those sent from Pisa to Lucca.

Scal affixed to letter No. 3.

Letter No. 3. This letter of April 4, 1493, from Isaac to David, written in Hebrew, is sealed by a tiny seal showing a turbaned head to the left, bearded, with a bulbous nose and sunken eyes. The stamp is on the reverse of the letter, in wax on a small square of paper, a technique similar to that used at Mantua. Neither the original Hebrew nor the Italian rendering is easy to translate into English because Isaac mixes in words that seem to be in a special dialect. He advises his brother-in-law to try to draw out the payment demanded by the Lucca authorities and not to subject himself to ridicule or let them cheat him. He suggests that David should pay only if he is guaranteed security of person; further, he must be careful not to speak too much or sign any agreement. His own father-in-law, he writes, is going to Lucca to see what he can do. He refers to several Christians who can be of help and suggests that more money should be given to their attorney. Isaac concludes that David must not fall prey to melancholia, that his spirits will improve when his [Isaac’s] father-in-law arrives.

Letter No. 38. We can see from the figure that the seal on the reverse is stamped and glued in the same manner as the previous letter. This seal shows the head of a man to the right, either bald or shaven clean, with fine features, mature but not old. It is far different from that attached to the previous letter, though both documents are in the same hand and bear the same signature.

Dated May 6, 1493, this letter from Isaac to David is also written in Hebrew and poses the same difficulties in translation. Isaac states that since the sharp sword still remains in Lucca [probably a reference to Fra Bernardino da Feltre], the matter is beyond his control. He admits to being tired of the management and worries. Apparently in response to a letter written to him from David, he counsels that it would not be a good idea to ask the Duke of Calabria for help, and states his reasons. Isaac suggests that David travel to Ferrara and seek help from the Jews there. He also suggests that David meet with the judges and lawyers to see how he can cover the expenses. He mentions a Christian who has to be paid off, and shortly thereafter alludes to a payment of forty ducats that David is not to forget. He writes that he can not come to Lucca himself because he has to go to Bologna on business and after that settle other affairs; he will try to come soon, but in the meantime David must do the best he can alone. He closes by telling David tht he is sending letters to Pisa relating to the problem (he probably means making an arrangement for David to receive a safe-conduct assurance from his [Isaac’s] friends).

Letter No. 3, Isaac at Pisa to David at Lucca, April 4, 1493, sealed by Isaac da Pisa.

Michele Luzzati of Pisa, a highly esteemed Italian Jewish scholar whose family ranks gloriously both in Jewish and Italian history, has told this writer in correspondence that this letter and No. 3 were indeed written in 1493 by “Isacco di Vitale da Pisa” to his brother-in-law David da Tivoli, then residing in Lucca, and sealed by signets.

Letter No. 37. The seal shows a bearded head to the right, with strong masculine features and a band binding the close-cropped hair. The letter on which it is stamped, dated August 26, 1493, is signed “Davitti hebreo,” who is David da Tivoli (sometimes called Dattile). He writes from Pisa to the city councillors at Lucca that he will not return to his bank there because he cannot pay the thirteen hundred ducats demanded. However, he has asked his brother-in-law Isaac to pay and he is sure he will do so because he has given Isaac his remaining interest in the bank as well as his personal property at home in order to make the payment. David then requests that the Lucca authorities cancel the ban against him and his children, since he has lost everything and should not have to suffer physical danger or the threats of the Inquisition.

Seal of Isaac da Pisa affixed to letter No. 38.

Letter No. 38, Isaac to David, May 6, 1493, sealed by Isaac da Pisa.

Letter No. 10. The signet used to stamp this letter is very similar to that used on letter No. 37 except that the imprint, which is much sharper, shows a crown on the head. Since the former has a poorly struck formless mass at that point, the two may be the same seal despite the fact that No. 37 is written by David, while this letter is written by Isaac. David was in Pisa, not Lucca, when he wrote No. 37, however, so it is a practical possibility that both men did use the same seal.

This long letter, the only example among the group which continues over to the reverse side, is written in a Tuscan script of the same style, but a different hand, as No. 37. The date of writing is August 26, 1494, exactly one year after from the previous letter, and it has been kindly transcribed into readable Italian by Gian R. Sarolli of the Graduate Center of the University of the City of New York. Isaac di Vitale writes from Pisa to the city councillors at Lucca asking that the ban pronounced on the da Tivoli family as rebels be annulled so that they can freely leave the city. Isaac requests that David’s belongings be given to the legal representatives of his creditors from Ferrara—the manuscripts and Jewish books and anything else left in David’s house, as well as anything belonging to the da Pisa bank, so that an inventory of that part of the company which belongs to David can be made. Isaac further requests that the Inquisition free and absolve David in good form. If these requests are granted, he states that he will pay for David, within one year’s time, the one thousand three hundred gold ducats demanded.

Seal affixed to letter No. 37.

Letter No. 1. The seal imprinted on the back of this letter is the same as the one used on letter No. 3, by Isaac, but is much more clearly stamped. Though this letter, also written by Isaac, follows No. 10 by only two days, being dated August 28, 1494, he does not use the signet which sealed the earlier one.

The letter is written in a Tuscan script similar to that of the previous two letters and appears to be in the same handwriting as letter No. 10. Here Isaac di Vitale writes again from Pisa to the councillors of Lucca and thanks them for the news he has received through a messenger that a delay has been granted to David. He repeats his promise to pay the one thousand three hundred gold ducats in a year’s time on behalf of David and states that he will have a legal representative draw up the obligation in good form; he adds that the councillors may establish as a condition that a bank or someone else will hold the guaranty. He concludes by saying that he makes these promises to be of service to their excellencies and also to yield to the prayers of David, hoping that he will not incur any damage as a result.

These letters, which give such an intimate view of the relations between rich Jewish bankers and Italian city authorities of the late fifteenth century, have attracted attention for some time. Two articles in particular, by P. M. Lonardo (1899) and Umberto Cassuto (1906–7) respectively, have used this material. With the help of these scholars and later translations, we can decipher the background of the correspondence.

In 1487 the city of Lucca renewed for a nine-year period the contract to operate a bank with a company headed by David da Tivoli and Jehiel (Vitale) da Pisa, his father-in-law. Agitation was stirred up against the Jews by Fra Bernardino da Feltre during these opening years of the renewal period, and a Monte di Pietà was established in March of 1489. Jehiel (Vitale) died in 1490, and his son Isaac took his place in the partnership. David da Tivoli, as the representative of the da Pisa bank living at Lucca, was accused of fraud against the fiscal laws in 1492, as well as an added curious charge, “contra divinam majestatem et contra ejus sanctos et sanctas,” that is, “against the Majesty of God and His male and female saints.” A decision at Lucca fined the bank four thousand ducats.

Letter No. 57, David to the councillors at Lucca, August 26, 1493, sealed by David da Tivoli.

Seal of Isaac da Pisa affixed to letter No. 10.

First page of Letter No. 10, Isaac to the councillors at Lucca, August 26, 1494, sealed by Isaac da Pisa.

Seal affixed to letter No. 1.

Letter No. 1, Isaac to the councillors at Lucca, August 28, 1494, sealed by Isaac da Pisa.

In the first months of 1493, seeing the way the wind was blowing and after unsuccessful attempts to quash the charges, Isaac, supported by his younger brother Samuel (sometimes called Simone), advised David to leave Lucca and come to Pisa, where his influence would protect him. From this and related correspondence we can see that Isaac had high friends in most of the Tuscan cities where the da Pisa banks operated, including the Duke of Calabria.

There were currents and counter-currents in Lucca itself, for the Jews had friends there too, either Christian participating partners or men “influenced” by time-honored techniques. The General Council of Lucca reviewed the fine, sentencing David to pay one thousand three hundred ducats. Payment was originally due by July 20, 1493, and then was deferred until the end of August. Then a new accusation of fraud was brought against David, and in early August he escaped from Lucca and took refuge with his brother-in-law in Pisa, writing to the councillors at Lucca (also called the elders in these documents) the sealed letter dated August 26, 1493, referred to as No. 37. It is significant that the charge both David and Isaac seemed most to fear was the threat of the Inquisition, whose long arm could ignore the integrity and jealous independence of the Italian cities, and pluck David from his refuge at Pisa. We do not know the final outcome, for the records are silent, but the charge before the Inquisition apparently was dropped—again indicating important influence on high levels—and David remained at Pisa for some time before entering business again elsewhere. In the civilized atmosphere of pre-Reformation Italy, unlike most other countries at that time, we see that the odds were not hopelessly against Jews.

Palestine city coin showing bust of Emperor Titus, reign of Agrippa II.

Palestine city coin showing bust of Emperor Hadrian, coin of Caesarea.

Palestine city coin showing bust of Emperor Severus Alexander, coin of Caesarea.

Palestine city coin showing unknown male head, possibly Emperor Augustus, coin of Ascalon.

Palestine city coin showing unknown male head, possibly Emperor Augustus, coin of Ascalon.

The signets tell an important story themselves. For members of the Third Estate in this period in Italy, the role of seals had been reduced to that of a personal mark, one that not only had no legal value but also was not even identified with an owner through an inscribed name or device. Isaac wrote two letters in Hebrew in early 1493 to his brother-in-law and in each case used a different signet. After David fled to Pisa and wrote from there to the councillors at Lucca, it would appear that he sealed his letter with the same seal Isaac used when writing to the councillors a year later. And when Isaac followed up this letter only two days later, he employed another seal. It is thus apparent that these seals had lost all meaningful function, which is evident as well in their small size and impersonal quality.

Bruno Casini, director of the Lucca archives, was right in describing these seals in personal correspondence with the writer as different from one another merely in small details and showing faces “probably of prophets.” They cannot be considered portrait seals of their owners and more possibly were engraved in imitation of the small city coins of Palestine issued after the destruction of Judaea and then, as mentioned earlier, brought back to Italy by Jewish pilgrims with the mistaken idea that they were “Jewish coins,” five typical examples of which are illustrated here. Under no circumstances can they be considered in the same category with medieval seals, despite their origin in the fifteenth century.


*In Italian di means “son of” in this context; da means “from.” Thus “Matassia di Sabato da Roma” means “Matassia son of Sabato from Rome”; “Isaac di Manuele da Rimini” means “Isaac son of Manuel from Rimini.”

*This statement is based on the writings of Gilbert S. Rosenthal. The Encyclopaedia Judaica states that Samuel received special permission from Pope Julius III to graduate as a doctor from the University of Pisa.

This point is emphasized by Léon Poliakov in his excellent study, Les banchieri juifs et le Saint-Siège du XIIIe au XVIIe siècle (The Italian Jewish Bankers and the Holy See from the 13th to the 17th Century) 1965, p. 168: “In fact, the game of multiple associations and participations, of the tangle of interests impossible to know in detail, ended with a concentration in the hands of several family enterprises, veritable dynastic consortiums, of the major part of Jewish money commerce. The Pisa, Norsa, Del Banco, Volterra, and several other families, constituted in the bosom of Italian Jewry a veritable class or caste quite closed, perpetuating itself, one could say, by means of endogamy to the second degree, thanks to a corresponding politics of matrimony, facilitated by the fecundity of Jewish families and by their organized customs. Thus at the end of the fifteenth century and at the beginning of the sixteenth century, one can observe matrimonial alliances among the Pisa and Norsa, the Del Banco, the Rieti, the Volterra and the Tivoli.” It should be noted, of course, that here the aristocratic Jews were no different than the Christians: many Christian families used matrimony as an alternative to war to achieve dynastic expansion.

*In Italian di means “son of” in this context; da means “from.” Thus “Matassia di Sabato da Roma” means “Matassia son of Sabato from Rome”; “Isaac di Manuele da Rimini” means “Isaac son of Manuel from Rimini.”

*This statement is based on the writings of Gilbert S. Rosenthal. The Encyclopaedia Judaica states that Samuel received special permission from Pope Julius III to graduate as a doctor from the University of Pisa.

This point is emphasized by Léon Poliakov in his excellent study, Les banchieri juifs et le Saint-Siège du XIIIe au XVIIe siècle (The Italian Jewish Bankers and the Holy See from the 13th to the 17th Century) 1965, p. 168: “In fact, the game of multiple associations and participations, of the tangle of interests impossible to know in detail, ended with a concentration in the hands of several family enterprises, veritable dynastic consortiums, of the major part of Jewish money commerce. The Pisa, Norsa, Del Banco, Volterra, and several other families, constituted in the bosom of Italian Jewry a veritable class or caste quite closed, perpetuating itself, one could say, by means of endogamy to the second degree, thanks to a corresponding politics of matrimony, facilitated by the fecundity of Jewish families and by their organized customs. Thus at the end of the fifteenth century and at the beginning of the sixteenth century, one can observe matrimonial alliances among the Pisa and Norsa, the Del Banco, the Rieti, the Volterra and the Tivoli.” It should be noted, of course, that here the aristocratic Jews were no different than the Christians: many Christian families used matrimony as an alternative to war to achieve dynastic expansion.

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Additional Information

ISBN
9780814344859
MARC Record
OCLC
1055142843
Pages
351-361
Launched on MUSE
2018-10-02
Open Access
Yes
Creative Commons
CC-BY-NC-SA
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