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Banking in 1509 … the same, but different

So here I am in Rome, Italy (not to be confused with the ‘micropolitan’ city of Rome, Georgia or Rome, NY in the USA of course).

Rome, the ancient City, the City of the Empire, the Borgias, the lust and the life of Europe, the foundation of the Modern World … need I go on?

As Orson Welles said so famously in the Graham Greene film, the Third Man:

"In Italy, for thirty years under the Borgias, they had warfare, terror, murder, bloodshed — they produced Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci and the Renaissance. In Switzerland, they had brotherly love, they had five hundred years of democracy and peace, and what did that produce … the cuckoo clock."

One should note of ocurse that the Swiss did not produce the cuckoo clock – zat was a German – but that’s the movies for you.

And no offence to the Swiss of course. After all, they did invent Rayon, Velcro and cellophane.

Anyways, that’s not the point.

The point is Rome.

I’m here for a Remittances Conference which will be the focus of a few thoughts over the next week but, to begin with, I had a chance to tour this City which gave its name to Rome’s ants, sorry, Romance.

Oh yes, la dolce vita and all that.

But not so five hundred years ago, when the Papal hold on Europe was in the balance and war and politics was rife.

Back then, a man was born in Siena in 1466.

This man became the most wealthy and powerful man in Rome, in Italy, in Europe, in the World.

His name was Agostino Chigi.

Sr. Chigi was the son of a banker and friend of the Popes.

Bearing in mind the Lombardi’s, Borgia’s, merchants and dealers in the Venice, Rome, Sienna and Florence invented modern day banking, this was the time that shaped today’s civilisations and commerce.

Anyway, Sr. Chigi and his dad helped Pope Alexander VI to strengthen his Empire with financing and, after his death, also helped his eventual successor Pope Julius II. In fact, Agostino financed Julius’s election campaign and he was rewarded by the new Pope by becoming the official banker, treasurer and notary for the Papal Empire.


Agostino went from strength to strength, at one time employing around 20,000 staff and covering a power base that reached across all of Europe.

Why am I telling you all this?

Because I like history lessons?

Because I’m in Rome?

Yes, but more to do with the fact that nothing has changed.

For example, bankers were disliked because they controlled money supply, and were wrapped up in the internecine plans of politicians and policymakers.

This has been true since time immemorial, and is still true today.

Even more notable with Agosinto however is that, in order to keep up his reputation of being the richest man in the world, he used to have lavish dinner parties for high ranking guests in his beautiful and large mansion, the Villa Farnesina (which I toured on Tuesday), overlooking the Tiber.


At the end of each meal, he ordered his servants to throw the silver cutlery and dishes used by the guests into the River Tober!

Yes, he would be thinking, I am that rich and powerful that this silver means nothing to me.

For the guests, it would have been the equivalent of throwing their annual earnings or life savings in the river.

Imagine, if you will therefore, Sir Fred Goodwin or Richard Fuld having you around for dinner and, at the end of the evening, lighting up a fire full of £50 or $100 bills.

That’s what Agostino was doing.

Your entire wealth burned or thrown into a river as you watch, just to show how rich they are.

Ah, how times haven’t changed.

Anyways, I’m now off to see the Pope’s Chapel. Apparently, you can almost feel the Hand of God in there …

Sistine chapel

p.s. unlike Sir Fred and Richard Fuld, Agostino secretly had a deal with some monks who, in exchange for alms, spread nets beneath the surface of the water and each night returned the silverware to the him.  How wonderful … but darnit, those notes are just burnt to cinders?.


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About Chris M Skinner

Chris Skinner is best known as an independent commentator on the financial markets through his blog, TheFinanser.com, as author of the bestselling book Digital Bank, and Chair of the European networking forum the Financial Services Club. He has been voted one of the most influential people in banking by The Financial Brand (as well as one of the best blogs), a FinTech Titan (Next Bank), one of the Fintech Leaders you need to follow (City AM, Deluxe and Jax Finance), as well as one of the Top 40 most influential people in financial technology by the Wall Street Journal’s Financial News. To learn more click here...

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