Pandolfini was right in at least one judgment—that commercial and public morality was the least attractive side of Renaissance life. Then, as now, success, not virtue, was the standard by which men were judged; even the righteous Pandolfino prays for wealth rather than for immortal life. Then, as now, men itched for money, and stretched their consciences to grasp it. Kings and princes betrayed their allies, and broke their most solemn pledges, at the call of gold. Artists were no better: many of them took advance payments, failed to finish or begin the work, but kept the money just the same. The papal court itself gave a high example of money lust; hear again the greatest historian of the papacy:
A deep-rooted corruption had taken possession of nearly all the officials of the Curia…. The inordinate number of gratuities and exactions had passed all bounds. Moreover, on all sides deeds were dishonestly manipulated, and even falsified, by the officials. No wonder that there arose from all parts of Christendom the loudest complaints about the corruption and financial extortions of the papal officials. It was even said that in Rome everything had its price.70
The Church still condemned all taking of interest as usury. Preachers inveighed against it; cities—Piacenza, for example—sometimes forbade it under pain of exclusion from the sacraments and from Christian burial. But the lending of money at interest went on, because such loans were indispensable in an expanding commercial and industrial economy. Laws were passed prohibiting a higher rate than twenty per cent, but we hear of cases where thirty per cent was charged. Christians competed with Jews in moneylending, and the town council of Verona complained that the Christians exacted harder terms than the Jews;71 public resentment, however, fell chiefly upon the Jews, and occasionally led to outbreaks of antisemitic violence. The Franciscans met the problem for the most helpless borrowers by establishing, through gifts and legacies, monti di pietà, funds (literally heaps) of charity, from which they made loans to the needy, at first without interest. The first of these was organized at Orvieto in 1463; soon every major city had one. Their growth involved expenditures of administration; and the Fifth Lateran Council (1515) granted the Franciscans the right to charge for each loan an amount necessary to cover the costs of management. Instructed by this experience, some theologians of the sixteenth century allowed a moderate interest on loans.72 Through the competition of the monti di pietà, and probably more through the increasing competence and rivalry of the professional bankers, the rate of interest fell rapidly during the sixteenth century.
Industry became more ruthless with its size, and with the disappearance of a personal relationship between employer and employed. Under feudalism the serf had enjoyed certain rights along with his burdensome dues: in sickness, economic depression, war, and old age his lord was expected to take care of him. In the cities of Italy the guilds performed something of this function for the better class of labor; but in general the “free” laborer was free to starve when he could find no work. When he found it he had to take it on the employer’s terms, and these were hard. Every invention and improvement in production and finance added to profits, rarely to wages. Businessmen were as severe with one another as with their employees; we hear of their many tricks in competition, their deceptive contracts, their innumerable frauds;73 when they co-operated it was to ruin their competitors in another town. However, there were instances of a fine sense of honor among many Italian merchants; and the Italian financiers had the best reputation in Europe for integrity.74
Social morality was a blend of violence and chastity. In the correspondence of the times we find many evidences of a tender and kindly spirit; and the Italians could not compete with the Spaniards in ferocity, or with the French soldiery in wholesale butchery. Yet no nation in Europe could match the endless merciless slander that swept around all prominent persons in Rome; and who but the Italians of the Renaissance could have called Aretino divine? Private violence flourished. Family feuds were refreshed by the breakdown of custom and belief, and the inadequate administration of the laws; men took vengeance into their own hands, and families murdered one another for generations. At Ferrara, as late as 1537, dueling to the death was legal and practised; even boys were allowed to fight each other with knives in these legal lists.75 The strife of parties was bitterer than anywhere else in Europe. Crimes of violence were innumerable. Assassins could be bought almost as cheaply as indulgences. The palaces of Roman nobles swarmed with bravi, thugs ready to kill at a nod from their lords. Everyone had a dagger, and brewers of poison found many customers; at last the people of Rome could hardly believe in the natural death of any man of prominence or wealth. Important personages required that all food or drink served to them should first be tasted by another in their presence. Strange stories were told in Rome of a venenum atterminatum, a poison that took effect only after an interval long enough to cover up the trail of the poisoner. A man had to live on the alert in those days; any evening, if he left the house, he might be ambushed and robbed, and be lucky not to be killed; even in church he was not safe; and on the highways he had to be ready for brigands. The Renaissance mind, living amid these dangers, had to be as sharp as an assassin’s blade.
Sometimes cruelty was collective and contagious. At Arezzo, in 1502, a riot broke out against an oppressive Florentine commission; hundreds of Florentines in Arezzo were slain in the streets; whole families were wiped out. One victim was stripped naked and hanged, and a lighted torch was thrust between his buttocks; whereupon the jolly crowd nicknamed the corpse il sodomita.76 Tales of violence, cruelty and lust were as popular as superstition. The court of Ferrara, brilliant with poetry and art, was ghastly with princely crimes and royal punishments. The irresponsibility of despots like the Visconti and the Malatestas provided a model and stimulus for the amateur violence of the people.
The morals of war worsened with time. In the early days of the Renaissance almost all battles were modest engagements of mercenaries, who fought without frenzy and knew when to stop; victory was judged won as soon as a few men had fallen; and a live ransomable prisoner was worth more than a dead enemy. As the condottieri became more powerful, and armies larger and more costly, troops were allowed to plunder captured cities in lieu of regular pay; resistance to plunder led to the massacre of the inhabitants, and ferocity grew at the smell of the blood it shed. Even so, the cruelty of the Italians in war was far exceeded by the invading Spanish and French. When the French took Capua in 1501, says Guicciardini, they “committed great slaughter… and women of all ranks and qualities, even such as were consecrated to the service of God… fell a sacrifice to their lust or avarice; many of these poor creatures were afterwards sold at Rome for a small price,”77—apparently to Christians. The enslavement of prisoners of war increased as the wars of the Renaissance progressed.
There were instances of fine loyalty of man to man, of citizen to state; but by and large the development of cunning put a premium on deceit. Generals sold themselves to the highest bidder, and then, in mid-campaign, negotiated with the enemy for a higher price. Governments too changed sides in the middle of a war, and allies became foes by the scratch of a pen. Princes and popes violated safe-conducts given by them;78 governments consented to the secret assassination of their enemies in other states.79 Traitors could be found in any city or camp: instance Bernardino del Corte, who sold Lodovico’s Castello to France; the Swiss and Italians who betrayed Lodovico to the French; Francesco Maria della Rovere, who kept his papal troops from going to the rescue of the pope in 1527; Malatesta Baglioni, who sold out Florence in 1530…. As religious belief declined, the notion of right and wrong was replaced, in many minds, by that of practicality; and as governments seldom enjoyed the authority of legitimation by time, the habit of obedience to law lapsed, and custom had to be supplanted by force. Against the tyranny of governments the only recourse was tyrannicide.
Corruption ran through every department of administration. In Siena the bureau of finance had finally to be put into the hands of a saintly monk, since everybody else had embezzled. Except in Venice, the courts were notoriously venal. One of Sacchetti’s stories tells of a judge who was bribed with the gift of an ox; but the opponent sent the judge a cow and a calf, and won his case.80 Justice was expensive; the poor had to get along without it, and found it cheaper to kill than to litigate. Law itself was making some progress, but chiefly in theory. At Padua and Bologna, Pisa and Perugia, there were famous jurists—Cino da Pistoia, Bartolus of Sassoferrato, Baldo degli Ubaldi—whose reinterpretation of Roman law dominated jurisprudence for two centuries. Nautical and commercial law expanded as foreign trade increased. Giovanni da Legnano opened a path for Grotius with a Tractatus de bello (1360), the earliest known work on the laws of war.
But the practice of law was less excellent than its theory. Though police protection of life and property was taking form, especially in Florence, it could not keep abreast of crime. Lawyers abounded. Torture continued to be used in the examination of witnesses as well as of the accused. Punishments were barbarous. In Bologna a convict might be suspended in a cage from one of the leaning towers, and left to fester in the sun;81 in Siena a condemned man was slowly torn to pieces with red-hot pincers while bound to a cart slowly moving through the streets;82 in Milan, under Petrarch’s host Giovanni Visconti, prisoners were subjected to piecemeal mutilation.83 Early in the sixteenth century the custom began of condemning prisoners to pull the heavy oars of galleys; so the ships of Julius II were manned by galley slaves chained by the leg.84
Against these barbarities we may place the high development of organized charity. Every man who made a will left a sum to be distributed among the poor of his parish. Since beggars were numberless, some churches provided the equivalent of modern “soup kitchens”; so the church of Santa Maria in Campo Santo, at Rome, fed thirteen beggars daily, and two thousand on Mondays and Fridays.85 Hospitals, lazarettos, asylums for incurables, for the poor, for orphans, for destitute pilgrims, for reformed prostitutes, were numerous in Renaissance as in medieval Italy. Pistoia and Viterbo were celebrated for the scope of their charities. At Mantua Lodovico Gonzaga established the Ospedale Maggiore for the care of the poor and infirm, and gave it three thousand ducats a year of governmental funds.86 At Venice a society known as the Pellegrini, including in its membership Titian and the two Sansovini, provided mutual aid to its members, dowered poor girls, and practised other charities. Florence in 1500 had seventy-three civic organizations devoted to works of charity. The Confraternità della Misericordia, founded in 1244 but allowed to decay, was restored in 1475; its members were laymen who visited the sick, practised other charities, and earned the love of the people by their courageous attendance upon victims of the plague; their silent black-robed processions are still among the most impressive sights of Florence.87 Venice had a similar Confraternità di San Rocco; Rome had a Sodality of the Dolorosa, now 504 years old; and Cardinal Giulio de’ Medici founded in 1519 the Confraternità della Carità to take care of poor persons above the mendicant class, and to provide decent burial for the destitute. The private charity of unrecorded millions lent some mitigation to the struggle of man against man, nature, and death.