THE SIENA CANTOS – Commentary and Introduction
The Siena Cantos in the architecture of the poem
In Cantos 42-44, Pound documents the founding of the Monte dei Paschi Bank in Siena in 1622-24 and follows its economic role in the first two centuries of its existence. Pound particularly emphasizes the will of the Sienese councillors to bring redress to poverty in their city, and goes beyond the bank’s moment of origin to record the beneficent economic reforms of Peter Leopold (ruled 1765-1790) and Ferdinand III (ruled 1790-99; 1814-24). Napoleon’s takeover of Italy temporarily transformed Tuscany into the Kingdom of Etruria (1801-1807), which he later dissolved and integrated into France. After the defeat of Napoleon, Ferdinando III returned to the rule of the duchy, which would be held by the Habsburg family until 1860. Canto L, dedicated to Bonaparte, can be considered a continuation and development of canto 44. It closes by following the thread of the Duchy of Tuscany to the present day: Pompeii is excavated during the reign of Ferdinando’s son, Leopold II, the last Habsburg to rule before the unification of Italy. The duke himself presides over the inauguration of a house on the site, containing what is now a famous fresco, that of Dirce’s punishment. Thus the political traces run into the sand, to be later commemorated by a name (The House of the Grand Duke of Tuscany) and revived by a work of art or archeological excavation. (See OCCEP L: nn.58-62 for detail).
Pound connected these cantos with material presented before: In previous sections of the poem, he had introduced a group of three or four cantos to offer a historical scene: in A Draft of XVI Cantos, for instance, this group was focused on the life and struggles of Sigismondo Malatesta; in A Draft of the Cantos 17-27, cantos 24, 25, and 26 provided a partial historical view of Ferrara and Venice; in Eleven New Cantos, cantos 31-33 illuminated the activities and opinions of Thomas Jefferson and John Adams, with the addition of two further cantos, 34 and 37, dedicated to the second generation of American presidents, John Quincy Adams and Martin van Buren. The Siena Cantos, together with canto 50, can thus be regarded as the historical component of The Fifth Decad and therefore the iteration of an architectural principle that Pound had established from the beginning of the poem.
Pound connects the founding of the Monte with previous material on the Italian Renaissance, particularly the Malatesta Cantos (8-11). The integration is effected not only by the echo effect of events in Italian history but also by two of the methods he chooses: first, by dramatizing himself reading the archive documents, an approach he had used in his presentation of Sigismondo Malatesta’s letter to Giovanni de Medici in canto 8; and secondly, by including colourful details of Italian festivals – see for instance, Francesco Sforza’s visit to Rimini in canto 8 or the Venetian pageant in canto 26 – these find their counterpart in the evocation of the Sienese Palio in canto 43 and the public celebration of Ferdinando III’s agrarian reform in canto 44.
A further goal of the Siena cantos is to suggest an American relevance: Pound may first have became aware of the Duke of Tuscany, Pietro Leopoldo, by reading a letter that Thomas Jefferson wrote to John Adams in 1777, to say that the duke was sitting on unused money, and to recommend that Adams request a loan from him for the American revolutionary war (canto 33: ll.36-40). In a Europe full of corrupt and bankrupt monarchies, Pietro Leopoldo was the only one whose finances were balanced and who was leading his duchy of Tuscany with humaneness and economic intelligence. Pound suggests that Pietro Leopoldo may have offered a model of good government to the Founding Fathers. We thus see the continuation of a parallel between Italy and the United States that Pound had first made in canto 21 (where he implicitly compared Lorenzo de Medici with Jefferson) and continued strongly in Eleven New Cantos (31-41), which begin with the American revolution and end with the Italian Fascist one. This continuity is also suggested by Pound’s Volitionist take on economics and politics, namely that action has its seed in an idea that stays in the mind for a few years before men of good will, looking beyond their personal interest, carry it out, acting for the benefit of the community. Compare John Adams’s strong statement, to which Pound referred at the head of canto 32: “The revolution was in the minds and hearts of the people” with “Fixed in the soul, nell’anima of the Illustrious College/ They had been ten years proposing such a Monte” (42: ll.9-10).
Within the economy of the Fifth Decad, the foundation of the Monte dei Paschi implicitly presents the continuity between society and nature in the grand theme of fertility and abundance that grounds Pound’s vision of the good. The natural ramifications of the Siena Cantos are to be found in cantos 47 and 49, which take up this theme again in visions of seasonal and cosmic paradise.
In order to better understand the Siena Cantos, readers must be aware of the power relations operating in 1622-24, when the Monte dei Paschi was founded. During the Renaissance, in Sigismondo Malatesta’s time (mid-15th century), Siena was an independent city-state which was often at war with its neighbours. Sigismondo himself was involved in a siege there against Count Pitigliano in 1454; he was also persecuted by a pope, Pius II, who originated from an important family in Siena, the Piccolominis. By 1472, the Sienese founded a Monte di Pietà, a pawnshop that lent money on pledges. The Catholic Church firmly believed that usury was immoral and corrupted the faith, as it went against its main values, piety and charity. There were several such Montes in various Italian cities, founded by the Franciscans as charity operations, which aimed to protect the poor against usurious moneylenders by giving them an alternative in the hour of need. The Sienese Monte was different, as it was founded and managed by the Balìa, the governing body of the city.
Siena was bound to be drawn into the orbit of political events happening to its powerful neighbour, Florence. After the death of Lorenzo the Magnificent in 1492, the Medici family could not maintain its hold on the city. Piero, Lorenzo’s oldest son, made political errors that led to the expulsion of the family from Florence, which subsequently declared itself a republic. However, the Medici acquired power in a new role and a new city: Rome. Lorenzo’s second son, Giovanni (1475-1521), became Pope Leo X; his nephew, Giulio (1478-1534), became Pope Clement VII (See Medici family tree). It was Clement’s most cherished dream to return the family to power in Florence. Unfortunately, the main branch of the family, the one deriving from Giovanni di Bicci, through Cosimo the Elder and Lorenzo the Magnificent, was dying out: its last member, young Alessandro (called “Il Moro”) was born out of wedlock and generally despised because his mother was a dark-skinned servant. Clement had to summon a powerful political ally to force Alessandro on the Florentines. That powerful ally was the Holy Roman Empire under the reign of Charles V. Austria fought a long war with the Florentine republic in 1531-2 with the objective of ensuring an imperial protectorate and returning the Medici to power. Finally, it was done and Alessandro got to work to consolidate his position: first he was made Duke of Florence; he had a citadel built to control the city; and married the Emperor’s daughter, Margarethe, in 1536.
Pound was interested in Alessandro and wrote about his death in canto V. In 1537, the duke was assassinated by his cousin Lorenzino de Medici (also known as Lorenzaccio, Lorenzo the Bad). The motivation is unclear, as Benedetto Varchi, one of the most illustrious historians of the period, refused to take sides: In his Storia Fiorentina, Varchi wrote that although he had personally talked with Lorenzino, he could not definitively pass judgement and state unambiguously whether the murder had happened for the good of Florence or out of a family grudge. Pound greatly admired this position and stressed it in the canto. In his own written testimony, Lorenzino stated that he had done the deed to restore the Florentine republic. Even if that was true, he did not have the elementary political foresight to acknowledge that another cousin of his, Cosimo de Medici (1519-74), could and would be chosen to become Duke of Florence after Alessandro’s assassination. Lorenzino fled the city but was hunted down by the Austrians and assassinated in Venice eleven years later. Pound mentions the detail in canto 26.
This other Cosimo, known in history books as Cosimo I or Cosimo the Great, was not a banker – that activity of the Medici had died out with Lorenzo the Magnificent in 1492. Cosimo I belonged to a secondary branch of the Medici and was a military man. Politically, he needed to consolidate the protectorate of the region by the Habsburg Empire; further, to gain territory and turn Tuscany into a kingdom. Cosimo conquered Siena in 1555 and became Grand Duke of Tuscany in 1569. Siena thus lost her independence and became ruled from Florence. However, the Sienese Monte di Pietà was reformed, Cosimo allowed it to make interest-bearing loans to farmers, not simply give credit on pledges (Mordini 120).
By 1622, when Pound takes up the thread of the story, the initiative to create the Monte dei Paschi as a separate institution, apart from the Monte di Pietà, was entirely local. For its part, the Florentine administration was cautious and fearful of losing money. Hence Pound’s insistence on the arguments that the Sienese Balia had to make, the length of time it took to implement this initiative (ten years), the assurances that no one would lose, least of all the Ducal family, and the general obsequious language directed at the ducal decision-makers, who at the time consisted in a child and his two female guardians.
The Medici family was continuing to decline throughout the 17th century and its last male descendant Gian Gastone died without heirs in 1737. Due to its integration into the Habsburg dynasty, Tuscany had an important place in the ramifications of the French, Austrian and Spanish monarchies: the transfer of political control from an Italian family to a French-Austrian one (the Duke of Lorraine and future Holy Roman Emperor Francis I) was made very smoothly as Francis was kin to the Medici. When after his death in 1765 Empress Maria Teresa passed on power to her sons, Joseph and Peter, they took their rightful places: the elder brother became Holy Roman Emperor Joseph II, whereas young Peter Leopold became Duke of Tuscany. He retained his role until Joseph’s death in 1790, when he himself became Emperor. On that date, he was succeeded in Tuscany by his second son, Ferdinand III.
Ferdinand continued the political and economic reforms of his father, but his reign was interrupted by Napoleon’s conquest of Tuscany in 1799.
Canto 44 thus magnifies a knot of historical situations that Pound had only briefly touched on before: He had summarized Jefferson’s scorching dismissal of the European monarchies in canto 32; included details about Napoleon’s youth and education in canto 19; alluded to Bonaparte’s invasion of Italy and his theft of artworks, particularly in Ferrara in canto 24; included John Quincy Adams’s diary entries documenting Napoleon’s return from Elba to Paris in canto 34. Pound also incorporated John Adams’s compassionate remark: “Poor Bonaparte, what’s to become of him?” into canto 33.
Now, in canto 44, Pound focused on Napoleon’s redesign of European monarchies in conquered territories and his impact on Tuscany. Bonaparte pushed Ferdinand III out in 1799 and compensated him with the Electorate of Salzburg in 1801; in 1800, he integrated Tuscany into a new creation, the Kingdom of Etruria, which he gave to the Duke of Parma, whom he had pushed away from power when he had conquered his duchy in 1796. In 1807, he decided to do away with Etruria, incorporate Tuscany into France and send the widow of the King of Etruria (politely) back to her father in Spain. He replaced her by his sister, Elisa, who came to Florence to govern the region in 1809. By 1814, Elisa was forced out and Ferdinand III returned to his Duchy of Tuscany, which he reigned for 10 more years, until 1824.
The Monte survived all this political turmoil, despite the economic ups and downs and particularly the ceremonious request to surrender its liquid assets to the French in 1799: “Vous voudrez citoyen / turn over all sums in yr/ cash box /to the community, fraternité, greetings” (44/ll.100-3). A bank heist, but a polite one!
Monte dei Paschi – what’s so special?
Even assuming a very reduced curiosity in economics, we have a right to ask why the Monte dei Paschi drew the attention of a Social Creditor like Pound. The poet tells us in direct and uncomplicated manner that the Monte’s main merit was to put a “bridle on usury”: it was a bank in public ownership and created for public benefit, guaranteed by a natural resource that renews itself every year. He also tells us that the interest on loans was low, credit could be requested by anybody without social discrimination; profit was reinvested for public works every five years. Implicitly, from the whole process that Pound presents, we understand the difficulties and merits of a public bank: it was guaranteed by public revenue from taxing animal farming, it was designed to benefit everyone, shareholder and borrower alike; more importantly, it belonged to the community of Siena and its profits were also used for civil works. From a Social Credit point of view, the bank was created by giving the Ducal family the ultimate pledge: that of the wealth of every Sienese citizen (see OCCEP XLII: n.32). The bank was thus founded on the “credit of the people” and made use of its “cultural heritage,” as it was based on grazing lands outside town, and on a tax that used to belong to the city before it was conquered by Florence.
The strategic positioning of the Siena Cantos and implicitly the role of the Monte in the poem become clearer when we consider the process of the composition. A first draft was completed in 1934, yet Pound had other priorities, mostly economic journalism and correspondence, which blocked the writing of new cantos for almost two years. Only towards the end of 1935 did he complete cantos 45 and 46 and published them quickly in February and March 1936. Canto 45 is an indictment of usury; 46 is focused on the effects of the creation of the Bank of England in 1694 and its importance in creating the “age of usury,” the era of finance capitalism. The writing of the Siena Cantos in the summer of 1936 can thus be considered a counter-melody to the usury litanies in cantos 45 and 46. Pound presents the Monte as a bank designed to elicit moderate interest and thus fight usury; it is therefore a direct opposite to the Bank of England, which he mentioned in canto 46. As Donald Davie observed, Pound positioned his model of ideal bank before he started his critique of usury. This gave him a documentary basis, as well as a moral and economic foundation for the cantos that followed, and us readers clarity as to his values and standards (Davie quoted by Kearns 103).
To conclude, the Monte dei Paschi in The Cantos is designed to function as the contrast to the Bank of England. Pound stresses the Monte’s sustainability, based on nature; its service to the community, from rich to poor; its overall foundation on real natural and cultural heritage. The Bank of England, by contrast, was a private bank created to finance a war; it had no foundation, as it issued promissory notes with no liquidity to back them; and finally, created a situation of perpetual debt, where each citizen was taxed by the state to repay a national loan to an institution owned by a limited number of shareholders; a loan perpetuated by the very act of money creation, nourished by every new war, and pushed like a snowball from generation to generation.
Siena Cantos – Process of composition
Pound’s understanding of the origins of the Monte dei Paschi evolved and changed over the years. It is thus not always safe to have recourse to his journalism for a better understanding of the Siena Cantos. The poems themselves are the most refined and (in spite of the often deliberate misspellings) the most accurate expression of his reading and conclusions.
1933 – Pound may have found the initial information on the Monte in Pietro Rota’s Storia delle banche and included it in canto 41, which he finished in the late fall of 1933. He turned his attention to Siena as a result of Olga Rudge’s new job as the Secretary of the Accademia Musicale Chigiana in the summer of 1933.
1934 – Pound became more closely involved with the Sienese material, telling Dorothy in the summer that he had blocked or “shaped” the next three cantos (42-44). See Calendar, 9-12 July 1934. It is reasonable to assume that by this time he had read or at least browsed the 9-volume work edited by Narciso Mengozzi, Il Monte dei Paschi di Siena e le aziende in esso reunite. In volume 3, he found the founding documents of the Monte (“Documenti” MDP III: 261-8). Volume 6 is devoted to Pietro Leopoldo’s reforms in Tuscany. Volume 7 deals with the reign of Leopoldo’s son, Ferdinando III, and with the Napoleonic period (1799-1814).
1934-1935 – Pound published references to the creation and significance of the Monte in his prose and general journalism. The most substantial is his page in Social Credit: An Impact (1935) where he praised it and considered it in opposition to the (“usurious”) Banca di San Giorgio in Genoa.
1936 – Pound started verifying his information from Il Monte dei Paschi di Siena by going to the Biblioteca Comunale to consult the original documents preserved in the archive. This last phase must have happened in the summer of 1936, as attested by his correspondence with Dorothy, who was in London at the time. His archive notes are written in a series of five notebooks now preserved at the Beinecke Library in New Haven: Ben Kimpel and Duncan Eaves, who consulted these, remarked that “Pound’s notes amount to a draft of the quotations from the documents used in the Cantos. The manuscript from which the printed documents were copied was not the manuscript Pound examined but a true copy made of it by the notary Pasquini himself for the archives of the Monte” (K&E 2: 249n.1).
The Siena Cantos: the documents
The idea of public bank was relatively new in Italy in the 17th century. It had been first experimented with in Venice, which established a public bank of deposit in 1584. If Pound was drawn to study the Monte by reading the chapter in Pietro Rota’s book, Storia delle banche, which he used for canto 41, we may argue that mutatis mutandis, Pound took the time from 1933 to 1936 to verify Rota in the archive, the way he had verified Charles Yriarte’s biography of Sigismondo Malatesta by his own extended research in 1922-23. Further, as he had done with Sigismondo, Pound wanted to explore the terrain and spent considerable time in Siena in this period. See also Ricciardi (156) for corroborating insights.
Pound took care to date the files he used in the cantos and include the signatures to each of them. As the poetry dramatizes his reading process and interaction with the documents, he often foregrounds his own difficulties and misreads the names. However, the inclusion of signatures not only helps create the illusion of authenticity, but is an implicit homage to the people who created this institution, to their civic sense of responsibility and will to do good. Pound took pride in his detective work, remarking that constructive efforts are a secret historical thread which always passes unnoticed (Guide to Kulchur 264). The signatures and names show that the creation of the Monte was based on trust, the immaterial credit of established civilization: the regal authority of the Ducal family guaranteeing the flow of funds; the performative power of the notaries, whose signature and stamp turned a mere document into an institution; even the immaterial alignment between “Maria Maddalena Tutrice” who approved the creation of the Monte, and Simone Martini’s sublime painting of the Virgin Enthroned, Maestà, in the Siena Town Hall.
Kimpel and Eaves concluded that Pound used three documents, and repeated details from them several times. The documents themselves thus form the simplest narrative of the Monte’s creation. They include dates of action, delineated below.
A1. – 29 December 1622 – the Florentine Senate reports to the Ducal family about the Sienese Bailey’s petition to create a new bank. The signatories include the list of guarantees Siena offers and express their own care to protect the Ducal family in this situation.
Signed: Niccolò dell’Antella, Horatio Gianfigliazzi and Sebastiano Cellesi.
A2. – 30 December 1622 – the approval from Maria Maddalena, the guardian of Duke Ferdinando II, which immediately follows the above.
Signed: Maria Maddalena and Horazio della Rena.
A.3 – 2 January 1622, Sienese style [the Sienese calendar started the new year on 23 March, so the date is 2 January 1623] – the notarial rescript of the above.
Signed: Maria Maddalena, Horazio della Rena (Secretary), Fabrizio Colloredo (governor), and Orazio Ercolani.
Source: MDP III: 261-3; Kimpel and Eaves (1977): 334-342.
B1. – 4 March 1622 Sienese style [4 March 1623] – the deliberation of the Grand Council of Siena. Presided over by Simone Martini’s image of the Virgin Enthroned, 117 councillors gather in the Sala dell’Mappamondo in the Town Hall, to discuss and approve the articles of the Bank’s charter, including the ultimate guarantee, that in the case of the Bank’s total loss, the wealth of every citizen of Siena is pledged to reimburse the Ducal family.
B2. – 18 July 1623 – Rescript of the Monte’s Charter made by the Sienese notary Livio Pasquini.
Signed: Loco Sigilii.
Source: MDP III: 263-5; Kimpel and Eaves (1977): 342-349.
C. – 2 November 1624– formal act (in Latin and Italian) of the foundation of the Monte dei Paschi. The act includes the names of the magistrates whose duty it is to take care of its success. They are all prestigious members of the Sienese aristocratic families: Agostino Chigi, Alessandro de Sozzini, Marcello de Agostini, and Cesare Marescotti of Mont’Albano.
The document includes the Ducal approval of 30 December 1622 (A2).
Notarial signatories: Livio Pasquini (Siena) and Nicolaus Ulixi de Magnanis (Florence).
Source: MDP III: 265-8; Kimpel and Eaves (1977): 349-358.
These documents are printed in Narciso Mengozzi’s Il Monte dei Paschi, [MDP] volume 3. Pound wanted to go a step further and see the originals in the archive: he found them in the so-called Protocols 1251, notary Livio Pasquini’s collection, now preserved in the Archivio di Stato di Siena. In the archive, Pound consulted other documents related to the other activities of the Sienese Bailey around the time the Monte was created. He included them in canto 43, mostly in ll. 163-203. Kimpel and Eaves documented them in their third article on the Siena cantos, published in 1979. See also Sources for detail concerning these additional documents. For canto 44, Pound turned to the printed source, volumes 6 and 7 of Il Monte dei Paschi, to document the history of Tuscany, and implicitly of the Monte, during the 18th century.
This material is not presented in chronological order, but in the collagistic method we have come to expect from Pound. The source material is fragmented, distributed across the cantos, and often repeated.
Afterword: The Monte and us
Was Pound right to take an interest and present the Monte as a “good” bank? History seems to confirm him. The Monte dei Paschi is the oldest bank in Europe: it has delivered its services to the city of Siena along the centuries, according to its founding document and charter. Pound insisted that this long life was due to its low interest policy, its guarantee in a natural resource that renews itself, its orientation towards local short-term investment, the responsibility of the bank towards the city and conversely, the responsibility to it of the whole community that had founded and sustained it.
However, in 1995, this charter was modified to split the Monte into a normal bank and a foundation, holding 55% shares in it. The reason given was that the Monte should have room to expand, make more profit, and sustain the competition from other banks of the European Union. The created foundation was a “a non-profit organization with the statutory purpose of providing assistance, charity and social utility in the fields of education, science, health and art, especially with reference to the city and the province of Siena” (Wikipedia). The separation gave bankers leeway to list the Monte on the Stock Exchange and make more risky investments, now that the bank itself ceased to have a responsibility to the city.
By 2013, the Monte was bankrupt and had to be saved by the Banca d’Italia. The 55% shares that the foundation held for Siena’s benefit dissolved to nothing.
The fact that a bank that had served its community for centuries and survived Napoleon, Mussolini, and two world wars could be destroyed in less than 20 years gives a bitter taste to the constant stream of criticism and abuse that Pound’s economic ideas have been subjected to over the years. At least in what the Monte dei Paschi was concerned, he was certainly right. By giving us the archaeology of its creation in the Siena Cantos, Pound offers his work as a poet’s service to our intellectual and moral life and gives us a sense of what civic responsibility was in the past and should still be.
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Kimpel, Ben and T. C. Duncan Eaves. “The Sources of the Leopoldine Cantos.” Paideuma: A Journal Devoted to Ezra Pound Scholarship 7.1-2 (1978): 249-77. [K&E 2]
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©Roxana Preda, 31 January 2020.
Updated 1 November 2021.