Monthly Archives: December 2017

Art vs. History: a False Dichotomy

Over the last three weeks, as I have listened to the public discourse surrounding the Peabody Essex Museum’s reluctant announcement that it was planning to house the Salem-dominant collections of its research arm, the Phillips Library, in a vast collections center (encompassing both archives and objects) in Rowley, I have heard a constant refrain: the PEM doesn’t want to be a history museum. They are only interested in art (That’s why they are taking/hiding our history away). I’m not sure this is entirely true, but if it is, it is a stance that is based on a false dichotomy, because these two disciplines are not incompatible or in competition: art is history and if done well, history is an art.

Art and History Vermeer.jpg Vermeer’s Art/Allegory of Painting, Kunsthistorisches Museum: featuring Clio, the Muse of History. 

Several PEM exhibitions in recent memory have featured historical components, from the wonderful Samuel McIntire: Carving an American Style (2008) to Asia in Amsterdam: The Culture of Luxury in the Golden Age (2015) and even the Victoria & Albert traveling show, Shoes: Pleasure and Pain (2016-2107) featured a few placards on the regional shoe industry when it made its pitstop at the PEM. But I can understand why my fellow Salemites feel that their history is being ignored by the very institution that has the responsibility of stewarding it. The Museum seems to have an ever-increasing appetite for gallery space, always justified by its large collections, yet we seem to see more of other Museum’s collections in these showy spaces. The Phillips print and manuscript collections, along with all of those unseen objects, are now on a slow boat to Rowley: one wonders if it was possible to move the historic houses also entrusted to the museum whether they would be on their way too. I don’t really think so, but I like to force the connection between textual and material history.

ropes-renovMoving the Ropes Mansion back a few feet in the 1890s.

As I looked back at PEM exhibitions over the past fifteen years or so, all of which I have seen and enjoyed, I gradually came to an awareness that the PEM does indeed “like” history, just not local history. There has been a great emphasis on Asian history certainly, and European history, and Native American history, but local history, not so much. I wonder why this is so, given the museum’s focus on connections: doesn’t it want to connect with its local audience? All of its engagement initiatives seem to have been focused on entertainment rather than exhibits: the monthly Thursday PEM/PM events, free to all Salem residents, but ending this very month. Everyone says: I enjoyed it [insert exhibition, particularly blockbuster variety] for an hour or so, but that’s it. No need to go back again. I myself clung to just one poster in the recent Ocean Liners: Glamour, Speed and Style exhibitionBoston-published, depicting the watery grave of Lusitania victims.

pem-enlist-loc Library of Congress.

So let’s work with this image–its meaning and its power. We are in the midst of the centenary of World War I, a major turning point in world and American history. Museums across the country (and across the Atlantic, of course) have produced exhibitions focused on this epic event, including art museums like the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston and the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City. The latter’s World War I and the Visual Arts encompasses all artistic mediums to present a cultural history of the conflict drawn from their own collection, while the MFA’s show focused on propaganda and recruiting posters similar to Fred Spear’s evocative Enlist above. Despite 18 boxes of World War materials in the collection of the Phillips Library (processed with the support of a federal grant from the National Historic Publications and Records Commission but currently inaccessible and undigitized), the PEM offered up shoes, wearable art, horror movie posters and ocean liners in the centennial year of 2017: all fun and visually-stimulating exhibitions, but can we really engage in a thoughtful exploration of the human experience through these topics?

Art and History HassamChilde Hassam, Avenue of the Allies, Great Britain, 1918, Metropolitan Museum of Art.

I see the PEM’s reluctance to delve into local heritage as tragic for Salem, which is left to the devices of market-driven Halloween “history”, but also for the museum itself, which is losing out on an obvious way to connect to its local audience on which its future is surely dependent at least in part—it can’t be all about big donors, can it? (Maybe it is). In its rationale for not reopening the Phillips Library in Salem, the PEM pointed to declining patronage by Salem residents, but this was surely a self-fulfilling prophecy fueled by declining hours and programming based on the library’s collections. A reopened and revitalized Phillips Library reading room, serving as a nexus for introspective examinations of greater Salem’s experiences in the contexts of global, national, and local history, could serve as a draw for both locals and tourists. Even though history may seem “dusty” to some, the public’s interest in heritage is both universal and increasing: with many state and local history museums reporting upswings in attendance all over the country in the last few years and record-setting crowds flocking to the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture in just its first year. And here in Massachusetts, with a statewide celebration of the 400th anniversary of the Plymouth landing in the works for 2020, the Museum–and its Library– in the midst of the other prominent Puritan colony will find itself very much in demand.

MA400-Mayor-Panel A panel of mayors, including Kim Driscoll of Salem, at the Massachusetts 400 Forum in 2016.


A Brief Christmas Break

A brief Christmas break and then it’s right back to Save-the-Phillips-Library-for-Salem business! But I had a very visual Christmas so I wanted to post some pictures. We were a party of only 6 adults this year, and so we decided to divide our holiday into Christmas Eve in Boston and Christmas Day in Salem, spending the eve between at the Fairmount Copley Plaza, just to top off my year of heritage hotels. Lots of eating and drinking and walking in town, after which we went to the 11 pm services at Trinity Church and then fell into our king-size beds across the street. We woke up to a very snowy morning, and managed to navigate our way to Salem without mishap. Presents, (much) more food and drink and then it was over. So much preparation, so little time, every year, but let’s hope the Christmas spirit prevails for a while longer.

Christmas Eve in Boston:

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Christmas Day in Salem:

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An Open Letter to the Leadership of the Peabody Essex Museum

Regarding the recent admission that the Museum plans to consign nearly all of the collections of the Phillips Library, including manuscript and printed materials central and unique to the history of Salem, to a new Collections Center in Rowley, before the December 6, 2017 meeting of the Salem Historic Commission.

To Mr. Daniel L. Monroe, The Rose-Marie and Eijk van Otterloo Director and CEO of the Peabody Essex Museum, and its Boards of Trustees and Overseers:

Please reconsider your decision to remove Salem’s historical archives from Salem.

I consider the Peabody Essex Museum to be an extraordinary asset to our city, fostering engagement, awareness, and edification. Furthermore, I understand that in order for it to flourish, it had to become greater than the sum of its two parts: the former Peabody Museum and Essex Institute. Yet those two institutions, the products of the fruits and labors of generations of Salem residents, created a foundation on which the PEM was built: a strong foundation that is acknowledged in the museum’s mission statement, which asserts its 1799 foundation and status as “America’s oldest continuously operating museum”. There are no explicit references to history in this statement, but it is implicit everywhere, especially in the aim to transform people’s lives by broadening their perspectives, attitudes, and knowledge of themselves and the wider world. A key path towards self-knowledge and knowledge in general is historical understanding, which is grounded in historical archives full of people as well as papers.

Like many in Salem, I am somewhat confused by the PEM’s shifting strategies towards the Phillips Library and the collections therein. For the purpose of clarification, I’d like to lay out my understanding in chronological format; if there are mistakes or misperceptions here I apologize.

1998: Following the merger of the Peabody Museum of Salem and Essex Institute and the consolidation of their two libraries, both named after members of the Phillips family of Salem, a newly-renovated Phillips Library emerges from a $10-million-dollar renovation, the first phase of the Peabody Essex’s $100 million expansion project. “The Real Witchcraft Papers”, on deposit from the clerk of the Superior Court Department of Essex County in order it increase access to historically valuable public records, are installed in a permanent exhibition. In an age of completely convincing copies, the mere knowledge that you’re seeing the originals is exciting, writes Christine Temin in the Boston Globe.

2004: Citing a reduction in visitation, the PEM cuts staff and hours for the Phillips Library,  incurring some serious resistance from scholars, librarians, and the general public (despite a coincidental announcement of its intent to increase its digitization efforts). Richard Trask, archivist for the town of Danvers (the former Salem Village) remarks that the Phillips looks like . . .  the ignored child. I certainly don’t want it to be the abandoned child of the institution.

2011: The Phillips Library in Salem is closed and its collections are moved eventually to a temporary location in Peabody, so that major renovations could be undertaken at its historic Salem buildings, Plummer Hall and Daland House. PEM public relations manager April Swieconek announced that the work would be concluded by 2013, and would guarantee the preservation of the Library’s 400,000 volumes and one linear mile+ of manuscripts, demonstrating just how important it was to the museum—It is a part of what we are and part of what Salem is– in an article in the Salem News by Matthew K. Roy.

2013-2017:  We waited and waited and waited and waited for the Phillips Library to return to Salem. I first heard of the “off-site Collection Stewardship Building”, intended to provide a “state-of-the-art conservation lab for the museum’s 1.8 million objects”, in a 2015 Boston Globe article by Malcolm Gay, which also referenced the ongoing renovations at the Phillips. In 2016, John D. Childs, formerly a conservator at Historic New England and the 9/11 Memorial Museum, was hired to become Chief of Collection Services, but he also acquired the title Ann C. Pingree Library Director at some point in that year, indicating a consolidation of conservation and library oversight. The language on the PEM website relative to the Phillips changed in 2017, with the ominous phrase moving from its temporary facility to a new location first appearing, and finally, after that fateful admission of December 6, The Phillips Library will be moving from its temporary facility in Peabody to a state-of-the-art facility in Rowley, Massachusetts. 

And so that brings us to the present, but I want to go back to 2011, when the PEM offered up two tributes to the Phillips, which in hindsight can only be viewed through a rather bittersweet lens: former Library Director Sidney Berger’s lovely exhibition of collection jewels: Unbound, Highlights from the Phillips Library at PEM and Swiss artist and photographer Marianne Mueller’s Freeport [No. 002] exhibition, Any House is a Home. Mueller mined the Phillips archives and walked the streets of Salem to evoke a sense of place rarely seen–or felt–in most PEM exhibitions, and one of her most poignant pieces is a photograph of a young Salem woman standing before one of the pillars of the Phillips “where all the history is stored”. No longer.

PEM History

Rachel Tonthat of Salem before the Phillips Library, “where all the history is stored”, in Marianne Mueller’s 2011 Freeport exhibition at the PEM: Any House is a Home

Mueller perceived that the Phillips was the place “where all the history is stored” because it was the place where all the history was stored in Salem from the mid-nineteenth century to the near-present. Looking back on the Essex Institute’s first fifty years in 1898, President Robert Rantoul sought to explain its overflowing archives (a problem then as now) by its contemporary regard as a place of deposit where everything typical of our heroic past, everything that can embalm the personality and keep alive the memory of actors in the scenes of long ago, may well repose in consecrated security forever. Not only valuable books and rare historical papers — the natural accretions of a great library — have been gathered here, but relics and manuscripts and pictures and ancient records — a priceless legacy to the antiquary and the student of local annals, rich material ready to the hand of the historian — have poured in upon us until our receptivity is overtaxed… Shall we cry, hold! enough!  No, he concludes, that would never do. As befitting its name, the Institute was collecting the history of all of Essex County, but its Salem location, mandated by its 1848 articles of incorporation, crowded out the formation of any competing historical associations in the city: Salem’s historical society was the Phillips Library, and it still is.

Essex Institute Incorporation

1848 Act of Incorporation for the Essex Institute, Commonwealth of Massachusetts

And consequently, nearly every Salem street, square, park, and many buildings, both public and private, can be matched to a corresponding collection in the Phillips Library. I could go on forever making these connections between people, places, and the past, but will confine myself to only one. Salem’s newest public space, Remond Park, is a memorial to the extraordinary Remond family, including the prominent abolitionists Charles Lenox and Sarah Parker Remond. We only have one photograph of their mother Nancy Lenox Remond, a true matriarch and entrepreneurial activist who ran several businesses while simultaneously advocating for national abolition and the local desegregation of the Salem schools, and that photograph is part of the Remond family papers in the Phillips Library, deposited there by her heirs, who saw their family history as part of the history of Salem.

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Mrs. Nancy Lenox Remond, n.d., Phillips Library, Peabody Essex Museum

I am fortunate to be able to access this photograph, and reproduce it: colleagues at Salem State University commissioned its digitization as part of a initiative called SALEM in History funded by a three-year Teaching American History grant from the U.S. Department of Education a decade ago. If not for this initiative, we couldn’t see Mrs. Remond; we still can’t access her family’s records, like those of other families who lived, worked, and built Salem over the centuries. We are cut off from them, and from the history of our city. Such a consequence seems completely inconsistent with the goals of an institution that invites its patrons to discover the inextricable connections that link artistic and cultural traditions as well as one that has indeed invested considerable funds in the maintenance of the Phillips collections and buildings. I do not doubt the PEM’s commitment to the preservation of the historical collections that have been left to its care, but an opportunity has arisen to demonstrate a corresponding commitment to Salem. It might require careful curation, it will certainly require more time and more resources, but the effort will situate the Museum on the right side of history.

Please return Salem’s historical archives to Salem.

Very Sincerely,

Donna A. Seger, Salem


Severed from Salem

Reading through the Phillips Library catalog is an activity that is simultaneously enticing and frustrating: one can glean the scope of the collections but not access them, provenances are presented but not deeds of gift or deposit (which is standard). Given the missions of its two founding institutions, the Essex Institute and the Peabody Museum, the Phillips’ collections are both regional and global in nature, but one cannot fail to notice the prominence of Salem materials, consequences of content and/or bequest. To supplement that perception, just browse through the century-old Essex Institute Bulletins digitized by the Internet Archive, where you can easily access long lists of donations and deposits from descendants of scores of old Salem families and every type of organization: public, civic, commercial, religious, fraternal and sororal (a word I had to look up!). As is always the case in the Witch City, there’s too much focus on witch trial records: the tragedy of the removal of the Phillips Library by the Peabody Essex Museum is the vast amount of personal and institutional history–a cumulative cultural memory– that will be severed from Salem. Let me offer up just one collection of papers as an illustration: the Almy, Butler, and Robson Family Papers, which encompass the activities and associations of three intertwined Salem families from 1804 to 1982. Through these records, we can (or could) examine the rise and fall of one of Salem’s most prominent department stores, Almy’s, Bigelow and Washburn (1858-1985), a particular phase in the history of the Wesley Methodist Episcopal Church (now the Wesley United Methodist Church on North Street, which donated its archives to the Phillips as well), an edited manuscript of Katherine Butler Hathaway’s famous memoir The Little Locksmith (!!!!!), and considerable correspondence and materials relative to her niece Elizabeth “Libby” Reardon Frothingham’s energetic advocacy for historic preservation both during and after Salem’s battle with urban renewal in the 1960s and 1970s. Personal perspectives on Salem’s history.

Almys PC

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Phillips PC Just two Salem institutions whose records are preserved in the Phillips Library, and the Essex Institute in its heyday.

The personal nature of historical materials works both ways: the people of Salem should be enabled to engage with their history in a personal way. When I read the detailed catalog entry and finding aid for the Almy, Butler, and Robson family papers, I think of the Almy’s clock that still stands on Essex Street, the first time I read The Little Locksmith, just a few years ago, and Elizabeth Reardon’s house histories for Historic Salem, Inc., which I used as a model for my own reports way back when I first moved to Salem and wanted to learn about my new city house by house. I’ve read about her exciting “discovery” of two Salem first-period houses hiding in (somewhat) plain sight, and just last year, I visited the ongoing restoration of her former house, and saw the cupboards where her records–memorials of decades of service to Salem– were stored. And now they’re off to Rowley?

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Gedney House

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Severed 4The Gedney House on High Street, soon after its discovery by Elizabeth Reardon and restoration by Historic New England, and an excerpt from Julie Arrison-Bishop’s article “A Witness to Four Centuries in Salem”, Historic New England Summer 2015; 1965 Boston Globe article on Elizabeth’s discovery of the Samuel Pickman House (hiding under a mansard roof), and the Pickman House today, with the Peabody Essex Museum in the background.


Snow & Inaccessibility

Dear readers: I had a lovely plan for the blog this December, including light, frothy and festive posts about fairies, puddings, and GIN. But then the Peabody Essex Museum was forced to admit that they have no intention of returning the historical collections of the Phillips Library to Salem at a Historic Commission meeting on December 7, a day that shall forever live in infamy in Salem’s history—maybe. So now I am seeing a different kind of red than the holiday kind, and am going to have to process this development for some time, here and elsewhere. I’ve never lived in a time or place when a community’s heritage was so brazenly and cruelly threatened, and it’s pretty much all I can think about. Fair warning. I do feel a bit guilty about this, however, so I am going to intersperse my PEM post today, which addresses the issue of inaccessibility, with photographs of our first snow of the season. This will make for a rather incongruous presentation, but it’s the best I can offer at the moment.

Inaccessibility2

A few little scenes from Satuday’s public protest against the relocation of the Phillips Library’s collection– essentially Salem’s archives–to a large conservation facility in Rowley.

There are so many issues to address regarding this relocation/removal, primarily because the Museum (and by “Museum”, I am always referring to the Museum leadership; many curators and staff are part of the Salem community while the leadership and vast majority of of trustees live elsewhere, consequently there is a deafness and a disconnect on the part of the latter) is very slippery, and changes its rationales according to necessity–or audience. At the December 7th meeting, Facilities Director Bob Monk seemed to stress the importance of office space, and because that meeting made news, Executive Director Dan Monroe was pressed to come out with a statement, at long last, on the following day, in which he emphasized the inability of the existing Phillips Buildings, Plummer Hall and the Daland House, to accommodate the collection under proper conditions. This inability has presented the museum with a “great” opportunity, according to Mr. Monroe: to unify the Museum’s renowned art and culture collection with the Phillips Library collection at new 112,000-square-foot Collections Center located in Rowley. This new center, which keeps the Library collection accessible in Essex County, will become operational by mid-2018 and will feature highly secure, climate-controlled space for storage for the collections and extremely handsome and functional spaces for a Library reading room, staff offices, conservation, and other operations. The Library will continue to welcome researchers from around the world and PEM’s skilled librarians will continue to assist patrons during the reading room’s public hours. Mr. Monroe addresses accessibility several other times in his statement, and Mr. Monk also referenced accessibility on the 7th: “Our goal here is, really, to make the collections actually more accessible, not less”. Increasing accessibility is probably the one constant claim that the Museum has been making, since it shut down the Phillips Library in 2011 with promises to return in a few years. But they have not, and odds are that they will not.

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A little snow intermission! Now back to work. 

There are three types of accessibility relevant to this discussion: physical, demographic, and digital. Obviously Rowley (which is a lovely town by the way; I have nothing against it, I just don’t want Salem’s history to be located there) is distant from Salem and the PEM’s large warehouse will not be accessible by train or by foot, only by car. Nearly every single major independent research and/or museum library in the United States is located in an urban area reachable by mass transportation: the Phillips will be the first to be transferred in its entirety to a suburban satellite facility. Given its storied history which is so based on place, we can reasonably ask if the Phillips Library will simply cease to exist.

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As to demographic accessibility, who are they going to let into their warehouse, their gated community? Monroe’s statement says “researchers”, which could include anyone and everyone: I guess we’ll find out at the public forum which was also announced in his statement on January 11 @ 6:00 at Morse Auditorium in the museum. The last issue I want to address is digital accessibility, because I think there are many misperceptions about this based on several articles dating from the time of the Phillips’ closure in 2011. Very little of the Phillips Collection has been digitized, surprisingly little for an institution which raised $650 million in its recent Advancement Campaign:  less than 100 of their 2 million manuscript items are accessible online, with an emphasis on the trivial (ocean liner ephemera and vintage valentines). What has been digitized is much of their catalog: we know what treasures are contained in the collection, we just can’t access them.

NEXT UP: DONORS.


Shameless Stewards

On Wednesday night the Peabody Essex Museum finally came before the Salem Historic Commission and admitted that the “bulk” of collections in their Phillips Library, consisting of archives which generations of Salem families, businesses, and organizations have donated to this Salem institution, would not return to Salem after a prolonged period in which these records were housed in a temporary facility during which the library was supposedly being “renovated”.  We know now that the renovation consisted of transforming the historic library into offices: only when permissions for exterior changes were required did the Museum have to come before the Historic Commission, and everything was revealed. In an article by Dustin Luca in The Salem News, PEM facilities director Bob Monk admitted that this meeting “didn’t go quite as planned. Our intent on it was to be about architecture, and we got word just prior to the meeting that there was a lot of social media activity surrounding the collections.” Gee, maybe the citizens of Salem were upset that their material heritage was being stolen from them, without even the courtesy of a press release!

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All is lost PhillipsPhotographs of the James Duncan Phillips Library from less than a decade ago, after a substantial renovation by Rizvi  Architects, which included “the addition of climate-controlled archives, galleries, reading rooms, and a new compact storage space for the library’s extensive collection”. It was closed only a few years after this rehabilitation.

The writing has been on the wall for quite some time, but I kept waiting, hoping, praying for the Phillips to be returned to us–or at the very least some sort of announcement as to its fate. I guess we didn’t deserve one. Much more context is in my “Losing our History” post back in August, when the Library simply announced it would close down completely so that its collections could be moved from the temporary facility to what now will be their permanent home–a large conservation facility in Rowley. If you go to that post, (which you should, because it’s quite good if I do say so myself and I’m too upset to write anything that coherent right now) you will see a comment from John D. Childs, the newly-appointed Ann C. Pingree Director of the Phillips Library in which he states if you had reached out to PEM prior to writing this post, we might have been able to allay some of your concerns. Let me assure you that further information answering many of your questions will be forthcoming in the coming weeks. Well, my concerns are not allayed, obviously,  and we heard nothing from the PEM until they needed something from a city board—but I really must contact the family of Ann C. Pingree, as well as every overseer and trustee whose address I can lay my hands on.

All is Lost new plans

The Museum’s current architects, Schwartz/Silver, are transforming the Plummer and Daland buildings, which have housed the Phillips Library for over a century, into a glass-conjoined office building.

Before this big reveal, I happened to come across an article written by Dan L. Monroe, the Rose-Marie and Eijk van Otterloo Director and CEO of the PEM and Robert N. Shapiro, President of its Board of Trustees, in which the two men chide the trustees of the Berkshire Museum for “violating the public trust” for planning to sell 40 works in its collection. In the opinions of Mr. Monroe and Mr. Shapiro, Trustees of a nonprofit museum are fiduciaries who are responsible for representing and acting in prudent ways to assure that museum collections, facilities and funds are used as intended to benefit the public…..these works of art were given to the Berkshire Museum by individuals who intended that they be presented and shared with the public on a permanent basis. The Board of the Berkshire Museum was entrusted with the responsibility to fulfill these donor intentions and to serve as responsible stewards of the art given to the museum to be forever accessible to the people of Pittsfield, the citizens of the Commonwealth and the American public at large. This from two men who have been planning and plotting to sever Salem from its material and historical heritage for quite some time: and what about the “donor intentions” of all those Salem residents, who left their cherished possessions and papers to an institution which promised to act as a “responsible steward”? History is as much a public commodity as art, I would argue even more so, but that is a truth that the leadership of the Peabody Essex Museum has never embraced, much less acknowledged.


Three Golden Balls

In Salem, December 5 has been celebrated as krampusnacht more often than St. Nicholas’s Eve over the past few years, but I’m following up on a post about the latter today. I want to connect the forerunner of Santa Klaus to pawnbrokers, through the symbolism of three golden balls. This is not an original association, but a reader referenced it several years ago, and I always wanted to connect the dots, so this day seems like a perfect time to do it! I think that the traditional pawnbrokers’ sign of three golden balls attached to a (straight or curved) bar is recognized universally in the west, or at least in Europe: here’s a John Crowther watercolor of Aldersgate Street in London in 1886 with both a traditional symbolic trade sign and a sign of the trade sign, and a photograph from Jeremiah’s Vanishing New York of an old pawnbroker’s sign that is apparently about to vanish—it might be already gone.

Three Golden Balls John Crowther

Pawnbroker sign NYC John Crowther, Aldersgate Street, London, 1886, Guildhall Library; the trade signs of the defunct S&G Gross Pawnbrokers in New York City from Vanishing New York.

Nearly everyone traces the origins of the three balls back to the Medici family for several reasons: the Medici crest features balls (palle) prominently, their financial roles in Renaissance Europe, which can somehow (not at all clear to me) serve as a predecessor for pawnbroking, and the fact that they were Italian, like the Lombards who became the first Christian moneylenders in medieval Europe, when usury (charging interest for a loan of money) was expressly against canon law. There is also an old yarn about a monster, Charlemagne, and the balls representing defensive dings in a shield, adopted by the Medici as proof of their valor, but I don’t think I need to delve too deeply into that tale. The Medici had as many as twelve balls on their crests before the fifteenth century, when they finally settled on six. Not three.

Three Golden Balls Medici MS 15th CThe Medici Crest with its distinctive six palle on the leaf of a 15th Century MS of Propertius, Elegies, Oxford University Bodleian Library MS Canon. Class. Lat 31.

Raymond de Roover, a prominent mid-century medieval economic historian, wrote a short article just after World War II in which he asserted a general connection between the heraldry of all of the moneylending families of late medieval Europe, each and every one featuring spheres on their crest to symbolize coins, and modern pawnbrokers’ signs. He discounts a distinct Medici connection, but also the St. Nicholas one that I favor, with the argument that such a marginal occupation as moneylending (and by association, pawnbroking) could not possibly be associated with as esteemed a saint as St. Nicholas of Bari (or more correctly, Myra), who was known, even beyond the expectations of your average saint, for his charity. But I believe that Professor de Roover is incorrect: perceptions of St. Nicholas clearly focus on the ball symbolism later associated with pawnbrokers, and one of the key links between these two disparate entities is the dowry, an absolute requirement for every Renaissance bride. The most famous example of St. Nicholas’s generosity, depicted time and time again by nearly every Renaissance artist, is the aid he gave to an impoverished family of three daughters of marriageable age: under cover of darkness he threw three purses (increasingly depicted as golden balls) through the window so that the girls would have dowries and avoid destitution or even worse, prostitution. From the mid-fourteenth century through the sixteenth, this scene is played out again and again on canvas: the paintings below represent the beginning and the end of this era–during which St. Nicholas was always pictured with his identifying attribute: the three golden balls.

Three Golden Balls SCALA_ARCHIVES_10310197649 1340s

Three Golden Balls ANGLIG_10313766773

Three Golden Balls AGETTYIG_10313913291Crivelli 1469

Three Golden Balls ANGAIG_10313967631 Paolo Veneziano, The Charity of St. Nicholas, 1430-45, Galleria degli Uffizi; Girolamo Macchietti, The Charity of St. Nicholas of Bari, c. 1555-1560; National Gallery of Art, London; Taddeo Crivelli, St. Nicholas, 1469, J. Paul Getty Museum; Sebald Beham, Saint Nicholas, National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.

This same period is also one in which public institutional charitable funds emerged, first the famous Monte delle doti, which enabled Florentine fathers to invest in the city’s public-funded debt and ensure a sufficient dowry when their daughters were of marriageable age, and later in the fifteenth century the Monte di pietà, a form of public-administered pawnbroking designed to provide an alternative to avaricious private moneylending. The Florentine state, and other states as well, were quite willing to engage in official lending, especially if it could finance its public debt and alleviate a pressing social concern at the same time. With its system of collateralized lending and low interest rates, the Monte di pietà, in particular, represented a beneficial Christian form of lending in contrast to the old Lombard system, inspired and reflected by all those images of the three-ball-bearing St. Nicholas, who eventually became the patron saint of pawnbrokers.

Three Golden Balls HGP 342650 (1) Canterbury

Three Golden Balls Boston Leslie JonesCoat of St. Nicholas on the Christ Church gate of Canterbury Cathedral, @Neil Holmes; Leslie Jones photograph of Boston pawn shop signs in the 1920s, Boston Public Library.


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