National Geographic : 1993 Jan
Michele Cassandro, professor of modern economic history at the University of Siena, tells me how it worked: "It would say, for exam ple, 'Signor A, having received so many Sienese scudi, will pay to Signor B so many Florentine florins at such and such a place on such and such a date.' That looks like a currency exchange transaction, but in fact it is a loan agreement, with the interest hidden in the amount of florins Signor A will be paying. But it doesn't say loan, it doesn't men tion interest-so, no usury!" From Siena I drive an hour through the sunny Tuscan countryside to wallow in the state archive of Florence; it's a treasury of neatly written documents chronicling the ups and downs of medieval finan cial giants. Occasionally they found themselves bancarotta-the words mean "broken bank." Hence our word bankrupt-another Italian contribution to the language of money. Here are the records from three centuries of the Medici, cloth mer chants and bankers who became popes and grand dukes of Tuscany. Where else, I thought, would you find the 1457 tax return of Cosimo Treasure hunter armed with a metal detector risks jail looking for an cient coins near Elmali, Turkey. In 1984 a cache of 1,900 silver pieces from the fifth century B.C., val ued as high as ten million dollars, was allegedly dis covered in a field nearby and smuggled to overseas collectors. A recent find unearthed coins made of electrum, an alloy of gold and silver, that may date from the seventh century B.C. (right). Experts debate their authenticity.