Perugia’s most prestigious medieval guildhall?
Certainly that of the Nobile Collegio della Mercanzia (the Noble Merchants Guild), already active in the early 13th-century at the peak of the independence of Perugia’s comuni (city-states). Il Nobile Collegio della Mercanzia quickly became one of the most esteemed and renowned of Perugia’s guilds and in the most solemn religious processions of Perugia, the members of this guild followed the mayor and priors (ruling council) with the Collegio del Cambio (Money-Changers) right behind…and then the other guilds.
The focus of this guild was to establish and execute the rules and regulations governing the merchants. Among its various tasks, the Mercanzia settled conflicts among the merchants, oversaw the regulation of weights and measures and even controlled the administration of the local city council.
The repeated attempts of the nobility to intervene in the affairs of local civic life were futile: the borghesia (bourgeoisie) was composed of the citizens active in civic life, that is, the artisans organized in their respective guilds.
Four consoli presided over the Collegio della Mercanzia’s 44 rettori, that number indicative of the importance of this guild, one of Perugia’s first, with the linen-fabric makers included in this guild of merchants.
By the mid-14th century, it was the most important of the city’s corporazioni: of the ten priori (medieval governing body – literally, “first citizens”), two were of the Merchants’ Guild. The other eight corporazioni or arti represented could only choose one representative each. Other arti included the Calzolai (Shoemakers), Sarti (Tailors), Lanari (Wool-makers), Tagliapietre (Stone-cutters).
Each of these guilds were then subdivided into four categories: maestri (masters), aiutanti, (assistants), lavoranti (laborers or workers)and garzoni (young artisans between the ages of 15 and 25 who had just completed their apprenticeship).
Finally in 1390, the prestige of the Collegio della Mercanzia will be fully recognized with the conceding of an ambience in the most important civic building of Perugia, the Palazzo dei Priori. (A ground-floor fondaco – or warehouse -is given to the Collegio in exchange for the extinction of a payment owed to the guild):
The Merchants Guild’s Sala di Udienza (literally, “the hall for hearing,” i.e., the Audience Hall) will be decorated from floor-to-ceiling with finely-worked inlaid wooden panels of walnut and fir depicting prisms and quatrefoils interspersed with sculptural wooden details – and certainly would have impressed those requesting an audience with the Collegio del Cambio members.
The choice of wood for the interior decor – indicating the prestige of the guild – is rare for the period (and extraneous to medieval Italian artistic culture): wood was generally used just in religious buildings. The skilled artists working here were oltrealpi (“beyond the Alps” – i.e., north of Italy) masters.
(Photo by Mirko Bovini – also the following photo)
In the back of the Sala dell”Udienza sits a powerful vestige of the guild’s presence – a massive money chest:
Also impressive is the “Pulpit of Justice,” partially recessed into a long row of wooden benches on the left side of the room where disputes were heard.
Reigning above the pulpit are the four Cardinal Virtues – Prudence, Justice, Temperance and Fortitude – in gilded wood: no doubt an evident reminder to each in the Collegio of the importance of these virtues when making decisions:
Rearing and striding griffins – the symbol of Perugia – are interspersed with the four virtues. Depicted even on Etruscan artifacts of Perugia, the griffin is a fantastical animal of ancient origin – part lion (for force, diligence) and part eagle (symbolizing wisdom). In the Middle Ages, it will often symbolize Christ in the duality of His Nature, human and divine.
The griffin appears on many of the Perugia guilds’ matricole, the richly-ornamented medieval illuminated manuscripts bearing the names of he guild members as well as the norms and regulations of the guild and the guild’s rapport with the medieval comune.
(Note: The invaluable treasures of Perugia’s Biblioteca Augusta include over 40 matricole of the 14th-15th-centuries. And three 14-th c matricole of the Merchants’ Guild are conserved in a room adjacent to the guild’s Audience Hall).
And here is the crowned striding griffin backed by noble red on a late 13th-century codex (ancient handwritten mauscript of multiple pages, generally parchment):
In elegant guilded wood, the emblem of the guild – the Griffin striding over a bolt of wool cloth – reigns in the Collegio on the wall just to the right of the entrance….
…over the late 15th-century huge inlaid wooden bancone (big counter), the work of the Perugian Costanzo di Mattiolo.
The bancone had been part of the decor of the Notaries Guild but was purchased and restored in the late 19th-century by the Collegio della Mercanzia when full restoration of this elegant Sala dell’Udienza took place.
When you’re next in Perugia, do drop in to see the Nobile Collegio della Mercanzia on the main thoroughfare, Corso Vanncucci. Look for the door beneath the Gothic pointed arch…
…and to the right of the door, the plaque with the symbol of the Collegio della Mercanzia: the crowned griffin striding across a bolt of cloth. The griffin’s paw is extended…as if to point out the entrance for us.
(14th-century statute of the Nobile Collegio della Mercanzia)