Banker and philanthropist Felix Moritz Warburg was born in January 1871 in Hamburg. In 1895 he married Frieda Schiff, the only daughter of the New York financier Jacob Schiff. In 1908 the couple had a six-story mansion built in a French Gothic Revival style on Fifth Avenue. Felix died in October 1937 and was buried in Salem Fields Cemetery, Brooklyn. Seven years later his widow donated their estate as a permanent home for New York’s Jewish Museum.
The source and context of the topographic Warburg surname throws light on complex historical patterns of migration.
The first banks in Europe originated in medieval Italian city-states such as Florence or Sienna, but it was Venice that taught the world financial management. Around 1464, mathematician Luca Pacioli settled in the city. Having started teaching in Perugia in 1475, he produced his Tractatus mathematicus ad discipulos perusinos which he dedicated to his students. Written in 1477/8, this textbook on merchant arithmetic (almost 600 pages long) was the first attempt to set out the methodology of the double-entry bookkeeping.
Venice became a pioneering city in banking and finance in both the public and private sectors. In the early sixteenth century merchants in northern Europe traveled there to be instructed in accounting and commercial practices. Early Flemish and English merchant manuals were translated from Venetian originals.
One of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales is the “Shipman’s Tale,” a story that contains numerous references to trade and commerce. The author’s personal dealings with international trade had familiarized him with Venetian techniques and he elevated his knowledge to the level of poetry. Double-entry bookkeeping had transformed the accounting of transactions and its impact was no less radical than that of computer technology on modern commercial practice.
The word bank was derived from the Italian banco, meaning a bench or exchange table. Positioned in squares and on markets, traders displayed a quantity of currencies on benches for the purpose of lending or exchanging. The term bankruptcy derives from bancarotta (broken bank). If a banker failed to pay his debts, city guards were given the authority to wield the axe and destroy his bench.
The Christian Church prohibited offering loans at interest. As money-lending was one of the few businesses in which their participation was allowed, Jewish people soon filled the vacuum and came to dominate the Venetian banking system. Their activities were documented in Shakespeare’s troubling (anti-Semitic?) creation of Shylock in “The Merchant of Venice.”
In 1508, Pope Julius II founded the League of Cambrai, an alliance of the papacy, the Holy Roman Empire, France, and Spain, with the aim of curbing the power of the Venetian territories. Fierce fighting during the Siege of Padua (1509) drove many of its inhabitants to Venice, including a number of Jews who until that moment had been excluded from the city.
One of those refugees was Asher Levi Meshullam. As was common at the time, people were identified by their trade or activity. Having adopted the occupational name Anselmo Del Banco, he soon ran several loan-banks and assumed a powerful position in Venice’s Jewish community. Del Banco became its spokesman. He was responsible for securing limited rights of residence for Jews and was given the duty of imposing taxation (communal leaders were held responsible for collecting taxes from the Jewish population on behalf of the government).
Jews in Venice were tolerated, not accepted. The intent to limit contacts between them and Christians resulted in a March 1516 decision by decree of the Doge (Head of State) Leonardo Loredan and the Senate to establish a ghetto in the Cannaregio district (the first of its kind in the world). Although Anselmo represented his community, he was unable to stop a development by which several thousand Jewish people were crammed in a walled area and forbidden access to the rest of the city.
Anselmo died in 1532 and was buried in his native Padua. By 1559 new restrictions imposed on the banking community made his descendants decide to leave the Venetian territories. They moved to Bologna first and from there to Kassel in the German state of Hesse. Having adopted his name to the place of settlement, Simon von Kassel was the first Del Banco to move there. On his death in 1566, his descendants relocated to nearby town of Warburg from which they took their name.
In 1612, the Warburgs moved to Altona, Hamburg, where they remained active in banking and commerce. In 1798, Moses Marcus founded M.M. Warburg & Co. (one of the oldest surviving investment banks in the world). The Warburg banking empire was built in Hamburg.
Hamburg & Jewish People
The history of Jewish people in Hamburg is recorded from at least 1590 when the first Portuguese and Spanish Marranos began to arrive in the city via the Netherlands. At first they sought to conceal their religion. The fact that they maintained the observation of Jewish customs caused problems with the
local population, but the Council valued the economic benefits that the refugee community brought to the city. Jews were allowed to prosper. As early as 1611 Hamburg had three Sephardic synagogues, whose congregations jointly owned burial grounds in nearby Altona (then under Danish rule).
Amongst the newcomers were weavers, goldsmiths, shipbuilders, and traders in sugar, coffee, and tobacco from the Spanish and Portuguese colonies. Jewish financiers were involved in the founding of the Bank of Hamburg in 1619. Sephardi Jews who had settled in Hamburg continued to speak the languages of their native lands for two centuries (about fifteen books in Portuguese and Spanish were printed in Hamburg between 1618 and 1756).
When in 1697 the city authorities substantially raised the annual tax levied against Jews, a number of wealthy Hamburgers moved to either Altona or Amsterdam. In spite of that, Hamburg remained a city with a strong Jewish presence. Its last chief rabbi was Joseph Carlebach who, in 1942, was deported to Riga and murdered by the Nazis.
Brush Makers & Painting
There were various families in Hamburg that maintained the Del Banco / Delbanco surname, but who were not involved in banking. In a tightly knit Jewish community it is impossible to determine if or how members were related to one another. There is a single profession that binds several Del Banco names there together. A number of them were brush makers or bristle manufacturers.
Until the end of the seventeenth century, artists produced their own tools. Painters were also brush makers. During the eighteenth century the art of brush binding became a highly organized and respected professional trade (brush makers formed the vanguard of trade unionism), especially in Germany.
Nuremberg gained an international reputation for brush making. Some historians have speculated that the great painter Albrecht Dürer may have laid the foundation for this craft in the region. Such was the status of these artisans that, until the beginning of the nineteenth century, they presented themselves in a frock coat and bowler hat to visibly reinforce their position.
Traditionally there has been Jewish participation in the trade, in Germany and elsewhere. Up until the Second World War, Warsaw had a thriving industry (in February 1943, 1,500 Jewish workers in the brush making plant of F.W. Schultz were transferred from the Warsaw Ghetto to Trawniki concentration camp).
Painter Alma del Banco was born in 1862 in Hamburg into a Jewish family of bristle manufacturers. When her older brother Sigmund took over from his father, he expanded the business to such a degree that he was able to allow his unmarried sister to pursue her career without obstacles. She was an eminent member of the city’s avant-garde and co-founder of the rebellious Hamburg Secession in 1919.
Alma became a victim of the Nazis. In 1937, thirteen of her paintings were judged to be “degenerate” and confiscated. In early March 1943, the eighty-year-old artist received a deportation order to Theresienstadt concentration camp. A few days later she took her own life.
Art dealer and collector Gustav Delbanco was born in December 1903 in Hamburg where his father ran a successful bristle-trading business. The latter underestimated the danger posed by the Nazis, who relieved him of his position as a lay judge. He died soon after.
Gustav took a doctorate at Heidelberg and left Germany for London in 1930. Having met Munich-born Jewish refugee Heinrich Rosenbaum (who would later change his name to Henry Roland), they went into partnership, operating at first from a boarding-house until they had made enough money to rent an office in Piccadilly. After the war Old Masters specialist Lillian Browse joined the partnership. The three opened a modern art gallery in Cork Street, Mayfair, which became one of London’s most prestigious galleries.
Kurt Delcampo was six years younger than his brother. He studied painting with Willem Grimm, a member of the Hamburg Secessionists. Having fled to London in 1936. Kurt and fellow refugee Heinrich (Henry) Meyer co-founded the bristle making firm of Delbanco, Meyer, & Co. (DMC). The business grew quickly, becoming one of the world’s leading suppliers of raw materials to the brush making industry.
Commercial success allowed for a change in career. In 1948 Kurt transferred his family to Westchester County, New York, where he created a new life for himself as a painter and art dealer. As tenderly recalled by his son, the novelist Nicholas Delbanco in a fictionalize tribute to his father titled What Remains (2000), the cheerfully eccentric Kurt would paint in a small studio above the garage, safely sequestered from his wife who hated the smell of turpentine.
In 1968, one year before the sitter’s death, Delbanco painted the portrait of his friend, the activist and writer Max Eastman in his apartment at West 13th Street. Once known as the “Prince of Greenwich Village,” the disillusioned former socialist was, at the time, suffering mounting health and anxiety problems. It turned out to be the artist’s masterpiece.
Tracing back their origins to a Venetian banking dynasty, members of the Warburg family adopted a topographic name once they had settled in Germany, whilst remaining professionally involved in banking and finance. Another family line became associated with the Jewish community in Hamburg-Altona. They pursued careers as brush makers and painters, but held on to the old professional name of Del Banco or Delbanco. New York offered a haven to bearers of either name.
Illustrations, from above: fourteenth century manuscript depicting bankers in an Italian counting house. (British Library); stereotype caricature of Shylock by E. Goodwyn Lewis, 1863. (Folger Shakespeare Library); Leonardo Loredan (75th Doge of Venice), 1501 by Giovanni Bellini (National Gallery, London); Jost Amman’s wood engraving of a brush maker, Nuremberg 1568; portrait of Max Eastman, 1968 by Kurt Delbanco (National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution).