Antonio Greppi — architect of enlightened absolutism

Antonio Greppi took a leading role in the reform of taxation under the Habsburg monarchy. He changed the system from within, improving the lives of his fellow citizens.

Portrait of Antonio Greppi (1722-1799).
Portrait of Antonio Greppi (1722-1799). Credit: Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

In about three decades, between 1750 and 1780, Antonio Greppi, a low-born citizen of the Republic of Venice, raised himself to the highest spheres of Milanese society. An enterprising member of the merchant class, he proved himself the key figure for the Habsburg’s fiscal reforms in Milan and, in the process, accumulated an enormous fortune by exploiting the weaknesses in the ancien régime’s financial system. In 1785, Emperor Joseph II presented Greppi with the cross of knight commander of the Order of Saint Stephen of Hungary – arguably the Habsburg’s highest civilian honour. To mark the occasion, a manuscript sonnet was circulated in Milan, lambasting the imperial concession. ‘What are science, honesty, and bloodshed worth’– the anonymous author insinuated – ‘when a vile publican with wicked treasures, that he plucked from the mouths of the bloodless populace, rises from the mud to profane the honours?’. Indeed, Greppi’s appointment as commander was only the last of the honours bestowed upon him by the emperor and his late mother Maria Theresa: in 1774, Greppi’s family had been enrolled in the nobility of Milan; four years later, he had been granted the hereditary title of Count of Bussero and Corneliano, and, in 1780, that of Knight of the Order of Saint Stephen of Hungary. But were the heavy accusations against him well-founded?

The Habsburgs acquired the State of Milan, a slice of what is now Lombardy between the Ticino and Adda rivers, with the Treaty of Utrecht of 1714. Prior to that, Milan had been under Spanish rule for over 150 years and, as consequence of prolonged warfare and poor governance, was in need of radical reforms. Yet, the time was not ripe. Italian historian Franco Venturi, ‘unrivalled master of Enlightenment studies’, believed that Italy’s age of reform only began around 1740, when Maria Theresa succeeded her father Charles VI as ruler of the Habsburg monarchy. However, the Pragmatic Sanction of 1713 – an imperial decree that Charles passed to allow his daughter to succeed him in defiance of Salic law, and prevent the partition of his lands – was rebutted by France, Prussia, and Bavaria. The War of the Austrian Succession followed, threatening for eight years the existence of the Habsburg monarchy. Once peace was re-established, Maria Theresa was recognised as sovereign of Austria and the other Habsburg lands, and her husband Francis Stephen as Holy Roman Emperor. The Habsburg monarchy was safe from external enemies, but not from internal ones: Maria Theresa’s dominions were in fact a disharmonious mass in which local particularisms, rooted in systems of privilege and autonomy, were epitomised by the state’s chaotic and costly administration. Reforms were therefore necessary to reorganise the government bodies and relieve the monarchy’s distressed finances. To find solutions in Milan, the Habsburgs resorted to a Genoese aristocrat: Gian Luca Pallavicino.

Pallavicino, initially minister plenipotentiary and later governor of Milan, focused his efforts on fiscal policies, by completing the cadastral survey – an innovative method of mapping property ownership to ensure reliable information for evaluation and taxation – and proposing the establishment of a new contract of tax farming, called ferma generale. Dating back to Roman times, tax-farming was a system wherein private financiers paid fixed sums into the state’s treasury in exchange for the right to collect and retain tax revenues within an agreed period. Thanks to these contracts, the state’s entries were secured, avoiding the fluctuations caused by bad harvest or war. Moreover, the state did not need to develop and maintain costly agencies for tax collection. During the eighteenth century, tax-farming was still the main form of tax collection throughout Europe. Britain was the only notable exception: from the late seventeenth century, it had witnessed an early centralisation of taxation and, in just a few decades, the allocation of tax rights to private individuals was replaced by the state’s direct collection. Lombardy would eventually follow such a path.

Pallavicino’s ferma generale was moulded on Jean-Baptiste Colbert’s fermes générales, which Louis XIV’s minister had introduced in France in 1680. The fermes was an intermediate between traditional tax-farming and direct collection, which reduced the number of tax-farmers to increase the share of the collection transferred to the treasury. The tax-farmers, the fermiers généraux, made huge profits through tax collection and loans to the government, and rose to the top of French society. This nouveau-riche community showed off their wealth by becoming patrons of the arts, and attracted the hatred of taxpayers. As in France, the ferma generale allocated the collection of taxes upon commodities, powder, salt, and tobacco, to a company of tax-farmers and not – as before – a disorderly multitude of contractors. Ultimately, Pallavicino’s unification of the contracts, and their management by experienced merchants, would lead to an overall rationalisation of the entire indirect tax sector. Yet, if the reorganisation had become necessary for the Habsburgs’ economic needs, it was strongly opposed by local powers and old tax-farmers and speculators, who had obtained the renewal of contracts on advantageous terms during the War of the Austrian Succession. All major Milanese financiers were linked to the old tax-farmers, upon which the local treasury had traditionally been dependent, and they were unwilling to lose their position of strength. Hence the need for Pallavicino to resort to outsiders such as Antonio Greppi.

Greppi was born in a village near Bergamo, in the mainland domains of Venice, where his family owned a wool factory.  Greppi started to help his father in the family business, Greppi showed initiative and enterprise by managing relations with foreign customers and obtaining a contract for the supply of uniforms to the Habsburg army. He soon attracted the attention of Pallavicino and, in 1749, aged 27, was summoned to Milan. On 5 May 1750, the contract of the ferma generale was finally signed on much better conditions for the treasury than in the previous tax-farming contracts. The contractors were a group of foreigners whom Greppi headed as fermiere generale. In addition to increasing tax revenue, and enabling favourable credit operations, Greppi initiated a process of reorganisation of the public finances by repurchasing all the duties and taxes which, over the centuries, had been alienated to private individuals, companies, and even religious institutions, as guarantees for the treasury’s debts.

In 1757, Greppi’s company obtained an early renewal of their contract for six more years. As fermiere generale, Greppi assumed a leading role in the centralisation of taxation in the Habsburg monarchy, but also made enormous profits and attracted criticism. One of his detractors was the Milanese nobleman and local reformer Pietro Verri, contributor of the most influential magazine of the Italian Enlightenment, Il Caffè, and member since 1764 of a council for reforming the ferma. Verri’s personal animosity against the ‘greedy’ Greppi eventually turned into admiration once he had the opportunity to frequent his office and appreciate the reformist nature of his work. In a letter to his brother Alessandro, Verri commented that ‘Greppi is the only one I have met who, having amassed great wealth, has always had a magnificent and noble soul, and is the only man who, immersed in important affairs, has not lost energy and sensitivity of heart. He is good to the court, and good to the city; many want him to be the arbiter of their disputes.’

In 1766, the ferma generale became ferma mista, a hybrid system with greater state involvement. Finally, in 1770, the contract was terminated, ahead of schedule, and in agreement with the tax-farmers, allowing the state to take over tax collection. Nevertheless, Greppi’s involvement with the Habsburg government did not end there, as he acquired a new role as privy councillor and confidential agent for matters of economy, commerce, and finance. As a diplomatic representative, he arranged commercial treaties with Modena and the Papal States. Greppi had invested in various business ventures, including the establishment of trading houses in Amsterdam, Hamburg, and Cadiz – each run by one of his sons. Greppi was at the head of a vast system, in which he was merchant, entrepreneur, and banker; at its peak in the 1780s, it was comparable to a modern investment bank. He did not invest in industrial activities, only commercial ones. His ventures included the purchase of Swedish copper and Slovenian mercury on behalf of the Spanish crown; speculative trades on wheat from Tangiers; commissions on products such as Italian silk in the Amsterdam marketplace; and the smuggling of American silver in Cadiz. The extent of Greppi’s businesses were crucial in aiding the Habsburgs to become more international, linking Milan and Vienna to Spain, the Hansa ports, the Americas, and Asia.

Accumulation of wealth and public trust were the key determinants of Greppi’s social ascent. Just like Barry Lyndon – Thackeray’s Irish outsider, who made ‘unheard-of sacrifices’ in his attempts to obtain a British peerage – Greppi lavished great sums of money to secure his newly acquired status. He collected art (including paintings dubiously attributed to Guido Reni and Da Vinci) and commissioned the projects of his city and country residences to the Habsburgs’ official architect in Milan, Giuseppe Piermarini, otherwise known as the author of Milan’s Teatro alla Scala. Greppi also purchased expensive presents for his friends and patrons, including a female elephant, which he dispatched to Maria Theresa from Manila in 1777. Greppi’s partners in the ferma generale also accumulated vast wealth; one of them, Giuseppe Pezzoli, bequeathed his fortune to his nephew Gian Giacomo, allowing the latter to assemble a vast and variegated art collection, which is today one of Milan’s most revered museums.

In 1780, the Austrian painter Ludwig Guttenbrunn was commissioned to portray Greppi, his wife Laura, and their five sons. As in a snapshot, they are represented in a sumptuous room of their new country house, whose mythological decorations had been suggested by the poet Giuseppe Parini. Greppi wears his cross of knight of the order of Saint Stephen of Hungary, which he had received on that same year, and holds a map of Europe that one of his sons is taking away. By resting his left hand on Central Europe, he seems to indicate his business enterprises. Surrounded by aristocratic luxury, the mercantile element is still central in Guttenbrunn’s work. Greppi, however, disavowed it in his last will, by forbidding his sons any future involvement in business activities; instead, like other members of the nobility, they had to focus on the administration of the large estates that he had purchased in Northern Italy. Despite some dissonant voices – such as the author of the defamatory sonnet – the new social status of the Greppi family was not questioned, as its scions married into old noble families.

When, in 1789, the French Revolution burst out, Antonio Greppi was unable to reckon with its principles of social equality. He was a man of the ancien régime and, as such, died in voluntary exile in 1799, having abandoned Milan upon the arrival of General Bonaparte’s troops. A self-reliant member of an emerging middle class, he had become a trusted expert, eventually ennobled. As a tax-farmer, Greppi had benefitted from the ancien régime’s primitive tax system. But, unlike the fermiers, he reformed the system from within, improving the lives of his fellow citizens and becoming the ideal civil servant of enlightened absolutism.


Guido G. Beduschi