A debut biography focuses on an Italian-American entrepreneur who essentially invented modern banking.
Valente’s book examines the life of Amadeo Pietro Giannini, who was born in 1870 in California. He was the son of Italian immigrants who came to the United States in 1869 in search of opportunity. When he was only 6 years old, he witnessed his father’s murder—he was shot to death by one of his workers over a wage dispute—a traumatic experience that taught the boy an early lesson about the gossamer vulnerability of life. His mother married Lorenzo Scatena, an Italian entrepreneur who owned a thriving produce company and who would become a mentor to Giannini. The boy displayed a precocious talent for business and an insatiable ambition. At 14, he dropped out of school to work for L. Scatena & Co. full time. He pioneered the purchase of produce on consignment and, by the end of 1885, was the company’s chief salesman; at 21, he was a full partner. In 1892, he married Clorinda Agnes Cuneo, the daughter of a wealthy real estate tycoon. When Giannini’s father-in-law died, he became the executor of his will, which included shares in and a directorship of Columbus Savings and Loan. Giannini had a vision for the bank’s egalitarian transformation—he wanted to shift its focus to accepting deposits from and dispensing loans to less affluent Italian-Americans, a plan considered so radical he eventually resigned from the board. He started his own bank—the Bank of Italy—which later became part of holdings that included Bank of America. Giannini’s banking empire revolutionized the industry by turning it toward the establishment of local branches under centralized supervision. Valente, writing in crystal clear prose, concisely captures not only Giannini’s entrepreneurial boldness, but also his abiding commitment to social reform and civic causes. After the disastrous San Francisco earthquake in 1906, “he helped the city rise from the ashes by making loans ‘on a face and a signature’ to the small businesses and people whose lives were shattered.” Part of the Barbera Foundation’s Mentoris Project, devoted to biographies of historically significant Italians and Italian-Americans, Valente’s study is scrupulously researched, both informative and inspiring. She also furnishes a vivid portrait not only of the corruption of turn-of-the-century San Francisco, but also the inhospitality Italian immigrants routinely encountered in the United States.
An edifying portrayal of an indefatigably purposeful life.