Bankrolling beauty: the money men of the 15th century

With one eye on the next life, the Medici used their wealth to fund timeless works of art.
Sarah Phelps Smith | 1 November 2011
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A review of Money and Beauty; Bankers, Botticelli and the Bonfire of the Vanities An exhibition at the Palazzo Strozzi, Florence—September 17, 2011—January 22, 2012

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In our current global economic crisis, what could be more timely than an exhibition of art that concentrates on money? The Strozzi Palace Foundation in Florence, Italy, currently has an exhibition that goes beyond the standard selection of Renaissance paintings and sculpture to focus on the relationship of the arts, the patronage of same, and the institutions of banking and commerce in the fifteenth century in Florence and other European cities affected by the long reach of the Medici banking complex. The Medici in the fifteenth century are credited with the practical innovations of double entry bookkeeping in banking and other financial practices which we still use.

Social historian and novelist Tim Parks, who published an excellent and very readable book entitled Money and the Medici in 2005, curated the exhibition along with Ludovica Sebrgondi, an art historian who wrote Iconography of Girolamo Savonarola, 1495-1998 -- the fiery Dominican preacher who features in the exhibition. Each work on display has two labels, one by each curator—we are engaged in a conversation between two points of view, usually in agreement about the essentials. In addition to many fourteenth century paintings commissioned by the wealthy bankers of Florence and the Netherlands, other objects refer to the business of banking itself: documents that record transactions, strongboxes, money bags for carrying coins safely, and even a dagger for protection along the way.

Fittingly, the exhibition opens with an actual gold florin—the monetary unit that became the most desirable in Europe. In the context of visual art, we can also see it as something beautiful and well designed. On one side the elegant lily that is a ubiquitous symbol of the Florentine republic, and one the other, St. John the Baptist, patron saint of the city. In this first object we see the tension that is a major theme of the exhibition—the attempt to reconcile earthly power with the spiritual precepts of the Catholic Church calling for a spirit of poverty in this life.

Usury was considered a sin, so how could a banker get to heaven? Tim Parks explains the invention of the “Letter of Credit”, through which a merchant could travel to another country without the danger of carrying cash. He could deposit money in the Medici Bank in Florence, say, and receive a signed letter of credit to show at a branch of the Medici bank in London or Bruges, and receive the cash he needed to buy goods in that country. The various fees in these somewhat complicated exchanges substituted for the interest that denotes the sin of usury. But many times the bankers, while devoted to making money, show some concern for their immortal souls, and use their money to insure salvation. For example, Cosimo di Medici, the first of the banking family to become a major player in Florentine politics, paid for the renovation of the Dominican Monastery of San Marco in Florence, where one may still see the frescoes by Fra Angelico on the walls.

One painting in the exhibition portrays a banker accompanied by a personification of death, represented by a skeleton. The labels tell us that presumably these panels were on the back of a joint portrait of the subject and his wife as donors of the work, which was originally a triptych, although the central panel has been lost. The work was an expression of the donors’ worldly success. The banker is holding out a paper that could be a “letter of credit,” or perhaps an IOU, hoping perhaps to save his own soul through a the contributions to good causes (the poor, the Church) during his life, or perhaps on behalf of the soul of the younger man who is depicted standing behind the figure of Death.

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The exhibition is arranged by theme, with various rooms of art and artifacts together covering subjects from “International Exchange” to “The Sumptuary Laws,” which were written to keep the common people from wearing expensive fabrics and colors should they be fortunate enough to have earned the money to do so. City officials were appointed to discover and fine offenders, whether their clothing had too much fabric, or too little, or too much in the way of gold or precious jewels. However, laws were made to be broken, and fashion simply developed in new styles to work around the strictures.

The last few rooms of the exhibition cover the eventful final years of the fifteenth century. As Lorenzo the Magnificent was spending lavishly on villas, paintings, and entertaining, the banks themselves ran into trouble. Lending to princes and popes had an appeal since it put the bank owners on a par with royalty, but when rulers defaulted (as did Edward IV, spending hundreds of thousands on wars) the banks were unable to recoup their losses.

And while the Medici and other wealthy Florentines were spending on articles of beauty, other voices were protesting the focus on the senses, particularly one Dominican friar named Savonarola. After the fall of the Medici in 1494, his fiery preaching (despite interdicts and eventual excommunication from Pope Alexander VI) led him to a position as virtual ruler of Florence. In 1497 during lent, he sponsored a “bonfires of the vanities.” Savonarola’s followers went through town asking the citizens to voluntarily give up their paintings, books on worldly subjects, drawings, musical instruments, clothing—anything material which was for show, to be burned in enormous bonfires in the Piazza della Signoria. Unfortunately, as the political tide turned again, Savonarola himself and two followers were the fodder for a bonfire in the same piazza in 1498. Two paintings included in the show depict the execution—and in the one closest in time to the event, the three friars are shown in heaven with martyrs’ palms—showing the artist was still a sympathizer with Savonarola.

Although the scope of the exhibition is historical in intent, involving the financial world, trade, the Church, politics and luxury objects, it also has many objects that are world-class works of art. Alongside objects of interest for their history rather than for their beauty such as pages from ledgers, are decorative arts, sculpture from the della Robbia workshop, and paintings by Fra Angelico, Memling and especially Botticelli. The latter was closely tied to the Medici during his career in the second half of the fifteenth century, and was himself a follower of Savanarola.

The catalogue for the exhibition is available in English as well as in Italian, and has several interesting essays on topics that shed light on various aspects of the exhibition. (It is too bad that not all of the objects on display are pictured.) Another point that should not be lost on the visitor is that like many of today’s large exhibitions, the main corporate sponsor is a bank, Banca CR Firenze.

The Medici money made possible many of the buildings and objects that we go to Florence to see. Those icons of the visual arts, in their turn, fostered more buildings and paintings outside of Rome, and outside of Italy. Although the Medici bank overextended and lost it’s financial security under Lorenzo, we are in their debt for their contribution to western culture. As we have the Medici money as a caveat to our current tendency for banks and political entities to overspend and go into debt, we can carry away another lesson from this exhibition.

It is essentially the Arts, visual and otherwise, that personify a culture—when we think of the Renaissance, we think of Botticelli, Leonardo, Donatello, Josquin des Prez, a musician. When history looks back at the culture we have produced in our time of financial plenty, what will be in the museum? Conceptual art (which is not easily understood by the masses) is one possibility. It is fair to say that many wealthy people give to charities rather than material things, but a lot of the money of the wealthy is spent on yachts, consumables, and houses that are luxurious without having any particular architectural merit.

Do we, as a culture, use “disposable income” to foster artists who have put the time and effort into learning their craft so that they can make beautiful objects with a beauty that will last five hundred years? Perhaps the exhibition can leave us with a desire to encourage people with means to commission, support and propagate works of art that will be timelessly beautiful and universal in appeal, so that when history looks at the products of our culture we (or rather those who come after us) will find our legacy worth looking at.

Sarah Phelps Smith, PhD, is an art historian and critic who has taught at the University of Delaware and Swarthmore College. She lives in Ohio.

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