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When Bankers Had Splendid Taste

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Rabatti & Domingie Photography/Museo Nazionale del Bargello, Florence
A Florentine gold florin, stamped with an image of a lily, 1252–1303

Money comes in many colors: greenback dollars, Chinese “redbacks” (which are only figuratively red), euros in a range of pastel shades that might have been drawn straight from the Sistine Chapel ceiling. But for sheer evocative punch, for money that expresses the very Platonic idea of money, it is hard to beat that mighty and ubiquitous Renaissance coin, the Florentine florin. A circle of pure gold (at least most of the time) stamped on its reverse with an image of Saint John, the city’s patron saint, the florin takes its name, like Florence itself, from the word for flower, fiore in Tuscan vernacular.

Officially, the flower of Florence is called a lily, giglio, but that giglio is so stylized on the coin’s obverse that it looks more like a flag iris, and it bears two long, decorative stamens that sometimes end themselves in tiny gigli to create a play of infinite regression (as on the cover of the statute book of the Florentine mint from 1314–1461). The florin is a stylish coin for a stylish state, and the placement of a single florin in splendid isolation at the entrance to the recent exhibition “Money and Beauty” in the Florentine Palazzo Strozzi perfectly embodied both, as well as their unending interplay in the Florentine Renaissance.

Without anyone planning for it to be that way, “Money and Beauty,” mounted last fall, and well-represented in the extensive catalog, proved perfectly attuned to contemporary events in Italy, including, above all, a new government dedicated to fiscal responsibility headed by Mario Monti (albeit a government forced to work with the same rascally old Parliament as before), answering to the European Central Bank headed by another Italian, Mario Draghi, and the International Monetary Fund where a third Italian, Arrigo Sadun, works at the very top levels. As discreet as they are competent, these three reflect almost a thousand years of Italian tradition, for Italy virtually invented modern banking shortly after the turn of the first millennium of the common era. “Money and Beauty”—in both the show and the catalog—shows us how those bankers carried out their business in Florence in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, but the story began long before, in a series of thriving towns that grew up as independent city-states on the ruins of the Roman Empire.

The earliest medieval merchants wrote down their sums in Roman numerals and made their calculations with the help of an abacus. This is how Pietro Bernardone dei Moriconi, a merchant of Assisi, must have made the small fortune that allowed him to spoil his handsome son Francis, at least until the day that Francis fell seriously ill and decided to reject his family’s materialistic way of life. Capitalism, in other words, seems to have revealed all its seductive virtues and its incurable faults within a few generations. With very little change, we have been living with those same lures and those same pitfalls ever since. Capitalist success is still measured by material gain, and material gain still turns out to be as fickle as Fortune, the capitalist’s muse and nemesis.

By the time Saint Francis stripped off his peacock garments and exchanged them for a homespun robe in 1206, Italian trading networks had already spread throughout the Mediterranean; a vast web of agents traded Chinese silk for English wool or wove the two together in the fabric called damask, after the city of Damascus, an important stop on the Silk Road. At about the same time that Francis was preaching to the birds, a merchant of Pisa named Leonardo Fibonacci, from a base in Bugia on the Algerian coast, threw over family tradition as egregiously as Francis, although in an entirely different realm: he abandoned the old European way of reckoning for the numbering system of his Arab colleagues, who claimed to have gotten it from the Indians. In 1202, Fibonacci presented these “nine numbers of the Indians” for his fellow Italians in a book called Liber Abaci. In the business world abaco, “abacus,” was a synonym for “commercial arithmetic.” He wrote in Latin so that he could be understood throughout the Italian peninsula, and beyond. And he was understood, so well that he changed the way that Italian merchants did business.

It was somewhat easier to calculate with Hindu-Arabic numbers than it was with Roman numerals, but the abacus and the slide rule were still useful tools until the advent of small electronic calculators. It was easier to read a ledger when the columns of numbers denoted consistent orders of magnitude. But the real advantage presented by the “nine numbers of the Indians” and especially a tenth cipher, zero, was their relationship to an Arab discipline called algebra; with these numbers it was possible to write equations.

Quadratic equations were already in use by Fibonacci’s time, and the ability to make quick calculations would eventually have a decisive impact on the discipline not yet called science. And yet, amazingly, for most of the people we meet in Money and Beauty, higher mathematics meant nothing more than long division, whose operations they carried out in decorative patterns that have long since fallen from use. But what feats they could perform with their simple arithmetic and their ancient Euclidean geometry! Has anyone laid out cities more beautifully, eaten better, or moved with greater elegance? Only the ancients had ever attained such a mastery of proportion, they would have said themselves, and they took the ancients as their guide to good living, without for a moment thinking that they should give up any of the modern conveniences of mercantile life: the Silk Road, the magnetic compass, their wide-bottomed cargo ships, the nine numbers of the Indians, the paper on which they wrote their ledgers.

Money and Beauty brings us much of the material world of these Florentine merchants through miraculously preserved examples of hardworking objects like keys, padlocks, strongboxes, and leather purses, all of them made with exquisite care. Not all of the objects are Florentine, but they are similar enough to what Florentines might have used, and in every aspect but artistry they are not much different from their present-day equivalents. The eight-pocketed moneybag in pleated white chamois is Flemish or French, dangling beaded drawstrings for each compartment. It sheds new light on the daunting “story problems” posed in contemporary textbooks, beginning with Fibonacci’s Liber Abaci. These hypothetical anecdotes present situations like a merchant of Genoa who drops a bag containing thirty Venetian ducats, twenty-five Roman scudi, and a handful of Byzantine coins; each currency could have its own little pouch in this supremely elegant purse.

Two leather dispatch bags, one of cutout leather on green velvet, the other of delicately tooled and gilded cordovan, are both Italian, narrow enough to be carried close to the body, and about the size of a contemporary laptop case—but the sixteenth-century materials are rich as well as sturdy, and their workmanship is one-of-a-kind. A strongbox locks with a Rube Goldberg labyrinth of interlacing bolts that make a modern bank safe look positively minimalist. A late-fifteenth-century silver-gilt jeweler’s balance from Nuremberg, as tall and slender as a Giacometti sculpture, is the kind of object that Galileo had in mind when he wrote his essay Il Saggiatore (The Assayer), contrasting the supreme refinement of his own observations with the crude error of his adversaries. This instrument for weighing gold and gems, its tiny pans held in place by fine wires and needlepoint thread, is the earliest surviving example of an assayer’s balance in the world today.

Money and Beauty shows us real examples of the glorious fabrics that appear in the paintings of Botticelli, Fra Angelico, and especially that master of luxurious surface, Gentile da Fabriano, whose Adoration of the Magi (also in the exhibition) once reassured the man who commissioned it, banker Palla Strozzi, that rich men had been as privy to the Christmas message as the shepherds. Palla’s son Filippo Strozzi began the enormous palazzo that housed the exhibition in 1489, at the end of his life. Palla himself had posed such a threat to the Medici for his wealth and taste that they ran him out of town.

Women were meant to furnish living proof of their family firm’s material success in their sumptuous clothing and lavish jewels. The displays included an ivory comb, an ivory mirror, and a mirror frame in marble, luxuries meant to ensure another sign of success: perfect grooming. Renaissance Italians were relatively clean by European standards, habitués of mineral baths and well aware that the ancient Etruscans and Romans had been enthusiastic bathers.

Money and Beauty also provides an informative sample of all the kinds of paperwork that bound this international commercial system together. Fifteenth-century Italian merchants had developed their own distinctive cursive script, a handwriting evolved to be easy on the fingers of people who wrote hundreds and thousands of letters, ledgers, and bills of exchange (the ancestor of contemporary checks). Filled with formulas and abbreviations, Tuscan mercantile cursive can look almost like Arabic with its graceful loops and curls, but once deciphered, the language of these communiqués hews wonderfully close to the pithy way that Tuscans still speak.

By sheer chance, we know a fair amount about Renaissance banking practice thanks to a remarkable late-nineteenth-century discovery. In 1870, restoration work on a palazzo in the city of Prato, near Florence, revealed a whole cache of documents hidden under an old, walled-up spiral staircase. These turned out to belong to the palazzo’s onetime owner, the wealthy merchant Francesco di Marco Datini, who left an immense legacy to his native city after his death in 1410, including the palazzo where his papers would be found so many centuries later.

Money and Beauty shows a fine portrait of Francesco, painted some eighty years after his death, dressed all in expensive scarlet, with fur trim and ermine tips at his collar and cuffs, solemnly knitting his brow as he gestures sagely with his right hand. But the nineteenth-century discovery of 1,192 business documents and nearly 150,000 letters (first studied in depth by the mid-twentieth-century Florentine scholar Federigo Melis) revealed the man as well as the wealthy donor and his extensive business network. Francesco di Marco Datini clearly wore a scowl most of the time; he was a crusty Tuscan businessman, albeit a generous one. In these letters and in his ledgers, headed with the motto “in the name of God and of profit,” Datini gave Prato a gift as great as his initial bequest: the opportunity, half a millennium later, to study his world in intricate detail. Money and Beauty includes a letter addressed to Francesco di Marco from an associate in Spain, this too “in the name of God,” letters of exchange, ciphers, and business correspondence on display from the hands of the Medici and their associates (including Lorenzo the Magnificent and his agent in Bruges, Tommaso Portinari, a great patron of art in his own right).

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