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When Bankers Had Splendid Taste

National Gallery, London/Scala
Marinus van Reymerswaele: Two Tax Collectors, circa 1540

Despite Lorenzo’s origins—his grandfather, Cosimo, was a supremely shrewd banker as well as a ruthless politician—his talents lay more with power politics and poetry than with finance, but his handwriting remained the same mercantile cursive he had learned as a boy. At the beginning of the fifteenth century, scholars (and most poets) began to adopt a completely different script, the handwritten ancestor of our italics, by copying the style of the oldest manuscripts they knew. They thought they were emulating the ancients, but in fact were imitating the handwriting of the age of Charlemagne.

However fervently Francesco di Marco Datini hoped to link God and profit in his prayers, neither he nor the merchants of Renaissance Florence could ever convince themselves entirely that the two belonged together; certainly not in the way that money and beauty could be made to mesh. Feelings of guilt stalked successful merchants as stubbornly as worry about ships, goods, customers, creditors, weather, shifting tastes, war, disease, and the position of the zodiac. The riskier an investment, the more lucrative its potential rewards. Spices brought in larger returns than grain, but the likelihood of a ship going down was greater than that of an entire crop failing.

To give visitors to the exhibition a flavor of this nagging insecurity and the range of decisions that went into early modern commerce, each entry ticket could be scanned into a computer that put us into a role-playing game where each of us, suddenly turned into a fifteenth-century Florentine merchant, could invest our florins in one of several different ways and follow the progress of our merchandise on a series of computers stationed in every room. Success meant a discount at the exhibition bookstore, but, sadly, my big shipment of cloth from Marseilles sank in a tempest off the Corsican coast.

For the Christian merchants of Florence, however, the most potentially threatening risk posed by their profession was spiritual rather than physical, involving the type of transaction that necessarily underpinned the whole capitalist enterprise: lending money at interest. Renaissance merchants were really merchant bankers, who dealt in both commodities and money. In addition to buying and selling, they accepted goods in pawn, exchanged currencies, and invested in insurance.

Every one of them knew that the Bible prohibited usury (as in Deuteronomy 23:19–20 and Leviticus 25:35–37, both of which say, in effect, “you will not loan money at interest”). They worried about how far they could defy that prohibition in their daily work and still carry on “in the name of God and of profit.” One way to extend a loan without seeming to do so was to disguise the transaction as a series of foreign exchanges; another was to define “usury” as anything above a certain interest rate, usually 20 percent. But the uneasiness persisted, and it emerges powerfully in the works of art they commissioned with their earnings.

Artists created holy images for private devotion, some small enough to be taken on the road, some, slightly larger, to be hung in a bedroom or a private chapel. However extensive its geographical spread, the Renaissance Italian financial world was tightly bound by networks of kinship and marriage. Ostensibly this web of personal relationships acted to cut down on chicanery, but it also meant that bad faith in business, when it occurred, often amounted to a much deeper, more personal degree of betrayal. The life of a member of the mercantile class, male or female, old or young, powerful or powerless, could be both claustrophobic and devastatingly lonely. Neighbors competed with one another for good deals and in the display of new-found wealth; everyone tried to find out trade secrets. Prayer provided one of the few safe o utlets for thoughts that were otherwise best kept quiet.

Portraits were another favorite type of private art going back, perhaps, to Etruscan and Roman precedents. These could range from idealized images, as the posthumous likeness of Francesco di Marco Datini certainly was, to nearly photographic likenesses. Benedetto Portinari, the nephew of Tommaso Portinari, the Medici agent stationed in Bruges, commissioned Hans Memling to paint a double image of himself and his namesake Saint Benedict, both of them in simple, dark clothing. Handsome Benedetto evidently had a face worth recording, but in general these Florentine merchants, like their Etruscan predecessors, were happy to display their wrinkles and imperfections as the stamp of their individuality.

An exquisite small Madonna and Child, attributed by the exhibition’s curators to the young Fra Angelico at the beginning of the fifteenth century, was probably meant for a private house: it shows a serene young mother holding a preternaturally mature, intelligent Christ Child in her lap; both are poised to listen with infinite patience to the supplications of the people who have knelt beneath it. Sandro Botticelli’s Madonnas from the latter part of the same century still show the young, patient Madonna and exude a similar sense of serenity, but the clothing of the Virgin and the saints around her is as richly embroidered as the trappings of the Medici court. This banking family, by largely questionable means, managed over the course of three generations to establish itself as a despotic presence in a republican city-state.

Merchants also commissioned large-scale public works: buildings, sculptures, and lavish altarpieces as gifts for the benefit of Florentines from every social class. A special confraternity, still active today, the Buonomini di San Martino (“good men” who followed Saint Martin’s example of dividing his cloak with a shivering beggar), quietly distributed alms to the “shamefaced poor” (poveri vergognosi), businesspeople who had lost their fortunes to disaster, bad investment, or political persecution—the Medici were ruthless practitioners of this latter art.

Who, however, commissioned the many painstakingly detailed portraits of richly clothed bankers at their counting tables, resplendent in their elaborate hats and robes and surrounded by their beautiful wares, but with twisted, ugly faces? These “usurer” portraits must be a permanent warning against greed, obsessive attention to fashion, and frivolity. And it was on these counts that fifteenth-century preachers began to attack their merchant contemporaries, urging them to consider their neighbors, to dress and behave with common sense, to deal with their customers fairly. The Franciscan Bernardino of Siena and the Dominican Antoninus of Florence spoke with formidable skill; when we read them today, their sermons still thunder from the page, utterly enthralling even without help from their marvelously changeable voices, laced with humor, intelligence, love, terror—as well as homophobia and anti-Semitism. Jewish bankers began to feel the effects of their eloquence, effects that would lead shortly to sharp restriction on Jews in the professions and the establishment of Jewish ghettoes.

The most terrifying of these preachers, of course, was the Ferrarese Dominican Girolamo Savonarola, who took on the Medici from the heart of their own convent, San Marco. Botticelli is said to have fallen under his sway. After one of the friar’s sermons urging worried Florentines to throw away the trappings of their worldly lives and concentrate instead on their immortal souls, the painter may have thrown some of his work on a “bonfire of the vanities” set up in Piazza della Signoria, just beneath City Hall. (Another bonfire set in the same place would immolate the friar himself in 1498.)

Savonarola gives Money and Beauty a transgressive thrill; on one hand, the changes he seemed to inspire in Botticelli’s painting are largely deplorable, accentuating the painter’s already hyperdeveloped tendency to take gesture and emotion over the top: a Madonna and Child from 1500 bend literally double over an infant Saint John the Baptist, who kisses Jesus with what is meant to be supremely intimate tenderness, but it is all too staged to capture the heart.

Savonarola’s real effect on Florence, unlike his effect on Botticelli, was anything but simpering or stagey. His verbal fire and brimstone steeled the Florentines to run the Medici out of town in 1494, after sixty years of iron control. The family had never enjoyed perfect popularity; a medal from 1478 commemorates the Pazzi Conspiracy, a plot hatched by some of the Medici’s business rivals and the reigning pope, Sixtus IV, which killed Lorenzo’s brother Giuliano and injured Lorenzo; but the medallion shows the disembodied head of Lorenzo rising triumphantly above the tumult. The display and catalog also include a dagger like the one that took Giuliano’s life and a bloody shirt that was once thought to belong to him—in fact it belonged to another hated Medici, Alessandro, killed in another conspiracy sixty years later, after the family’s restoration to Florence. Like capitalism itself, the Medici, for all their drawbacks, were the perfect essence of Florence: charming, risky, dangerous, and locked in a permanent embrace with beauty.

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