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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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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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