When Bankers Had Splendid Taste

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…

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