At a time when bankers have become an easy target, a new exhibition in Florence considers their role in shaping the Renaissance ...
From THE ECONOMIST online ...
Renaissance-era Florence is remembered not for its bankers but for its beauty. Yet the city is now hosting a splendid exhibition that reaffirms the important link between the two. High finance not only funded high art, but its money and movement helped to fuel the humanist ideals that inspired the Renaissance. This show, curated by Tim Parks, a British writer based in Italy, and Ludovica Sebregondi, an Italian art historian, considers the influence of 15th-century financiers on Italian art and culture.
“Money and Beauty” is divided into two parts: how money was made, and how it was spent. The gold florin, first minted in 1252 (and equal to $150 today), made the Florentine republic the heart of a nascent banking system that stretched from London to Constantinople. The Medici bank was supreme for almost a century, till its collapse in 1494 when the family was ousted from political power. This show, on view in the Strozzi palace (built in 1489 by a rival banking family), also traces the humbler fortunes of Francesco di Marco Datini, the “merchant of Prato”, using the vast archive he left behind. To recreate the daily activities of these bankers as well as their world view, the exhibition includes paintings and mercantile paraphernalia, from weighty ledgers to nautical maps.
The Church deemed it sinful to charge interest on loans, viewing it as profit without labour. This gave rise to artful and elaborate ways to disguise such profit-making, including foreign currency deals and triangular trading. The divergence of moral and commercial values can be seen in some Flemish paintings included here, such as Marinus van Reyerswaele’s “The Money Changer and his Wife”, in which a couple fixates on their coins while their candle is snuffed out (pictured top).
As bankers fretted for their souls, funding religious art began as a form of penance, like spiritual money-laundering. But as revealed in “Medici Money”, Mr Parks’s 2005 book about 15th-century Florence (reviewed by The Economist here), patronage also projected power. Pious frescos were stamped with the patron’s family crest, and the medium was the message: costly paints in gold, cochineal red and lapis blue were conspicuous signs of wealth. Upwardly mobile patrons even appeared in some biblical scenes. In the Ghirlandaio workshop’s “Adoration of the Shepherds with Filippo Strozzi”, for example, a kneeling banker in a mud-brown tunic basks in the infant Christ’s gaze (above).
If art converted wealth to power, it also shaped taste and morals. As the booming economy upset the God-given medieval hierarchy, secular sumptuary laws, which regulated consumption habits, were a brake on social mobility. These laws dictated spending for everything from fashion to funerals in order to keep the classes distinct. Yet paintings of the Madonna in lavish attire undermined these rules by sharpening cravings for beauty and bling in a city known for its luxury silk and wool. Paintings also became consumer luxuries. As private commissions soared among the mercantile class, a nude by Sandro Botticelli was much in demand.
The backlash came with Girolamo Savonarola, a fundamentalist friar who preached against luxury and lasciviousness. With his followers he burned “shameful” items (eg, paintings, wigs, harps and chessboards) on the Bonfire of the Vanities in the 1490s, before he was ex-communicated, hanged and incinerated himself. But as the Medici were restored with papal muscle—not as bankers but as dukes—Savonarola’s martyrdom cult lived on.
This ambitious show is not without tensions. How are Botticelli’s later pious paintings, bereft of Medici patronage, to be read? Was he converted to Savonarola’s vision or pandering to new clients? Twin curatorial captions often reveal a gap between art history’s smooth offerings and Mr Parks’s saltier barbs. But at a time when bankers are subject to a renewed moral backlash, this insight into how money talks through art is both provocative and priceless.
"Money and Beauty: Bankers, Botticelli and the Bonfire of the Vanities" is at the Palazzo Strozzi in Florence until January 22nd 2012.
Picture credits: Museo Nazionale del Bargello, Museum Boijmans van Beuningen