A Most Delicate Invention

Tim Parks

In 1237 Florence set up a mint and struck the silver florin. Until then the town had been using the denaro of the declining Holy Roman Empire, but the coin was now so debased that it had to be supplemented with more valuable coins from the then larger centres of Siena and Lucca. It was becoming more important to monetise all transactions, to be able to transform all wealth into money and redistribute or invest it as one liked. The silver florin was worth one soldo, that is, 12 denari. It would buy a few eggs, a loaf of bread, a litre of wine. This wasn’t enough. In 1252 the Florence mint struck the gold florin, 3.53 grams of 24-carat gold which today would cost you around £110. This was a coin for serious trade, and the Florentines made sure that its weight and purity remained absolutely unchanged for the almost three hundred years it was minted, keeping meticulous records of alterations in design and instituting a system of quality control that saw each superintendent serving only six months in order to prevent corruption. By the end of the 13th century, the florin was being used in commercial transactions all over Western Europe and where not physically present was widely adopted as a currency of account. It was a major coup for what was then a small commercial centre.

There was no king’s or duke’s head on the florin. Florence had long since banned nobility from involvement in its government, which was now republican, the nine executive members elected by lot from among the patrician community every two months, so that no one person would ever acquire too much power. Political parties were banned. On one side of the new coin was the lily, emblem of Florence, and on the other St John the Baptist, the city’s patron saint. Thus civic duty and religious observance were elegantly fused, in gold.

When Jesus was asked by the Pharisees, ‘Is it lawful to give tribute to Caesar?’ he had been able to take a coin in his hand, point to Caesar’s head and reply, ‘Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.’ The world was thus divided, with the political and economic on one side, faith and metaphysics on the other. But in 13th-century Florence, where the social hierarchy of medieval estates was supposedly underwritten by divine will, civic leaders and merchant bankers (often the same men) were eager to avoid any such division. They did not want to believe that it was ‘harder for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven than for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle’. St John the Baptist appears again on the mint’s statute book, produced in 1341. True to the biblical account, he wears a hair shirt, a token of his life of poverty, except that the Florentine artist has also wrapped around his shoulders the red cloak of wealth and authority. His saint’s halo is gold and either side of it are three gold discs which look suspiciously like coins, as if money itself were sacred, or halos a credit that could be cashed. In 1372 the mint commissioned a huge altarpiece showing the Coronation of the Virgin. Here the lavish and expensive use of gold leaf across the whole background, and the golden crown placed on the Madonna’s head, again suggest that there is no conflict between money and sanctity.

Despite this reconciliation of sacred and profane in coin, statute book and altarpiece – three of the opening exhibits in a show at Palazzo Strozzi in Florence which I co-curated with the art historian Ludovica Sebregondi – there were many who understood that the monetisation of society posed a serious threat to other values.[*] For all the wonderful convenience of money, it does create an embarrassment: everything – a painting, a pig, a prayer for the dead, a prostitute – now assumes a unit value and can thus be compared. In a painting by Tommaso di Piero Trombetto, Francesco Datini (1335-1410), the celebrated merchant of Prato, looks decidedly pious, with his hand raised in blessing. Datini, who left more than 120,000 business letters, paid more for the red gown he wears in Trombetto’s painting than for the slave girl who bore him the only child he recognised as his own. An immensely wealthy workaholic, Datini nevertheless found time to go on a brief pilgrimage with the so-called ‘Bianchi’, one of the many penitential movements of the period. ‘We were all barefoot,’ Datini recalls, ‘and scourging ourselves with a rod.’ He notes that a rosary cost 14 soldi and 8 denari. ‘God make it profitable to our souls.’

As trade had developed over the previous two centuries and it became necessary to make frequent payments in distant countries, the first banks had grown up alongside the merchants, or rather, the merchants themselves began to offer banking services. Crucially, the letter of exchange was invented, allowing a merchant to pay into a local bank and have the money picked up by a creditor in Bruges, Barcelona, London or Naples. The need to carry coin across long distances, exposing one’s wealth to attack by highwaymen and pirates, was thus obviated; what remained was the problem of balancing the books between the various banks moving money around. When a quantity of coin was accumulated and could not easily be used in commerce, one obvious way of making it work was to lend it, hopefully to a merchant willing to pay it back in a more convenient place. The drawback was that the Church had categorically condemned every interest-bearing loan, or usury, as it was called.

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[*] Money and Beauty: Bankers, Botticelli and the Bonfire of the Vanities is at Palazzo Strozzi until 22 January 2012.