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.

Today we tend to imagine that this law arose from a concern for the poor, as a protection against unscrupulous money-lenders. That wasn’t the case. Banks like those of the Medici, the Strozzi and the Cambini never lent to the poor but were nevertheless the object of continual scrutiny from theologians examining their financial practices. There are various explanations: in Dante’s Inferno we discover that usury is ‘contro natura’ because God gave us work to earn our bread with the sweat of our brows and usury is not work; the usurers thus share the third ditch of hell’s seventh circle with sodomites and blasphemers, whose sins are also unnatural. All the same, the vehemence of the rhetoric against usury, as well as the fact that absolution could be attained only after full restitution of all monies taken and that ‘manifest’ usurers were to be denied Christian burial, left many at the time perplexed. A detached fresco by Orcagna shows the avid rich – bishops and cardinals included – in hell, where horrific demons whip them with their own money bags. In Jan Provoost’s Death and the Miser an anxious banker exchanges a bill with a nastily animate skeleton: do his moral books balance? Marinus van Reymerswaele’s Usurers presents a familiar image of avarice and obsession as, pen in hand, two men sit hunched over their accounts, surrounded by coins. Datini, who eventually created a commercial empire stretching from Avignon to Alexandria, complained, or boasted, of having to write all day without a break to keep up with his endless transactions.

Looking at these curious paintings, with their focus on the mental world of men utterly taken with the excitement of accumulating wealth, one gets an inkling of the Church’s real objection to usury: once people were permitted to play with money like this, lending it, multiplying it, having it ‘copulate’ and reproduce, as St Bernardino of Siena complained, they would have little time for God, and even less respect for the social station that birth had bestowed on them. Usury, banking and moneylending were tools for social mobility, for man-made manipulation of society, and hence for chaos.

The images of usurers roasting in hell made uncomfortable viewing for the Florentine money men, and their unease would not have been helped by the interminable sermons on the matter which amounted to invitations to respect the social order as God had established it. So how could these Christian men go on banking and convince themselves that they were not involved in usury? Together with paintings of the Archangel Raphael protecting a young traveller (Botticini) and a sailing ship miraculously saved from a storm (Beato Angelico), the visitor to the Palazzo Strozzi exhibition finds a bale of raw wool, a quantity of alum (potassium aluminium sulphate, essential to the leather and wool trades of the time), model sailing ships, safes, locks, document cases, couriers’ dispatch bags, letters of exchange, insurance documents, weighing equipment, nautical maps, account books … It was among this paraphernalia of a busy mercantile life that the bankers managed to make their usury disappear, or almost. The key was the letter of exchange.

Rather than a merchant giving money to a bank to make a payment abroad, let’s imagine that the bank gives money to him. Officially the banker asks the merchant to change this money into a foreign currency. Since it was not the custom to hold quantities of foreign currency in any given place, the banker (or his proxy) will have to receive the desired currency in the appropriate place: sterling in London, groats in Bruges, ducats in Venice. And since it took quite a while to travel from Florence to these towns, there were rules to indicate the maximum time span in which the transaction must take place: 30 days to Avignon, 60 days to Bruges, 90 days to London. Those 90 days gave the merchant time to purchase spices, silk or alum in Italy, send his goods by ship to London, sell them and return the money in pounds to the banker’s London agent. He has enjoyed three months’ interest-free credit in return for changing florins into pounds.

And the banker? Exchange rates were set, as today, in a way that was favourable to the home currency; hence, since the exchange rate for our deal was fixed in Florence but the money handed over in London, the merchant had actually paid back a little more than he had received. If the banker now fixed a second exchange deal at London rates (perhaps with a merchant purchasing wool to send to Italy) and then received the money back in Florence, he could more or less count on making a profit on the two deals in the region of 15 to 20 per cent, in just six months. The letter of exchange was a ‘most delicate invention’ and ‘a most subtle activity’, Benedetto Cotrugli wrote in 1458, and ‘impossible for a theologian to understand’. But they tried. Interminable hours were spent seeking to establish whether this was or wasn’t usury. Since there remained an element of risk, if interest rates should fluctuate drastically for example, most theologians concluded it was not. However, when bankers began to make these exchange deals without ever actually receiving any foreign currency abroad, but simply checking exchange rates on the due day at the due place and initiating a return letter of exchange with the same client, so that neither the two men involved nor any money nor indeed any letter ever actually left Florence, then Church leaders sat up and cried foul. It was obviously a loan, although the risk, determined by the exchange rates, remained exactly the same.

The usury ban forced banking to become intimately linked to the world of commerce. For money to make more money it had to be moved around. Crucially, amid the gritty realities of trading, an area of ambiguity was created as to what exactly people were up to. This allowed the bankers to operate but never quite to free themselves from the anxiety that actually they were usurers. It thus became normal for them to make penitential donations in case they had committed the sin of usury. One can imagine how eager they were for the Church to shift its position and accept that the process of growing rich by financing trade was not a sin at all. This gives us a key to understanding many of the works of art they would commission for the Church.

Once money had been made, how was it spent? Not without some difficulty. As wealth accumulated and more goods became available, people sought visibility in fine clothes and lavish wedding celebrations and funeral arrangements. But the ethos of the medieval estates had been one of sobriety and of a sharp distinction between social classes, expressed most immediately through clothing. So in 1330 the Florence Commune introduced the first sumptuary laws: limits on what kind of fabrics could be worn, when, in what styles, by whom; only so many buttons, no fancy patterns, only so much jewellery, not more than so many dishes at dinner parties, restrictions on spending for weddings and funerals. Since it was hard to find locals eager to enforce the laws, six agents from other towns were brought in to police the streets and inspect the ladies’ attire. It wasn’t easy: no sooner was a fabric banned than the tailors were finding something similar, perhaps better, that hadn’t yet been classified. Was a button a button if there was no buttonhole? ‘Forbidden patterned cloth,’ Giovanni Villani complained, ‘the women wanted striped cloth and foreign cloth, sending as far as Flanders or Brabant for it, regardless of cost.’

Belts, handbags and hairstyle designs suggest how advanced Florence was in the production of luxury goods and services, the sumptuary restrictions actually accelerating changes in fashion as producers and consumers looked for ways around them. Paintings are also revealing here: Beato Angelico’s Marriage of the Virgin, commissioned for a church altarpiece, shows a decidedly Florentine wedding where people are generally observing the sumptuary laws, but a Madonna by Scheggia, painted for a private client, wears all the luxurious clothes the Commune was seeking to prohibit (it was essential to curb the ‘indomitable bestiality of our women’, one member of the Commune declared in a sumptuary law debate). Further paintings of banquets and funerals demonstrate how the painted space could be used to legitimise a contemporary display of wealth by superimposing it on respectable biblical subjects. Few were going to complain that the Madonna was overdressed.

The frequent updating of the sumptuary laws throughout the 14th century (‘Clarification about pearls,’ one new law announced; ‘Clarification about buttons’; ‘Clarification about the wearing of chains’) indicates how hard it was, in a town whose wealth was coming to rely on the production and export of luxury goods, to prevent local people from enjoying them. In the 15th century the harsh punishments for breaking the laws were replaced with fines and the regulations began to assume the form of a tax on conspicuous consumption rather than a ban. Money had bought out principle.

By the 15th century the bankers’ spending on art blurred the line between what was found in church and what was hung in a rich man’s home. An early Botticelli showing a magnificently dressed Madonna supports Richard Goldthwaite’s thesis in Wealth and the Demand for Art in Italy 1300-1600 that painters deliberately stimulated demand for devotional images by making changes in iconography and painting style. In theory bought to enhance the quality of prayer, such images thus became early examples of the fashion-driven consumer product. In this case Botticelli is evidently playing to his patron’s desire to imagine that the holy family was as wealthy as he was.

Cosimo Rosselli’s Adoration of the Magi colourfully depicts a favourite subject among Florentine patrons: the visit of the three kings, after all, is one of the few moments in the Bible when rich men are seen in a positive light, and their gifts understood to be magical and wise. Rosselli’s work appears to have been commissioned by the Company of the Magi, one of the most important religious fraternities in Florence, whose members loved to parade at Epiphany, traversing the streets in fancy dress to present their opulence to the Madonna. For many years the head of the company was also head of the Medici bank and thus for much of the 15th century the city’s leading political figure. Again it’s clear enough how the devotional image is exploited to celebrate local wealth: aside from a magnificent array of stylish, brightly coloured clothing, the imposing white horse to the left of Rosselli’s painting has turned its charmingly round rump to the viewer to display the red balls of the Medici family emblem on its harness. Florence and the Holy Land were thus elegantly superimposed while money paid art to bring the people closer to God. Florence was ‘la repubblica de’ Magi’, the writer and scholar Donato Acciaiuoli declared.

The Medici balls appear again, this time juggled by two lecherous satyrs, on the cover of an expensively illustrated commentary on Juvenal’s Satires given to Giuliano de’ Medici, brother of Lorenzo il Magnifico. By the mid-15th century, an expensive humanist education allowed the wealthy to explore a classical world that acknowledged values other than the strictly Christian, which these men no doubt experienced as a relief. Initiates in a wider, sometimes esoteric erudition, they could now discover the pleasure of being among the elite few who understood the allusions in the elaborate paintings they commissioned. So a hierarchical superiority was re-established, but through wealth and education, rather than birth and divine will. In tune with his patrons’ requirements, and perhaps glad to explore new subjects, Botticelli began the astonishing paintings of his Platonic period. In the show at Palazzo Strozzi a naked Venus seeks to convince us, as Marsilio Ficino’s Medici-funded studies would have it, that beauty is a gateway to a higher level of knowledge and being: a painting need no longer have a Christian theme to be morally positive. Drawings of nudes by Finiguerra and Pollaiolo suggest that the practice was becoming widespread.

But it is the more austere Portrait of a Woman, one of the ten Botticellis on show in Money and Beauty, that ties the knot between the traditionally pious and the fashionably Platonic. Modestly dressed, beautiful but sober, a young woman looks left into a sombre domestic interior while the bright window at her back touches her hair with a celestial evanescence. Seen in rigorous profile, like some antique ideal stamped on a Roman medallion, she is at once believable wife and perfect Madonna. It was a wonder that these wealthy men, who were exploring art’s power to project new and more reassuring visions of their role in the world, found such immensely talented artists to do their work for them, as if the excitement of breaking out of the medieval mindset was proving a huge inspiration to everyone, and perhaps all the more so because the implications of the project could never consciously be articulated or confessed.

Such harmony couldn’t last. The Florentine republic’s ban on political parties and their elaborate system of power sharing had proved naive. When rule by hereditary right is abolished, only the strictest regulations can prevent money from moving into the vacuum. Always cash-strapped, frequently at war, the Commune had relied heavily on loans from bankers and merchants. The Medici had exploited this and eventually become arbiters of the city’s fate. ‘The deeds of Cosimo [de’ Medici] that make us suspect him,’ Niccolò da Uzzano says in Machiavelli’s version of events, ‘are these: he helps everyone with his money, and not only private individuals, but the state, and not only Florentines, but the condottieri; he favours this or that citizen who has need of the magistrates; by the good will that he has in the generality of people he pulls this or that friend to higher ranks of honour.’ By the time Cosimo’s grandson, Lorenzo il Magnifico, took over in 1469, any pretence that it was not a one-man show was wearing thin. Excluded from the political spoils, vying with the Medici for the administration of the Church’s newly instituted monopoly on the trade of alum, the Pazzi, another family of bankers, decided that assassination was the only way to free the city of its de facto masters. With the collusion of the Church, they struck in the Duomo on 26 April 1478, killed Lorenzo’s brother Giuliano, failed to kill Lorenzo and were themselves lynched or executed.

Once again bankers and churchmen had got mixed up together; once again artists were paid to establish a presentable version of events. A fine medallion by Bertoldo di Giovanni shows the dynamics of the murder. An imposing bust of Lorenzo by Torrigiano is thought to have been inspired by life-size wax images that Lorenzo placed in various churches to remind the Florentines of his charisma. Botticelli and Andrea del Castagno were commissioned to paint fresco façades illustrating the conspirators’ executions. ‘Hung upside down by their feet in strange positions,’ Vasari enthused, ‘all different and bellissimi.’ Such an immediate use of art and artists for political ends suggests that the bankers were never unaware of the propaganda value of what they commissioned.

Perhaps it was this excess of confidence, this shift in power towards bankers and humanists, that prompted the backlash that was Savonarola. He had been brought to Florence as if he were another interesting item that could be added to a rich man’s eclectic collection. Impressed with his sermons, Pico della Mirandola had convinced Lorenzo de’ Medici to invite him to head the Convent of San Marco, whose lavish restoration cost the Medici family 30,000 florins half a century earlier. But if the underlying message of that expenditure had been that there was no conflict between piety and money, between the Church and an education that allowed for the study of Juvenal and Catullus, Savonarola was having none of it. ‘The real preacher cannot flatter a prince,’ he declared, ‘only attack his vices.’ Savonarola was the antithesis of Lorenzo and of the Medici and bankers in general. He wouldn’t trade, he had no use for the art of exchange, he couldn’t be seduced. His terrifying sermons prophesying doom and the need for radical spiritual renewal transformed the Florence of Lorenzo’s and the Medici bank’s last years. In 1494, when Charles VIII’s French army arrived in Florence as if in response to Savonarola’s predictions of catastrophe, the Medicis were expelled and the bankers’ supremacy was replaced, briefly, by the preachers’.

Sandro Botticelli, ‘The Calumny of Apelles’, c.1497
Sandro Botticelli, ‘The Calumny of Apelles’, c.1497

A change in the tone of Florentine art suggests just how precarious the compromise between faith and wealth that characterised the previous decades had been. Botticelli’s Calumny, in which a personification of Calumny drags a victim to the throne of King Midas for judgment, still deploys the kind of obscure classical allusion typical of his Platonic period, but this time, despite the erudite backdrop of elegant antique statuary, the emotional turmoil evoked could hardly be more intense, while the fact that Midas is flanked by Ignorance and Suspicion does not bode well. Life was not easy under Savonarola.

An anonymous portrait of the preacher shows him in austere profile; the sharp contrast of light and dark, the shaven head, intense gaze and firmly set lips wonderfully capture the psychology of the pious extremist. ‘O merchants, abandon your practice of usury,’ Savonarola declaimed,

give back what has been illicitly taken … for if not you will lose everything … Oh ye who have your homes full of vanities, dishonest images and wicked books … bring them to me, to be burned as a sacrifice to God. And you, mother, who adorn your daughters with so many vanities and luxurious ornaments and wigs, bring them all here and commit them to the flames, so that, when the wrath of God shall descend, these things shall not be found in your homes.

Thus, on Shrove Tuesday 1497, Savonarola ordered the bonfire of the vanities, and a wealth of art and luxury went up in smoke.

Given the notoriety of the bonfire and its symbolic force, it’s remarkable how few images there are of it. One can appreciate that wealthy men would hardly be eager to commission a painting about the destruction of artworks commissioned by wealthy men. And the Church too would soon distance itself from Savonarola. He was hanged and burned in the same piazza where he had ordered the bonfire. No one wanted to remember. Ludvig von Langenmantel’s huge 19th-century canvas, Savonarola Preaching against Luxury and Preparing the Bonfire of the Vanities, imported from upstate New York, is the Palazzo Strozzi exhibition’s only major anachronism. Standing on a pedestal in Piazza dei Signori as the heap of expensive fabrics and ornaments piles up before him, Savonarola raises his arm in dramatic denunciation over a congregation that includes Machiavelli, Pico della Mirandola, Fra Bartolomeo, Filippino Lippi and Sandro Botticelli. It is with three paintings by a much changed and apparently chastened Botticelli that the exhibition closes.

Sandro Botticelli, ‘Madonna and Child with the Young St John’, c.1500.
Sandro Botticelli, ‘Madonna and Child with the Young St John’, c.1500.

One of these, Madonna and Child with the Young St John, was painted for a private client. We know that Savonarola’s views on art were discussed in Botticelli’s workshop; the preacher preferred the painters of the previous century who focused on the sufferings of Christ and did not introduce patrons and their luxuries into the frame. Compared with his earlier works, these late Botticellis certainly gesture back to earlier Trecento styles, renouncing spatial laws and rules of perspective to achieve an intense pathos. The elongated Madonna stoops to fit in the frame, creating a sense of constriction and anxiety as she deposits a sleeping Jesus in the arms of the young John the Baptist, as if the child were already dead. Most art historians believe this change of style indicates a religious crisis on the part of the artist. They cite Botticelli’s loss of patronage when the Medici family was expelled and Vasari’s claim, now proved wrong, that he threw some of his paintings on the bonfire of the vanities. I’m not convinced. I wonder why a greater personal element and ‘sincerity’ has to be attached to these moving paintings than to those that preceded them. The Madonna does indeed express a deep and as it were old-fashioned pathos, but it is still very much a luxury item, the tenderness of the three faces being framed in the rich colour of clothes that, though hardly sumptuous, are nevertheless intensely blue, red and gold. Could it not be that in changed and adverse circumstances Botticelli was seeking, together with his client, a new, somewhat less complacent expression of that accommodation between money and piety that was still being stamped on stacks of gold florins only a few hundred yards from where Savonarola was burned?

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