by Roderick Conway Morris

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Bargello, Florence
The Money-Changer and His Wife by Marius van Reymerswaele, around 1540

Art and Intrigue for the Soul of Florence

By Roderick Conway Morris
FLORENCE, Italy 24 December 2011


Looking back in 1473 over the architectural projects he had financed, Giovanni Rucellai noted in his diary the great pleasure they continued to give him, being as they were 'in parts, to the glory of God and the honor of the city and in commemoration of myself'.

The enlightened merchant-banker's satisfaction is expressed almost in the terms of a contract - under which the Almighty is granted a third share of the action - and his words encapsulate with disarming candor what typically was behind the prodigious patronage of the city's financial grandees.

The latest of the works Rucellai had commissioned was Leon Battista Alberti's façade for Santa Maria Novella, substantially completed three years earlier, and on which he had the architect emblazon Rucellai's own name, in case future generations should be in any doubt as to who had put up the money for this the first façade in the new, classically derived style in Florence.

Palazzo Strozzi, one of the most imposing palazzi built by the city's cash-rich bankers from the 1440s onward, is the venue for 'Money and Beauty: Bankers, Botticelli and the Bonfire of the Vanities', an exhibition of more than 100 paintings, drawings, sculptures, documents, books and artifacts that explores the patrons, economics and artists during a period now looked back on as a golden age.

Curated by Ludovica Sebregondi and Tim Parks, the show is accompanied by an attractive catalog and useful book directing visitors to other nearby monuments bankrolled and adorned by Florence's Renaissance magnates (including the churches where many found their final resting place).

Florence's prosperity was founded on manufacturing - notably of silk and woolen cloths - and the trading of these and other luxury goods, along with more basic commodities such as olive oil and alum (used for dyeing).

As trading networks expanded, financing them became more complex and gave rise to a burgeoning banking sector, which produced a new class of bankers. The most successful of these - such as the Medici, Sassetti, Portinari, Tornabuoni, Pazzi, Rucellai and Strozzi - amassed enormous fortunes and came to constitute an oligarchy that effectively ruled the Florentine Republic from behind the scenes.

But Dr. Samuel Johnson's later view, that 'There are few ways in which a man can be more innocently employed than in getting money', was not shared by the medieval and Renaissance Christian church, which regarded making money out of money as profoundly sinful, the practitioners of this dark art liable to eternal damnation.

While not the only driving force, this prospect was a sound reason in a pious age for those who had gained riches by such means to perform good works, often involving the building and support of churches and religious foundations.

When Cosimo de Medici asked Pope Eugenius how he might persuade God to look favorably upon him, the Pontiff suggested that he give 10,000 florins to restore the Convent of San Marco in his native city. (Ironically, a later prior of this revived institution was the hell-fire preacher Girolamo Savonarola, who was to become one of the most implacable enemies of the Medici family.) And when Lorenzo the Magnificent reviewed the Medici accounts from 1434 to 1471 he found that the family had spent 663,755 florins on 'buildings, charities and taxes'. (In around 1480 a married couple with three or four children was reckoned to be able to live comfortably on 70 florins a year.)

Ecclesiastical condemnation of 'usury', which originally covered any lending of money with the payment of interest, found expression in painting in both northern and southern Europe, illustrated in the exhibition by a series of characteristic admonitory pieces by Italian and Flemish painters, portraying money changers, misers and usurers.

Works from Flanders were much in demand in Italy at this time and were also commissioned by Italian merchants in residence there. Hans Memling's double portrait of Benedetto di Pigello Portinari and his namesake St. Benedict of 1487 is a fine example on show here.

As banking became increasing central to Florence's extraordinary prosperity a range of financial instruments were concocted - from internationally traded bills of exchange used to profit from currency differences and from time lapses before the cashing-in of the bills, to notional 'gifts' and insurance policies - in order to legitimize the earning of interest by those who had capital to lend. These devices are clearly explained in a section titled 'The Art and Mystery of Exchange', and illustrated with the tools of the trade, including contracts, strong boxes, weighing scales and handy pocket-sized manuals for bankers and businessmen on the move.

Lorenzo the Magnificent died in 1492. He was visited on his deathbed by that inexorably rising figure, the Dominican preacher Girolamo Savonarola. Lorenzo's son Piero lacked Lorenzo's political skills and when the French king Charles VIII invaded Italy, in 1494, the many rivals and enemies of the powerful Medici took advantage of the crisis to drive the family out of the city.

A more democratic Florentine Republic was refounded, partly inspired by the Venetian model, but in place of a Doge, Savonarola, who was largely responsible for the new constitution, appointed Jesus Christ - instructions from whom were inevitably to be relayed to the Florentines via his vicar on earth, the selfsame Girolamo Savonarola.

Bonfires of the Vanities, on which the faithful were invited to dispose of luxuries, fripperies, licentious pictures, books and the like, were not invented by Savonarola, but those he staged during the last days of Carnival in 1497 and 1498 became two of the most famous events of his theocratic regime.

A number of artists were caught up in the fevered moral reformism of the times. According to the painter Giorgio Vasari, Fra Bartolomeo consigned 'all his studies of the nude' to the flames, an example followed by other artists including Lorenzo di Credi. Swayed by the preacher's sermons, Botticelli stopped painting altogether, Vasari records.

But Savonarola overstepped himself in his denunciations of the pope Rodrigo Borgia and ignored the excommunication that his defiance inevitably invited. In Florence the tide turned against the Ferrara-born monk. His opponents won a majority in the elected Great Council and he was arrested on Palm Sunday in 1498, tortured in the presence of the papal envoy and condemned to death along with two of his Dominican companions. The three were hanged and they provided a new pyrotechnic public spectacle when their bodies were incinerated to prevent the survival of relics.

Botticelli's works reflect perhaps better than any other the changing tastes and attitudes in Florence throughout this era: from the tender Madonnas of his early career to the erudite mythologies and nudes of the Medicean humanist heyday and, after the drama of Savonarola's puritanical revolution, a return to the imagery of his younger days.

Running through the exhibition like a leitmotif, emblematic pieces by the artist represent all these phases, culminating in three works from the last decade of the century - a Crucifixion, a Coronation of the Virgin and a Virgin and Child with St. John - unashamedly archaic in style and poignantly evocative of a lost world of simplicity, sweetness and light.

First published: International Herald Tribune

© Roderick Conway Morris 1975-2023