History Books

2 + 2 (+ Distance) = 5

Tim Parks's Medici Money: Banking, Metaphysics, and Art in Fifteenth-Century Florence is a sleek little monograph on the fortunes of a very famous family. Rising from obscurity in the Fourteenth Century, the Medici would be grand dukes of Tuscany in the Sixteenth. How they got from one to the other is one of the world's best-known success stories. Mr Parks, however, sees a more familiar, disappointing story here. As a writer interested in business, he is not as impressed by the cultural achievements of Lorenzo il Magnifico as he would have been had they not been paid for by the exploitation and ruin of the bank painstakingly created by Lorenzo's grandfather. He has a fine nose for the stink of prosperity metastasizing into pretension.

Mr Parks's way of placing the Medici in the familiar context of the Renaissance is just jarring enough to be helpful.

When we think of the period that has come to be known as the Renaissance, we think above all of the fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries; we think of the great art and architecture produced then, from Brunelleschi to Michelangelo, and we are aware of the Medici insofar as they had a relation to that art and those artists. Hence we think of them, and above all of Cosimo and Lorenzo, as living in the heyday of early modern times, before which, with the forward-looking exceptions of Dante, Giotto, and Boccaccio, all is darkness. Thus the myth. Yet there is a sense in which the men we are talking about, and particularly Giovanni di Bicci and Cosimo, must have seen themselves rather as coming afterward, of living in the aftermath of something, not the beginning of a golden age.

As bankers they came after the innovations that had given the Italians a virtual monopoly on European finance: after the invention of double-entry bookkeeping, after the advent of the bill of exchange, the letter of credit, and the deposit account. The Medici invented nothing in banking practice, unless perhaps we are to think of the relation between their parent company and subsidiaries as an early form of holding. What's more, all the Medici would have been very aware of coming after banks far larger than their own.

Mr Parks's intriguing strategy is to strip away everything about the Medici that might impress the lazy mind, presenting them as clever but occasionally distracted men of affairs no less motivated to find the main chance that today's investment bankers. One result is a portrait of Cosimo de' Medici that brings someone like Warren Buffett to mind.

Cosimo's destiny was to steer a course between conflicting aspirations — power and security, earthly wealth and paradise. With patience. Discretion. Hiding ambitions behind majority opinion. "Semper" was the motto he eventually came up with for himself, "always," together with the diamond as a symbol, something precious and extremely resistant. Nothing in the history books gives us a sense of the man's ever having been young.

His grandson, Lorenzo, in contrast, seems incapable of long-term concealment of any kind.

"Lorenzo's greatest failing," wrote the historian Guicciardini in 1509, "was suspicion." First of a new species — the aristocrat by education, marriage and money, rather than hereditary right — Lorenzo was afraid that others wouldn't recognize his superiority, then afraid, when they did, that they would try to bring him down. A pattern of behavior emerged: imagining himself threatened, or offended (it was the same thing), he would overreact and bring about the clash he feared.

The account of the Medici attempt to corner the market in alum (a mineral essential to the cloth trade), by depending on the Papal ban on Turkish imports, makes Cosimo's successors look like inattentive and self-important schoolboys.

Indeed, the thread that glimmers through the second half of Medici Money most intriguingly is Mr Parks's feeling that Lorenzo was sent to the wrong schools. Perhaps "hostility" overstates the degree of his disenchantment with Renaissance humanism, but certainly within the context of a book about banking his impatience makes sense.

But to dig a little deeper, at what wasn't explicitly stated or perhaps even consciously meant, yet nevertheless seeps through the process of raising yourself up, of becoming this refined, educated, artistic aristocrat, was now no longer an evil thrusting above and beyond your proper medieval station (as the reason charge against Cosimo in 1433 implied). On the contrary, it was a sign of your upward aspiration toward the Divine. This was an attractive and soothing thought. It would galvanize Lorenzo into sponsoring, and himself engaging in, a range of lavish, public artistic projects, mainly secular, which were at once beautiful and politically convenient, in that they enhanced his and the city's image. A leader who sponsors and, as a poet, actually creates beautiful art cannot be a bad leader. A leader who employs the likes of Botticelli to make festival banners and carnival floats will not get a bad press from posterity. And the good citizen, the good Christian, must be a Platonist because only the Platonist appreciates and participates in this striving for the beautiful and better, this aestheticizing of public life. If he wasn't a Platonist, that is, our philistine citizen might merely start counting the florins and piccioli and making dry remarks about political self-interest.

Which brings us to the chief drawback of these exciting ideas: They had little to say about moneymaking and the price of things. The underlying contradiction here is quite different from Cosimo's dilemma: How do I get my soul to heaven while amassing a fortune with supposedly sinful banking practices. The problem now is that while wealth is actually more important than ever — for how can you get the best artists, the best teachers, a decent translation of Plato, not to mention the wherewithal to throw a lavish party for a dead philosopher's birthday? — nevertheless the actual process of moneymaking is passed over as something base, something on the lowest level of the Platonic hierarchy, something the noble soul would gladly leave behind in its struggle to be free from mere matter.

This is as cogent a critique of ancien rιgime finance as I have ever read. In the centuries to come, legions of bankers, industrialists, international merchants and commodity extractors would surrender significant parts of their fortunes in exchange for tatty pseudo-aristocratic titles that, while conferring no very great benefit beyond the instant glamour of a fancy name, required that the newly-minted grandee stop making money. Cosimo de' Medici, as a late medieval man, could not foresee what would happen when the prestige of the church passed to the state. Even at its most extravagant, the concepts of absolute monarchy and divine right never held that supporting a monarch would get one into heaven. Mr Parks gives us a humanism that was more corrosive than constructive, and leaves the reader with the suggestion that the direct benefits of the new discipline were enjoyed exclusively by scholars; that, for merchant princes like Lorenzo de' Medici, they bestowed something of a poison kiss.

As a New Yorker, I was pleased to learn something about Tommaso Portinari, the austerely handsome man whose portrait by Memling, together with that of his younger wife, Maria dei Bandi Baroncelli, graces the walls of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Unlike the portrait, the new information is unflattering. Tommaso, raised by the Medici after the death of his parents, seems to have had a worse case of whatever afflicted Lorenzo. His specialty appears to have been making extremely unwise loans to Charles the Rash, the duke of Burgundy would would get himself killed fighting the Swiss in 1477, nearly taking the Medici bank down with his duchy. Mr Parks nails Tommaso's fundamental lack of aptitude for banking with a few decisive strokes.

No sooner is he the director of the Bruges branch than Tommaso Portinari decides that the bank needs a palazzo comparable to the one his brother presides over in Milan. Hotel Bladelin, one of the finest buildings in Bruges, costs 7,000 Rhine florins. "And I do not live in pomp and show!" he protests in a letter to Piero. Impatient with ordinary banking trade, Tommaso goes remorselessly for the deal to end all deals."

It's about as unprofitable as the alum, and is just as dependent on the dubious power of sovereign favor to divert market forces.

As my extracts ought to make clear, Tim Parks writes history with more than a touch of laddish enthusiasm. I expect that his book will make Medici scholars wince. But I doubt that any serious objections would stand up. Mr Parks has read his sources — he's quite wonderful about Guicciardini — and he knows how to conjure quattrocento Florence out of thin air. At the beginning of the book, in an uncharacteristic fit of grandiosity, he announces his objectives:

The attempt throughout will be to suggest how much their story has to tell us about the way we experience the relationship between high culture and credit cards today, how far it informs our continuing suspicions with regard to international finance and its dealings with religion and politics.

Happily, Medici Money is a much, much better book than that.

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