In 1252, the city of Florence in Tuscany minted the 24-carat gold florin. By the end of the century the florin had become one of the most important currencies in Europe and Florence had become the financial capital of the world. Money and Beauty: Bankers, Botticelli and the Bonfire of the Vanities, curated by Ludovica Sebregondi and Tim Parks, is about the bankers that underwrote the Renaissance, the artists who won their patronage, and the tensions that culminated in the Bonfire of the Vanities in 1497 and 1498.
The exhibition at Palazzo Strozzi in Florence has something for everyone. The explanations are clear and well-written and the audio guide is excellent. There are activities for children including a special audio tour. Each entrance ticket carries a unique bar code which can be used to invest 1,000 florins at the start of the journey, and visitors who manage to make a profit on their investment are tempted with a 5% discount in the bookshop.
A real gold florin, spotlit and suspended inside a perspex display case, greets the visitor at the entrance to the exhibit, an emissary from a time when the value of money equalled the value of the metal, rather than the value of a government guarantee. The Statutes of the Mint, strongboxes, a rare surviving money bag, and other tools of the money trade are also on display. There is a fascinating nautical map from Venice, handwritten bills of exchange, textbooks for bankers, items of clothing, and stunning paintings by Renaissance Masters from Orcagna to Botticelli, not to mention the ones whose names have been lost over the centuries, as well as paintings by Flemish masters and much more. There are features on the financial giants of the day, Francesco Datini in Prato, the Medici in Florence, and on Sandro Botticelli, the artist whose death in 1510 marks the end point for the exhibit.
What did I learn? Well, for one thing, lending with interest (usury) was banned by the church in those days, so bankers found a way to lend money, make a profit and not feel that they were engaged in usury: the letter of exchange.
Foreign currencies were not usually held in quantity in any one town, so if someone wanted to change florins into, say, English pounds, the florins were handed over in Florence and the pounds picked up in London. Officially, travel to London took 90 days, so someone kept the florins a while before repaying. Since the exchange rate was always more favourable for the local currency, in London a similar exchange deal could be made to turn pounds back into florins, such that after another 90 days, in Florence again, there might be a profit of 10 to 20 per cent.
The letter of exchange tied finance and trade together as distance and exchange rates substituted for time and interest rates.
(Text by Tim Parks)
To show that they had finer things on their minds than counting and weighing money, bankers and merchants channeled some of the profits from currency exchange and international trade into art. The church was quite happy to be the beneficiary of beautiful paintings and frescoes on suitable topics: The Annunciation, the Madonna and Child, the Adoration of the Shepherds, to name a few, and by including themselves in the pious scenes, the rich bought themselves some peace of mind. There are many such examples, but here is one featuring Filippo Strozzi, who laid the foundation stone for the Palazzo Strozzi in 1489. He is shown kneeling to the right of the Madonna and Child in a panel painting that once was part of a larger altarpiece. There is even a connection to Rotterdam as the painting belongs to the collection of the Museum Boijmans van Beuningen.
(Image published by permission of copyright holder)
There is a walkthrough of the exhibition on the Palazzo Strozzi website, so even if you can’t make it to Florence by January 22 this year, you may still read the exhibition texts and enjoy a taster of the rooms. (Double-click the photographs in the text for 360 degree views of each of the rooms.)
As for the 1,000 florins that I bought with the 10 euro entrance fee, my investment started out well enough. A shipment of alum to Bruges made a profit, and for the return trip to Italy I bought bolts of fine wool cloth to be sold in Naples. Sadly, the cargo ship was attacked by pirates in the Bay of Biscay and despite the 12 archers on board, the wool was lost. No wonder the shipping documents included the phrase Nel nome di Dio e di buona ventura (May God and fortune be our aid).