The Art of Money

The Moneychanger and his Wife2In More Intelligent Life:

Renaissance-era Florence is remembered not for its bankers but for its beauty. Yet the city is now hosting a splendid exhibition that reaffirms the important link between the two. High finance not only funded high art, but its money and movement helped to fuel the humanist ideals that inspired the Renaissance. This show, curated by Tim Parks, a British writer based in Italy, and Ludovica Sebregondi, an Italian art historian, considers the influence of 15th-century financiers on Italian art and culture.

“Money and Beauty” is divided into two parts: how money was made, and how it was spent. The gold florin, first minted in 1252 (and equal to $150 today), made the Florentine republic the heart of a nascent banking system that stretched from London to Constantinople. The Medici bank was supreme for almost a century, till its collapse in 1494 when the family was ousted from political power. This show, on view in the Strozzi palace (built in 1489 by a rival banking family), also traces the humbler fortunes of Francesco di Marco Datini, the “merchant of Prato”, using the vast archive he left behind. To recreate the daily activities of these bankers as well as their world view, the exhibition includes paintings and mercantile paraphernalia, from weighty ledgers to nautical maps.

The Church deemed it sinful to charge interest on loans, viewing it as profit without labour. This gave rise to artful and elaborate ways to disguise such profit-making, including foreign currency deals and triangular trading. The divergence of moral and commercial values can be seen in some Flemish paintings included here, such as Marinus van Reyerswaele’s “The Money Changer and his Wife”, in which a couple fixates on their coins while their candle is snuffed out (pictured top).