The richest man in history (looty-wallahs part 2)

by Leanne Ogasawara

The_Virgin_of_Chancellor_Rolin_-_detail_Chancellor_Rolin_-_1435When it comes to private art collections, not many places have the richness and diversity of Italy. Of course, Italy also has a few great national museums too. But that is not where one usually heads to find the cream of the crop of the country's fine art. For in Italy, the famed pictures and sculptures are mainly to be seen in the once legendary private collections of long-dead dukes and princes; as well as in those of Renaissance mercenaries and bankers –not to mention the art still found miraculously in the the churches for which they were originally created. Beautiful gems, these private collections are in part why going to Italy to see art somehow feels more an act of pilgrimage than of travel.

In the Uffizi last summer, I wondered about how the collection of a banker– like, say that of a Medici — is different from those of a prince or duke. Indeed, to my untrained eyes, the collecting styles and practices didn't seem so different at all. I wondered why that was. And as luck would have it, the museum shop had Tim Parks' new book Medici Money quite prominently displayed by the cashier. So I grabbed it!

What a great read! And the more I read, the more I could understand why it is that the great private collections of mercenaries and bankers so closely resembled that of the princely collections. Very similar to the situation in Japan, in Italy too, men of business and men of war–once having gained power-r- typically began to crave social acceptance. And so they often turned to art. In those days, art collecting and aesthetic sensibility was seen as a marked sign of character and virtue–and therefore of status. Along these lines, there is an absolutely brilliant (but out of print) book by Christine Guth, called Art, Tea ad Industry: Matsuda Takashi and the Mitsui Circle, about how this practice functioned in Japan down into modern times, where connoisseurship and taste were viewed as the necessary signs of a noble character– and unlike today (where money “trumps” everything), in days past –in Japan and in Europe at least– one would never be taken seriously without noble pursuits and enlightened hobbies.

That is, money alone didn't get you very far up the social hierarchy. One had to display their wealth through the practicing of those things considered to be noble. Art was considered a sign of good character. Even today in Japan, many successful business leaders make it known that they are persons of cultivation through the practice of a refined hobby, like tea or calligraphy, or in amassing refined collections of art (often of the type collected by aristocrats.) In that way, collecting functions to grease social upward mobility; and indeed, for much of history in many parts of the world, art and philanthropy were used to achieve what was the ultimate goal of showing a “noble lifestyle” (vivre noblement).

For the Medici, though, patronage wasn't just about image-creation and social climbing. There was a “metaphysical” aspect to their patronage as well. For, back then, the Catholic church felt that international banking was the source of great evil. And usury was strictly forbidden. I am reading the best book right now called The Richest Man who ever Lived, by Greg Steinmetz. It is about Jacob Fugger, the man who finally went up against the church to stop this prohibition on money lending and pave the way for the world of finance capitalism of today–for better or worse.

According to the church, usurers were sinners (Contro natura). Perpetually static inhabitants of Dante's hell, their hands alone remained in an endless whirl of counting.

And yet, the Popes were key clients of the Medici.

So, what to do, what to do?

It was fairly serious stuff we are talking about. Because usury was seen as a mortal sin. In fact, the debate goes back much further than Christianity (Luke 6:35) and stretches all the way back to Aristotle, who also strongly condemned the practice of loaning money for interest. While Aristotle likened lenders to pimps, Dante went further, likening them to sodomites, while Aquinas went further still, likening them to murderers.

Despite the fact that the popes could bend the rules (when it suited them), the people were perhaps less forgiving. And so the Medici engaged in great public art patronage–along with other civic activities, for the express purpose (according to Park) of rehabilitating their image– in the now and in the hear after.

Yes, they wanted to buy their way out of trouble in the after life.

Beaune hospiceI have written a bit here about Renaissance donor paintings–and these too are a part of this kind of metaphysical negotiating.One of my favorites of the donor pictures is the Chancellor Rolin Madonna in the Louvre (picture at top). I truly adore this painting by van Eyck. And, adding to my interest in the work is the fact that Chancellor Rolin was himself a fascinating person.

Like many people, I have always associated him first and foremost with his famous Hospice in Beaune, France. For whatever reason, from the first time I saw a photograph of the hospice I longed to visit. Somehow, I was struck deeply by pictures of the tiled roof and of the hospital architecture. I also had long wanted to see the Van der Weyden triptych, housed there in the hospice–now a museum (photo below).

Finally making it this past summer, it was everything I imagined. Wonderful. Impressive and really inspiring, I would relocate to Beaune in a New York second! For me, the town (and the wines) are a kind of heaven on earth.

Built in the late 15th century to tend to the dying, the hospice has an impressive 500 years of history serving the poor of Beaune. Rolin had it built and left money for its continuation–which included daily bread to the poor and thirty beds for which those in desperate need could come to die with dignity. He had his reasons for this –and those reasons included ones similar to the Medici. He wanted to rehabilitate his image (making up for moral wrongs done when he was working with the Duke of Burgundy) and perhaps grease the wheels of social and spiritual mobility so his children could be accepted in more upper circles (he was not born a nobleman) and so he would perhaps have a smoother entry in heaven. He also had a very religious and pious wife.

And so Councilor Rolin sought to rehabilitate his image and intercede in terms of final judgement with his wonderful act of philanthropy. (Did I mention the hospital is still continuing its philanthropic activities today? And that those famed Burgundy wine auctions are part of that?)

Fugger too… have you ever heard of the Fuggerei? It is another 500 year old charity that keeps giving down to today.


Anyway, the wealthy aren't as generous today. Maybe it's because usury is no longer seen as a sin or maybe it's because money is no longer considered to be dirty, but all evidence shows that the wealthiest people in the US, at least, are not as generous as those with less money and that as a class they seem to be less civic-minded than they used to be.

Has anyone read Robert Dazell's The Good Rich and What they Cost Us?

2015-07-15 17.26.01Like in the Renaissance days past, the super rich today (if they give at all) tend to give in terms of image rehabilitation. Their giving, therefore, follows a personal project rather than a societal need. We need to first ask ourselves, writes a reviewer on amazon, whether the rich really are as generous as we seem to want to think they are, because Dalzell believes many are not–and that we certainly cannot rely on them to save our failing infrastructure since they are not really looking at the big picture but in their own personal legacy. The reviewer adds this:

In 2009 Forbes reported that only ten people on their list of the four hundred richest, average wealth of $3.6 billion and in some cases over ten times that amount, had given away as much as $1 billion.) Bill Gates and Warren Buffett asked the richest Americans to pledge at least 50% of their wealth to charity in 2010 – in the two years since they have recruited 92 billionaires, including Zuckerberg (Facebook), Bloomberg (NYC Mayor), Reed Hastings (Netflix), Gordon Moore (Intel), Eli Broad (real-estate), George Lucas (Hollywood), Ted Turner (media), Barron Hilton (hotels), Alfred Mann, David Rockefeller (inherited), Paul Allen (Microsoft), Jon Huntsman Sr. (chemicals), T. Boone Pickens (oil), Sanford Weill (banking), Larry Ellison (hardware/software), and Elon Musk. Holdouts include Steve Jobs, the Waltons, Charles and David Koch, Sergey Brin, Larry Page, Sheldon Alelson, Steven Ballmer, Anne Cox Chamgers, Kirk Kerkorian, Philip Knight, Jeffrey Bezos, Rupert Murdoch, and Oprah Winfrey.

We are becoming less equal and less democratic as a nation, and Dalzell is concerned that the counterweight to the presence of inequality among us is overstated.

This is a crucial point, I think because what we have right now are a class of super rich who are neither creating large numbers of new jobs (being involved in a post-capitalist globalized financial activities); nor are they pulling their weight in the way that would be required to push back inequality in terms of paying taxes. Even their much-touted philanthropy is not all its cracked up to be either.

What about art, though? If the super rich are not pulling their weight in terms of philanthropy are they at least putting together some amazing art collections?

I am definitely not an expert here– so anyone please chime in here! All I have read on this (and I love Sarah Thornton's book, Seven Days in the Art World) is that yes, the super wealthy buy art– and in particular they are buying post-War and contemporary art, much of it conceptual made in artist factories. (Thornton in her book talks about Murakami's factory and Agustsson write about Koons). Especially the wealthy in North America focus on a handful of artists, who are seen as a great investment–and this drives the market. Thornton says that, the super-rich buy art for social reasons. Taste, she argues, is determined by the vagaries of fashion; 'collecting art has increasingly become like buying clothes'.

Sola Agustsson wrote a great piece at Alternet about how the patronage today is different than say how the Medici family patronized Michaelangelo

For the most part, the only people who can afford to buy art in this economy are people who are not affected by this economy, the top 1 or 2 percent. Of course, rich people have always patronized the arts— Michelangelo would never have been able to produce his masterpieces without the Medici family— but today's billionaires aren't just patronizing artists, they're investing in and branding them. The top 10 billionaire art collectors have 18% of their net worth invested in art, though the average billionaire invests about .5% of their net worth in art. Investing in art can sometimes prove more lucrative than the stock market; a recent study shows that works by Andy Warhol and Damien Hirst have been appreciating at a higher rate than the S&P 500.

And they are helped by a locust swarm of art advisers, who help them buy and flip the art….

A dismal state of affairs, somehow, to think of artists being brands or worse, artists being traded as stock….


In any case, whether this is a terrible turn in events or whether it is the way patronage has always functioned, the super wealthy need to be taxed their fair share. They are not creating jobs in the same way nor are they engaged in acts of philanthropy that are significant enough to off-set the tax breaks they receive. Dazell ends his book by challenging our charity system—and our tax code—by disputing the premise that individuals will make better decisions regarding social investments than will our representative government. As Ken Stern summarizes in his article on the book for the Atlantic:

Other developed countries have a very different arrangement, with significantly higher individual tax rates and stronger social safety nets, and significantly lower charitable-contribution rates. We have always made a virtue of individual philanthropy, and Americans tend to see our large, independent charitable sector as crucial to our country's public spirit. There is much to admire in our approach to charity, such as the social capital that is built by individual participation and volunteerism. But our charity system is also fundamentally regressive, and works in favor of the institutions of the elite. The pity is, most people still likely believe that, as Michael Bloomberg once said, “there's a connection between being generous and being successful.” There is a connection, but probably not the one we have supposed.

Even Greg Steinmetz, a former teacher turned investment manager in his biography of Fuggers (The Richest Man who Ever Lived) cautions at the end of the book that Adam Smith was quite wrong that the pursuit of self-interest will necessarily promote the interest of society more effectively than if someone had directed it. He says the theory says that but the reality again and again shows is that self-interest alone, if left unchecked leads to crony capitalism….

Is this not a new age of bread and circuses?


For more, see Looty-Wallahs Part One

New York Review of Books: The Richest Man Who Ever Lived

The Guardian Review: Medici Money

Bill Gates: Why Only Socialism Can Save Us