Banking, something we take for granted, was a relatively new industry in the 15th Century when the Medici family made their fortune from it. Relatively new, and perilously close to the mortal sin of usury. Tim Parks, the noted english novelist, commentator, and literary critic, in Medici Money. Banking, Metaphysics and Art in Fifteenth Century Florence turns his attention to the Medici and the renaissance, examining the troubled relationship between art, religion and commerce.
Parks generously agreed to discuss this fascinating book with TMO (via email).
The Medici and the period they lived in have been endlessly examined by Historians. What convinced you, foremost a novelist and literary critic, to accept the challenge of writing the book? Did you feel there was a gap in the material available?
I was asked to write about the Medici bank as part of a series of books by ‘writers’ on ‘money’. I turned the offer down immediately, convinced that it was far too specialist a subject for me. But at the same time I started reading about it and very soon changed my mind. I felt the books divided into traditional ‘narrative’ histories with very little in the way of ideas, or highly specialist books which did little to attract the non-specialist reader. I thought it would be fun to try a synthesis and above all to use the experience as an opportunity to reflect on something that has always interested me, the relationship between countable value – cash – and non-countable value.
The Medici have been portrayed recently, by Paul Strathern, as being akin to the modern day Mafia/Cosa nostra, subverting loyalty to the state to loyalty to the family. Do you think a comparison can be made?
One can always make comparisons. However, The state was not so highly developed and more or less every major Italian family sought to operate in similar ways. The Medici were not regularly involved in criminal operations, nor did they seek mafia style invisibility. They sought, perhaps, over time and very slowly, to become the state. Quite a common ambition at the time. In the end, I don’t think it’s helpful to use the word mafia.
One of the great successes of the book is the care with which you try to place the characters within an appropriate setting, rather than within our received notion of the renaissance. It’s plausible to see the Medici as participating at the start of a process that would introduce secular humanism – how aware do you think each of your principal characters, Giovanni, Cosimo, Piero, and Lorenzo would have been of this particular process?
These men were focused on the problems the world presented them. They were almost unbelievably busy. At the same time, when they saw that a certain action produced certain effects – the sponsoring of a certain work of art in a church, for example, in Cosimo’s case, or the influence of writing or painting on public opinion in Lorenzo’s – then they followed it up and exploited it for all it was worth. There’s no suggestion that they had understood where humanism would go, its consequences for the church and Christianity. But how could they?
Norman Davies, in his Europe – a history, wrote that Florence “as the first home of the Renaissance, can fairly claim to be the mother of modern Europe”. Throughout Medici Money you stress that the world of the Medici, in the 1400’s has very direct connections to our own. What do you think are the most pertinent connections, and indeed the most obvious differences?
Well, I hope I didn’t overplay this. It does seem to me that this is the moment when a new relationship is established between money and art, whereby the expense of money, however earned, on artistic projects, begins to guarantee the patron a positive reputation, whatever the actual implications of the artwork and its content.
Florence was also a republic that was trying to deal with the relationship between big money and a proto-democratic state. What is the role of money in a political process once we have banned the hereditary nobles? That is a problem that is very much with us today. And not just at election time.
The historian S.R. Gardiner wrote: “he who studies the society of the past will be of greater service to the society of the present in proportion as he leaves it out of account”. As someone who has written a book examining fifteenth century Florence, but with pertinent allusions to modern society, would you disagree with Gardiner’s comments?
He’s right of course that we mustn’t understand the past in the light of the present. A lot of narrative historians do this, assuming that the feelings and reactions of people in the past were inevitably the same as those of people today. Strathern’s mafia analogy might be a case in point. Better to see the Medici clearly for what they did than muddy the waters with the word mafia.
That said, having told the story, it would be folly not to see in the past the beginning of our world and mindset today.
Alexander Rose, reviewing Medici Money, in the National Review, wrote: “I don’t, however, agree with the argument – advanced by several conservative commentators – that, apart from the usury brouhaha, a forward-looking Church helped foment capitalism by overseeing a continental single market that smashed the ‘anachronistic’ feudalistic system, thus enabling Europe’s economic take-off and rise to mastery. But then neither do I assume, as Parks does, that the Church was an inherently reactionary force, the implication being that the Medici’s Renaissance unleashed socioeconomic forces that extinguished a theocratic, medieval world ‘lit only by fire'”. Would you agree that you present the Church as an ‘inherently reactionary force’ in this period?
Oh dear. It’s hard to know how to respond to anyone who dismisses the church’s ban on lending money at an interest with the expression ‘usury brouhaha.’ The church’s objections to usury were profound, based on an elaborate metaphysics and deeply conservative. Not for nothing are the same objections alive today in the Moslem world.
That said the church was a large, complex and frequently contradictory organisation, often pushing in opposite directions at the same time, and the consequences were frequently unpredictable. I really can’t deal with the rest of the question. It seems such a crude, or perhaps just hurried reading of what I said. That a medieval, theocratic world gradually disappeared is history. That the flourishing of humanism and banking were broadly contemporary to that decline is evident. There were many many factors involved. However, it must be said that wherever the usury ban went, medieval theocracy went with it.
Medici Money is a wonderfully compact book. Where there any particular historical episodes/tangents that you would have liked to pursue, but, justifiably for the sake of form and argument, chose not to?
My brief was a book of 50,000 words. I was writing to order and it was a challenge. I accepted the challenge for fun and because I think that many many history books are far too long, so long that they don’t actually say much. Does that make sense?
On the other hand there really was such an enormous amount to write about that I was forced to make the book extremely compact, using a very dense, though I hope lively, style. And even so I went over the mark. The book is 60,000 words long.
But to answer the question, yes, I would very much have liked to look a bit more at the paintings commissioned, at Lorenzo’s poetry, and above all about the decision making process of the city state in Cosimo’s period.
David Lane, correspondent for the Economist, writing in Berlusconi’s Shadow, commented “One explanation for the different ways of looking at corruption might lie in the contrast between two types of Christianity. The conscience of the Roman Catholic, that can be put at ease through priestly mediation in the confessional, is perhaps less demanding than that of the Protestant, accountable directly to God.” Given that much of Medici Money focuses on the relationship between religion and finance, how plausible do you think Lane’s argument is for Modern Italy?
Well, this comment is as old and self-regarding as Protestantism itself. It seems to make sense, but I’m not entirely sure I agree with it. There are examples of Catholic states that are extremely demanding on the consciences of their citizens. One thinks of Ireland. Much depends on the priests. A tough priest (Savonarola!) might be less forgiving than the God the protestant imagines he is dealing with. Perhaps the more important division is the separation, or otherwise, of church and state. A church which is also a state, as the Roman church was for so long, will tend to be compromised by the affairs of the world, something that might influence the priesthood and their dealings with the people. A priesthood that is truly outside the world will not be so lenient on consciences. This, after all, is what the great medieval debate on the right of priests to live in a state of poverty refusing gifts from rich members of the congregation was all about.
References to Berlusconi are tiresome.
You open the book with a quote from Ezra Pound, on usury. The book, in part, seems to be a defence of the role of finance and sponsorship in art. “With usura we have the renaissance no less,” you comment. While the Medici provided the conditions for great art to flourish, did they create the conditions for free artistic expression? Is it a worthwhile distinction? Do you think there are direct similarities between, for example modern day publishing, and the Medici sponsorship of art?
These are questions that try to bring to the Medici contemporary obsessions that have little to do with them. Clearly an artist working for the Medici was painting subjects he had been told to paint. The Medici did not commission paintings of The Last Judgement; On the other hand I doubt if this was perceived as a lack of freedom by the painter. We have correspondences suggesting disagreements between artists and Medici patrons, but the disagreements were more about technical matters, colours, whether or not there should be angels in the sky, etc. The culture, that is, was still sufficiently homogeneous at least in the first half of the 15th century for there to be broad agreement about what was a worthwhile subject for art. But times were already changing and artists like Michelangelo would try their patrons’ patience to the limit.
Is there an analogy with modern publishing? I leave it to a reader to decide. It’s clear that today I can write what I like. It’s also clear that I might want to write things that most publishers would not dream of touching. For fear, or for fear that it wouldn’t make money.
Simon Young, writing in The Independent , suggested that the subtitle of the book, Banking Metaphysics and Art in Fifteenth-Century Florence is misleading. That the history you recount, though well written and of value, in effect has little on banking, metaphysics, or art. Fair comment?
Well, it’s kind of him to say I write well. The word value already raises questions that have to do with money and metaphysics. I made about 55,000 dollars from the book, before tax. But perhaps he is suggesting that people will gain something less tangible from reading it. Let’s say, I still think that the book was about the relationship between banking, metaphysics and art, a relationship that for reasons I explain draws in politics and war. But I won’t argue with a decent review when I get one.
Piero de Medici has traditionally been portrayed in terms of a weak and sickly interlude between the brilliant epochs of Cosimo and Lorenzo, but recent scholarship (Ames-Lewis, Dale Kent) see him as much more interesting than that. What’s your take on Piero’s significance?
Piero was one of those unfortunate heirs whose father lived so long that he was always ‘in waiting’. To make matters worse, he was not even supposed to be an heir. Or rather, he could legitimately inherit money, but not control of the state. Waiting, he developed an extraordinary aesthetic sense and brought up, in Lorenzo, a man of immense charisma and artistic talent, and a man with a decidedly new view of the world. On his father’s death Piero was almost paralysed by gout and faced a major revolt on the part of those who had decided that the time had come to see off the Medici family. That he saw off the opposition instead was a truly remarkable achievement, though whether ‘for the good’ or not is another matter. What might Lorenzo have been, as a poet, had he not been troubled with power? But these are just provocations.
Medici Money: Banking, Metaphysics and Art in Fifteenth-century Florence by Tim Parks is published by Profile Books.