Book: Medici Money

Donatello’s David, commissioned by Cosimo de’ Medici circa 1430. (Photo by Patrick A. Rodgers)

I finished Tim Parks’ Medici Money last week. It’s his condensed account, mostly drawn from other secondary sources, of the five generations who made up the fabled Medici bank in 15th-century Florence.

The name “Medici” is unavoidable once you start learning about the likes of Brunelleschi, Donatello and Leonardo, as I did in college. But I didn’t know much about how the Medici made their money and how their influence stretched across Europe, intersecting with dueling popes (or anti-popes!), the Holy Roman Empire, the Ottoman Turks and more.

Second-generation Cosimo is the most interesting and appealing figure of the bunch. He’s the one who built up what was a merchant bank, and as his wealth and influence grew, he patronized the local sculptors and fresco artists. Donatello’s celebrated, very sexy bronze statue of David was a Cosimo commission. There were others–Cosimo shrewdly directed much of his munificence toward his church, the Basilica of San Lorenzo, the better to get the clerics to look the other way at a time when usury was technically forbidden.

Because it was prohibitively dangerous to transport hard currency across Europe, the Medici bank and others like it existed by acting as a late-medieval version of American Express or Western Union. A traveler leaving London for Florence would first deposit money in the local branch of the Medici bank and receive a letter of credit in return. When he arrived in Florence (IF he arrived), he would present the letter and receive his funds in the local currency. The Medici would make their profit off the currency exchange.

But bankers like the Medici had to make markets, too, to stimulate the flow of cash. They would ship loads of Italian silk and other local products to the north, and receive such products as English wool. But it was a tough business, and travel was hard. Making matters even harder was the necessity of working with impecunious dukes and popes, who had a way of demanding loans that they would be very, very slow to repay. Cosimo was adept at balancing his books by accruing power thanks to the lords and priests who were in his debt, but it didn’t do anything for his cash flow.

He comes off as a fairly decent guy by the standards of the time, someone who simply wants to be able to conduct his business in peace. In addition to the art commissions that would forever link his family with the Renaissance, Cosimo also developed an interest in Plato late in his life, and commissioned a complete translation of the 2,000-year-old body of Athenian philosophy into contemporary Italian.

But there are unsettling aspects to Cosimo’s life. He’s not just a gentle old don playing in the garden with his grandchild, a la the final moments of Vito Corleone’s life. Slavery was legal in 15th-century Italy, and while living away from home in Rome, Cosimo enslaved a woman for his sexual pleasure. She bore him a son. Here’s Parks, nicely illustrating the moral universe of that era:

He asked an agent in the bank’s Venice branch to find him a slave. The keeping of slaves had been permitted since the late 1300s after the plague had left the working population seriously depleted. The epidemic struck down men and women, old and young alike, of course, but the slaves brought in to solve the shortage–from the Slavic countries, Greece, North Africa–were almost all young women. She is ‘a sound virgin, free from disease and aged about twenty-one,’ Cosimo’s agent told him. Quite an advertisement. Himself a declared devotee of the Virgin, Cosimo called the girl Maddalena, after a more ambiguous Mary, and some time later she bore him a child, Carlo, with marked Circassian features. We do not know how much embarrassment this caused, but clearly being a manifest adulterer was not as much of a problem as being a manifest usurer. […]

Cosimo brought up Carlo in his household together with his legitimate sons, Piero and Giovanni, and later used his influence to get the boy into the Church and have him become bishop of Prato. This was standard practice. It was considered appropriate for the fruits of carnal sin to take vows of celibacy. (Parks, pp. 63-4)

The consolations of wealth, power and a co-opted clergy did little to alleviate the agonies of old age in the 15th century. Afflicted by gout, incontinence and more, Cosimo’s last years were painful, humiliating, but not out of the ordinary.

The rest of the book is a narrative of decline as the Medici bank becomes overextended, lending too much money to impecunious lords and bishops. Subsequent patriarchs lacked Cosimo’s discretion, tact, judgment and instinct for finance. Instead, they preferred to social-climb. The most distinguished of these was Cosimo’s great-nephew, Lorenzo the Magnificent, who was a fine poet, a bad banker and a tyrant.

Another character in this book, one of the dissolute lords who made business difficult for Cosimo, carries a name that cinephiles will recognize: Visconti. Yes, very likely related.

Books read this year: 7

I’m midway through my first graphic novel, something called Mind Mgmt. Pretty good stuff so far. More books about money after that.

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