No one benefits from a bonfire of the vanities

 
Marc Sidwell
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WHEN it all ended, they sent children to tug the playing cards from gamblers’ hands and strip closets of their silks. Savonarola’s so-called angels swept away the fine paintings and the antique statues, delivering their loot to the great fire burning in the heart of the city. It was said that Botticelli himself threw pictures onto the fire. Mardi Gras, 1497, and Florence, a city made great with the fortunes created by its bankers, was ruining itself in a self-righteous fury. As a new exhibition opens in Florence, covering the role of high finance in that city’s Renaissance, the bonfire of the vanities offers a useful reminder of what happened when Florence rejected high finance.

The new exhibition at the Palazzo Strozzi, Money and Beauty, covers a too-rarely touched subject: the intimate relationship between the making of money and the culture it supports. That can rarely have been more evident than in Renaissance Florence, where the great banking families, the Pazzi and the Medici, were both innovative wealth-creators and discerning patrons, commissioning work of the highest quality. But the same patronage can still be found in today’s great financial centres, as well. Not only does the wealth generated by business and the City indirectly support the arts through taxation, but it does so directly and visibly, from BP-sponsored free screenings of opera and ballet to collections like that of Deutsche Bank, which has been a passionate collector of art in London for thirty years.

For those too ready to assume that financiers are those who know everything about price but nothing of value, the tombs Michaelangelo designed for the Medici – left unfinished when he left the madness that had engulfed Florence for Rome – are a permanent rebuke. Of course, the Medici were not perfect. Power was too centralised. Lorenzo the Magnificent suffered from the collapse of some bank branches; there were bad loans. But Florence had made Michelangelo possible, had built a banking empire spanning the known world based on the unimpeachability of its gold coin, the florin – and its expanding economy had brought a better life to the poor as well as the wealthiest in Florence.

Somehow all the good things were forgotten. Savonarola rose, preaching an economic cargo cult that said if the city only embraced the common good and gave up its luxuries and its mansions, returned to an old way of life from its capitalist high spirits, heaven would provide: “If the city will, in this way, be good and full of charity, God will make her abound in riches.” They forgot that God never had before. The bankers had simply discovered new ways to make money by hard work – and wonderful new things that money could pay for, often to the glory of God. They made their city the envy of the world. But again and again we take these things for granted, and nod to the speeches condemning greed, until we turn around from the flames to find the great artists and the banks and businesses that make them possible packing for another city.

Money and Beauty: Bankers, Botticelli and the Bonfire of the Vanities is at the Palazzo Strozzi in Florence until 22 January 2012.