wrote Ezra Pound,
“hath no man a house of good stone
Each block cut smooth and well fitting
That design might cover their face.”
By usura, Pound meant usury, or the lending out of money at an interest. Not just an exorbitantly high rate of interest, as in the modern usage of the word usury, but any interest at all. He goes on:
Hath no man a painted paradise on his church wall….
No picture is made to endure nor to live with
But it is made to sell and sell quickly
With usura, sin against nature.”
In the 1920s Pound had come to believe, as many still do, that international banking was a source of great evil. He used the Italian word usura because it was in Italy that the story had begun. During the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries a web of credit was spun out across Europe, northwards to London, east as far as Constantinople, west to Barcelona, south to Naples and Cyprus. At the heart of this dark web of usura lay Florence. But in the same period, and above all in the century that followed, the Tuscan city also produced some of the finest painting and architecture the world has ever seen. Never had stone blocks been cut more smoothly, never were finer paradises painted on church walls. In the Medici family in particular the two phenomena – modern banking, matchless art – were intimately linked and even mutually sustaining. Pound, it seems, got it wrong. With usura we have the Renaissance, no less.
This book is a brief reflection on the Medicis of the 15th century, their bank, their politics, their marriages, slaves and mistresses, the conspiracies they survived, the houses they built and the artists they patronised. The attempt throughout will be to suggest how much their story has to tell us about the way we experience the relationship between high culture and credit cards today, how far it informs our continuing suspicions with regard to international finance and its dealings with religion and politics.
The story is complicated. There are five generations to consider. It’s important to get the main names and dates and the overall trajectory of the thing firmly in the head from the start.
The bank is founded in 1397 and collapses in 1494. Alas, there will be no centenary party. Giovanni di Bicci de’ Medici starts it. That is: Giovanni, son of Bicci (inexplicable nickname for Averardo), of the Medici family. Born in 1360, Giovanni is responsible for the bank’s initial expansion and for establishing a particular Medici style. He keeps his head sensibly down among his flourishing account books before departing this life in 1429. “Stay out of the public eye,” he tells his children on his death bed.
Cosimo di Giovanni de’ Medici eventually disobeys that order, which is why he will later be reverently known as Cosimo pater patriae, father of his country. His dates are 1389 to 1464 which makes him the longest lived of our five wealthy men. Having survived brief imprisonment and exile, Cosimo takes the Medici bank to its maximum extension and profitability and moves decisively into politics to the point of more or less running the Florentine Republic. He is a friend to philosophers, architects and painters, a patron to the arts and benefactor of major public works. At his death the bank has already entered a decline from which it will never recover.
Piero di Cosimo de’ Medici came to be known as Piero the Gouty. Many male members of the Medici family suffered from gout, a hereditary form of arthritis involving painful and ultimately chronic inflammation of the joints. If Piero was the one singled out for the unhappy nickname, it was simply because he didn’t outlive his father long enough to be known for much else. To Piero, however, goes the merit, or blame, of establishing a principle of succession there where no succession should have been. Piero was head of the Medici bank by hereditary right, but there was no constitutional reason why he should have taken over from Cosimo as key man in the Florentine state. Frail, bedridden and bad-tempered, he was nevertheless more determined and effective than his republican enemies. Born in 1416, Piero ran the show for just five years before handing over the vast family fortune more or less intact to eldest son Lorenzo in 1469.
Lorenzo was to be known as Il Magnifico. So much for keeping out of the public eye. Just twenty when thrust into the limelight, he puts his eggs in other baskets than finance and commerce, allowing the family bank to slide into now irretrievable decline. Like his father and grandfather Lorenzo survives a major conspiracy and shows great skills of political manipulation. Unlike them, he aspires to the aristocracy, writes poetry (good poetry), and barely seeks to disguise a vocation for dictatorship. In 1492, unable, due to the gout, to visit his portly mistress, Lorenzo finally succumbs to a variety of ailments at the age of 43.
Last of the five, Piero di Lorenzo would all too soon be known as Piero the Fatuous. His father’s artistic achievements and pretensions to nobility proved less transferable as assets than the vast monetary wealth left by his great grandfather, now drastically diminished. Born in 1472, his only talent a flair for the game of Florentine football, Piero’s two years as head of the family were an unhappy parody of his father’s more effective manoeuvrings. He fled Florence, perhaps unnecessarily, as French troops approached the city in 1494. The family wealth was confiscated, the bank collapsed, and ten years later Piero confirmed his incompetence, or perhaps just bad luck, when he drowned crossing the Garigliano, a river north of Naples.
The trajectory, then, is clear enough. One hundred years. Five generations. A vertiginous rise of fortune, first economic, then political, in the hands of two most able administrators. A brief hinge period presided over by a grumpy, middle-aged man in bed. Then two and a half decades of political ascendancy predicated on a wealth that is rapidly disappearing. Followed by sudden and complete collapse. To which we might add that despite their different characters, our five Medici have certain traits in common beyond the gout. They were all ugly, the Magnificent spectacularly so. And they were avid collectors: of sacred relics and ceremonial armour, of manuscripts, of jewels, of cameos. The collecting habit, with its impulse toward control, order and possession, is akin to the spheres of both banking and art.