by Anna Maria Frastali - Internship in Creative Writing
Daily 9 am- 8 pm. Thursdays 9 am-11 pm
Through January 22
Money makes the man,
Money makes the stupid pass for smart,
Money buys the treasure for sins,
Money buys the pleasure-giving women,
Money keeps the soul in bliss,
Money put the common man in high estate.
Money brings your enemies down.
And every man seems down without it,
The world and fortune being ruled by it,
It even opens if you want, the doors of paradise.
So wise he seems to me who piles up
What more than any other virtue
Conquers gloom and leavens the whole spirit.
Niccolo de’ Rossi, 1290-1348.
Money and beauty are just two words. They have no actual substance but they seem to control our lives in this era of financial crisis and supremacy of the image. In fact, their sovereignty is not so contemporary. “No money, no Renaissance” informs us the introductory text of the new exhibition “Money and Beauty. Bankers, Botticelli and the Bonfire of the Vanities”, held at Palazzo Strozzi. Through their texts, art historian Ludovica Sebregondi and author Tim Parks accompany us on a journey to the roots of Florentine power in Europe, a journey through the origins of modern banking.
In addition to paintings by Italian artists like(Sandro Botticelli, Tomasso di Piero Trombetto, Francesco Botticini, Fra Angelico, Piero del Pollaiolo and Cosimo Rossi), breathtaking Flemish paintings by Jan Provoost and Da Marinus Van Reymerswaele, among others. In fact, the subject of usury was common in Flemish art. But what really strikes the visitor is the preponderance of texts in every room.
The exhibits are hosted in six rooms and divided into eight sections. The first room, divided into two sections, plays an introductory role in the knowledge of the Florin, the coin used since the 13th century, and the financial state of Florence. The second room informs us about the practices of usury, which was subsequently banned by the church, as it was considered a sin of avarice. “They traded time, which belongs to God alone” we read in one of the banners.
The third room, also divided into two sections, refers to the exchange of money but also products between countries. Continuing, we learn about “Sumptuary Laws”, which were made to control the accessories and clothing women wore, but also prohibit to the majority of the people this luxury, as a means of avoiding contamination between social classes. The relationship between bankers and artists is underlined in the next room.
The final room under the topical title “Crisis” presents the end of the Medici sovereignty and the ensuing end of Savonarola and his bonfires of vanities.
Bankers realized that money can buy a lot of things. At first through art they bought social prestige. A new painting picturing a Madonna in luxurious clothing was the center of attraction and discussion. Social status was something they lived for, so sumptuary laws were created to preserve their exclusivity on beautiful things. However, they treated artists as plain workers. Datini, one of the richest people in town, proposed that they should leave painters starve so that they would lower their prices.
However, money brought something even more crucial: their salvation. Soon enough, bankers learnt that they can buy a seat in heaven. The church banned usury and condemned avarice but they couldn’t say no to their generous donations. Bankers built churches and private chapels. Then church entered their houses when they paid for religious paintings which could assist them in praying. Ironically, the Florentine coin depicted John the Baptist on one of its sides.
Mo’ money mo’ problems as the well-known song tells us, so it is no surprise that the end of the century brought with a crisis. The society was divided into two worlds. On the one side there were the Mediceans: a group of rich intellectuals, prone to philosophy, music, literature and of course art. The wave of Neo-Platonism had flourished and inspired Sandro Botticelli into painting the Birth of Venus and the Spring. Beauty was a gateway to an upper level of knowledge and being. Religion ceased being the ultimate subject in art and beauty became an ideal.
On the other side Savonarola, the fiery preacher, came and warned the sinners by condemning luxury and wealth. Fra Bartolomeo burnt his nudes and Savonarola led two bonfires at the Piazza della Signoria (in 1497 and 1498). Sandro Botticelli started following Savonarola’s ideals. Religion was his new inspiration and art of the past, which was supposed to be good and even saintly, was his new guide. In the end, Savonarola and his two companions were hanged and burnt at the same place they held the Bonfires, at the Piazza della Signoria.
The “Money and the beauty” exhibition is the most innovative and radical exhibition I have ever attended. The texts alone, written by people in two different fields- one of whom is not even an art-historian- blazed a trail, especially when speaking for the artistically traditional Florence. Special sections (a computer game, children’s activity: the Botticelli code and “draw your own monetary note” room) added more excitement to this interesting display. The only possible drawback was that there was too much information, so I had to go a second time to see the rest of it.
Money and Beauty. Bankers, Botticelli and the Bonfire of the Vanities
Until January 22, 2012
Reservations: Sigma CSC 055/2340742
See www.palazzostrozzi.org for more information and related events taking place throughout the city