Money and Beauty: Bankers, Botticelli and the Bonfire of the Vanities, Palazzo Strozzi, Florence


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The Independent Culture

Money and art are uneasy bedfellows. One seems gross and materialistic; the other otherworldly, lighter than air.

And yet art depends upon money. All artists are, to some degree, lusty. They are human beings with yawning mouths and brawling trains of infants. These infants are seldom consistently spiritual. Nowhere is this unease better demonstrated than in the relationship between the growth of Florentine banking at the time of the Renaissance and the great art that it helped to bring into being. No modest Madonna ever boasted a gilded halo without the power of money to purchase the expensive raw materials.

This lovely show in the home of banking circles around its subject during decades dominated by some of the greatest of the Medici dynasty. These money-men were patrons of great art, but they lived in perpetually uneasy co-existence with the power of the church.

The exhibition shows us works from Northern Europe by Jan Provoost and others, whose subject is usury and money-changing. We see figures bent over account books, wizened and tortured by the spiritual burdens of usury.

Where there is money, there is rapacity. But the exhibition also contextualises its subject, deftly and enjoyably, by presenting a huge range of objects – balance scales for weighing gold; a chest with a secret locking mechanism; account books; letters of exchange that would rid the merchant of the need to travel, dangerously, with sacks of bullion – in order to show the evolving practicalities of banking.

The exhibition concludes with a great conflagration and a delicate postlude. Towards the end of the 15th century Savonarola, a fanatical Dominican preacher then resident in Florence, denounced all worldly things. A great bonfire of art, books and much else took place in the Piazza della Signoria. The gorgeous products of filthy lucre were damned to high heaven. Even Botticelli, it is rumoured, tossed a canvas or two into the flames.

The exhibition closes with a group of great, late works by Botticelli, in which he shows himself to be under the dark influence of religious fanaticism. The wild, dancing, pagan joys of Spring have been replaced by subjects which feel troubled by self-conscious piety.

To 22 January (