Today's financial crisis nothing to Renaissance Florence

Banks failing and states overwhelmed by debt - not the panicked headlines of newspapers around the globe today but events dating back to Renaissance Florence, the financial capital of its day.

"Money and Beauty", an exhibition in the Tuscan capital running until January 22, narrates the birth of the modern banking system and the roots of our economy during one of the most fertile artistic periods in Europe.

Featuring works by masters such as Botticelli and Hans Memling, the show in the Strozzi Palace looks back to Renaissance Florence for a key to present problems, from market risks to conflicts between economic and spiritual values.

"In the 14th century, the three major banks in Florence went bankrupt when the king of England was unable to pay his debts. England defaulted and there you are: these banks collapsed," exhibition organiser Tim Parks told AFP.

"So there is a connection with today, but the connection that most interests me is the way the church tried to ban any loans with interest," he said.

"They thought that to use obscure financial instruments was against God's plans for us and could only bring social chaos," he added.

To illustrate his point, Parks points to Dutch painter Marinus Van Reymerswaele's "The Moneychanger and His Wife".

"You see two completely ordinary people who have become obsessed by money... like a couple so obsessed with their mortgage payments they're not having sex anymore!"

"There was a time when this obsession with money seemed new and strange, unlike today," the British writer said with a wry smile.

Divided into eight sections, the exhibition explains the economic mechanisms which led Florence to become a leader in commercial transactions and finance the artistic treasures of the Renaissance with their resulting wealth.

"Florence was central in the European system after the launching of the first gold Floren in 1252," said art historian Ludovica Sebregondi.

"A number of banking terms today come from the Italian" such as bank, banker, profit and capital, she said. "At that time, Italian was the language of the banking world, a bit like English is today."

Italian bankers were often patrons of the arts - such as Benedetto di Pigello Portinari, who immortalised himself in a sumptuous portrait by Memling.

And the 100 or so works present in the collection - by Botticelli to Fra Angelico, Piero del Pollaiolo, Luca della Robbia and Andrea del Verrocchio - pay witness to the fact with an abundance of references to the world of finance.

This emphasis on money over spiritual aspects was not to everyone's taste.

"There was a conflict in Florence between emblematic figures such as Lorenzo the Magnificent," who came from a family of bankers, "and Savonarola," a powerful friar who preached against immoral art, Sebregondi said.

Visitors to the exhibition, who receive a token symbolically worth 1,000 Florens to invest as they please during their visit, will have to decide whose side they are on.

"Money and Beauty. Bankers, Botticelli and the Bonfire of the Vanities," runs at the Strozzi Palace until January 22, 2012.