Medici Money by Tim Parks

Never mind the art, show us the money

Think these same family factions, part Capulet, part Godfather - only without the Prince of Verona or the Feds getting in the way - slapping fines, blood and sentences of exile on each other one morning, while sitting down for week-long conferences in the city's Palazzo Vecchio the next. And as for the philosopher "king" Lorenzo, this was the two-faced and double-edged genius who, a gifted poet, wrote to the same tunes, and as circumstances demanded, obscene ditties for the poor and the most magnificent psalms to God.

The latest historian of the Medici, Tim Parks, has chosen his subject well, then: 15th-century Florence was an interesting spot, one of 10 or 11 in world history that would justify state-subsidised time travel. However, the name of Parks' book - Medici Money: Banking, Metaphysics and Art in 15th-century Florence - was hit upon rather less felicitously. Indeed, it seemed to this reader the equivalent of labelling good, nutritious, honest-to-God, baked beans as "haricots à la sauce tomate". Forget "metaphysics": that covers probably three pages of the 250 in the book; lay aside, too, "art" that, with all the references included there jammed together, would just tip over 10; forget even banking which, though a running theme, is not the point. This is about a century in a family's and, through them, a city's, life and belongs to the rollicking-good-read category of history books. I scrawled "The Medicis and 15th-Century Florence" over my copy with a thick black felt-tip pen. It was that or the trade-description act...

Once you get past the confusion of the title, the story-telling is wonderful. Parks brings a novelist's flair to his task and comes out as a hip and snappy narrator, filling his pages with all the mod cons. A board, for instance, that controlled the sale of the mineral alum is "a sort of 15th-century Opec"; Italian geography is, in some efficient and admirable paragraphs, reduced to a cylinder and an inverted triangle; while small Italian states are gobbled up "like fruit in a computer game". Indeed, sometimes Parks reminded me of a with-it C of E vicar trying to explain to his not always attentive congregation the interest of a Biblical passage: one-word sentences, recourse to the vivid present tense, and a hurrying, breathless style that leaves no room for doubts. But there is also an impatience with detail that means that, just occasionally, Parks fails to pierce the hard carapace of Renaissance history. So I missed discussion - all we have are some very perfunctory nods - of the connection between the Florentine families and their respective territories in the countryside: it was, for example - the Middle Ages looking over the shoulder of the Renaissance here - the intensely rural Mugello estates that produced the Medici's foot soldiers.

Make no mistake, there is wit, elegance and intelligence in these pages. Parks' prose floats like cork through some potentially dangerous waters. He has an infallible eye for interesting anecdotes: prostitutes wearing bells on their heads and so forth. An unusual narrative stance also gives insights: Medici Money marks a marriage of the banking history of the Medici and the family's political shenanigans that has never before been attempted. But if there are any serious objections to this work, as opposed to some dust-kicking about the title, then these will be historical. As I suspect Parks would be the first to admit, this is not history written to professorial standards. Whether that is a good thing or not is, of course, a matter of taste. For those who like to be gripped by the past Tim Parks has surpassed himself and produced a thoroughly readable book on the Medici. But for those wishing to enjoy history "in hexameter", this is Charles and Mary Lamb, not William Shakespeare. Caveat emptor!