Journey to the source: Finance in Florence

The riches of Florence are a legacy of the city's great financial institutions, as Maya Jaggi discovers

In the Piazza della Signoria, Florence's civic square, tourists – in their haste to admire replica statuary by the likes of Michelangelo – trample oblivious to a round memorial stone. This red-granite plaque marks the spot where Girolamo Savonarola held his bonfires of the vanities. It is also where the fundamentalist friar was hanged for heresy and himself incinerated in 1498. His remains were dumped in the Arno river, so that no relics could survive to fuel his cult.

Up the road, under Brunelleschi's magnificent cathedral dome, the austere Dominican preached powerful sermons against luxury and lewdness. His faith put him at odds with Renaissance humanism, as well as Church corruption. But as I discovered at an illuminating exhibition in Florence's Palazzo Strozzi, he was also in revolt against the values of a booming economy ruled by merchant bankers.

The Renaissance flowered in Florence alongside the birth of the modern banking system. Money and Beauty: Bankers, Botticelli and the Bonfire of the Vanities, on until 22 January, teases out the links.

Aside from its timeliness – as today's global turmoil spurs a renewed moral backlash – the show casts fresh light on Florence and its art treasures. The gallery offers a "passport" and city map flagging relevant sites (and if you collect the special stamps from five of the sites, you can obtain a free ticket to the show).

The exhibition is co-curated by the British novelist Tim Parks, who lives in Italy. Walking me through it, he told me it was "all about the tension between God and Mammon" and a crisis of irreconcilable values. The Medici bank was supreme for almost a century, until the Pope's bankers were ousted in 1494, later returning as dukes. Under Savonarola's brief republic, his Piagnoni followers (the "moaners") burnt "shameful" items – wigs and harps, perfume and chessboards, profane books and oil paintings.

The mercantile nouveau riche drove demand for such luxuries – including nudes and comely Madonnas to adorn bankers' walls.

The Palazzo Strozzi, a vast Renaissance bastion built by a rival banking family, is in the district where Florentine banking began. I strolled past designer boutiques in the Via de' Tornabuoni (Giovanni Tornabuoni was Lorenzo de Medici's uncle and the Pope's treasurer), and turned into the Via Porta Rosa, the lane where medieval money changers set up their green, cloth-covered banco – a counter for transactions.

By the late 15th century, Florence's banking empire – founded on the single currency of the day, the florin – stretched from London to Constantinople. Italy gave banking its vocabulary, from giro (bill of exchange) to bankrupt – when a banker's counter was broken.

I paused to consider present applications for the "stone of shame" in the Mercato Nuovo – a 16th-century loggia where luxuries manufactured locally from silk and English wool were sold. It's now a souvenir market where tourists pose beside a bronze boar. Half-hidden by stalls is a central flagstone resembling a cartwheel, on which miscreant bankers were chained and flogged in a punishment known as the acculattata (spanking).

There were 21 powerful guilds, from furriers to physicians, in what Dante had reviled as a city of "self-made men and fast-got gain". The Medici built their fortune in the Money Changers' Guild. On the outside of the gothic church of Orsanmichele, 14 niches house the guilds' patron saints, commissioned from artists such as Donatello (the originals are inside).

Bankers wary of inspiring envy hid their personal riches in fortress-palaces. But there were penitential ways to flaunt wealth. The bankers' chapels in the church of Santa Maria Novella have frescoed masterpieces in costly pigments, emblazoned with patrons' coats of arms. Ghirlandaio's Virgin Mary cycle, in the Tornabuoni chapel, incorporates portraits of the patron's family that scandalised the pious.

The Medici quarter, north of the cathedral, centres on San Lorenzo, rebuilt by Brunelleschi in 1425 as the family's parish church, but with an oddly unfinished façade. Lorenzo the Magnificent collected Greek texts that fuelled the classical revival. Michaelangelo – who studied drawing in the Medici sculpture gardens – designed his splendid Laurentian library in 1524, with its grey sandstone staircase and long reading room. He also built the new sacristy and sculpted some of the few tasteful items in the overblown Medici tomb complex. Here the dukes – who by now styled themselves as gods – returned for burial.

Beneath a Medici statue in the piazza, a plinth flaunts the ubiquitous family emblem – red balls on a gold crest. The heraldic balls also identify the Palazzo Medici (later Riccardi), begun in 1444. Its hidden gem is a tiny chapel with Benozzo Gozzoli's jewel-coloured frescos of the Procession of the Magi through a Tuscan landscape. The portraits of Medici on horseback allude not only to the Bible's merchant-kings, but to the Company of the Magi, a quasi-political brotherhood whose pageants paraded Medici power through the streets.

Just north is San Marco, the Dominican monastery revamped by Cosimo the Elder (who used it as a retreat), with frescos by Fra Angelico. It's now a museum. Even the cramped novices' cells upstairs have stunning devotional frescos. Savonarola, who was prior in the 1490s, was arrested here to face trial, then worshipped as a martyr. His inky cloak survives in a glass case.

After admiring more Botticellis in the Uffizi – painted for his Medici patrons – I repaired to the gallery's Bartolini café, for a glass of prosecco on the terrace and views across the Piazza della Signoria.

At sunset, I crossed the Ponte Vecchio, as the bridge's jewellers were closing shop, to dine at Il Santo Bevitore on Via Santo Spirito, one of six restaurants with special menus to chime with the Strozzi palace show. The sybaritic confections used truffle oil and edible gold. Savonarola's moaners would not have approved.

Travel essentials: Florence

Getting there

* Florence is served by CityJet (0871 66 33 777; cityjet.com) from London City and Meridiana (0871 423 3711; meridiana.it) from Gatwick. Pisa airport has many more links from the UK, and offers frequent direct bus and rail connections to Florence

Visiting there

* Money and Beauty is at the Palazzo Strozzi (00 39 055 264 5155; palazzostrozzi.org) until 22 January. Open 9am-8pm daily (Thursdays to 11pm), admission €10.

* Palazzo Medici-Riccardi (00 39 055 2760; palazzo-medici.it). Open 9am-7pm daily except Tuesday, admission €7.

More information

* Italian State Tourist Board: 020-7408 1254; italiantouristboard.co.uk

The Independent travel offers: Discover a world of inspiring destinations

News
scienceExcitement from alien hunters at 'evidence' of extraterrestrial life
Life and Style
Customers can get their caffeine fix on the move
food + drink
News
newsRyan Crighton goes in search of the capo dei capi
Extras
indybest

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Actors front row from left, Jared Leto, Jennifer Lawrence, Meryl Streep, Ellen DeGeneres, Bradley Cooper, Peter Nyongío Jr., and, second row, from left, Channing Tatum, Julia Roberts, Kevin Spacey, Brad Pitt, Lupita Nyongío and Angelina Jolie as they pose for a
film
Sport
sport
Life and Style
techCould new invention save millions in healthcare bills?
Sport
David Moyes gets soaked
sport Moyes becomes latest manager to take part in the ALS challenge
Voices
A meteor streaks across the sky during the Perseid Meteor Shower at a wind farm near Bogdanci, south of Skopje, Macedonia, in the early hours of 13 August
voicesHagel and Dempsey were pure Hollywood. They only needed Tom Cruise, says Robert Fisk
News
peopleEnglishman managed quintessential Hollywood restaurant Chasen's
Life and Style
food + drinkHarrods launches gourmet food qualification for staff
Arts and Entertainment
Michael Flatley prepares to bid farewell to the West End stage
danceMichael Flatley hits West End for last time alongside Team GB World champion Alice Upcott
Travel
ebookHow to enjoy the perfect short break in 20 great cities
Life and Style
Horst P Horst mid-fashion shoot in New York, 1949
fashionFar-reaching retrospective to celebrate Horst P Horst's six decades of creativity
News
Members and supporters of the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender (LGBT) community walk with a rainbow flag during a rally in July
i100
Life and Style
Black Ivory Coffee is made using beans plucked from elephants' waste after ingested by the animals
food + drinkFirm says it has created the "rarest" coffee in the world
Life and Style
news

As Voltaire once said, “Ice cream is exquisite. What a pity it isn’t illegal”

Life and Style
food + drinkThese simple recipes will have you refreshed within minutes
Independent Travel Videos
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Amsterdam
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Giverny
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in St John's
Independent Travel Videos
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Travel

    Oracle 11g SQL 2008 DBA (Unix, Oracle RAC, Mirroring, Replicati

    £6000 - £50000 per annum + Bonus+Benefits+Package: Harrington Starr: Oracle 11...

    Recruitment Consultant (Graduate Trainee), Finchley Central

    £17K OTE £30K: Charter Selection: Highly successful and innovative specialist...

    SQL DBA/ C# Developer - T-SQL, C#.Net

    £45000 - £55000 per annum + Benefits: Ashdown Group: Working with an exciting ...

    Sales and Office Administrator – Sports Media

    £23,000: Sauce Recruitment: A global leader in sports and entertainment is now...

    Day In a Page

    All this talk of an ‘apocalyptic’ threat is simply childish

    Robert Fisk: All this talk of an ‘apocalyptic’ threat is simply childish

    Chuck Hagel and Martin Dempsey were pure Hollywood. They only needed Tom Cruise
    Mafia Dons: is the Camorra in control of the Granite City?

    Mafia Dons: is the Camorra in control of the Granite City?

    So claims an EU report which points to the Italian Mob’s alleged grip on everything from public works to property
    Emmys look set to overhaul the Oscars as Hollywood’s prize draw

    Emmys look set to overhaul the Oscars as Hollywood’s prize draw

    Once the poor relation, the awards show now has the top stars and boasts the best drama
    What happens to African migrants once they land in Italy during the summer?

    What happens to migrants once they land in Italy?

    Memphis Barker follows their trail through southern Europe
    French connection: After 1,300 years, there’s a bridge to Mont Saint-Michel

    French connection: After 1,300 years, there’s a bridge to Mont Saint-Michel

    The ugly causeway is being dismantled, an elegant connection erected in its place. So everyone’s happy, right?
    Frank Mugisha: Uganda's most outspoken gay rights activist on changing people's attitudes, coming out, and the threat of being attacked

    Frank Mugisha: 'Coming out was a gradual process '

    Uganda's most outspoken gay rights activist on changing people's attitudes, coming out, and the threat of being attacked
    Radio 1 to hire 'YouTube-famous' vloggers to broadcast online

    Radio 1’s new top ten

    The ‘vloggers’ signed up to find twentysomething audience
    David Abraham: Big ideas for the small screen

    David Abraham: Big ideas for the small screen

    A blistering attack on US influence on British television has lifted the savvy head of Channel 4 out of the shadows
    Florence Knight's perfect picnic: Make the most of summer's last Bank Holiday weekend

    Florence Knight's perfect picnic

    Polpetto's head chef shares her favourite recipes from Iced Earl Grey tea to baked peaches, mascarpone & brown sugar meringues...
    Horst P Horst: The fashion photography genius who inspired Madonna comes to the V&A

    Horst P Horst comes to the V&A

    The London's museum has delved into its archives to stage a far-reaching retrospective celebrating the photographer's six decades of creativity
    Mark Hix recipes: Try our chef's summery soups for a real seasonal refresher

    Mark Hix's summery soups

    Soup isn’t just about comforting broths and steaming hot bowls...
    Tim Sherwood column: 'It started as a three-horse race but turned into the Grand National'

    Tim Sherwood column

    I would have taken the Crystal Palace job if I’d been offered it soon after my interview... but the whole process dragged on so I had to pull out
    Eden Hazard: Young, gifted... not yet perfect

    Eden Hazard: Young, gifted... not yet perfect

    Eden Hazard admits he is still below the level of Ronaldo and Messi but, after a breakthrough season, is ready to thrill Chelsea’s fans
    Tim Howard: I’m an old dog. I don’t get too excited

    Tim Howard: I’m an old dog. I don’t get too excited

    The Everton and US goalkeeper was such a star at the World Cup that the President phoned to congratulate him... not that he knows what the fuss is all about
    Match of the Day at 50: Show reminds us that even the most revered BBC institution may have a finite lifespan – thanks to the opposition

    Tom Peck on Match of the Day at 50

    The show reminds us that even the most revered BBC institution may have a finite lifespan – thanks to the opposition