From September 2011 to January 2012, the Palazzo Strozzi mounted an exhibition called "Money and Beauty: Bankers, Bottticelli and the Bonfire of the Vanities," which was accompanied by a quite sumptuous and extensive catalogue of the same name. The catalogue was recently reviewed by Ingrid D. Rowland in "The New York Review of Books" (Oct. 11, 2012), but its print run must have been very small; it was quickly sold out at the museum and is already out of print and unavailable for less than several hundred dollars. Fortunately, the exhibitors simultaneously published a more compact version with the title "Palazzo Strozzi: Florence, Money and Beauty," which at this writing is not available through Amazon. It is that volume which is under review here. This is a much smaller affair; the original book was 288 pp., and this one is only 64 pp., but the two editors (the curators of the exhibition) are the same, and the original goals and thematic accents have remained. The idea of the show was to highlight the dynamic, virtually symbiotic, interaction between banking and beauty (or finance and fine arts) between the year 1252, when the Florence mint struck the first gold florin--which was soon adopted as currency all over Europe--and the death of Botticelli in 1510. This juxtaposition may seem forced, but it is not far-fetched to say, and the exhibition and catalogue clearly demonstrate, that the international banking system and what we call Renaissance art were siblings born and bred together in those 250 years. Art was clearly in the service of money, for the immensely wealthy bankers in Florence were bright enough to realize that just being super-rich was not sufficient gratification; and money was as clearly in the service of art, for that is what they so freely dispensed to create and decorate their immense residences, like the Palazzo Strozzi itself, to show to all who cared to know (most importantly, themselves) that they were not only stupendously wealthy but cultured as well. (This is the import of the nostalgic title of Ingrid Rowland's review: "When Bankers had Splendid Taste.")
So the exhibition and catalogue are divided into categories of financial concern like "Usury," "International Trade," and "Sumptuary Laws," and these are accompanied by illustrations not only of works of art but of objects intended for everyday use, such as a sixteenth-century chamois leather money bag with eight pockets or an actual bill of exchange made out on a bank in Bruges and payable at one in Barcelona. (One learns that the very complicated system of bills of exchange was designed not only to facilitate international payments among merchant/bankers but also as a way to collect interest on the exchange without appearing to commit the capital sin of usury.) This manner of illustration makes for some suggestive juxtapositions, as when a 1421 nautical map of Francesco de Cesanis on one page is faced with Fra Angelico's contemporary panel "St. Nicholas with the Emperor's Envoy and the Miraculous Rescue of a Sailing Vessel": a clear reminder that such paintings were not created in an abstract atmosphere but based on real practice. From the thirteenth century, the accumulation of wealth in Florence and the jostling for social prestige and political position called for sumptuary laws to restrain spending to within limits condoned by the Church's traditional values of modesty and austerity. Not only personal items like clothing and ornamentation were affected, but even more so the private/public rituals of ostentatious display like weddings and funerals, and the discussion of these laws is enhanced by the reproduction of Fra Angelico's predella panels "Marriage of the Virgin" and "Funeral of the Virgin"--not exactly models of sartorial sobriety, and so excellent as foils. That is the way this exhibition/catalogue works: there are no direct influences or compelling connections to be claimed; the curators simply put things together and let the contacts emerge. I wish there had been more commentary on the paintings and the social/historical background, but that is simply to wish that this were the full exhibition catalogue. In itself it is a handsomely produced little book with many excellent reproductions including the Fra Angelicos, a couple of Memlings, and some beautiful Botticellis.