Medici Money

Tim Parks covers five generations of Medici and their role in the rise and fall of their famous bank during the fifteenth century: low-profile founder Giovanni; famous art patron, influential and longest-lived Cosimo; short-lived Piero (“the Gouty”); high- profile, intriguingly self-contradictory political in-fighter and poet Lorenzo (the Magnificent); and incompetent, ill-fated Piero (“the Fatuous”).

Medici Money: Banking, Metaphysics, and Art in Fifteenth-Century Florence is, logically enough, dominated by the exploits of Cosimo and Lorenzo, but some of the most fascinating passages occur early on, as Parks introduces readers to the strange political and religious cosmology of Giovanni's Florence. The Renaissance city was an eclectic mix of the medieval and the modern, and this mixture is perhaps clearest when Parks explores the Europeans’ struggles to reconcile Christian strictures against usury and suspicion of material wealth with the advent of a successful modern banking system and entrepreneurial ventures. The story of the Medicis’ famed patronage of great art and artists is a similarly intriguing conglomeration of guilty religious conscience, base political jockeying, and transcendent artistic achievement.

In Medici Money, Parks gives readers an engaging entree into an environment that is both familiar and foreign. The cynical political maneuvering and raucous marketplace advances and retreats give fifteenth century Florence a distinctly modern feel; the centrality of religious belief and practice—as obvious in the breach as in the observance—mark the city and the age as unmistakably not our own. In a breezy tone and with a storyteller's gift for the telling detail, Parks gives a panoptic view of his subject, from the physical ugliness of the title family, to the dizzying power politics of the Italian city-states, to the achievements of the artists whom are usually remembered more clearly than the Machiavellian operators who patronized them. Throughout this entertaining mix of history and biography, Parks's deftness with character and narration brings his subjects to vibrant, raucous life.