Archive for September, 2011

When Europe’s single currency worked – the 1480s

99465?ns=guardian&pageName=When+Europe%27s+single+currency+worked+*+the+1480s%3AArticle%3A1637138&ch=Art+and+design&c3=GU.co.uk&c4=Architecture%2CArt+and+design%2CFlorence+%28Travel%29%2CMoney%2CCurrencies+%28Business%29%2CEurope&c5=European+Travel%2CUnclassified%2CPersonal+Finance%2CArt%2CBusiness+Markets%2CArchitecture&c6=Jonathan+Jones&c7=11-Sep-22&c8=1637138&c9=Article&c10=Blogpost&c11=Art+and+design&c13=&c25=Jonathan+Jones+blog&c30=content&h2=GU%2FArt+and+design%2Fblog%2FJonathan+Jones+on+artA new exhibition in Florence explores money, sin and the birth of capitalism in a city where status and religion battled to prevail

Money – there just isn’t any left. But in medieval Europe an abundance of cash appeared as if from nowhere, in new currencies cast in gold. One of these new currencies, the Florin, became the most desired and respected medium of exchange in the Europe that made the Renaissance – the dollar of its day. In Money and Beauty, an exhibition that has just opened at the Strozzi Palace in Florence, yellow Florins twinkle in glass cases, exhibited both as historical evidence and works of monetary art.

The Florin was the currency of one city, Florence, yet it succeeded where the Euro seems to be failing: it gave Europe a "single" currency accepted on all markets. Inventing a pure gold currency of universally accepted value was just one of the ingenuities of the Florentine economic Renaissance. Through contracts and letters, leather money bags and model merchant ships, Money and Beauty tells the dramatic story of the bankers and merchants of Florence and their invention of many basic features of modern capitalism. As the system shudders, it is wondrous to contemplate its fairytale origins in the Medici bank, which devised ways to provide international credit and play the foreign exchanges without falling foul of medieval usury laws. Well, not too far foul.

The sin of usury is richly shown in the exhibition: fragments of a medieval fresco show usurers – those who loan at interest and so make, according to Christian ethics 600 years ago, an immoral profit – in hell. Yet the heroes here are the money men who defied tradition and created modern commerce – heroes such as Francesco di Marco Datini, the Merchant of Prato, who gets a room of his own illuminating his wealth and his attempts to reconcile it with faith. We see him on pilgrimage, as well as in his counting house.

This exhibition – co-curated by British writer Tim Parks and heavily spiced with ebullient interpretative texts in Italian and English – has an ambitious argument to unfold. The plutocrats of Renaissance Florence, claims this exhibition, were tortured by guilt and emotional ambivalence. They craved luxury – even their money chests are works of rare art – but tried at the same time to buy off hell, by lavishing their wealth on religious art.

Cosimo de’ Medici, the richest Florentine of all, was the most dedicated in his holy works. The funds he put into building the monastery of San Marco and its library helped to sustain the humanist revival of learning, not to mention the art of Fra Angelico. As it turned out, this Medici monastery also harboured the seeds of nemesis. By the late 15th century, the voice of San Marco was a visionary friar named Savonarola who denounced wealth and luxury. In 1494, he became the charismatic guru of a revolution that cast out the Medici.

That tale is told here through portraits and other relics of Savonarola, and above all by the works of Sandro Botticelli. This one artist embodies both extremes of Renaissance Florence – the rich culture of the Medici plutocrats, and the violent reaction against it. In the 1480s, Botticelli painted his celebrated classical works in the Uffizi Gallery, for the circle of the Medici. But in the 1490s and 1500s, he was a Savonarolan zealot, who saw the opulence and even the style of Renaissance art as a sin.

The exhibition includes one of his most compelling works, the Calumny. This eerie image, based on classical descriptions of a lost work, suggests a nightmare version of Florence itself. Statues in niches, like the ones that decorate the heart of this city, seem to come to life and listen as an innocent man is dragged by the hair before rich, stupid plutocratic King Midas.

Here is a problem with the exhibition. Midas in Greek myth was, it is true, an image of greed – he is the man who asked the god Dionysius to turn everything he touched to gold. So the curators link him to the wealth of the Medici. But this is a different story of Midas. It is a bit strained, and in fact, the curators struggle to find killer visual links between art and commerce. Everything here is fascinating, but where are the Florentine paintings that manifestly explore the imagery and anxieties of wealth?

Still, it is a provocative, stimulating introduction to Florence that will add a bit of historical muscle to any visitor’s encounter with the city this autumn. Money and Beauty is a welcome attempt to shake up staid views of the Renaissance. Everyone knows that Florence is a city of staggering artistic beauty. This exhibition reminds us it is also the birthplace of the modern world.

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Campaigners plead with Whittam Smith to save Cumbrian castle

Protests and petitions head for the former Indie editor, now First Church Estates Commissioner, about the Bishop of Carlisle’s delectable former home.

Pressure is growing on the Church of England’s estate commissioners, led by the former Independent editor Andreas Whittam-Smith, to drop plans to sell off one of the most beautiful houses in Cumbria.

As things stand, the partly 13th century pile of Rose Castle near Dalston, is set to be offered for sale after the departure of the Bishop of Carlisle and his associated offices to Keswick.

Carlisle is a smaller diocese with many demands on its resources, and the commissioners say that Rose Castle needs repairs estimated at some £1.7 million on top of an annual maintenance budget of £150,000.

Local opinion, however, is very pro-castle, and one of Carlisle’s former bishops, Rt Rev Graham Dow, produced a report suggesting that church use could continue viably if the two towers were converted into large homes for sale or rent, supplemented by three smaller flats. A bonus of this would be the storage of church archives in a safe and, for researchers, very agreeable place, while the grounds have potential for public opening.

There’s oodles of enjoyable history – Wordsworth and Coleridge found the castle ‘all but perfect – cottage comfort and ancestral dignity’, and its occupants included the delightful-sounding Bishop Rainbow who spent 20 happy years there between 1664 and 1684. And even with the home conversions, there’d still be room for a cafe.

The campaigning group Friends of Rose Castle is co-ordinating heavyweight appeals for a rethink by the commissioners, or at the least, a delay while more thought is given to the castle’s future.

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