Thursday, May 19, 2016

The Medici: Power, Money and Ambition in the Italian Renaissance

Insanely rich bankers and investors, Popes (and not always good Popes), champions of humanism, Godfathers to the rich and powerful, supreme diplomats, facilitators for some of the brave early practitioners of experimental science, extravagant patrons of the arts, and experts at marrying into royal dynasties. The Medici clan were, if nothing else, an extremely busy household. From humble beginnings (the first recorded mention of the family occurred around the year 1230) in the hills and valleys near Florence to the very pinnacle of power in the Italian peninsula and beyond the Medici are, and have been for generations, a fascination to everyone interested in Renaissance history.

Not all but many members of the Medici family had unquenchable ambition. They were smart, that’s for sure. Their ancestors started off as money changers probably hauling around a little cart in the local piazza exchanging florins for lira or scudo (all kinds of different coins were in use at the time). This is nothing revolutionary. Lots of families were doing similar work. But like I said the Medici had ambition---and smarts. With mathematical principles as their tools (maybe “weapons” would be a better analogy) they figured out how to exchange their coins for higher profits. Then they turned their efforts towards making money lending at interest (they even managed to maneuver around the delicate religious prohibition against usury—the history of this concept is interesting in its own right and worth researching). From there they became shrewd investors with an eye for quality. They bribed the right people (you never want to bride the wrong people, it’s just not profitable) and eventually got themselves the coveted title of “Bankers to the Pope.” Money just seemed to come looking for them at that point.

The Medici were a lot of things but they were not nobles. The nobility have never liked upstarts (not much has changed in this regard). To break through that barrier (again ambition and smarts) they doled out florin like animal balloons at a carnival. Oh the parties! Nobody schmoozed like the Medic schmoozed. Fast forward three generations and you find Medici blood in French, Spanish, and Germanic royal families. Cosimo and Lorenzo were smiling in their graves.

As you and I know the good times don’t last, they never, ever do. How does one describe what was lost to the Medici over time? I want to say “vitality” but that doesn’t capture it. The “spirit of ambition” comes closer but is still lacking; there was plenty of luck and serendipity in what they managed to accomplish. It seemed Fortuna’s gifts were whittled away with each passing generation. The family just didn’t have it anymore. Read the chapters on Cosimo de’ Medici and then read the chapters describing the life and times of Gian Gastone de’ Medici and you will understand what I mean.

The rise and fall of this awesome family is captured brilliantly by Paul Strathern. His historical biography of the family has a great narrative arc. The final chapter left me with a sense of melancholy as though with the passing away of Anna Maria Luisa the world had lost something special. And it did.

One last bit of business. You should know this book is more than a biography of the various Medici family members. You could read the book and walk away with a rich understanding (and appreciation) for the Italian Renaissance as an important historical era in the development of western civilization.  The big artists of the time, and individuals like Galileo Galilei and Savonarola, all make appearances in the story. All in all a great read.

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