Do bankers inevitably go to hell? What many people today merely hope will come to pass was for Christians in the early 1400s a matter of faith. After all, the Bible, like the Koran, was explicit in its condemnation of lending money at interest, the basis of most banking operations. So in many parts of Christendom moneylending was left to Jews. In several northern cities of medieval Italy, however, ingenious Christians started to find ways round the banking ban. Their contrivances, though legal, were not popular with the church, which held that usurers, by charging for the duration of a loan, were not trading in goods but in time, and this was God’s.
The prospect of an eternity of hellfire was particularly acute in Florence, since it was here that the foundations of modern banking were being laid. As it happened, Florence was also witnessing the first stirrings of an extraordinary flowering of the arts. Before long guilt-ridden bankers were commissioning great works of religious art in the hope that they might after death escape the damnation that the scriptures foretold. In this way were the birth of the international financial industry and that of the Renaissance intimately connected.
The connection might perhaps be reduced to a single word, whether patronage, or atonement, or Medici. A longer, and far more pleasurable, elaboration can be found in text, pictures and objects at the Palazzo Strozzi in Florence, where an exhibition devoted to “Money and Beauty” continues into 2012. Subtitled “Bankers, Botticelli and the Bonfire of the Vanities”, it explores the motives of Florence’s bankers in their artistic commissions; the reactions of churchmen to rich Florentines’ displays of luxury and wealth; and the effects of both penitential patronage and ecclesiastical reproach on the works of art that, throughout the 1400s, or Quattrocento, tumbled forth from Florence like coins from a slot machine.