Bankers, Botticelli and the Bonfire of the Vanities

October 3, 2011

Money and Beauty: Bankers, Botticelli and the Bonfire of the Vanities

Ever since Denaro e Bellezza/Money and Beauty opened on 17 September, I have been bombarded with queries from friends and colleagues around the world, asking me (basically), “Should I come to Florence for the big Botticelli Show at Palazzo Strozzi?”

After visiting it last week I can give you a quick and concise reply, “By all means, come to Florence, whenever and however you can. And when you are here, don’t miss Denaro e Bellezza. Don’t, however, arrange a special trip—if you are in it for the art.”

The latest Palazzo Strozzi show is generally well done—as a museum-related activity for the whole family. But visually, è un po’ scarsa, as the Italians say. More often than not, the wall texts overwhelm the objects (which is difficult to avoid, when you have more to say than to show and need to do it in both Italian and English.)

The curators assign us our mission at the very outset:
Look out for the following features in the exhibition! Money and Beauty takes the visitor on a journey to the roots of Florentine power in Europe. It investigates the ways in which the Florentines dominated the world of trade and business, five hundred years before modern communications were invented, and thereby financed the Renaissance. The exhibition looks at how bankers built up their immense fortunes, it illustrates the ways they handled international relations and it sheds light on the birth of modern art patronage, in an era when Florence was the financial capital of the world…
In regard to method:
On this journey, you will have two guides. Art Historian Ludovica Sebregondi, author of Iconography of Girolamo Savonarola; 1485-1998, and Tim Parks, writer, translator, and author of Medici Money: Banking, Metaphysics and Art in Fifteenth-Century Florence. Their voices form a “duet”, in which they present different—and sometimes opposing—views of the exhibition’s content.
There is a plethora of signage but Sebregondi and Parks, alas, never really mix it up. Nor do they make especially beautiful music together. Sebregondi’s comments are mostly concrete and informative. Parks’ comments are mostly Parksian. Personally, I would rather have had a few of the Medici (or other venture capitalists of the time) as my guides. Ultimately, the historical protagonists—and their works—get lost in the shuffle.

Denaro e Bellezza is primarily about money in the Renaissance and it is tricked out with toys and games and whizzy bits—which are done well, if that is what you want. There are big Renaissance money pouches full of…activity items…for the kids. (I should have checked them out, but—sorry—I didn’t.) However, the main ludic device is a sequence of computer stations installed at intervals throughout the show:  Segui i tuoi fiorini!/Follow Your Florins!.

At the outset, you are given 1,000 virtual florins to invest and a series of commercial options (changing from one currency to another, buying and selling commodities, investing in futures, etc.) If you make more than 5% profit, the curators congratulate you on winning. (I kicked ass with a 49% profit margin, having made my decisions at absolute random. My “prize” was a 10% discount at the exhibition gift shop.)

If you enjoyed Tim Parks’ Medici Money, you will probably enjoy this show. If not, you can’t say that you haven’t been warned. Both the book and the show are dominated by a single breathlessly reiterated observation, “Money in the Renaissance was complicated! Just imagine! You could do many kinds of financial transactions—including ones that we still do today!” 

If you are hearing this for the first time, it is certainly fascinating—especially the elaborate strategies that businessmen used to evade the Church’s ban on “usury” (taking money for the use of money). But if you have heard it before (in an undergraduate survey course, for example), there is nothing much for you in Denaro e Bellezza.

And the same can be said on the art historical side—where issues of art patronage, art consumption, art reception and art destruction never get off the ground. Or else, they are reduced to a rapid-fire shorthand, flying by so fast we don’t even see them pass. (“Luxurious things cost money. Luxury was sinful. Art could arouse ambivalent reactions. Now—moving right along—let’s Follow Our Florins!”)

For those of us who (basically) want our art fix, what is there to see in Denaro e Bellezza? Mostly second-tier works that are normally on display in lesser-known Florentine museums. (I consider the Accademia to be a “lesser known museum” since its sensational collection is generally ignored by the hordes who come to gape at Michelangelo’s David.)

For pilgrims in search of the elusive Botticelli show, there are nine pictures: 

-click images for full view- 

1. Madonna and Child with Angel (Ospedale degli Innocenti)
2. Madonna and Child with Two Angels and the Young Saint John (Accademia)
3. Portrait of a Woman (Pitti)

4. Fresco lunette of the Nativity (Santa Maria Novella)
5. Workshop version of Venus (Galleria Sabauda, Turin)
6. Christ Crucified (Diocesan Museum, Prato)

7. The Calumny of Apelles (Uffizi) the one superstar Botticelli in the show
8. A Coronation of the Virgin (Villa la Quiete, Florence), another workshop piece
9. Madonna and Child with the Young Saint John (Pitti)

There were a few pleasant surprises in Denaro e Bellezza and for me, at least one revelation.  The Pala della Zecca/Altarpiece of the Mint (1372-73) by Jacopo di Cione, Niccolò di Tommaso and Simone di Lapo is a huge and stunning masterwork. Time and again, I walked past it in the Accademia, but here in Palazzo Strozzi—with good lighting—it comes into its own.

Pala della Zecca

Ultimately, this is less an exhibition review than a Travel Advisory Warning… Denaro e Bellezza is a worthwhile undertaking and I hope that it attracts the public to which it is geared. But what on earth could have possessed the organizers when they scheduled it for September-January?! This is a broad-based summer show if ever there was one—and we were all hoping for another stellar triumph like last winter’s Bronzino

Exhibition details
Palazzo Strozzi, Florence (17 September 2011—22 January 2012) link

Dr. Edward Goldberg is an art historian, archival sleuth and long-time resident of Florence. Along the way, he achieved a PhD at Oxford, taught at Harvard, founded the Medici Archive Project (MAP) and authored articles and books on topics ranging from Renaissance patronage to the letters of Benedetto Blanis, the Jewish 'Magician' at the Medici court. Ed maintains a group of blogs about his many projects at, including the remarkable Italy's Secret Places which provides a glimpse of Italy beyond the tourist trails and survey texts.

-click for more information-


Alexandra said...

Dear Ed
I don't fully agree with your critique of the show. Yes, I see your point about the overwhelming text and the lack of artistic beauties.

But.. I see it fitting into Palazzo Strozzi's educational programme and the flow of exhibits throughout the year - moderns in the spring, renaissance in the fall. This is intended to be a blockbuster show. It is aimed at a general public and is intended to teach an important aspect of Renaissance life that most people know nothing about.

Perhaps what is missing here is their usual 'something for everybody' approach, although the dual signage (plus the third for children) provide different ways to explore and levels at which to think. The computer game is a way to get the general public involved and i think it is great. My husband enjoyed it particularly, and I had fun competing with him to make the right decisions. (Although the fact that your random choices yeilded a high return, tommaso's uninformed choices did very well, and mine, based on knowledge of history, yeilded a lame 15%, make me wonder about the facts upon which the game is based.) The bankers purse is the thematic variant on the picnic basket or other container with family and childrens' games and it is really well done by Devorah Block and her team, with a learning approach based on observation, information, and action. There are also illustrated art cards that provide family activity questions through both this and the strozzina exhibit, with the same pedagogical approach.

Nonetheless, there is no doubt that what is here is more for the general public than for specialists, and i learned less from this than from their other shows - especially the moderns (but that might be my lack of modern AH training). Evaluating it, however, in light of what it can provide to the general public, I think it is a show that fulfils its educational mission. It is also, as I have said in my own review, a timely reflection on issues of economics and the crisis in funding for the arts; I think that what it offers to those of us beyond the undergraduate level is an opportunity to think beyond the exhibit itself to its meanings in contemporary life.

with respect,

Unknown said...

Cheers for the insightful comment Alexandra. There is definitely a point to be made about target audience - if they were shooting for family inclusion - as more galleries are doing - did they succeed?

Those interested in Alexandra's review can find it here >> link

My 2 Florins: If a kid walks away from that show fascinated by the Medici and has learnt about and seen a Florin, and a Botticelli in person, I would say it has worked. I'd be interested to find out what some of the families and youngsters that did attend thought of this exhibition.

It's hard to be dismissive of anything that has educational value - regardless of how cheesy the presentation may seem to adults or scholars!

Kind Regards

Edward Goldberg said...

Dear Alexandra,

Actually, from what I see, you and I pretty much agree in our appreciation of the current Palazzo Strozzi show. Would I recommend "Denaro e Bellezza" to the interested general public? Absolutely! Do I think that the instructional elements are done well—at least the ones that I saw? Yes, I do, “if that is what you want”! Would I advise friends and colleagues (specifically art historians and hard-core art lovers) to travel long distances especially to see it? No way!

With best wishes,

Ed G.

alexandra said...

Dear Ed
You're absolutely right. We can agree that there is little here for specialists. I wonder what percentage we make up of the audience? probably very low in most exhibits, even if some shows around here are built, it seems, more with the scholarly target in mind. Frankly though, even as someone who could potentially understand those shows, I find them terribly boring!
I am an admittedly great fan of Palazzo Strozzi and all who work in that place. Usually they put on the only interesting things in town.

Dr. F said...

It seems to me that the "Calumny of Apelles" alone would be enough reason to visit this exhibition.


Unknown said...

@Frank - that's a good point - though it is usually at the Uffizi, a few minutes walk away! I was amazed at how tiny it was when I saw it last year.

Those curious(whom have never been to Florence) can see it's diminuitive size next to Primavera at the Google Art Project link

Kind Regards

K. Bender said...

Dear Dr. Goldberg,
Thanks for this excellent review of 'Denaro e Bellezza/Money and Beauty' . However, your title 'Money and Beauty: Bankers, Botticelli and the Bonfire of the Vanities' let me hope in vain to learn more about the artworks, especially those of BOTTICELLI, which may have been destroyed at the bonfires or about the strange history of BOTTICELLI's famous painting 'Venus and Mars' which disappeared for almost four hundred years. I formulated a hypothesis why it was never documented and why Piero di COSIMO got maybe the commission to paint a similar work.
Your fabulous Medici Archive online Project, which is temporarily open for the general public, equally does not provide any further information about these issues. I assume because this archive starts at 1537?
I look forward to further comments from you.

K. Bender, independent researcher

Edward Goldberg said...

Thanks, K. Bender - and I have been enjoying your iconography site! A small but important clarification is perhaps in order: 'Money and Beauty: Bankers, Botticelli and the Bonfire of the Vanities' is their title, not mine! So, I shared some of your vain hopes (is there a play on words here?!)when it came the "beauty" and "bonfire" side of the equation. Regarding the Medici Granducal Archive, there is a small cluster of material from 1532-1537, relevant to the regime of Duke Alessandro, but the real series does not begin until 1537 and the ascent of Cosimo I. A presto, Ed G.

Unknown said...

@K Bender - cheers for the comments. Indeed, the title of the post is to reflect the title of the exhibition (for those searching for reviews of it)!

If you want more on Botticelli/Savonarola, please take time to peruse these previous posts!

Botticelli and the dark psychology of the Mystic Nativity

Andrew Graham-Dixon on Caravaggio and Connoisseurship

In the latter, the video where AGDixon interviews the modern day head of the Dominican order is particularly interesting.

Kind Regards

Glennis said...

Interesting the emphasis on the family audience. Usually I really appreciate the exhibitions which attract the less boisterous non-family crowd, but this type of martketing is I accept necessary for modern galleries...and of course for families after genuine learning.

By chance came accross this London Review of Books review of the exhibition (in my partner's print copy). Found it really interesting and insightful for those that can't make the exhibiton. In fact have discovered many exhibition reviews of note in the LRB recently. It's not free, but not bad value really....(ps I'm not employed by LRB!)

Unknown said...

Cheers for the input Glennis. I'd heard of Park's review in the LRB. It seems he follows on from themes he explored in his book Medici Money - as Ed has mentioned in his review.

I think we are very fortunate that Ed and Alexandra have provided us some quality reviews that are open to all to access.

Kind Regards

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