Review – The Medici

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

by Paul Strathern, published 2017

The history of the Medici family might best be summarized with the phrase “from dust to dust.” As if to emphasize how they were destined for greatness and nobility, the family started out as a bunch of Tuscan hillbilly’s who could trace their lineage to a legendary knight of the Holy Roman Empire who settled near Florence in the 8th or 9th Century. From there and then, no one heard much of these people until some of the clan moved into Florence proper in the early 1300s and formed a small money-changing business.

Using conservative business practices and investing in roles of civic responsibility, eventually a Medici was elected to the position of gonfaloniere, the primus inter pares of the Florentine Republic. From this position the dice were carefully loaded in the favor of subsequent Medici generations by artfully forming governing coalitions that cemented their public position while creating leverage across their business and investment portfolio through the tactical use of subsidy, official privilege, insider information and regulatory capture wielded against competitors and opponents.

The story of the “overnight success” of the Medici begins here. The first great head of the Medici family and Medici bank, Giovanni de Medici, had jockeyed for favor with the newly appointed (anti-)Pope John XXIII in order to secure a role as the personal banker to the Papal Curia upon his ascendancy, which was then granted. For much of the 14th Century and Renaissance period in general, the papal revenues and banking needs were equivalent to managing the treasury function for the modern era’s most wealthy and complex multi-national corporations. To gain this trust was not only a measure of unique esteem valuable in and of itself, but a responsibility that carried with it priceless information and irreplaceable business franchises throughout European Christendom and even the Levant.

However, Pope John XXIII soon became embroiled in the Great Schism in which he and 2 other rival popes were called before the Holy Roman Emperor and summarily dismissed, to be replaced with his appointment, Pope Martin V. At his son Cosimo’s urging (whom he had sent to be his representative at the delegation attending the papal conference) the Medici’s continued to support the defrocked pope, even helping to pay his ransom for his release from imprisonment. Rather than being a financial disaster, this loyal support of the former pope led to a new lucrative banking relationship under Martin V, because in return for bartering his release the former Pope John XXIII agreed to support the nomination of Martin V and participate in the reconciliation of the Schism, leading to greater legitimacy for the new pope.

As a major political player on top of his business responsibilities, Giovanni left three apocryphal warnings for his descendants:

  1. focus on business, not politics
  2. do not be ostentatious
  3. don’t oppose popular will, unless it is aimed at disaster

It seems as if it should be unnecessary to say that in time this advice was forgotten and eventually, so, too, were the Medici.

But the dissolution of the Medici was a ways away yet. After Giovanni came Cosimo as head of the family and the Medici bank. He faced a disastrous and unpopular war between Florence and Lucca (backed by Milan) which threatened to ruin the Florentine treasury and which had pitted the various leading families against one another. Subscribing to Rule #3, Cosimo opposed the conduct of the war and worked to hide the bank’s assets outside of Florence to avoid expropriation in the war’s aftermath.

For these maneuvers and others, Cosimo was recalled to Florence and imprisoned in the bell tower of the Palazzo Vecchio by a faction led by the rival Albizzi who had plans to execute him for treachery. However, Cosimo’s far flung banking business and participation in the geopolitics of Western Europe had led him to a series of alliances and power relationships with foreign entities such as the Venetian Republic and the Papal States which he utilized to create a kind of diplomatic protection for himself, pressuring his enemies to choose exile over execution as his fate.

In the meantime, he used a bribes and the threat of invasion of the city by his own mercenary forces outside its walls to add to the diplomatic pressure and engineer a favorable outcome for himself, all while behind bars.

Shaken but not stirred, Cosimo came to rule Florence through the intervention of the Pope and Venice, but vowed that “he would rule, but he would not be seen to rule” going forward. He had learned his lesson about bearing personal responsibility when it came to matters of state. Further, he was coming to understand that it was easier to wield power when others weren’t watching.

According to one supporter, “Whenever he wished to achieve something, he saw to it, in order to escape envy as much as possible, that the initiative appeared to come from others and not from him.” One policy he pushed for through his crony network was the use of the “catasto”, which had originally been levied to pay for the war, as a punitive tool to crush his political and business opponents through ruinous taxation. While he was forcing his enemies into exile to avoid financial ruin, purchasing and redistributing their former property to his supporters on a bargain basis, he simultaneously used inflated personal balance sheets to hide his income and appear to be bearing the heaviest personal tax burden on a relative basis.

But Cosimo was far from poor:

Between 1434 and 1471, Cosimo spent 663,755 gold florins supporting public works, by comparison, total assets of the Peruzzi bank at its height were 103,000 florins from Western Europe to Cyprus and Beirut.

If he was able to spend 6X the total assets of a well-known competitor at the height of its powers on public works, his total assets and wealth must have been a multiple of that amount. Normal banking and family secrecy aside, the Medici wealth at this time seems to have been nearly incalculable. It is no wonder, then, that one of Cosimo’s key strategies in building and wielding power was to always return favors with favors.

Following Cosimo, who was once to have said that  “Trade brings mankind together, and casts glory on those who venture into it” his son Piero and Piero’s son, Lorenzo began to venture the family increasingly beyond the scope of banking and business and into the realm of politics and social standing via nobility. Depending upon how you interpret the events that followed, Piero and Lorenzo were either some of the most “magnificent” leaders of the Medici banking and political enterprises or they were equivalent to the decadent dissipators of the true talent and generational thrift of their greater ancestors.

Either way, the local power of the Medici in and around Florence was successively traded for inter-regional power and influence within the royal families of Europe. As the Medici gained a queen mothership in France, they lost their rule over the Florentine Republic to foreign invasion and intervention and increasingly squandered the capital of their banking and related enterprises. By the early 18th Century the Medici had failed to produce a male heir and had ceded their Grand Duchy of Florence to the Holy Roman Emperor and ceased to be a meaningful business or political entity forever.

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Review – Leonardo and The Last Supper

Leonardo and The Last Supper

by Ross King, published 2013

In the late 1400s, Leonardo da Vinci was commissioned by Lodovico Sforza, Duke of Milan, to complete a large bronze equestrian statue to honor himself and his late father and cement his authority over the people of Milan and northern Italy. It was to be one of the greatest equestrian statues of the era and one of the most technically challenging, single biggest pieces of cast bronze in the history of sculpture which would also fix Da Vinci’s reputation as a craftsman, artist and virtuoso.

But like many of Da Vinci’s projects and ambitions, it was not to be. After a series of unfortunate events that cascaded from Sforza’s unpredictable realpolitik, the duke was forced to melt down the bronze assigned to the project to form cannon to defend Milan from the invading forces of France’s Charles VIII.

Although Leonardo Da Vinci is known to history as an artist and mechanical genius (or at least, a philosopher of theoretical mechanical devices) his great personal ambition was to create outstanding weapons of war. He hoped the equestrian statue would be his entree into a world of defense industries assignments for the notoriously pugnacious Sforza clan. Instead, he spent most of his time in their employ designing parties, feasts and pageants and lamenting himself at age 42 as some one who could not positively reply to his own request, “Tell me if I ever did a thing.” He had struggled unsuccessfully in his 30s to learn Latin, a standard achievement of the scholarly and intellectual in his era, and as a result ended up a uomo senza lettere or “man without letters”, almost like a person today who failed to go to college. However, it was not the external standards of brilliance or achievement he failed against but rather the “extremely high standard he set for himself in his quest for a new visual language” that brought him the most self-doubt and personal pain.

And so it seems fittingly ironic then that his pinnacle achievement and the work of art he would come to be most famous for beyond even the mysterious Mona Lisa was not a weapon of war on a field of conquest or a bold statue in a central plaza but a fresco-style painting of a commonly depicted scene throughout Italy, found in many a dining hall of a local convent– The Last Supper.

There are many details of the painting that ended up making it remarkable and that have to do with the finished output, such as we know of it today in its highly degenerated and damaged form from the original. But it is what went into the painting that are the details most worthy of consideration.

First, this being a common subject matter in a humble, dingy room in a less-than-spectacular Dominican church, Da Vinci considered the work beneath him and like many of his projects he had trouble bringing himself to complete it. One of the art world’s masterpieces almost never happened out of simple spite and disinterest.

Second, Da Vinci combined the urban with the urbane in painting the portraits of the individual saints. To capture interesting “grotesque” expressions, he spent weeks hanging around the lower class parts of town studying the bodies, stances and gestures of various commoners. But for the visages of the saints themselves who are, along with the face of Jesus, lost to history in terms of any factual depictions, he selected from well-known friends and courtiers of the Ducal Palace in Milan. Thus these characters are both realistic, ahistorical and anachronistic simultaneously.

Third, the work of fresco is time and labor intensive and large scale murals are very much a team sport.  Many materials such as certain paint colors and sealants had to be developed in a proprietary fashion by each workshop through a method of experimentation similar to laboratory chemistry. Most great art works were made by the master and his apprentices, but contracts at times specified certain portions which must be completed by the master himself. And the work itself was not necessarily quiet and contemplative but perhaps closer to today’s modern construction sites replete with boombox jamming. Although, Da Vinci is reputed to have worked to the sound of musicians or readers speaking from philosophical books, a Renaissance-era Spotify/podcast listening approach to productivity.

While the Last Supper is an act of inspired genius, it did not simply leap out of the head of Da Vinci through his paintbrush fully-formed. It was a team effort and followed a thorough process in which the final “draft” was first broken into constituent parts, practiced and rehearsed (“studies”, “carbons”) before being recomposed piece-by-piece as a fresco. The process is similar to writing a long history or novel (see Paris Review Interview No. 5 w/ Robert Caro) and has parallels in sports and investment analysis– from the parts to the whole.

While Leonardo Da Vinci found himself disappointed in his inability to produce a volume of highly anticipated works, his ability to nonetheless achieve global notoriety for just two works of art over the course of a longer, fully life perhaps gives double-meaning to his quip that “men of genius sometimes accomplish most when they work the least.”

Review – Brunelleschi’s Dome

Brunelleschi’s Dome: How a Renaissance Genius Reinvented Architecture

by Ross King, published 2013

The cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore, known far and wide as Florence’s Duomo, took nearly 150 years to construct, beginning in 1296 and ending in 1436 with the completion of its massive dome under the direction of capomaestro Filippo Brunelleschi. The quinto acuto arch of the dome was an engineering marvel constructed without stabilizing buttresses and without a wooden centering to hold it in place as it was built. It defied the imagination of the civic leaders responsible for building the cathedral at the time and the methods and architectural rationale behind it were made purposefully obscure by the paranoid and secretive master “Pippo”.

Fast forward over 500 years of history and the principles by which the dome was constructed appear to be no less mysterious. From the post-war era onward numerous attempts at magnetic imaging and other sounding methods have been made to try to ascertain the precise materials and methods used with most returning a Magic 8-Ball-esque  answer of “Reply hazy, try again.” Many lesser domes had been constructed in earlier history in the West and the East, but Brunelleschi’s dome was the greatest span and the highest height achieved since the Hagia Sophia in Constantinople and before that the Pantheon of Rome. Few have attempted anything nearing its proportions since and it seems apparent from the text that even if some modern had an inkling to they’d be hard pressed to figure out how to accomplish it without “cheating” in some way by use of innovative new materials or other supportive techniques.

But the grandiosity and secrecy of the dome’s construction is just one of the many wonders involved. Another is that Brunelleschi was not a trained architect but a goldsmith. Of course, goldsmiths of his era were considered the master craftsmen and technicians of their time (the book mentions how most significant architectural works in the West predating the Florence cathedral failed to record the name of the architects responsible for designing and raising them, so lowly was their perceived status) and the task before Brunelleschi was not simply to design the dome but to coordinate its construction via teams of specialized handiwork guild members as well as to manage the logistics of supplying the building materials, much as a film producer is responsible for pulling together writers, actors, financiers, set locations, film teams and so on. Still, it seems to demonstrate the virtuosity of the man’s mind that he was responsible for building something which was essentially an amateur attempt given his background.

Another wonder of the raising of the cathedral and the dome is the fact that this was one of many simultaneous grand public works built over the time. The city had organized a well-financed oversight committee, the Opera del Duomo, led by the most esteemed woolen cloth guild (a key pillar of Florence’s economy and regional importance), the Arte della Lana, which hired contractors to complete the cathedral and numerous other churches, sculptures and edifices around the city. Today we might think of an economic boom period lasting a decade but it seems that Florence’s skyline was littered with cranes, booms and scaffolds for the better part of two centuries.

Besides innovating architecturally, Brunelleschi also created numerous ingenious tools and machines to aid the construction process. One was an enormous ox-powered materials hoist which rose to the height of the roof of the cathedral from the floor of the nave and had changeable gearing such that the ox team could raise and lower materials in a controlled fashion without being removed from harness and changing direction, an enormous time savings over the life of the project. He also invented specialized cranes, pulley systems and other machines for traversing materials across the expanse of the open dome while it was under construction. Getting multiple hundred-ton slabs of marble, hardened timber beams and iron chains and clasps up the 20-story height of the cathedral was only half the battle as once there they needed to be moved across numerous axes in a precise, controlled fashion before being lowered into place, all while gusts of wind, rain and sometimes even snow obstructed the workers’ efforts.

As impressive and awe-inspiring as structures like Santa Maria del Fiore are and were, I couldn’t help thinking about the monumental waste of these projects compared to alternative uses for the materials and labor and ingenuity involved. Most of the space created by the cathedral is empty by design– this heightens the sense of majesty of the house of God. And this is partly why the building was so complex and expensive to create. The mere fact that the people of this era could construct something like this is a demonstration of their wealth, organizational capabilities, technical know-how and culture of productivity. I just wonder if they weren’t filling up multiple city blocks with empty temples made of the finest construction materials, what could they have built instead that isn’t there?

Ironically, it was these “wasteful” decisions that are the primary source of Florence’s modern tourist economy, so in that sense it was a far-sighted decision by the early city masters to invest in their descendant’s future well-being. And some have even made the case that the splendors of Florence’s Renaissance urbanity were enough to protect it from destruction during World War II.

Florence in the Renaissance was something like New York City today, a wealthy center of commerce and banking, confident in its own power and influence, a great patron of culture and the arts and continually raising great structures in honor of itself. But whereas you can walk amongst the streets of Florence today and see a Medici palazzo or a fine church built half a millenium ago, it’s hard to imagine walking the streets of New York City five hundred years from today and finding the remains of yesteryear still standing and still full of wonder and delight.