A major exhibition in Firenze shows the links between bankers, beauty and bonfires in the Renaissance. And presents an opportunity to reflect on the ongoings in Zuccotti Park, St. Pauls Square and Piazza Signoria in Firenze in 1498
In the beginning of October, 1500 young Jews in New York observed Yom Kippur within yards of the Occupy Wall Street Protest site, calling for a year of Jubilee and thus cancellation of all debts. Something, which is also demanded in the ending paragraphs of the book on “debt” written by the highly acclaimed anthropologist David Graeber, chief protagonist of the OWS. In the same spirit we may perhaps view the fact that the Londoners chose St. Pauls Square as their (second) protest location; thus inadvertently shaming the Church of England, costing the careers of three mighty clerics plus showcasing the fact, that the line between noble banking and profiteering or usury is still a theological tightrope not easily walked.
In a democratic, secularised and deregulated society bankers and merchants have of course long been allowed to veer very close to the abyss. Or even transcend it! In the aftermath of the current crisis it has however become abundantly clear that there is a moral issue at stake, which we have somewhat forgotten how to reflect upon.
Had we lived in the Middle age or the Renaissance public condemnation would have been much harsher. Taking rents in any form was considered usury and part and parcel of one of the deadly sins, avarice. This was an opinion held by philosophers and priests since ancient times, witness the prohibition in Deuteronomy (23:19 – 20)
“You shall not charge interest on loans to your brother, interest on money, interest on food, interest on anything that is lent for interest. You may charge a foreigner interest, but you may not charge your brother interest, that the Lord your God may bless you in all that you undertake in the land that you are entering to take possession of it.”
Later on medieval theologians thought long and hard. Was charging interest the same as theft, asked Anselm of Canterbury? Could one charge for “lost time = lost possibilities”, asked Thomas Aquinas? The answers to these and other questions of the same type were however as often as not unanimous condemnation. It is significant that Dante later placed the usurers together with the blasphemers and sodomites in the inner ring of the seventh circle of hell.
The ban on taking rents did not as such forbid every type of business. But it prohibited any form of business, which did not fall into the category of joint venture. Thus in practice complicating any form of long distance and large scale business ventures not financed by the Jews, who of course according to Deuteronomy were allowed to take interest from the Christians! As the Christians were not brothers!
Letters of exchange
Needless to say the prohibition against charging interest had somehow to be circumvented in order for long distance trade to flourish. In the 8th century the Chinese invented the “letter of exchange” – a financial instrument in the form of a promissory note guaranteeing the holder payment of a specific amount of money at a set time. Later such documents were used by the Arabs, who introduced them to Mediterranean merchants in the 13th to the 15th century (together with other important techniques like the “nought” and papermills).
Naturally the whole point was that such promissory notes could be bought and sold at “overprice”, thus neatly circumventing the prohibition against taking interest. Without doubt this was one of the most important preconditions for the late medieval flourishing of trade as we know it. And further the huge placating donations to religious institutions of all kinds – churches, cloisters, charities – which remorseful bankers and merchants gave, thus financing the artists, who benefited from the many endowments.
Firenze in the 14th to 16th century was of course one of the more prominent centres for this accruement of wealth and art. This is the theme of a beautiful and thought-provoking exhibition currently staged at the Palazzo Strozzi, where art and craft mingles with coins, papers and golden cloths.
The exhibition in Firenze, however, also touches upon the deluge, which hit the city when the Medici Bank defaulted in 1494 and the Dominican monk Savonarola started preaching against the hedonistic vanity of life in the city. It ended when on the last day of the Carnival in 1497 and 1498, Savonarola organised two bonfires of “vain, lascivious, or dishonest things” on the Piazza della Signoria. These highly contested and celebrated events contributed in the end to the friar’s demise, when he was burned as a heretic on the 23d of May 1498. As was the case with Luther the Pope had an issue with Savonarola’s austere morality.
One fascinating thing – which the exhibition unfortunately does not touch upon – was that all the worldly goods, which ended up on these bonfires, were collected by dissatisfied and disenfranchised youngsters. These piagnoni and fanciulli took to robbing people’s homes and afterwards throwing everything from golden cloth over musical instruments to secular paintings in the fire!
Interestingly enough these robberies were undertaken, while the youngsters went singing through the streets and alleys. One of the favorites were the text from Ps. 132: Ecce quam bonum iucundum habitare fratres in unum – Behold how good and pleasant it is for brethren to dwell together in unity. Maybe it will not last long, before this is the favorite bonfire song in St. Pauls Square.
Read about Medici Money: Banking, Metaphysics and Art in Fifteenth-Century Florence. By Tim Parks. W. W. Norton and Company 2005.
Read the book about the Bonfire Songs and Savonarola’s musical legacy. Here included a CD with the only available recording of the original music.
Listen to a Jewish recording of Ps.133
See the exhibition at Palazzo Strozzi
Read the book leading up to the OWS -action by David Graeber