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Medici Money: Banking, Metaphysics, and Art in Fifteenth-Century Florence (Enterprise) Hardcover – April 1, 2005

3.9 out of 5 stars 55 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

Starred Review. The Renaissance, so often seen as a clean break with the medieval past, was really an age of creative ambivalence and paradox. In this marvelously fresh addition to the Enterprise series, Parks, author of the Booker-listed Europa and a literary observer of modern Italian life, turns to Florence and to a particularly compelling contradiction. The spirit of capitalist enterprise that fostered cultural originality and underpinned patronage was accompanied by a Christian conviction that money was a source of evil and that usury was a damnable spiritual offense. In the space where this cultural conflict plays out, sometimes as stylized as one of Lorenzo Il Magnifico's tournaments, sometimes as life-threateningly fiery as Savonarola's sermons against worldly vanities, we find a world both akin to our own and almost incomprehensibly distant. Parks is a clear-eyed guide to the ambiguities of Florentine culture, equally attentive to the intricacies of international exchange rates, the spiritual neurosis about unearned income, the shocking bawdiness of Lorenzo's carnival songs and the realpolitik of 15th-century power. His prose is swift and economical, cutting to the chase. Like the Medici-commissioned funerary monument for the anti-Pope John XXIII, the effect is startlingly vibrant, resembling "those moments in Dante's Inferno when one of the damned ceases merely to represent this or that sin and becomes a man or woman with a complex story, someone we are interested in, sympathetic towards." (May)
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.

From Booklist

Parks displays a keen observance of people's complexities and malleable motives in this account of the fabled Medici dynasty of Renaissance Florence spanning 1397-1494. The Medicis rise in banking and dissipate as succeeding generations neglect the ledger book and devote themselves to art and politics; indeed, one of the last Medicis, Lorenzo, dubbed the Magnificent, should have been called the Bankrupt. Parks effects a worldly, shoulder-shrugging tone to his descriptions of passing subterfuges as the Medicis maneuver through the snake-pit of fifteenth-century Italy. Their prime problem was the church's prohibition of usury, but the Medicis' acumen in circumventing sin created a second dilemma--warding off political poaching of their fortune, which they surmounted by taking over the Florentine republic through chicanery. As rulers, they inherit a third difficulty: Florence's survival in international politics. But the Medicis come to grief in a French invasion. Is there anything new under the sun when money mixes with politics and religion? Parks' marvelously entertaining history suggests there might be. Gilbert Taylor
Copyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved
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Product Details

  • Series: Enterprise
  • Hardcover: 224 pages
  • Publisher: W. W. Norton & Company; New edition edition (April 1, 2005)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0393058271
  • ISBN-13: 978-0393058277
  • Product Dimensions: 8.3 x 5.8 x 1 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 14.4 ounces
  • Average Customer Review: 3.9 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (55 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #651,618 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

By Nicholas Warren on February 7, 2006
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
The focus of the book is the rise, and fall, of the Medici bank, rather than the Medici themselves. However, the former explains a lot about the latter. It takes you through the founding of the business, as a not-wholly reputable business conducted by merchants and sailing very close to the winds of usury, to the over-stretching of the bank and its demise. However, by this time, the Medici had become indispensible to the financing of wars, which had enabled them to become politically very powerful. Ironically, they could now afford to neglect the very business that had initially been responsible for their power and concentrate on dynastic marriages among the nobility of Europe (by the sixteenth century, Marie and then Catherine de Medici had become queens of France).

Along the way, the reader is introduced to the scions of the Medici family, including the two best known, Cosimo (also styled pater patriae) and Lorenzo (il magnifico) and something about their patronage of the arts at the time of the Italian renaissance. Concentrating on the running of the bank, the book has fascinating insights, such the significance of natural cash imbalances in different parts of the banking empire and what thet meant for the business when it was highly risky to physically transport gold coin from one location to another in Europe.

Medici Money was well-written, easy to read and most enjoyable. Naturally, it was writen by an author, not a professional historian. Don't expect a dry, academic book with every statement footnoted to sources. Do expect the author to sometimes interject his opinions and to make statements without backing them up (we just have to trust that he has done his research thoroughly). That's a trade-off, of course, but one I would like to see occur more frequently.
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Format: Hardcover
Reading the other reviews, I see three camps. Reviewers who wanted a serious history disliked the book for being derivative, unprofessional and jumping around among topics without covering any of them well. Reviewers who wanted a straightforward story were annoyed by the literary language and complex narrative line. Reviewers who wanted a literary evocation of the life and times of the Medici Bank liked this book a lot.

I fall into the last camp. The author sets out financial, metaphysical and artistic threads and weaves the story of the Medici from them. Unlike the historian, however, he does not pick the threads that explain most of the story, instead he picks the threads of most relevance to a modern reader. He invites us, to the extent it is possible, to understand why the Medici did what they did, and why it mattered, and why those same choices still matter.

The first thread is the financial imbalance in Europe, with luxury goods flowing from the East, through Italy and north to Europe. Something, trade or money, had to flow the other direction. The imbalance was exacerbated by payments to the Church in Rome. There was not enough gold and silver available to do the job, and shipping it was too dangerous. The Medici bank made large profits for three generations by working out solutions.

At the same time, Humanism is gaining force in Italy and the Dominican Order is evolving some of the changes that will give birth to the Reformation (and cause some Medici discomfort in the person of Savonarola). Urban elites are growing in wealth and power at the expense of hereditary rulers, and inequality within urban centers is turning Republican systems to autocratic ones. War is constant, chaotic and relatively benign.
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Format: Hardcover
I've only read two of Tim Parks books: "Italian Neighbors" and "Italian Education". I loved both of them. I like his nonchalant style which takes the reader right to the point.

"Medici Money" was a good surprise. I had never read anything about the most famous family in Florence, so this book was a good introduction to the fortunes and misfortunes of the power and money hungry Medicis. Because I don't have a background in economics, some parts were a little more difficult to grasp for me, but otherwise it was a witty account of the Medici's bank rise and fall. I only wished it had more on the metaphysics aspect of Renaissance life and how it related to banking. I also think the book would benefit if it had more illustrations and a better genealogy table (some dates were different from the text). Overall it was a pleasant and informative read. I specially liked his suggestions in the bibliography. In sum, I enjoyed the book very much and if you're interested in learning a bit more about Renaissance and the Medici, it's a good start.
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Format: Paperback
Parks brings us 100 years of Florentine history, from 1389 to 1494 - it's the rise and fall of the Medicis, the invention of international banking, and the Renaissance. While it's a complex book, he does well by laying out a chronology, and a chapter of "The Big Picture" in the front of the book. This telling of what he's going to tell us keeps you from getting lost during the progress of the book.

Parks has two basic principles for his theme - first, loan money and you are a usurer and condemned to Hell, unless of course, your principal client is the Pope. Second, even jumped up little money changers long for the trappings of prestige, power, and entitlement of the aristocracy, and will do a lot of foolish things to get it.

Parks has an interesting non-grammatical style, one that is much like the verbal delivery of a good lecturer. To illustrate - "The trajectory, then, is clear enough. One hundred hears. Five generations. A vertiginous rise of fortune - first economic, then political - in the hands of two most able administrators. A brief hinge period presided over by a grumpy, middle-aged man in bed. Then two and half decades of political ascendancy predicated on a wealth that is rapidly disappearing...."

Econonerds will be intrigued by the invention and use of double entry book keeping. Political wonks will like the ins and outs of a tyranny disguised as a republic. Historical dweebs will like the close interaction between five Italian states plus a swarm of small little war lord holdings. Military tacticians will be intrigued by centuries of war that were purposely fought not to be won.

I would suggest this is an intriguing book, but not one for your permanent library. Best to go to the public library for this one.
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