Visiting places like Venice and Florence gives a clear indication that Civic Office in the 15th and 16th centuries particularly in the city states of Italy was a place for the wealthy to exhibit their political and financial power and influence. They did this often through linking patronage and public art.
Today in modern democracies citizens tend to distain the thought that politicians might “buy” their way to high office. Most recently in Australia there has been some criticism of Clive Palmer, self styled billionaire, founding and financing a political party that seems to exist primarily to promote his own personal agenda. Other public figures with considerable personal financial substance such as Malcolm Turnbull also attract the scorn of their political opponents because of their wealth.
Making Money and Politics Mix.
In 15th Century Florence wealth was not so despised in political figures. The Medici family had worked hard at developing its fortune from ordinary beginnings as wool merchants in France and Spain to become the largest banking operation in Europe. Members of the family gained office in the city government of Florence and leveraged both their financial and political influence to increase their power over public and economic policy, including being involved in the introduction of a new and innovative proportional taxation system.
As the family grew, so did the practice of placing family members in key government posts and in high offices within the Church, such that by the middle of the 15th Century the Medici name was established as a dynasty, dominating Florentine government to the point of providing successive heads of state in a hereditary fashion – although not actually dismantling representative government. They also provided four Popes between 1513 and 1610.
Reports of the time indicate that these were years of sound administration and civic development and it was not until the later members of the dynasty began getting involved in very expensive wars with neighbouring states that both their wealth and their influence began to wane.
Patronage and Public Art.
No doubt the Medici’s political power brought them considerable personal financial gain – in keeping with the standards of public administration of the times. However it is clear also that their ascendancy coincided with a dramatic flowering of art, culture and science directly attributable to their patronage. In Florence today there remains expansive evidence of the artistic and architectural wonders generated through their commissions.
Many of these commissions which engaged the men of genius of that era – Michelangelo, Botticelli, Leonardo Da Vinci, Raphael – focused on the aggrandisement of the Medici individuals. Although self indulgent in their immediate sense, the paintings, sculptures and architecture in a more historic context have proven to be magnificent treasures, now presented as public assets in the Cities of Florence and Rome. They are also historic bequests to successive generations of world travellers who flock (and pay) to spend a few moments in the presence of these great creations, which would not have come into existence without the Medici wealth and the high positions from which they disposed it.
(The fabulous monument in Florence’s Medici Chapel sculptured by Michelangelo circa 1524-1534)
Whilst the Medici may well have thought they were buying their own immortality – as in some respects they were – they were also certainly ensuring the immortality of the artists and architects whose genius produced the wonderful monuments and decorated venues, that still stand to awe us over 500 years later.
Where are today’s Medici?
The intermingling of private and public funds of those times makes it difficult to make comparisons between the Medici and modern era public figures. There are few contemporary examples of such opulent artistic private collections being converted to public assets, although there are a few notable donations from the estates of late politicians and corprate heads to national museums and galleries. In the USA names like Rockefeller are synonymous with philanthropy encompassing great public art.
Although such individual philanthropy is difficult to find in the Australian context, a couple of examples come to mind of Australian governments identifying targets for the spending of considerable public monies on artistic and architectural icons which will in a small way parallel the Medici bequests to posterity. For example, the Sydney Opera House and the famous and controversial acquisition by the Government of Prime Minister Gough Whitlam of Jackson Pollock’s “Blue Poles”. These are however shallow comparisons to the scope and numbers of masterpieces and ancient works assembled in the Palazzo Vecchio and Uffizi Gallery in Florence through the patronage of the Medici.
(One of the dozens of lavishly apponited collections in the Uffizi Gallery in Florence, Italy)
On a much more humble level we owe to the Medici a simple but ground breaking innovation in commercial accounting. It was this family of bankers who devised the Double Entry system of bookkeeping to control the tracking of debits and credits. In the world of finance and accounting this was as much a stroke of genius as Michelangelo’s marble creations.