The Renaissance banked on art

by C.B. Liddell

Special To The Japan Times

All exhibitions that deal with the distant past inevitably fall into the trap of anachronism to some degree. This is especially true when they try to present a strong storyline that appeals to modern audiences, as the present exhibition at Bunkamura The Museum does with “Money and Beauty: Botticelli and the Renaissance in Florence.”

The exhibition brings together an impressive collection of works by Sandro Botticelli, the artist whose name, among a few others, springs to mind when we think of the period before the High Renaissance (c.1490-1530). Because of his famous “Primavera” (“Allegory of Spring”), Botticelli is also a painter whom the public tend to associate with the season of spring, which may explain the exhibition’s timing in Tokyo’s art calendar.

Be that as it may, this show sets out to make an era that was quite different from our own understandable in the terms of the present day by focusing on the readily understood idea of a synergy between wealth and beauty. It promotes the notion that the rich and successful of the period “splashed out” on art and decoration in an obvious attempt at conspicuous consumption. After all, what can seem more natural to the broad masses, who perhaps dream of being able to do something similar by buying designer curtains or a charming piece of furniture?

But is it really as simple as that? Today, the tastes of the super rich, the class that still drives the art market, seldom seem focused on pure aesthetic merit. For the rich, buying art is not a simple equation of turning wealth into beauty. While beauty is often important, other factors, such as social signalling and political function, can also be discerned in some buying choices — and this was also so with the wealthy Florentines of Botticelli’s time, most notably the Medici money-lending clan.

The Medicis, who are often mentioned in the Italian-Japanese catalog, have come to typify the wealthy Florentine oligarchs who dominated their society to the extent that moneyed donors control an America gearing up for a change of president.

Much of the exhibition is dedicated to putting us in mind of these types, most vividly in “The Usurers” (c. 1540), a copy of a painting by the Dutch artist Marinus van Reymerswaele. This is very much a Northern Renaissance painting. With its sharp realism mixed with caricature, it is quite different from the more rarefied and idealized art that developed south of the Alps. It clearly represents the more caustic and critical Northern European sensibility, whereas some Florentine engravings depicting money-changers are a lot more neutral in tone, with no attempt to play up the ambivalent feelings that the profession of money-lender evoked among Europeans in the past.

The financial side of the exhibition’s equation is further represented by examples of strong boxes, padlocks and ornate keys. There are also a few examples of the hard currency of the time, the famous gold florin, which did not take its name from the town of Florence as one might suppose. Florence, of course, is just the English name of Firenze. Instead the name of the coin derives from “fiorino,” the Italian diminutive of “flower,” in recognition of the city’s emblem, the fleur-de-lis, which marks the coins.

The concern with commerce and finance threw up a number of conflicts with the dominant Christian ideology of the time. Though the city did not allow outright usury, it was prepared to countenance interest in the hidden form of “compensation” (damnum emergens) for “forced loans” exacted through the city government.

In this way the Florentines were able to create a vast amount of interest-bearing debt, expressed as bonds that were then sold on. This required close cooperation between the civic and financial sectors, which bolstered the power of the Medicis and other members of the Florentine oligarchy, such as Lorenzo de’ Lorenzi, the subject of an uncharacteristically stern portrait by Botticelli.

An important part of the equation was also to allow the Catholic Church its share of the proceeds by, among other things, donating to religious establishments and commissioning religious art. This is why the “beauty” side of the equation in this exhibition mainly takes the form of rather opulently painted religious subject matter, especially Madonna and Child paintings, including Botticelli’s “Madonna in Glory with Cherubs” (c. 1470). Here the artist has taken special care to show how well-fed baby Jesus is.

A lot of the religious feeling of the often unscrupulous oligarchs, however, was genuine. Another notable work is Botticelli’s “Annunciation” (1481), a fresco that was originally hung over the entrance of San Martino della Scala, a hospital for plague victims. It is thought to have been erected in gratitude for the answering of prayers to end a nasty bout of plague that had been raging in the city.

“Money and Beauty: Botticelli and the Renaissance in Florence” at Bunkamura The Museum runs till June 28; open daily 10 a.m.-7 p.m. (Fri. and Sat. till 9 p.m.). ¥1,500.