In 15th-century Italy, the most powerful people in the land were neither popes nor kings. They were the Medicis, members of a banking dynasty whose...

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“Medici Money: Banking, Metaphysics and Art in Fifteenth-Century Florence”
by Tim Parks
Atlas Books, 224 pp., $22.95

In 15th-century Italy, the most powerful people in the land were neither popes nor kings. They were the Medicis, members of a banking dynasty whose vast wealth enabled them to challenge the church and overthrow neighboring city states at will.

The Medicis were patrons of the arts who lavishly supported such artists as Donatello and Fra Fillipo Lippi, and they were also cunning power brokers who built their banking empire by bending the church’s usury laws.

In “Medici Money,” Tim Parks’ new book on the rise and fall of the Medici bank (which corresponds to the ascent and decline of Medici family power), the author chronicles the 100 years starting in 1397 when the Medici bank was founded in Florence.

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Though usury was prohibited by the Catholic Church, the Medicis developed elaborate schemes to make money by speculating on international exchange rates through the importation of foreign goods. By the mid-15th century there were Medici bank branches throughout Italy, and in Bruges and London.

Such power caused envy and fear, and Medici patriarchs were occasionally tossed in prison by political rivals. Like a tribe of Donald Trumps of Renaissance Italy, the Medici men publicly flaunted their scandalous private affairs. On his wedding day, Lorenzo Il Magnifico (1449-1492) conveniently arranged for his mistress to accompany him to his vainglorious public wedding, while his bride remained elsewhere. Later in life, Lorenzo enjoyed writing bawdy songs for Florence’s public carnivals. Parks notes that like many of the Medicis, Lorenzo had gout and was spectacularly ugly, but he was also clever and charming.

An English writer who has long made his home in Italy, Parks is the author of numerous amusing novels and nonfiction works on such subjects as Italian soccer and life in contemporary Italy. Yet this book, written in rambling essay form, is maddening to read.

Verb tenses ricochet alarmingly from past to present and back again, even when describing 500-year-old events. And Parks’ relentless use of the rhetorical query becomes tedious. Parks has done admirable research on the Medicis and their financial empire; one wishes only that he’d taken a more rigorous, reader-friendly approach to style.