The prolific Parks (Judge Savage, 2003, etc.), a Britisher now at home in Italy, offers a Renaissance splendor that is often scanted in the artistic glory of the era.
The wealth of the Medicis supplied the plates and pallets of painters like Donatello and Fra Fillipo Lippi in a symbiotic relationship of art and craftiness. In Parks’s portrait of doughty, gouty Cosimo (1389–1464), the emphasis is on the craftiness—on the way Cosimo ran his family, Florence and, as well, a mighty international banking system. When usury was a sin, depositary accounts entailed gifts, not interest. For nearly a century, the Medici banks were proficient in letters of credit, currency arbitrage, commodity exchange and other metaphysical financial practices, all without sin. The Church was a major client. Here’s the story of the Medicis—doctors of finance and statecraft, governance and religion, trade, warfare, intrigue and despotism as contending Dukes duked it out in Tuscany. Condottieri (hired armies) were the enforcers, ducats and florins the means and ends. Cosimo was succeeded by his fat son, Piero the Gouty (1416–69), who was followed by homely, captivating Lorenzo the Magnificent (1449–92). Lorenzo may have been more interested in poetry and politics than in negotiable instruments and capital markets, yet one son became pope (and two weren’t strong enough for the family business). The dynasty couldn’t last, of course. Its power waned with bank failures, ill health and, particularly, with the advent of Girolamo Savoranola, the fundamentalist who challenged the humanist Medicis. Parks’s narrative of the conflation of state power and the power of business, frequently told in the present tense, often in sentence fragments, flows like money. Financial history never had it so good.
A bright literary exercise, the third in the new series Enterprise (“the business book as literature”). (14 illus., not seen)