Part of the Art, Money, and the Renaissance blog series
If you think the economy is weighed in favor of the rich now, you should have seen the Renaissance.
Not only was it still a feudal system where people could essentially own other people; not only was there no social safety net; but in Renaissance Florence, as Tim Parks describes extensively in Medici Money, the rich and the poor actually used separate currencies.
“The picciolo was the currency of the poor, the salary of the worker, the price of a piece of bread. Luxury goods, wholesaling, international trade, these were the exclusive realm of the golden florin. By law. A man who dealt in piccioli had a long way to go.”
It was possible to exchange the currencies, but only at banks and only with a significant fee built in. Meanwhile since the wealthy earned florins but paid salaries in picciolo, there was always an incentive to devalue the picciolo, making wages cheaper to pay for — and making the poor poorer.
This, of course, is manifestly unjust and even horrifying. But it also tells us something about the relationship of money to society in the Renaissance, because well, ask yourself: why did it stop? Why don’t we have a system like this today?
Is it because we’re so much more egalitarian today than Renaissance Florence? Sure — I mean, we’re no longer a feudal society in any formal way. But beyond that: we don’t have currencies based on social standing anymore because that defeats the whole point of currencies.
The purpose of currencies is to facilitate the exchange of goods and services — to generate wealth — in as simple a manner as possible. The more hoops a currency has to jump through, the more currency exchanges you have to make, the less effective a currency is and the less wealth it can generate.
This was a challenge constantly faced by Renaissance Florence, which had to manage two sets of fiscal and monetary policies, had to figure out elaborate ways to both get the currencies exchanged and to keep them from being exchanged. It was a drain on their banks and their global trading.
They did it anyway. And therein lies perhaps the fundamental difference between the way we think about money in the modern age and the way they thought about it in the Renaissance: we try to keep cultural order from getting in the way of the free flow of money, while Renaissance Florence tried to keep the flow of money from getting in the way of their cultural order.
On the one hand, this could be brutal: creating separate currencies to match social stratification is a fundamental assault on individual liberty. On the other hand, it served a vital social function: money kept flowing through the system, out of the hands of the wealthy and into the rest of society, including and especially artists.
There were vast concentrations of wealth in the Renaissance, to be sure, but the modern idea that someone can get legitimacy form simply being wealthy — that collected capital is its own reward — was an anathema to Renaissance society. 20th century communists had nothing on Renaissance Christians when it came to a suspicion of the rich.
“There was a tendency (in the Renaissance) to see wealth itself, or the process of getting rich, as possibly anti-Christian,” Parks said.
After all: “Again I tell you,” sayeth the Lord, “it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.” Jesus was not particularly ambiguous on this point. Yet the Renaissance loved prosperity writ large: poverty could be a virtue for individuals but not for society.
(Also, notice that distinction: poverty could be a virtue. Outside of the still clinging view that it’s okay for artists to starve for their art, is there any less modern of a sentiment? Philip Rieff once wrote: “There was a time when a man’s virtue could be discerned from how few desires he had. That time will never come again.”)
So what is a society that wants the benefits brought by prosperity but has a deep suspicion of both concentrated wealth and the process by which it is accumulated to do?
The Renaissance’s ingenious solution was to make the practices that led to wealth illegal enough to penalize but not illegal enough to stop — and to tie the state of a rich man’s soul (and his place in the social order) to the public good he did with his wealth.
Medici Money uses pawnshops an example of how the former system works. The society didn’t want to permit them — they preyed upon the needy — but it also needed them to function.
“Making no attempt to his profit, the pawnbroker, whether Christian or Jew, is a ‘manifest usurer’ and so cannot belong to the Exchangers’ Guild and cannot be given a license to trade. But he can be fined. Or rather, they can. For this ‘detestable sin,’ as the city’s government deems it, a fine of 2,000 florins a year is imposed on all the Florentine pawnbrokers as a group. Payment exempts them from any further tax or punishment. The theologians can debate whether this arrangement amounts to granting a license or not.”
This system applied all the way up the ladder. Oxford scholar Dr. Matthew Landrus, who specializes in the study of Renaissance artists and intellectuals, told us that “If you’re a banker, and you’re guilty of usury, you would expect to spend a good portion of the money from those transactions of that creating a chapel or some other religious or public good.”
In a sense it was the inverse of our system of government taxation: where today plutocrats ask themselves “am I paying too much in taxes? Is there a way I could pay less?” plutocrats of the Renaissance were constantly asking themselves: “Have I done enough? Am I sure that I’ve given away enough to avoid hell and condemnation?”
Was there a level of hypocrisy here? Obviously, but Oscar Wilde called hypocrisy “the tribute vice pays to virtue,” and you can power a whole society on it. Time and again, Renaissance culture found behaviors that were both dangerous to the social fabric and instrumental in generating prosperity — particularly the various forms of usury — and instead of banishing them outright it found ways to punish them that ensured the generated wealth was spread out into the population.
This is not to say that these punishments were toothless or insincere: on the contrary, it was an incredibly delicate balancing act, one that the rich apparently lost a great deal of sleep over. A push too far, and the consequences could be dire. In 1437 Florence put the hammer down and outright banned all Christians from owning pawnshops.
For Christian pawnshop owners the worst had come to pass, but even this was a kind of two-step around the issue: there were still Jews, and so there were still pawnshops. That’s the point: Renaissance culture was not simply going to give up the tools they needed to achieve prosperity — they loved prosperity — but they were quite willing to make prosperity harder on themselves if they felt a cultural taboo was being violated in a way that had become unbalancing.
The result was that instead of hoarding wealth, the well-to-do were constantly on the hook to support the poor, the church, and the arts. But more than that: the best patrons weren’t just “on the hook,” they wanted to contribute. They were passionate about making a difference, creating culture for the ages, and found a profound sense of meaning in the supporting the arts. The system was hypocritical, but it was also passionately and meaningfully engaged.
How was the Renaissance so much more adept at creating a balancing act than we are today? Part of it, of course, is that it never would have occurred to them not establish this balance: once you don’t see the accumulation of money for its own sake as a virtue, of course you’re going to find ways to limit the damage it can cause. Money was not an unconditional good for their society the way it often seems to have become for ours.
More than that, however, it was possible because the world that the people of the Renaissance inhabited had fundamentally different assumptions, and a different mind-set.
In the Renaissance mindset, the world was finite — it had a clear beginning and a clear end, Landrus said. It was bound: space was plentiful but limited. And human beings were at the center of it all.
“That gave the world a teleology” (a sense of meaningful function and purpose), Landrus told us. “Man was responsible for the universe, and his actions were a microcosm of it. That means that your actions in the polis were very important. It’s something that, to modern thinking, is very difficult to understand: today there isn’t that sense of a finite end or a center of things.”
The modern mind sees the world as open ended, infinite, and without boundaries, and that means that nothing you do really matters to the big picture. When you’re swimming in an ocean, nothing you do can possibly seem like it impacts the whole. But in a small pond the actions of every fish creates ripples that can be felt.
The implications for how the rich should behave follows that difference: if you live in a finite world, the way money is spent is everyone’s business because everyone is directly impacted. To hold on to ill-gotten wealth is to do damage to the whole. There is no ability to just live and let live. But if you exist in a world without boundaries, then nothing you do really matters to the big picture — and so there’s no reason not to do it.
It’s hard to imagine advocating for a return to the Renaissance mindset: the same worldview that created an unshakeable impetus for the rich to dedicate their wealth to the arts and the public good also enforced strict codes about women and sex and personal freedoms of all kinds. The world has benefitted tremendously from shaking the idea that individualism is an affront to the natural order.
But it also presents a problem that the Renaissance didn’t have. If nothing really matters, then there’s no clear way to be in the world. “How do people want to leave their mark in today’s world?” Landrus asks. “How do they do that?”
It’s something we can see the hyper-rich struggling with now: Billionaires like Warren Buffet and Bill Gates have been trying to redefine philanthropy in the 21st century, and directly challenged other modern plutocrats to leave most of their money to charity instead of their descendants. New firms are springing up in Silicon Valley to help tech barons find cost-effective causes to support. The new rich are looking for new ways to contribute meaningfully.
But nothing comparable to the Renaissance ethos of money has yet emerged: right now, at least, philanthropy on the scale of a Gates or a Buffet is seen as a noble idiosyncrasy rather than as part of a compelling worldview, and Silicon Valley is neither known as a philanthropic center nor for its public works. Indeed, a case strong case can be made that forces of social stratification are pushing the wealthy away from the common bonds of community, not towards it. Lacking a clear ethos of money, we don’t really have a clear sense of how to both be rich and to belong to the common community in the 21st century.
Is it possible to have an ethos of money in the post-modern era that serves both social needs for money to keep flowing through the system and the desire of (some of) the hyper-rich to use their fortunes to have a positive impact and leave a meaningful legacy?
The jury’s still out, but it’s worth noticing something — you’re probably picked up on it already. Burning Man, which at this point is one of the largest generators of new public art in the world (particularly when you factor in regional events), has conditions that are remarkably like those of the Renaissance mindset.
It is a world with clear boundaries in both time and space — literally fenced in and lasting only a week. It is a place where even small actions and decisions can have an enormous impact on the individuals and communities around you: a place where what you do personally clearly matters. You are relevant. It is a place that is utterly suffused with meaning, even if no one necessarily agrees on what it is.
Burning Man’s community standards are significantly lighter than those of the Renaissance — but it is still a place where the community standards matter very much. It’s not just that people police them for others — if you leave MOOP, people will comment; if you go around at night without illumination, someone will give you sparklies (or yell at you for being a darktard) — it’s that most people internalize them. People go out of their way to leave no trace, they put gifting and self-expression at the center of what they do. They take inclusion seriously.
It would be easy to make too much of these similarities, but they are suggestive. Perhaps the slogan “think globally, act locally” is only half right. It may be that when we experience a circumscribed world, a world where our actions give us more of a sense of direct and meaningful relevance, that an ethos of money more conducive to a vibrant arts scene emerges. Passionate engagement with the arts might not come out of a system in which people see themselves as victims of vast impersonal forces, but do emerge out of a system in which people see themselves as a meaningful part of a community and a world where their actions matter. And of course that’s going to change how they spend their time and money.
The globe, let alone the infinite universe, may be too large to create the sense of immediacy that a vibrant cultural scene requires. Renaissance artists and patrons absolutely had their eyes on history, they wanted to conquer the world, but history and the world were much smaller. Perhaps the ethos of money that we require in the modern world requires us to think locally sometimes.
Top photo: Penny the Goose by Linda and Rob Ferguson, 2014 (Photo by Sidney Erthal)