Friday, June 30, 2006

Cool books 1

Following the recommendation of Instapundit, just finished Tim Parks' Medici Money, an elegant short history of the rise of the Medici in Renaissance Florence c. 1350-1500. Those were their banking years, before they became "old money" and too respectable and too powerful to be comfortable with their mercantile past. By the mid-1500s, the popes had made them the Grand Dukes of Tuscany and put them beyond all that.

Parks' book is a title in the Atlas Books Enterprise series, published by Norton, all in the vein of economics and business. He has a lengthy and provocative discussion of the long-standing suspicion against trade and especially against lending-at-interest as a powerful prejudice touching on our primitive need for something that is beyond comparison and exchange with something else -- absolute "things-in-themselves" that cannot be bought, sold, or weighed against ordinary stuff. Today this prejudice largely masquerades as "progressive" and even "liberal" -- it isn't. The irony is that the Medici, like all "old money," eventually sought to use their money, not to make more money, but to buy into the distinctive and cultured -- to buy what really can't be bought. That's one of the paradoxes of money and social climbing.

Having visited Italy, I can say the Medici did a never-less-than-creditable, and often brilliant, job of running Florence. The family petered out in the 18th century, but they married respectably into the Lorraine (Lorena) family, related to the Hapsburgs -- so much of northern Italy passed into Austrian control in the 19th century, before Italian unification in 1870. To the Medici-Lorena family, we owe modern public health and the career of Galileo, as well as much of the art you see in Tuscany and elsewhere in Italy. Not bad. And it reminds us that family-based paternalism and philanthropy are often as good as, if not better, than the modern bureaucratic state in securing the public good.

Historians of the Renaissance can end up sounding like propagandists for the Medici (it's hard to escape their spell, especially if you live in Florence for a while), so I don't want to rave on about them too much. But they were remarkable nonetheless -- the ultimate merchant princes.

While you're at it, read up on the Renaissance through classic and contemporary works - Jacob Burckhardt's Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy (1860) -- as well as the usual suspects: Boccaccio, Petrarch, Vasari, and (later) Machiavelli, Guicciardini, and Galileo. Along with its next-door cousin in southern France, northern Italy is the home of the modern West, and these guys more or less invented modernity. Intertwined with the Reformation, it later spread to the rest of Europe and to Europe's overseas colonies, defining the world we inhabit today.

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