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NPR looks at the Money and Beauty exhibition in Florence that was accompanied by a recent conference on the role of bankers and art. Here NPR points out that the success of banking in Florence led directly to an explosion of artistic achievement as bankers sought to deflect anger at their wealth toward admiration for their patronage:
And in another hedge against eternal damnation, bankers filled those great cathedrals with great paintings and great sculpture. Through penitential patronage — the fear of God — Florence became the foundry of great artwork and set the stage for the Renaissance.
James Bradburne, director of the exhibition space, says Money and Beauty has a particular resonance in today’s financially troubled world.
“It asks people to think about bankers’ bonuses, how bankers make their money. How mysterious was a letter of credit — it was like short-selling, like derivatives,” he says. Many of the same questions, Bradburne notes, are being asked today.
“Are the bankers the devils? Are they making illegitimate profits, or are they just good chaps?” Bradburne says. “We need the banking system. The dilemma is the same — and it devolves into a social and moral dilemma — then as now.”
What’s less clear is whether today’s bankers — perhaps less guilt-ridden than their Florentine forerunners — are willing or able to finance a new renaissance.