The Banker of Florence

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by Yang Yu

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Fresco by Benozzo Gozzoli at the Magi’s Chapel, Palazzo Medici-Riccardi. (Showing all the major Medici figures and famous Florentines, as of the 1440s, on their pilgrimage to Jerusalem, with the actual background being in Tuscany: on the far right are two female figures representing the Eastern Roman Empire’s friendship with Florence)

This is my journey in Italy in 1520: As George Wordsworth, plenipotentiary of Cardinal Giulio de’Medici (de facto ruler of Florence who later became Pope Clement VII), I was sent on a mission to Rome, Naples, Venice, Ravenna and Bologna, to grind the bloody Italian War that has been raging since 1494 to a halt. The Medici family produced arguably the most prominent bankers in early modern European history, who not only managed to expand their financial empire throughout the continent, but also to promote the Republic of Florence as the cradle of Renaissance.

My story, ‘the Banker of Florence’, is one that reflects on the achievements and failures of this family, along with the lives of a wide range of historical and fictional characters who laughed, who wondered, who dreamed and who persevered in that colourful era five centuries ago. Among them are Don Quixote, Miguel Cervantes’ knight-errant with a simple mind and endless vigour, whose thoughts dwelt upon the chivalric virtues of yesteryear; Shylock, Shakespeare’s Jewish merchant who utterly failed in his attempt to retaliate on the anti-Semitic society he lived in; and Dante Alighieri, father of Italian vernacular literature who did for me what Virgil did for him: to be my spiritual guide in hell, purgatory and heaven. Each of these figures defied the pompous Medici rulers in their own ways.

The adventurous fervour and religious piety of Renaissance Spain were absurdly incarnated in the person of Don Quixote, who was yet to come to terms with the moral codes of his contemporary world. Eager to leave his own mark in history, Don Quixote mounted Rocinante, his beloved steed, wielded the glittering sword given to him by his fair Lady Dulcinea del Toboso, and once again summoned Sancho Panza, his loyal squire. They were determined to conquer the unknown world through their Nine Sacred Labours, to convert more souls to Catholicism, and to challenge the political and military inaction of Pope Leo X, whom I met in Rome. Don Quixote told me in Naples how he triumphed after an illusory overnight combat at the Forum of Pompeii against the Roman god Vulcan, in order to save the lives of the hapless local residents, who were in fact buried by volcanic ashes and were forgotten by the world at large:

“I spurred Rocinante straight into town

Well before the sun began to go down.

Sancho was amazed at what we found:

A centaur of steel holding his ground.

 

His skin was as tanned as our dark brown;

His nose so huge like that of a clown.

He challenged me to a duel with a thunderous sound

Honoured as I felt, I was duty-bound.

 

The clouds turned black, winds blew all around.

The Vesuvius vomited out lava in black mounds.

The Forum was shrouded in a sea of fire

The last day of Pompeii was so dire!

 

The centaur slashed a column down to the mire

Disregarding the screaming crowds that hastily retired.

The Temple of Jupiter crumbled under his ire

The council buildings prostrated themselves before his evil empire.

 

Unmoved by these, I attacked to my heart’s desire,

Wielding my Toboso sword that I recently acquired,

Chanting my victory hymn and praying to be inspired:

So I can repel his assault without help from my squire.

 

The combat lasted for an eerily long night

Till daybreak’s sunlight glared into my eyes.

The evil centaur stopped and uttered sighs,

Unable to defeat a mortal in such an ordinary fight.

The city is in ruins though its memory is kept

Its people were saved, I assume, but boundlessly wept.

While the centaur shamefully withdrew to his mountain,

Saying he was none but that infamous god Vulcan.”

 

In contrast to the confidence, valiance and eloquence of Cervantes’ knight-errant, Shakespeare’s Jew was depressed at his fate of life imprisonment. Condemned by the Venetian Criminal Council of the Forty (Quarantia Criminale) after his appeal against the initial verdict of the Doge, Shylock ended up having his properties confiscated by the Republic, and himself being jailed next to the Doge’s Palace. On his way across the Bridge of Sighs (Ponte dei Sospiri) to his cell, Shylock glimpsed me with despair, gasped the air of freedom for the last time, then bemoaned his future and compared himself with the Medici bankers:

“Mercy on me O God, allow me a final glance at this world below,

Before I embrace imprisonment for my obnoxious crime that happened long ago:

What crime? They say it’s usury of a pound of flesh, how can it be so?

When the sacred contract is exploited by the base Antonio:

Who confirms I can only cut off his flesh without bloodletting, what a fatal blow!

Curse the law of Venice, which brings my end worse than mankind ever know!

 

Fate, for what reasons was I, the most unfortunate banker, forsaken?

See the once lowly Medici family in Florence? They are ever-prosperous.

Even after the bloodiest plots do they remain victorious!

Here come their cargo gondolas up the Canal again, with rich burdens.

 

When will we Jews be delivered from prejudices and become our own master?

May our wealth grow, and never shall our debts drain it faster.

When will I be freed from this incarceration, being friend to none but rocks?

O Messiah, save me from this mishap which has totally gone mad!

Who now sail forth? It’s my daughter Jessica and her Christian lad!

Cover my face, my sackcloth: lest they recognize me, poor old broke Shylock!”

 

The unlucky Jew may have been politically dead, while another wanderer in exile has had his memories resurrected. Dante Alighieri grew up in Florence and was actively involved in local politics, until he was mercilessly expelled in the early 1300s by the Black Guelph (pro-papal) faction. He died in Ravenna in 1321, where his remains were carefully preserved by the Franciscan monks ever since. Two centuries later, in 1519, the Florentines began to reclaim custodianship of his bones. Reluctant to have his peace disturbed, the heavenly Dante presented to the monks a vision to keep his bones in hiding. The poet also appeared to me, showing me three places in Ravenna to tell me how he was encouraged to complete his Divine Comedy. While Dante’s poetry consists of 100 cantos, with 34 in the first section called ‘Hell’, and 33 each in ‘Purgatory’ and ‘Paradise’, this new poem chanted by him includes 100 lines, and is in the same ‘Dantesque’ style of ‘Terza Rima’. I witnessed the beautiful Christian mausoleum of Galla Placidia, a Western Roman Empress; the Arian church and palace of Theodoric the Ostrogoth; followed by an Orthodox divine liturgy at the Basilica di San Vitale after the Eastern Roman Empire reconquered Italy:

“Listen! What a slow and solemn song

In Phrygian tone, Byzantine style

Only to heavenly peace does it belong.

 

Candles are lit, bells ringing awhile

Altar boys hold incense furnaces and lead a parade

Followed by Maximian the bishop from the peristyle

 

They come out of the cloister, of brick it is made

A crowd of believers are waiting in the domed nave

Listening to the chanters in colourful brocade.

 

Even the naughtiest of the youths now well behave

As this is the moment they all anticipate!

And the ferocious storm the faithful brave.

 

‘Attention!’ roar the guards who concentrate

On the arrival of the noblest family.

’Tis the first Orthodox service here that they inaugurate.

 

Seven soldiers blow trumpets, heralding imperial victory

Of Justinian and Theodora, both carrying a sacred urn.

Holding Eucharistic bread and wine that witness Christ’s Mercy.

 

The Imperial Anthem is sung when the best incense burns.

Maximian dedicates the jewelled Bible at the altar,

While the royal couple venerate the body of Christ in turn.

 

Their purple garments with diamonds and gold become brighter

Thanks to the triumphant Christ emitting His light from heaven

Transforming dawn into daylight, to everyone’s wonder.

 

The two deacons are kneeling in prayer at the vision.

Belisarius and Narses, the generals, bow down in awe

The soldiers stand firmly to salute without intermission:

 

Requesting imperial rule based on Christian law.

The congregants cheer and praise, or cry and rejoice,

As Rome is truly risen, as they once foresaw.

 

Sun rises again, emboldening all our voice:

To proclaim Rome’s glory to the rest of the globe.

Light from Light, of one essence through free choice

Let’s prepare ourselves, the church, for the heavenly robe!”

 

With Dante’s remains finally secured, thereafter I returned to Florence, informing Cardinal Giulio and fellow councillors of my experience during the journey. Having spent a delightful night at the Medici Palace, watching a new drama called ‘the Last Day of the Bank’ with my old friend Figaro the barber of Seville, I spent the next day inspecting Michelangelo’s sculptures at the new Medici Chapel, and I foretold the Cardinal his family’s fate.

Medici, the bankers-turned-grand dukes of Tuscany, enabled the Italian vernacular literature, fine arts and opera to flourish, making the politically fragmented Italy a cultural superpower that impressed Shakespeare and Cervantes’ home countries and the entire Europe.

As for me, having paid respect to Pope Leo’s favourite painter Raphael Sanzio at his tomb in the Roman Pantheon weeks after his funeral, having negotiated a trade deal with Venice at the Doge’s Palace, having fought the ghost of Sir John Hawkwood who was wandering at the Cathedral of Florence, and of course, having witnessed Pope Leo X issuing his decree called ‘Exsurge Domine’ at the Basilica of St. John Lateran a few months before he excommunicated Martin Luther, I accomplished my mission 1520 with my soul reborn.

 

The views expressed in this post are the author’s own.

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Author:Yang Yu

Yang was awarded a Master of Commerce degree by the University of Sydney, and a Bachelor of Commerce-Accounting by Macquarie University. He is currently working with Westpac Banking Corporation, the Australian Department of Immigration and Border Protection, and several other government or education institutions in various capacities. He is also a paraprofessional violinist, performing on many occasions for cultural events of a wide range of ethnic groups. interpreted for an Australian prime minister, who was the longest-serving Labor prime minister.

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