Cosimo’s Full Absolution

July 2, 2008 / Art & Archaeology
Usury, back then defined simply as interest from money, was a terrible sin . . . 7th circle of hell, fourth ditch, kind of sin. So poor Cosimo de’ Medici, our prototypical Renaissance banker, decided to ask his friend (and very indebted client) Pope Eugene IV what to do.

Simple really . . conduct a full re-build of the Dominican San Marco Monastery to prove that earthly gains were just for the glory of God (but not only as we’ll see) and Cosimo would be without sin.

Total cost to Cosimo? About 10,000 gold fiorini … pretty penny actually. With that sum one could found an international bank, or build a palace like the Medici’s in Florence. Then again, the Medici bank made around 15 times that in 1420 alone, so all in all it was a pretty good deal for Cosimo. Plus, he got some half-decent art out if it too.

Fra Angelico’s Veneration of the Madonna from the San Marco altarpiece, depicting an oh-so pious Saint Cosma (familiar name? on his knees on a Medici rug facing us dressed in the same kind of red gown Cosimo wore!) and Saints Lorenzo, Giovanni and Pietro (what a coincidence, those are the names of his brother and his two sons!) all to the Madonna’s right (position of honor), left side from our perspective.

Inspired by Tim Park’s wonderful book, Medici Money: Banking, Metaphysics, and Art in 15th Century Florence


by GB Bernardini

Editor, Italian Notebook

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