Wednesday, November 30, 2005

Book Review: Medici Money

It's not often you get to see a family business, close-up, over four generations. Thanks to the scrupulous accounting practices of 15th-century Florentines and the sparkling storytelling of Tim Parks, you can.

Medici Money zooms in on the famous - or infamous - Medici banking dynasty beginning with the prudent Giovanni di' Benci de Medici in the late 1300s to 'Il Magnifico', Lorenzo de Medici, who sent the company bankrupt, but in such style.

You'll often hear about the Medicis in connection with art, and while art plays an important role in this book, this is mostly about the intersection of commerce, religion and politics that took place in just under a hundred years.

Tim Parks, the author, is better-known as a novelist, not a historian, and his flowing prose is welcome relief to a reader used to wading through more academic accounts lately. What's best is that he realises there are a lot of people and places to keep track of here, and lays it all out carefully at the beginning. But in case you still get lost, he doesn't fail to remind you who's who throughout the book. Parks is extraordinarily considerate to his readers.

Parks' intimate knowledge of Italian history and geography also comes out of every pore of this book (if books had pores). This is one of those books that, while it covers roughly a century very quickly, makes you feel like you've been there and met the people.

Medici Money is not just an idle look back either. Parks uses modern situations and parallels to help the reader who hasn't visited 15th century Florence understand why seemingly trivial things like lending at interest were so important.

If you're interested in history, politics, business, art or just people, this book is wide-ranging enough to interest all of you.


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