A new type of coin was invented. Advances in mathematics, cryptography and bookkeeping allowed people to use money in new ways. The coin enabled a new class of people to become wealthy.
But wealth was scorned. So, instead of flaunting it directly, the newly wealthy invested in art. Art became an acceptable, more refined way to signal wealth. But it was not only the uber-wealthy that invested in art. Access to it was democratized, and a whole class of merchants and traders began investing and commissioning it.
The evolution of currencies and commerce did not just finance art; it redefined it. The new buyers paid artists to paint them in places and clothes that did not exist in reality. And mastery of mathematics became essential to the art-making process — it helped calculate perspectives and shadows and spurred the emergence of new styles and artists.
This is the story of Florence in the 14th and 15th Centuries. In 2011, an exhibition titled Money and Beauty explored the relationship between the Italian City-State's monetary system and the Renaissance. I summarized above what the program for the exhibition describes in detail.
The exhibition was timely — in the aftermath of the Great Financial Crisis of 2008, a crisis typified by "innovative and perhaps overly risky financial instruments." But the story of Florentine art and money is even more relevant today. New digital currencies are driving the evolution of new forms of art — and new forms of speculation in art. But the real story is not about art at all. It is about the evolution of a new class of people with new economic power who wish to build new social and political institutions.
2008 was about the rejection of money. It was about Wall Street and the government policies that enabled the bankers and encouraged people to take on debt they could not repay. Everything we've seen in the 2010s was a reaction to that — the loss of trust of institutions, the denigration of success, and the decline of Wall Street as an attractive place for humanity's best and brightest.
The 2020s are money's Renaissance. We'll see an attempt to use new forms of currency and cryptography to create new institutions, new rules, and new centers of power. In the process, getting rich and investing in art might be legitimized. By the end of the process, some people will still have more than others, and governments will still exist. But everything will be different.
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