The Madonna Trade – Money and Beauty at Palazzo Strozzi

Fra Angelico “could have become rich, but made no effort to do so.” So Vasari tells us. Instead he painted for the wealthy. Privately commisioned, this painting was intended to enhance the quality of a rich man’s prayers. The viewer is not reminded that Christ was born in poverty. Francesco Datini advised agents procuring devotional paintings to wait until artists were in need of money, then talk down their prices.
Blue paint: 2 florins (approx). Gold background: 38 florins (approx). Artist’s work: 35 florins (approx)

Fra Angelico «potette essere ricco, e non se ne curò». Così dice Vasari. Si limitò a dipingere per i ricchi. Commissionata da un privato, quest’opera doveva esaltare la qualità delle preghiere del facoltoso cliente, cui non andavano ricordate le umili origini del Cristo. Francesco Datini suggerì agli agenti incaricati di procurare dipinti votivi, di aspettare che gli artisti avessero bisogno di soldi e poi tirare sul prezzo.
Azzuro ultramarino: 2 fiorini circa. Sfondo dorato: 38 fiorini circa. Opera dell’artista: 35 fiorini circa

Statute of the Florence Mint

Halos and coins. The biblical John the Baptist lived in poverty wearing a raiment of camel’s hair. The Florence mint adds the scarlet cloak of wealth and authority. As patron saint of Florence, he would feature on every florin the mint produced. It was comforting to see no conflict between money and sanctity. The statute contains regulations to prevent cheating and forgery, plus details of those condemned for these crimes between 1314 and 1461.

Aureole e monete. Il Giovanni Battista biblico viveva in povertà indossando una veste di peli di cammello. La Zecca fiorentina lo ammanta anche di scarlatto, simbolo di ricchezza e autorità. Come santo patrono di Firenze figurava su ogni fiorino coniato dalla Zecca. Una confortante fusione tra soldi e santità. Lo statuto contiene le norme atte a prevenire frodi e contraffazioni, oltre ai dettagli dei condannati per questi reati tra il 1314 e il 1461.

The Merchant of Prato

A man “who kept women and lived only on partridges, adoring art and money and forgetting his creator and himself”. Over his long life the workaholic Merchant of Prato, Francesco Datini, must have set a price on every commodity imaginable, including the 20-year-old slave who bore him the only child he recognized: Ginevra. At his death in 1410, he left 124,549 business letters, 573 account books, and a fortune of over 100,000 florins. The scarlet gown cost around 80 florins, rather more than the slave girl.
Tim Parks

Un uomo «che tenea la femmina, e viveano solo a starne, adorando lo’ arte, lo’ invio e ’l danaro, dimenticando Iddio e se stesso», Francesco Datini, l’infaticabile mercante di Prato, nella sua lunga vita fissò un prezzo per ogni bene immaginabile, compresa la schiava ventenne che gli diede l’unica figlia che riconobbe: Ginevra. Morì nel 1410 lasciando 124.549 lettere d’affari, 573 libri contabili e una fortuna di oltre 100.000 fiorini. La veste scarlatta sarà costata circa 80 fiorini, ben più della schiava.

The Money Changer and his Wife, at Palazzo Strozzi

Does anything demand more attention than money? Eyes, hands, shoulders and elbows all gravitate towards a pile of coins. But the money-changers are no longer grotesques; the wife is as pretty as she is rapt. Nothing is more ordinary, the painter acknowledges, than our relating to one another through money. Above and between their intent faces, the candle has gone out.

Cosa esige più attenzione dei soldi? Occhi, mani, spalle e gomiti sono tutti orientati verso un mucchio di monete. Ma i cambiavalute non sono più grotteschi; la moglie è tanto bella quanto assorta. Non v’è cosa più ordinaria, attesta l’artista, del nostro relazionarci agli altri tramite il denaro. Le mani sono tese e avide. In mezzo all’uomo e alla moglie, la candela si è spenta.

Mussolini – Act One

In 1915 while serving in the army on the high mountain front, Mussolini wrote a war diary, a sort of early modern blog, to be published in instalments in Milan. Here is an entry.
“Today is Christmas. Yes, Christmas day. Today our hearts are hard and dry as these rocky craters. Modern civilisation has “mechanised us.” The war has pushed this “mechanisation” of European society to the limit. Twenty-five years ago I was a headstrong, violent little boy. Some of my class-mates still bear the scars of the stones I threw at them. Instinctively nomadic, I would go off from morning till night, along the river, stealing birds’ nests and fruit. I went to church. The Christmases of those years are still vivid in my mind. There were very few people who didn’t go to church on Christmas day: my father and a couple of others. The trees and hawthorns along the road to San Cassiano were stiff and white with hoarfrost. It was cold. The first masses were for the early risers, the old women. When we saw them coming back, it was our turn. I remember: I followed my mother. In the church there were lots of lights and, in the middle of the altar, in a small cradle decorated with flowers, the Babe born in the night. Everything was picturesque and fed my imagination. Only the smell of the incense upset me so much that sometimes I would feel unbearably sick. At last the organ blared out and the ceremony was over. The crowd swarmed out. Along the road, people chattered happily. Come midday, the traditional, delicious cappelletti di Romagna steamed on the table. How many years, how many centuries have passed since then? Canon-fire recalls me to reality. It’s Christmas at war.” Continue reading


Before Blair, Benito Mussolini also proclaimed a Third Way. The expression is dense with implication. It describes a world divided into two camps who squander their energies in sterile conflict. The Third Way denounces the perversity of that dynamic and suggests that the terms of the argument between the camps are false; it’s time to move on.
Almost without our noticing, a subtle hierarchy is established. Of the other two ways – socialism, capitalism – we are not told which is the first and which the second. It hardly matters. They are on the same, lower level, they create and exasperate each other in futile and mulish opposition, not unlike those married couples who are forever at loggerheads.
The Third Way is different. We know it is number three. It is not involved in a head-on collision with either of the others. It is new. Anyone persisting in the old battles, the old rhetoric has lost touch with history. The third way is progress, the youngster’s world not the parents’. Giovinezza, (Youth) Fascism’s hymn was entitled. Continue reading


Fifteen love.
This is it, the decisive game. Mick serving for the set. And I’m already down. I hate losing!
Just turned fourteen, Michele is already taller than me, and heavier. No doubt handsomer. Yep, he’s overtaken me in all kinds of ways. He can duck me in the swimming pool. But he still hasn’t beaten me at tennis!
He throws the ball up in the air and serves, hard and long.
Too long.
Not that I’m any good at tennis. I only started a couple of years back. In fact we’re both pretty useless. But since I’m not growing six inches a year, with all the clumsiness that entails, I’ve always been able to creep through. The first few games are even-Stevens, then around three-all he collapses and I forge ahead.
But today things are going the other way. Continue reading

Reggina Remembered – an extract

“Bastardi, merda,” the crowd are shouting as I climb the stairs of the stadium. An hour before kick off, the stands are already full, except, that is, for the small section reserved for ‘guests’. The Verona boys are just arriving. Less than a hundred I’d say, a poor showing, but then the journey is sixteen hours by train. The crowd greet them with monkey grunts, then a thunderous chant that’s new to me: “Uccidere, uccidere!!” Kill. Kill.
It’s a quaint little stadium, housing perhaps twenty-five or thirty thousand. From the stairs, you can look out to the idyllic sea. “Kill, Kill!” Since Reggina play in claret, there’s a disturbingly dark red look to the sea of bodies. “Kill, kill!” The Brigate Gialloblù make their inevitable gestures in response. I can just make out Fondo and a couple of the others. They hang up their old banners. Then Pastorello appears with Foschi, Agnolin and the bodyguards. Immediately, the crowd responds with a shriek. “Fuori!” they begin. Out! “Fuori, fuori!” Then, “Ladro!” Thief. Even the people in the VIP section are screaming and making gestures. Corrado Ferlaino vice-president of Napoli has come along with his wife to support Reggina. They too are shouting: “Fuori. Fuori. Ladro!” Betraying no emotion, Pastorello takes his seat. My respect for him rises enormously. The bodyguards are stationed one each end of his row of seats. Continue reading

The Mezzanine

As a novel-reader I’m a lover of plot and character, of the idea that a number of people are interacting in ways that makes each more believable and pushes the whole group towards some sort of crisis. And I like a book with some weight and sadness in it, to feel that the pleasure of the story-telling is making it easier for me to contemplate some of the difficult stuff in life.
So it wasn’t easy back in 1990 to get me to read a novel that Salman Rushdie had described as a “funny book” about things like “shoe-laces, drinking straws and ear plugs.” To make matters worse, Nicholson Baker had a reputation for being ‘clever’. I opened The Mezzanine with the utmost scepticism. Continue reading


Go magical Hellas!


“Dagliela!” shouts the girl behind me. “Pass it to him.” She’s on her feet screaming. “Dagliela BENE!”
On the pitch Martino Melis lifts his head. But he can’t hear her. She’s only one voice. Thousands of others are chanting: “Su Verona, su Verona, dai, dai!” Melis is dithering again.
“Ma DAgliela!” she weeps. “Dagliela bene!” Give it to him right!
Too late Melis sees the opening and passes. The ball runs long. The girl collapses in disappointment. A moment later she begins again: “Pull him down! Pull the bastard down, Dio povero!” She’s suffering. Mazzola can’t hear. “O mongolo,” comes the familiar call from a few rows further back, “O fenomeno, go back to cloud cuckoo land!”
On The Wall, as Sunday’s game approaches, the exhortations flow thick and fast:
Why do people write messages to those they know are not going to read them? Why do people shout at players who they know can’t hear?
“Shoot, shoot, shoot, porca miseria!” The girl’s on her feet again. “Shoot now!” But never for a moment does she imagine that Bonazzoli can hear her. She knows his world is quite separate. What is going on? Continue reading