I think in the year 2000, an American publisher contacted me and asked if I would like to contribute to a series of short-books in which ‘novelists’ would write about financial matters. Given my long-term interest in Italy, they suggested I might write a 150-page book on the Medici bank in the 15th century. It took me about five minutes to say no. This is a specialist field, I told them. Not for the likes of me.
But curiosity always gets the better of me. I picked up a couple of biographies of the Medici family. I read Raymond De Roover’s authoritative book on the bank and it’s working. I read Nicolai Rubenstein’s definitive account of how the Medici family manipulated the government of Florence, then Dale Kent’s huge tome that catalogues and discusses all the works of art that Cosimo de’ Medici had commissioned.
I was hooked. In particular I was fascinated to find that much of what I was reading about reminded me of a theme that was very important in my book on football fandom: the difference between countable value (cash) and uncountable value (loyalty, sentiment, religious faith), and the curious way these two kinds of value both attract and repel each other, creating a constant fizz of cultural activity. Cosimo de’ Medici wanted to make money, despite the church’s laws on usury which prevented bankers lending at an interest rate: and he wanted to go to heaven too. How was it to be done? And once the money had been made, how could it be used to generate the kind of respect that is not given to cash alone?
In the end, what decided me to call the publishers and say I’d changed my mind was this: that the history books I was reading were either very bland – the many romanticised biographies of the Medici family – or they specialised in one field – banking – politics – art, without putting the whole story together. I felt there was a place for something else. And the need to keep the book short, to say something exciting and interesting in a tight space, was an inspiring challenge.
When I started to work on it, Medici Money turned out to be about the beginnings of humanism, the beginning of our modern mindset, the creation of a series of values that were not necessarily religious values, something unthinkable in the medieval world.