How a Banker Lost His Head
Updated: Oct 4, 2022
Have you ever visited a historic place and felt a creepy dark energy? We sensed it in Florence’s Bargello Museum. We felt a vague sense of discomfort as we walked into the courtyard. We did not want to linger in that space. The Bargello is an imposing fortress-like building that opens to a large interior courtyard with a staircase leading up to an arcade overlooking the courtyard. It is well worth visiting for its famous Donatello and Michelangelo sculptures but there’s a hidden history we did not know about at the time. We pushed forward to see the art it housed, but remembered the ominous vibes of the courtyard. The thirteenth century Bargello, situated in the historic center of Florence, served as magistrate city offices, head police, and prison. The courtyard also served as a place for hangings and executions. Twenty-nine-year-old Lorenzo Tornabuoni, a well to do banker, suffered a hasty end to his life in the Bargello courtyard.
The Tornabuoni were a powerful family. They were patrons of art, financially secure, successful, and influential – until a wrong decision caused their downfall. Suffice to say, you do not want to mess around with politics, especially involving the Medici. Their story gives us a glimpse of what it would be like to be merchants and bankers in Renaissance Italy, have friends in high places, create enough personal wealth to commission a famous fresco cycle, yet suffer the fate of death in a politically volatile environment.
A cadre of fifteenth century Florentine families had six degrees of separation through marriages and business deals: the Ridolfi, Medici, Pazzi, Strozzi, Albizzi, Ginori, Tornabuoni, and Barbadori. The Medici were at the nucleus of Florentine political and cultural life. The relationships between these families ran deep. Rivals, competitors, and collaborators, they shaped the city as we see it today, the buildings, the churches, and the art that adorns them.
The Tornabuoni were model Florentine citizens and in many respects represented the ideals of the republic in commerce and the arts. Genealogically the family stretched back to about 1100 C.E. I will focus on two male generations of the family, Giovanni (1428-1497), and his son, Lorenzo (1468-1497). Giovanni’s (Joe-vonnie) father Francesco (c.1380-1437) was a diplomat, merchant, and a banker. As was often the case, these roles were interchangeable and fomented international connections valuable to business and the republic. In the early decades of the 1400s Francesco negotiated the customs tax for goods coming into the Tuscan port of Genova from England and Belgium and served as ambassador to Rome. As a merchant in the wool industry, he traveled many trade routes to and from Northern Europe. He was a fairly typical business person. His son Giovanni brought the family to a privileged level in international affairs.
Becoming a Banker
The Tornabuoni were typical privileged Florentines with business interests in the cloth industry and banking. Like many Florentines, they had a quasi-capitalist mentality when it came to getting ahead. Money, sheep, and silk sustained the republic and its people for centuries. Wool cloth was the main export before silk dominated, and most towns played some role in the cloth industry by grazing sheep, spinning, or marketing cloth. Florence also produced fine linen spun from flax. Textiles from Florence dominated the European markets for some time. Even Michelangelo, some two hundred years later, while working in Rome, insisted that his shirts come from Florence. What Florentines could not produce from raw materials they were adept at setting up a supply chain of goods. Wherever there was a chance to be included in trade and business, they participated.
Florentines were indisputably the best business networkers in Europe, until the sixteenth century.
Tuscany was the most urbanized center in Europe by the 1300s. As a result of their reach of business dealings, they minted a gold florin which became the international standard for commercial enterprise. The republic guaranteed its 24-carat weight and purity. Even the papacy preferred the gold florin in the thirteenth century. Their business practices were savvy. The cloth industry, which was so important to the economy, was successful due to the emphasis placed on networking, building trade routes, and going to where the buyers resided.
By 1211 Florentines employed a fully professional accounting system – and we have thousands of business account books as evidence. Corrections were infrequent in the surviving books. By modern standards, what Florentines were doing with accounting was equivalent to the software NetSuite or QuickBooks, but on paper. Florentine bankers moved funds from country to country, had double entry accounting, a bill of exchange, short term certificate of deposits, lent money, had savings accounts, allowed overdrafts, short term credit, everything a modern financial institution could do, and at a high standard. Credit was based on personal relationships and trustworthiness rather than net worth or a credit score. Overall, the banking system worked remarkedly well considering there was little if any regulation and no central banking system. Bank failures were rare.
Banks did not just serve rich families. Services were available for commoners as well as the elite. We know a lot about Renaissance artists from their detailed account books and bank records. Michelangelo’s business dealings and investments in real estate are well documented. Merchants and artisans of all kinds kept account books and understood basic accounting. Financial literacy was necessary to conduct business. The Tornabuoni grew up in this milieu of business practices as they strove to establish themselves in society.
Young boys from all social classes attended the abacus school (scuola d’abaco) starting at about age eleven. A few years later they graduated with the basics of math, reading, writing, and began their careers in banking. Pay was low, but rapidly increased. On the job training was broad, including accounting, what we would call customer relations, and establishing new accounts. Responsibilities increased from simple cash exchanges to writing correspondence, travel to different cities, and managing larger accounts. Young men had hopes of becoming a branch manager, or even making partner someday. Young bankers frequently changed firms for better positions.
Rome was a lucrative banking location. The papacy collected money from all over Christendom. And they needed banks for financial services. Giovanni Tornabuoni worked for the Medici Bank at their peak, when the Medici had seven branches and fifty-seven employees in 1470. Most likely a graduate of the abacus school and later apprentice to the Medici, Giovanni eventually became the prestigious manager of the Rome branch for nearly thirty years starting in the mid-1400s. He worked directly with Popes Paul II and Sixtus IV (Sixtus built the Sistine Chapel). His sister married into the Medici family.
Giovanni worked in mutually beneficial positions as Florentine emissary to Rome and the papacy and managing the bank. Even after moving back to Florence at the end of the 1400s, he still traveled to Rome and represented the republic, which was essentially representing the Medici. In 1467 he married the daughter of another powerful family, the Pitti, with which he had two children, Lorenzo, and Lodovica (b. 1476). Before he died, he owned fifty parcels of rural land, property in Florence and the countryside, and valuable jewelry. The Tornabuoni were in the two percent of the Florentines.
Besides being a banker and ambassador for Florence, Giovanni was a patron of the arts. As a patron, he could decide who painted the art, the quality of the pigments, and timeline. He also included portraits of the Tornabuoni in the commissioned art. It is not accidental that these frescoes contain portraits of the Tornabuoni. It was a nod to their wealth but also a public depiction of their piety. Patrons were frequently included in the scenes as if they are partaking in the depicted event.
Pope Sixtus IV wanted the new Sistine Chapel walls painted with biblical scenes. He commissioned the top Florentine artists to fresco the walls. In 1481-2 Domenico Ghirlandaio (Gear-lan-dye-oh) painted The Calling of St. Peter and St. Andrew. Included are portraits of Giovanni and Lorenzo. Lorenzo, about thirteen at the time, is pictured on the right with one blue and one white tight, while his father, with a white beard and dressed in a red robe, stands behind his son. Their inclusion in this newly erected chapel points to the importance and influence of the Tornabuoni in papal circles.
The church of Santa Maria Novella, located near the Florence train station, has a complex fresco cycle paid for entirely by Giovanni. The frescoes are directly behind the high altar, a prime spot to show fellow citizens you have status and money. Many Tornabuoni family members are depicted in the scenes relating to the Lives of Mary and St. John the Baptist. Giovanni fought hard for twelve years to become the sole patron of the walls, altar, and stained-glass windows. This was no small feat considering competition was intense amongst the richest families. Today it is referred to as the Tornabuoni Chapel. Domenico Ghirlandaio (1449-1494) was chosen as the artist in 1485 and completed the cycle in 1490.
Giovanni approved all preparatory drawings for the scenes before Ghirlandaio and his crew painted them. Ghirlandaio has a great sense of color and composition. The sacred scenes are placed in contemporary surroundings with fashionably dressed Florentines. Naturalistic portraiture was one of his gifts. The twenty fresco scenes are balanced and although contain many figures, they appear in a space which is architecturally rendered with precision. The large cycle enlisted Ghirlandaio’s entire workshop, included a teenage Michelangelo.
Giovanni’s portrait is included in the frescoes as a devout man. Other Tornabuoni family members are represented. One key scene is the Birth of the Virgin. Mary’s mother Anne reposes on the far right as women attend to the baby Mary. A group of women approach the newborn, led by Lodovica Tornabuoni, Giovanni’s daughter, dressed in an elegant brocade. She is placed in the center of the scene as an important figure. The color and pattern on her dress contrasts to the colors of the other women. This scene is in the lowest register of the wall, closest to the viewer. She was painted as a young teenager, about fourteen, before her marriage at age sixteen.
Botticelli, of Birth of Venus and Primavera fame, frescoed the Tornabuoni villa outside of Florence. The frescoes were detached and now reside in the Louvre Paris, although they are heavily damaged. Lorenzo is depicted as well as his first wife in mythological scenes of the liberal arts. Botticelli painted Lorenzo about 1486 at about age 18, shortly after his marriage. Lorenzo appears on the left side as a figure of Grammar holds his hand and presents him to Philosophy. Considering his academic achievements, his roleplay in the liberal arts appears to be accurate.
Lorenzo was a gifted student educated beyond the basics of the abacus school. Fluent in Greek, he borrowed Greek texts from the Medici library in Florence and also wrote poetry. He was schooled in the elite humanist circles that revived the ancient arts and philosophy. However, even Lorenzo had to work, and as an adult he continued the family tradition of banking while remaining close to the Medici family. He had a son, Giovannino in 1487 (little Giovanni) with his first wife, who died very young. Lorenzo remarried and they had three children, two girls, and one boy.
A Crime Against the State
Lorenzo was respected and loyal to the Florentine government. But suddenly Lorenzo and four other men were taken and decapitated in the Bargello courtyard, in the dark of the night. Their crime? A crime “of the state” was all that was recorded. Public executions were not uncommon and usually very public in order to create a spectacle of fear and keep people in line. Robbery, stealing, or fraud were publicly punished. Middle of the night executions were political.
The last executions against the state were in 1481 after the Pazzi conspiracy when anti-Medici factions tried to brazenly stab and kill Lorenzo and Giuliano de’ Medici during church services. Giuliano perished, but Lorenzo the Magnificent lived. It turns out the Medici, while historically firmly had Florence under their control, were faltering and many patrician families had lost confidence. Piero di Lorenzo de’ Medici (1471-1503) and his brothers were heir to Lorenzo the Magnificent. Lorenzo was highly regarded, but his heirs were not.
Piero took charge of governing Florence following Lorenzo’s death, but his nickname became Piero the Unfortunate. He ruled only for two years. King Charles VII of France invaded Tuscany on his way to claim Naples, and Piero misjudged the threat and, in the end, capitulated to the King’s demands. Lorenzo Tornabuoni acted as messenger between Piero and the Florentine government.
Florentines were incensed when Piero gave away territory to Charles and let him pass through Tuscany. Piero was ousted and exiled in 1494. The intent of the new non-Medici government was to continue to strive for financial stability and governing more as a republic. The Medici banks, with Lorenzo at the head of the Lyon France branch and Naples, were essential to financial security. But Lorenzo’s father Giovanni had legitimate concerns about the stability of the Medici bank. He adeptly transferred his inheritable property to his grandsons, bypassing Lorenzo.
To make matters more complicated, the crazed monk Girolamo Savonarola gained a cult-like following at this time. Savonarola created a popular uprising against excess material goods, including art, and clerical corruption. There really were bonfires of the vanities in the public squares. Fear and uncertainty were in the air. Grain prices also soared, famine followed, and riots ensued. It was at this point that Piero the Unfortunate staged a come-back and tried in vain to re-take the city in April 1497 with the support of the Tornabuoni. Plague came during the summer months. In early August Lorenzo was arrested but released. About twelve days later he and four others were taken into custody and condemned to death. Any appeals were denied. The five were summarily decapitated in the Bargello in the dark of the night. Lorenzo’s ten-year-old son Giovannino went to claim his father’s body.
Lorenzo Tornabuoni was caught up in trying to reinstate the Medici to power. The new government wouldn’t have it. It seems his death was in vain as the Medici returned to power in 1512. This time they did everything they could to abolish a representational government and become a principate, with obedience only to the Medici, not the republic. Anyone resisting was an enemy of the state. Many Florentines who pined for the republic resisted this form of government and were exiled, including the wealthy Strozzi family and Michelangelo. Executions increased as the Medici exercised greater control over dissent.
Lorenzo’s death left his children orphaned and contributed to snuffing out the lineage of the Tornabuoni. The city magistrate inventoried the Tornabuoni holdings including a large palazzo in Florence, two villas, plus furnishings, personal belongings, and any money. Eventually much property was sold off and the estate issues continued for some forty years.
When the Medici returned to power, the Tornabuoni returned to political favor, although the heyday of the Medici banking system was waning. The Tornabuoni retained their palace in Florence. Lorenzo’s sons served the Florentine government, acted as envoys to different regions, and continued art patronage. Leonardo (b. 1492) went onto become a bishop and served in the papal court under Pope Leo X, a Medici.
Either way Lorenzo would have lost out. Do you support your employer who previously ruled the city and region? Or support a short-lived new government and lose decades of Medici support in Rome and abroad? He was in a tight spot and lost his life along with heads of families from the Ridolfi, Pucci, Cambi, Nero, and Cegia. The sixteenth century gradually saw power and money shift from Florence to Rome, as did art patronage.
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