Bankers and Art. Art and Bankers. Two concepts that, at first thought, might seem diametrically opposed. Aesthetics should fight tooth and nail with capitalism. Phrases like ‘living for your art’, the image of the impoverished artist as opposed to the one of the affluent chairman mean that a good relationship between the two is not immediately obvious. But sit in any major auction room today or visit the headquarters of any international bank and this preconception will swiftly be challenged.
Art and banking are knotted together, inextricable from one another, and have been for centuries. Perhaps the first and foremost finance guys to be interest in art were the Medici family. They started out as Florentine family bankers and became one of the wealthiest dynasties in Europe. They can be credited as the most instrumental patrons of Renaissance art. From the 13th to the 17th centuries their money funded some of the most famous works in Western Art history. It was their patronage that secured the fame of Michelangelo, Donatello, Fra Angelico and many others. The money that funded swathes of western art history came from the interest they made on their financial loans. This relationship was not without its complications however. It commonly said that the reason why they funded so much religious art was as a way to atone for the sin of lending out money at interest. Funding art was almost an act of penance.
The Medici are now relegated to history (By the middle of the 18th century, their star had waned) but the relationship between bankers and art in Tuscany remains strong. While the Medici might be the most renowned patrons to have come out of the region, the bank known as Monte dei Paschi di Siena definitely win the competition as the oldest.
The bank was created in 1472, in Siena, a small city a few miles outside of Florence. It was first set up to finance the agricultural activities in the area hence its name ‘Monte dei Paschi’. The literal translation of the name is ‘Mount of Pastures’ but there is also a pun as the more metaphorical translation is ‘group of assets’ or indeed a ‘bank’. They are famous for being the oldest surviving bank in the world, and therefore possibly, the oldest patrons of the art world. Over the 545 years of their existence, the bank has collected art and patronised artists, in particular Sienese art.
While the Medici tried to literally paint over their mercantile activities with religious art. The relationship between banks and art is now less complicated. Perhaps it is even more fruitful in an age where religion takes a back seat. This is indicated by the bank’s collection today which celebrates the relationship between art and finance, obvious from the moment you enter the Piazza Salimbeni (home of the bank’s headquarters) where you are greeted by a statue of the Sallustio Bandini (19 April 1677–8 June 1760). Bandini was a prominent Italian financier and advocate of free trade who invented the cambiale, a bill of exchange a bit like a credit note. Rather than statues of religious figures, the likes of which populated the Medici piazzas, today’s equivalent statues celebrate economists.
Furthermore, the bank’s collecting and patronising activities continue today and are fused together with the workings of the bank. Monte dei Paschi di Siena’s headquarters are found in the Palazzo Salimbeni, and the Museo di San Donato (home to collection) is in the very same building. The bank still collects to this day, bringing Sienese are back to its home city from all four corners of the globe. The museum is free and provides a wonderful overview of Sienese art across the centuries. The physical proximity of the collection to the offices pays tribute to the bank’s important role as cultural patron.
On Thursday 18th May, International Museums Day, the museum will inaugurate its partnership with Smartify and be open throughout the day.
By Mimi Goodall