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May 25, 2012

Historical Echoes: From the Bonfires to the Frozen Assets

Mary Tao, New York Fed Research Library

What do the Italian Renaissance and the Great Depression have in common? Commissioned works of art, Italian Renaissance methods of fresco painting, and themes of banking and money.

    During the fourteenth through the sixteenth centuries, many Florentine bankers hired artists to produce devotional paintings and then donated those pieces to the Catholic Church to offset the Church’s disapproval of interest-bearing loans. Since usury was very much frowned upon, this practice of buying penance did not sit well with one Friar Girolamo Savonarola. He was such a vocal critic of the donations that he arranged for bonfires of “vain, lascivious, or dishonest things” (including many Renaissance artworks) in 1497 and 1498. The Medici Bank, the largest bank at that time, had much success in evading the ban on usury; its collapse in 1494 gave Savonarola leverage in his cause. The recent Florentine exhibit Money and Beauty. Bankers, Botticelli and the Bonfire of the Vanities depicts “how the modern banking system developed in parallel alongside the most important artistic flowering in the history of the Western world.”

    Fast forward to the early twentieth century. Diego Rivera studied Italian Renaissance fresco painting during a brief stint in Italy. For his 1931-32 retrospective at New York’s Museum of Modern Art, he produced murals using and modernizing the techniques he had picked up during his trip. His Frozen Assets fresco juxtaposed newly built skyscrapers with a packed subway, a bank vault, and a homeless shelter. Rivera’s work is a reflection of the disparate realities of the Great Depression era. The description of the Florentine exhibit seems to be applicable also to Frozen Assets: “The exhibition explores the links between that unique interweave of high finance, economy and art, and the religious and political upheavals of the time.”

    See also our earlier post: Using Art and Artifacts to Understand the Impact of the Great Depression.

The views expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the position of the Federal Reserve Bank of New York or the Federal Reserve System. Any errors or omissions are the responsibility of the author.

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