Photo of the Palazzo Medici-Riccardi by IceNineJon used under a Creative Commons license.

Tim Parks, Medici Money: Banking, Metaphysics, and Art in Fifteenth-Century Florence (Atlas Books, 2005).
This is an account of the rise and fall of the Medici family during the fifteenth century, with an emphasis on the banking activities that made the family’s fortune. The family’s financial acument let them buy political power, and the demands of power eventually came at the expense of the bank. Park’s explanations of fifteenth-century banking are quite good. With the Church’s ban on usury, rewards must be earned through exchange and trading instead of interest. Notwithstanding the sub-title, there is much more about banking (and politics) than there is about metaphysics, and he discusses art mostly to document Medici donations. The subject matter is enough for several longer books, but this is a worthy introduction for those unfamiliar with Republican Florence. Parks, who has written many novels and lives in Italy, writes in an easy style which might strike some readers as too colloquial.

On his website, Tim Parks writes about how he came to the project. Parks discussed the book with Andrew Lawless at Three Monkeys Online. Wikipedia provides a short biography of Cosimo de’ Medici. Simon Young reviews the book at The Independent and Blogcritics Magazine. The former review is longer; the latter less critical. Alexander Rose reviews the book for the National Review. James Buchan reviews the book for The New York Observer. Edmund Fawcett reviews the book for The Guardian (UK). Mark Bernstein blogs about it, as does Wilson Hsieh.

Buy this book at Amazon.com.

Photo of Florence by cfwee used under a Creative Commons license.

Mary McCarthy, The Stones of Florence (Harcourt, 1963).
After a brief nod to modern Florence and its residents, McCarthy dives into Renaissance Florence, and particularly its art, architecture, and turbulent politics. Florentine artists like Fra Angelico, Botticelli and Michelangelo walk the pages of this book. I wish I had read it before my last trip to the Uffizi Gallery. Readers unfamiliar with Renaissance Florence may struggle to follow along, as McCarthy has not written a conventional history.

Wikipedia’s bio of McCarthy is here. You can purchase an audio guide to McCarthy’s Florence here. In 1963, McCarthy reviewed William S. Burroughs’ The Naked Lunch, and in 1969 she reviewed George Orwell’s collected essays and letters.

Buy this book at Amazon.com.