A few thoughts while flying back from a quick trip across the pond. I spent a few days with my family in three wonderful and historic cities: Prague, Paris and Florence.
Things feel upbeat in Paris. We had dinner with several different French families, and all expressed excitement and hope about the election of Emmanuel Macron. This was a fairly striking change from prior visits when people lamented the political and economic situation.
Macron seems to have tapped into the French spirit. Even the name of his new party, En Marche! (Translation: forward!), is energetic and optimistic.
Hopefully the momentum will continue. As we have seen in the U.S., the process of actually governing is more difficult than running a campaign.
Bankruptcy was a fairly big deal back in the day.
In Prague, we saw fearsome torture devices and a dark dungeon, all used to punish and imprison people who couldn’t repay their debts. In Florence, people who were bankrupt were thrown off the top of a market building.
It is notable how things have changed in many parts of the world. Bankruptcy is still not well-regarded, but people can file and emerge. Businesses fail and the owners walk away, leaving investors with much of the pain.
I suspect the idea of torture and imprisonment would dampen the spirit of even the most robust entrepreneurial characters.
The history of Florence is closely tied to the Medici, a prosperous family of 15th century bankers who rose to power and ruled the city for many years.
Touring the old buildings and viewing the art, I was struck by how much of it was created for symbolic reasons. The Medici built one palace so big that a rival’s palace would fit in the courtyard. Portraits featured characters dressed in flowing gowns, a powerful symbol of wealth at a time when fabric was expensive. The Medici built the Vasari Corridor so family members wouldn’t have to walk on the street like normal people.
Shaping perceptions isn’t a new idea. For centuries, people have worked to create powerful brands.
Many people are quick to dismiss business as a necessary but somewhat lifeless endeavor. The arts are important. Religion is important. Education, medicine, these are all fields that elevate the human spirit.
Business? Not so much.
Touring Florence, however, it is clear that art and business are closely connected. The Medici family and others commissioned the wonderful art that we now marvel at. Artists worked for years on a particular piece, supported by their patrons. Who but royalty and successful business people could afford these commissions?
Florence thrived in part because the Medici were wealthy rulers. The family invested the money back into the city, funding the creation of masterpieces.
The reality is that art, music, healthcare and education are expensive. The only way a society can afford to invest in these things is if the economy is vibrant. If the merchants are doing well, the community has an opportunity to develop and thrive.