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May 20 2012

Artists design Greece's new currency – in pictures

Economic ­instability in Greece could soon force the country out of the eurozone, which means it will need to print a new currency – four artists decide to help them out

December 09 2011

The unloved euro is no design classic

The currency may have been with us for 10 years now, but its visual blandness has signally failed to bind Europeans together

All it took was for Jay-Z, a member of US rap royalty, to flick a wad of €500 notes in a music video five years ago for people to wonder if the euro – visual shorthand for squareness – might one day become cool.

Would Andy Warhol's dollar screenprints give way to modern meditations on Europe's yellow € sign? Could the euro become more than a giant star-encrusted symbol outside Frankfurt's European Central Bank? Was it art? Europeans in the cultural world knew the answer was no.

1 January 2012 will mark 10 years since the euro coins and notes appeared in people's wallets. But as simple objects, pieces of design and branding, emotional items that bind us together, they are seen as a failure: a limp bureaucratic compromise where art was needed.

This was the first postmodern currency; it could have been visually extraordinary, combining the cutting-edge beauty of Dutch guilders and the design chic of the Swiss franc. Instead, the euro's visual blandness reflects its current identity crisis.

The euro is pure functionality in the extreme. So easy to pronounce, it has escaped the nicknames of its older cousins, the greenback and quid. (At the Maastricht summit, it was still called the ecu but Helmut Kohl thought it sounded too French – much to the relief of the Portuguese, as it also sounded like their word for arse).

The design was deliberately tepid. The notes feature neither people nor places, just bland, fake architecture that doesn't exist. Ten years ago the French economist André Orléan suspected this would become a problem: "Look at the symbolism: bridges and imaginary windows. The euro isn't anchored in the past, it's virtual, it doesn't correspond to any reality."

The French ethnologist Patrick Prado called it a "ghost money", with "no reference, no country, no past, no roots, no memory, defined by no value other than itself". He cautioned: "What will history make of this denial of images, this wiping out of the symbolic?"

The coins' national flipsides do give a nod to history, from Irish harps and Finnish swans to Leonardo da Vinci's beautiful Vitruvian Man on Italian cents. The French novelist Philippe Sollers has written about the joy of rummaging through loose change to find a coin bearing Cervantes that has travelled across borders into your pockets, with all the imaginary stories of how it got there.

In an ode to the euro in the Nouvel Observateur five years ago, he lauded the currency's silence: "The dollar bill is chatty, the euro is mute." Dollar bills shout: "In God We Trust." The staid euro would never dare quote Latin at you or suggest God was looking over your shoulder.

But Bruno Ninaber van Eyben, the designer who created the Dutch face of the euro coins, laments the "missed emotional opportunity". He hates the fact that the euro side of the coin shows a map and boundaries – and not even Poland and the members to the east.

"It shows borders, not what's inside them," he said. "That isn't what binds people together. There needs to be memory, emotional resonance, an idea of the future. The Romans understood this. When the coin bearing Augustus's face went all over Europe, there was a sense that people belonged to a group. They were not alone."

Erik Spiekermann, the German designer and typographer, adds: "It doesn't work as a brand. There's no intrinsic value in it. People aren't proud of it, they don't collect it. They just pay with it. It's like white bread, it won't harm you, but it doesn't nourish you either."

Is it a classic? "No. It would take another 20 years – if it lasts that long. You can't design a classic, something becomes a classic if it stays around. The dollar is a classic because of American cultural imperialism."

If half of the euro's neighbours, including many Balkan states, look up to it, others look down on it, not least the Swiss with their famously beautiful notes.

"It's ugly," says Pierre Frey, a Swiss art historian. "You have to look pretty hard to find such ugly inks. It's the image of the tempest that is currently shaking it." © 2011 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

September 22 2011

When Europe's single currency worked – the 1480s

A new exhibition in Florence explores money, sin and the birth of capitalism in a city where status and religion battled to prevail

Money – there just isn't any left. But in medieval Europe an abundance of cash appeared as if from nowhere, in new currencies cast in gold. One of these new currencies, the Florin, became the most desired and respected medium of exchange in the Europe that made the Renaissance – the dollar of its day. In Money and Beauty, an exhibition that has just opened at the Strozzi Palace in Florence, yellow Florins twinkle in glass cases, exhibited both as historical evidence and works of monetary art.

The Florin was the currency of one city, Florence, yet it succeeded where the Euro seems to be failing: it gave Europe a "single" currency accepted on all markets. Inventing a pure gold currency of universally accepted value was just one of the ingenuities of the Florentine economic Renaissance. Through contracts and letters, leather money bags and model merchant ships, Money and Beauty tells the dramatic story of the bankers and merchants of Florence and their invention of many basic features of modern capitalism. As the system shudders, it is wondrous to contemplate its fairytale origins in the Medici bank, which devised ways to provide international credit and play the foreign exchanges without falling foul of medieval usury laws. Well, not too far foul.

The sin of usury is richly shown in the exhibition: fragments of a medieval fresco show usurers – those who loan at interest and so make, according to Christian ethics 600 years ago, an immoral profit – in hell. Yet the heroes here are the money men who defied tradition and created modern commerce – heroes such as Francesco di Marco Datini, the Merchant of Prato, who gets a room of his own illuminating his wealth and his attempts to reconcile it with faith. We see him on pilgrimage, as well as in his counting house.

This exhibition – co-curated by British writer Tim Parks and heavily spiced with ebullient interpretative texts in Italian and English – has an ambitious argument to unfold. The plutocrats of Renaissance Florence, claims this exhibition, were tortured by guilt and emotional ambivalence. They craved luxury – even their money chests are works of rare art – but tried at the same time to buy off hell, by lavishing their wealth on religious art.

Cosimo de' Medici, the richest Florentine of all, was the most dedicated in his holy works. The funds he put into building the monastery of San Marco and its library helped to sustain the humanist revival of learning, not to mention the art of Fra Angelico. As it turned out, this Medici monastery also harboured the seeds of nemesis. By the late 15th century, the voice of San Marco was a visionary friar named Savonarola who denounced wealth and luxury. In 1494, he became the charismatic guru of a revolution that cast out the Medici.

That tale is told here through portraits and other relics of Savonarola, and above all by the works of Sandro Botticelli. This one artist embodies both extremes of Renaissance Florence – the rich culture of the Medici plutocrats, and the violent reaction against it. In the 1480s, Botticelli painted his celebrated classical works in the Uffizi Gallery, for the circle of the Medici. But in the 1490s and 1500s, he was a Savonarolan zealot, who saw the opulence and even the style of Renaissance art as a sin.

The exhibition includes one of his most compelling works, the Calumny. This eerie image, based on classical descriptions of a lost work, suggests a nightmare version of Florence itself. Statues in niches, like the ones that decorate the heart of this city, seem to come to life and listen as an innocent man is dragged by the hair before rich, stupid plutocratic King Midas.

Here is a problem with the exhibition. Midas in Greek myth was, it is true, an image of greed – he is the man who asked the god Dionysius to turn everything he touched to gold. So the curators link him to the wealth of the Medici. But this is a different story of Midas. It is a bit strained, and in fact, the curators struggle to find killer visual links between art and commerce. Everything here is fascinating, but where are the Florentine paintings that manifestly explore the imagery and anxieties of wealth?

Still, it is a provocative, stimulating introduction to Florence that will add a bit of historical muscle to any visitor's encounter with the city this autumn. Money and Beauty is a welcome attempt to shake up staid views of the Renaissance. Everyone knows that Florence is a city of staggering artistic beauty. This exhibition reminds us it is also the birthplace of the modern world. © 2011 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

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