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The renaissance and birth of consumer society.

Here are two books that bear witness to the fact that historical writing may bend too readily to the ideals and stresses of its own world. For all their dissimilarities, the two agree on a thesis: they want to make consumer goods, from pepper and glazed pottery to pictures and furnishings, the motor of Renaissance society and culture. Thus, current campaigns for market economies and private enterprise, as mounted during the Reagan-Thatcher years, are here obliquely accommodated, and we begin to see late-medieval and early-modern Europe under a fine rain of "new" commodities. In this view, whatever was distinctive or "creative" about Renaissance Europe is hitched to a growing, thirsting quest for possessable goods, as these reputedly proliferated in diversity and numbers. Characteristic pictures by Van Eyck, Carlo Crivelli, and others are scrutinized as if they were windows to a world awash with luxury goods - mirrors, Turkish carpets, hangings, pictures, books, portrait medals, cloth of silk and gold, fancy bottles, earthenware, scientific and musical instruments, gems, gold coins, and so on. Impinging rural economies, basic social structures, the appalling system of tax-farming, and poverty are all banished from the scene, to leave only the crystalline world glimpsed in the pictures of collectors.

Because Professor Jardine's Worldly Goods is issued with lots of pictures and not a single footnote, it is evidently a consumer good and therefore a serious production. The author is known to readers of Renaissance Quarterly primarily as a scholar in the field of English and Continental (humanistic) literature, but her new book is a venture into history proper.

In eight chapters, framed by a prologue and epilogue, she argues that the Renaissance was moved and governed by an acquisitive, "entrepreneurial spirit" (34, 124). All her other claims then smoothly follow. Thus, the avid search for trade in rare and exotic goods determined relations with the Ottoman Turks and animated the discovery of the New World (chap. 1). Europeans were faced rather suddenly with a thickening flow of durables, so that "consumer choice emerges in this period with remarkable vigour" (77). High culture itself appears as an epiphenomenon, propelled or teased out by the will to own and collect; and in this craze for things, Jardine sees Renaissance art as "the celebration of belongings," of "the urge to own," and of "the triumph of worldly goods" (11, 33-34, 124). The "new" experts - engineers, architects, classical scholars, cartographers, navigators, and mathematicians - were able to "sell" their wares and services with more ease (chap. 5), and the quest for overseas spices generated navigational technology and the new cartography (chap. 6). Insofar as princes sought to display mighty identities in a world lately obsessed with goods and collectables, their splendid crowns and tapestries, grand buildings, new libraries, precious collections of rare objects, and even the fabulous dowries of their women are all treated as "conspicuous consumption" (chaps. 4, 8). Whereupon merchant-bankers emerge as the pivotal agents of change, for the "magnificence" of Renaissance princes and magnates owed everything to the vast loans of ready cash made over to them by the Medici, Chigi, Fugger, or other such banking houses (chap. 2). Moreover, because the organization of the new book trade - with its reliance on merchant capital, varied personnel, and an expanding market - is taken to exemplify the economic spur of emergent consumer society, much of the intellectual history of the period must also be seen as an epiphenomenon, in its gathering around figures like Willibald Pirckheimer and the production, sale, desireability, and collectability of the printed book (chaps. 3-4).

Worldly Goods is beset by problems, as my digest of Jardine's theses - most of them old ones - ought to make apparent, but I shall touch on two only: 1) Whose Renaissance is she writing about: where did it occur, whom did it touch, and how widespread or representative was the supposed new greed for surplus goods? 2) Is it true that the loans of merchant-bankers released a flow of luxury goods for Europe's princes, or was this the result rather of a shrewdly-mulcted anarchy, the dreadfully inefficient system of tax-farming?

In the face of soaring prices, stagnant wages, and recurrent famine, owing to which sixty-five to eighty percent of people worried chronically about the annual grain crop and the price of bread next winter, how can we make luxury or even other surplus goods the ghost in the economic machine of the sixteenth century? Taxes, grain prices, the cost of armies, and the rural catastrophes (vide Durer) caused by princely wars: these were among the primary concerns of the great majority of "Renaissance" Europeans, not the classes of objects "lovingly rendered" in Flemish and Venetian pictures, which were not, in any case, transparent representations of everyday realities. As is well known, not even Dutch painting of the seventeenth century can be read this way.

Jardine's pages are dominated by collectors such as sultans, kings, popes, and cardinals, and by Este, Sforza, and Gonzaga princes. That these potentates manifested their power in displays of crown jewels, tapestries, collections of rarities, and large libraries is ancient knowledge; so too is the fact that they often borrowed princely sums in order to build and buy. What is new in the book, or nearly so, is the notion that the worldly desires and purchases of such consumers fueled the European economy and helped to produce a new, commercially-driven, cultural world. One simple solution for Professor Jardine might be to hold that there were two Europes really in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries: a Renaissance Europe for a tiny class of consumers, with rich burghers and noblemen getting in on some of the action, and a traditional Europe for, say, ninety-seven percent of the population.

When we consider that between 1511 and 1527 Jakob Fugger took in profits at the rate of "927 per cent" (Richard Mackenney, Sixteenth Century Europe, 1993, 18), much of this from loans to princes, we must ask about what princes pledged in return. The answer is that they pledged mining and trade monopolies, but especially the right to collect assorted taxes for periods of years. Can we imagine what hired fiscal agents then got up to? The great expenses of government were for armies and wars; but the dowries, jeweled objects, costly hangings, cloth of gold, and objets d'art of princes were also paid for out of taxes - namely, out of varieties of indirect levies that lay heaviest on petty merchants, artisans, small farmers, and the rural poor. So that while it provided some work and income for an elite of artisans, payment for the luxuries of princes, or for those of town and country magnates, drained capital - in the form of regressive taxes - away from the surpluses marked for reinvestment in trade and agriculture.

The author puts the early book trade, as seductive paradigm, into her flowering consumer economy. Who can doubt that books are consumer goods? When, however, in the zeal to establish the benign kingdom of possessables, they are bracketed with jewelry, carpets, brocades, and faience, their essential intangibility - embellished bindings excepted - is covertly reified, and transmuted into a commodity. Why engage in this transaction, if not for the sake of promoting or even glorifying the market thesis and the whole business of consumerism? Evidently, in assessing the social and cultural impact of books, the historian cannot linger on their material affinity with other wares. And in any case, the suggested importance of the book trade for the European economy must also be challenged. Even in Venice, one of the printing capitals, books can never have accounted for more than a tiny fraction of one percent of the gross domestic product. In 1995, printing and publishing in the literate United Kingdom - including newspapers, tabloids, magazines, and books - resulted in a mere 1.89 percent of GDP according to the Office for National Statistics in London.

The imprudence of Professor Jardine's glissade into the heart of European history, to take on questions of traffic between Renaissance culture and the economy, is spotlighted by the nature of her factual errors and perfect innocence in the face of the historical background to her subject. A variety of examples may be illustrative. She mistakes the faces of Martin Luther and Albrecht Durer (356, 369). The "social rise of the merchant" in Flanders and Italy went back to the twelfth, not, as she states, to "the mid-fifteenth century" (124). She identifies the prominent bed in Carlo Crivelli's London (National Gallery) Annunciation - a common feature of the Annunciation genre - as a table (6). Double-entry bookkeeping was in use in Italy by about 1300, a century earlier than claimed (103). The bill of exchange was not a fifteenth-century innovation (102); it came in before about 1200. Credit did not become "the mainstay of the world of consumer goods during the fifteenth century" (104); it was already inveterate practice, in the purchase of all sorts of things, two centuries earlier. The Medici never "subsidized" the "Florentine Commune" (112); if anything, they (or Lorenzo the Magnificent) pilfered from it. Venice's wealth was most assuredly not dependent "upon a virtual monopoly of sea salt" (115); it was based in land, buildings, and non-saline trade, and its great revenues derived from a rich assortment of duties, indirect sales taxes, rich tax returns from subject cities, property taxes, rents, and even the occasional levies on official salaries. Alas, it was Castiglione, not Guicciardini, who did an "imaginative reconstruction of urbane life at the court of Urbino around 1510" (261). In 1503 "the Soderini" were not "the current rulers" of Florence (243), and nor can Ficino's very occasional, informal get-togethers with a circle of acquaintances be described as "Cosimo de' Medici's so-called Platonic Academy . . . a research institute for the esoteric arts financed by a cultivated millionaire" (60). Good heavens!

Professor Goldthwaite's Wealth and the Demand for Art in Italy: 1300-1600 has of course none of the foregoing howlers, and Jardine, who lists it in her bibliography, would have done well to read it more attentively. We pass to the work of a respected economic historian here, however, reflecting on the birth of "art" as a spin-off from the rise of consumer society.

At the end of the middle ages, according to Goldthwaite, urban Italy held the forefront of the European economy in ranking as the chief producer of wealth. Italians spent their new riches in considerable part on the building of churches, on images and objects for worship and religious ritual, private palazzi, and ornamented fittings. In so doing, they created the conditions for "the very discovery of art" (9); and we see that "consumer society" was born in early-Renaissance Italy, rather than in Northern Europe in the seventeenth or eighteenth centuries. Generally speaking, Italian house interiors were still spare around 1400, but the next two centuries brought a gradual profusion of furnishings, fixtures, and utensils, in addition to the new cult of the art object. Henceforth consumers began to define themselves by means of their "durables," as in the qualities of "taste and refinement." In this fashion, the reader is led almost imperceptibly from physical object to discriminating consciousness, from material culture to high culture.

The author avers that he conceives of his book as nothing more than a sequence of "discursive and very general essays" (8), but we should not be disarmed by this claim. His tone throughout is assertive and confident, as if his conclusions, such as they are, were based upon monographic or completed quantitative research. In this vein, he contends that the Italian economy recovered more or less rapidly from the ravages of fourteenth-century plague and went on to produce even more wealth than in the pre-plague period. While admitting that Italian "capitalism" was "largely commercial and financial" (64) - hence a system for managing money, lending at steep interest, and buying cheap to sell dear - he singles out the importance of the luxury silk industry, the private initiative of entrepreneurs, the rise of petty centers of trade, and even the profits of war in the sixteenth century. He has unskilled workers often being paid in gold florins (35), modest men building or decorating chapels, and servants owning pictures (142). His point is that wealth seeped down into the "middling" ranks of society and even lower, and that here was an army of potential consumers. Nowhere does he even mention the debased coinage, devalued wage-money, or truck often paid out to workers (and deplored by Archbishop Antoninus, d. 1459); nor the sacking of cities and plunder of produce or livestock by invading armies, the widespread problem of banditry in the sixteenth century, the recurrence of famine, or the structures of public finance that petted the wealthy and burdened the humble. He is forced to concede that "most people lived on the edge of disaster," as "in any premodern capitalist economy," but maintains that they can have no place in his analysis, because he is concerned "solely with the accumulation of wealth as the background for understanding" the emergence of consumer society (66). Although he detects major patterns with ease, he does not see that wealth and subsistence wages were interrelated; that dowry inflation was probably not an index of burgeoning wealth but of unpromising economic times, as the groups at the top closed ranks; that the advent of primogeniture around 1500, by means of which the upper classes contrived to keep family patrimonies intact, was symptomatic of a cramped or uncertain economy; and finally that the growing population of priests, nuns, and friars denoted the promise of material safety in a social order set away from the world of the laity. Despite the author's rosy economic picture, Italy's demographic recovery over the course of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries was decidedly gradual, and though several cities (Naples, Rome, Ferrara) saw sharp gains in population (and were very special cases), many more did not regain their early fourteenth-century numbers until the eighteenth or nineteenth centuries. All this is to say, then, that the condition of the Italian economy in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries remains an open question.

I turn now to Goldthwaite's mode of reasoning. Because he is a Florence expert, it would be churlish to ask that he match his knowledge of that city with what he has to say, for example, about Venice, Genoa, and Milan. Yet while affecting to deal with the whole of Italy, he floats such an enormous cargo of interpretation on his Florence example, to which he repeatedly and insistently returns, that one has to point this out, especially because the book will not generally be read as an essayistic foray, but rather as work of a more solid or "empirical" kind.

The author's governing accent on Florence lures him into a difficult corner. On the one hand, his consumerist view tends to homogenize the economic patterns and culture of all the larger cities of Upper Italy, including, in the south, even royal Naples and clerical Rome; on the other, he showcases the example of Florence which, like Venice, was one of the most atypical of cities - atypical in its private habits of meticulous accounting, its piles of distinctive ricordanze, and its comparative socio-political openness, strong ruminating bent, and astonishing literary output. So how to use a leveling consumerist approach and atypical Florence? If Italy's artistic "product" was commercially driven, then why, before about 1470, was Venetian art so "retardatory" by comparison with developments in Florence, and so dramatically mobile thereafter? How does it happen that the mystical streak in Sienese art persists down to the mid fifteenth century? What happened to Quattrocento painting in that little hub of capitalism, Lucca? And how can there be no "consumerist" account books from sixteenth-century Venice, Genoa, Milan, Lucca, and Naples? Except for the last of these, Goldthwaite unashamedly disavows responsibility for all questions of this sort (6); yet Florence and his consumerist thesis fling them into his path. It is no accident that Siena does not figure in his thumbs-up view of Italian capitalism, for the Sienese economy never truly recovered from the debacle of 1348-49. Still, if consumerism was the way to art, how do we explain the artistic feats of the Sienese?

Part two of the book, "The Demand for Religious Art," is an account both of the rise of new religious orders and the growing panoply of objects ("the liturgical apparatus") utilized in worship and celebration. But the primary achievement here is to offer us an old Protestant view in new dress. I refer to the well-known, well-based claim that the late-medieval church invented purgatory, promoted the cult of saints, and the sacrament of the Mass in different forms, so as "to tap into more and more of Italy's immense wealth by generating demand for its services" (130). The result was a growing craze for private chapels, large-scale redecorations, new altars, and more religious pictures. For the early Protestants this was criminal humbug and popery; for Goldthwaite this is the church manifest as producer and marketing expert, literally creating and renewing demand. He finds, accordingly, that "the deepest roots of the consumerism of the West may well lie in this aspect of medieval religion" (108). And since he is reluctant to do so, I shall draw the obvious conclusion for him: the inventive marketing of the late-medieval church represented the finest example of the spirit of early capitalism.

The book's interpretive centerpiece appears in the final section, "Demand in the Secular World," where we move from religious "durables" to secular art and architecture. Here again is an old view in new dress. Poggio, Valla, Bernardo Giustiniani, and other humanists already contended that learning, knowledge, and beauty depended upon wealth and empire. Goldthwaite adjusts this claim: he privileges the profusion of goods in his world of wealth and then finds the following process. As consumers work their way through an expanding market, accumulating ever more objects, they begin thereby to define themselves - in a new version, I suppose, of "Renaissance self-fashioning." They select their goods, showing discrimination; their feeling of possessiveness is deepened; and in due course they will seek craftsmanship, refinements, or even "elegance" in their durables. Here is the birth of "taste," collecting, connoisseurship; and art, properly so called, is finally born. The rich naturally are more likely to do the best job of cultivating taste: architecture, the grandest of all consumer goods, is after all exclusively for them, as in the building and furnishing of palazzi. Consumption, in a word, becomes both "the main engine of economic activity" and "of culture" (4, 250).

In a surpassingly ideological book, we are offered a full-fledged Reaganite view of the Italian Renaissance; hence it is appropriate for the concluding pages to intone a hymn of praise for the creative energies of consumerism and capitalism. Thus, "modern civilization was born.... largely because man attached himself in a dynamic and creative way to things, to material possessions" (255). Or again, "These veritable temples to the consumption habits of the past [i.e., our great museums], where we worship as art one of the dynamics that gives life to the economic system of the West, mark the supreme achievement of capitalism" (254).

All the same, the book's centerpiece is undermined by problems involving the nature of cognition and relatedness. Goldthwaite knows that people may rely on mimicry, magnificence, and conspicuous consumption to express social and cultural identities, and that they use possessions to establish worldly credentials (249). In semiotic activity of this sort, social meanings are the whole game, inasmuch as the actors are frankly relating themselves to others and thereby to vertical place and functions in society. The author, however, demotes or brushes aside this critical anthropology; for the consumerist economic model, as he understands it, requires a fierce sense of possessiveness and relations strictly between consumers and things - in "the interaction between people and physical objects" (243), "taste" as "rationalizing the feeling of possession, the sense of attachment to physical objects" (249), and "the new relation between people and things" (253). This strikes me as epistemological nonsense. No man or woman can interact with a physical object, save through a web of social mediations that are likely to involve ideals, habits, and attitudes, all inseparable from the person's social and cultural self. Any object - palace, picture, or plate - which contributes to a self definition is being negotiated through a social system, and in this process we are always dealing with a triadic relation at least, never a dyad. The author's consumerist fix on durable goods is such that he wants to eliminate the third party (society), leaving only the possessor and the thing possessed. It is as if he is saying: society does not butt into what is mine. This may be so, but in the matter of personal and cultural identities, it does.

In his plea for the role of consumers and entrepreneurs, Goldthwaite works Giovanni Pontano's Trattati delle virtu sociali (1498) onto a Procrustean bed by reading this five-part discussion as an early consumerist primer. The old humanist, he alleges, although writing in Naples, out of "the most feudal court in Italy" (209), is nonetheless "emphasizing the moral quality of possessiveness itself" (249). Surely not: how can possessiveness in itself have any moral qualities? Borrowing matter and accent from Aristotle, Cicero, and others, Pontano's five essays constitute a discourse on liberality, beneficence, magnificence, splendor, and conviviality - the social virtues and graces of the ideal aristocrat. Such individuals, in keeping with their lofty station, are expected to show splendor and conviviality. But how may they do this, if not indeed by living stylishly, entertaining well, dressing handsomely, making wise donations, and spending money on such things as household furnishings and tableware, all in accordance with their aristocratic identity? The five social virtues, idealized and class-conscious, justify and validate the aristocrat's munificent spending, not the reverse; they imbue his/her purchases with meaning.

The author's insistence upon the force of the purchased object as such does an astounding injustice as well to the artist as to the early consumer-collector. For if, as he declares, "taste" is "but one way of transforming physical objects into high culture" (249), is it not the case that all at once here the rich consumer is made the key to the creation of high culture, while the craftsman (the producer) is eliminated from the process, except as occasion? Even ignoring the contentious core of the notion of "taste," the alleged operation marginalizes - stars like Titian and Rubens to one side - the Renaissance artist's years of apprenticeship, his absorption of the rich workshop tradition, his schooled inventiveness, and especially his give-and-take with patrons and donors. Time and again Goldthwaite's consumerist analysis sidesteps social process and social relations, in its hard focus on the mystic (non-social) ties of ownership between the buyer and his goods. Yet all the early art collections were assembled by "consumers" closely in touch with artists, connoisseurs, or others keenly and learnedly interested both in contemporary and past art - thus, for example, Giorgione's earliest admirers in Venice, King Philip IV in Madrid, Archduke Leopold Wilhelm in the Netherlands, certainly the Rubens circle, and in England about 1610 the cognoscenti around Prince Henry. Isabella d'Este famously sought only the work of the recognized masters, the most praised and talked-about artists, in a campaign to showcase not only her powers of discrimination but also her capacity to get the masters to do her bidding. Often too, in fact, patrons and collectors favored the work of artists who were well known to them personally, as may be inferred, for instance, from Raphael's relations with Agostino Chigi and Baldassare Castiglione. In sum, all early collecting, down at least to the eighteenth century, was a social affair, not a secluded, private business between the possessor and the thing possessed. And I have not even made reference to art work for collectivities, such as the large religious confraternities (scuole) in Venice, which stood behind many of the masterpieces of Venetian painting, where Gentile Bellini, Carpaccio, Tintoretto, and others met the programs and wishes of organized groups.

What then is to be said for the claims of the consumerist hypothesis? Insofar as it levels Europe's striking divergences, it darkens more than it illumines. In its overwhelming stress on "private" wealth, it cannot fail to misrepresent a reality that was far more defiant, conflicted, and various. Elite culture is heady stuff and infinitely alluring. I also love it. But in Renaissance Europe it came at the price, direct and indirect, of loads of discomfort for lots of people. Was not the great Christian fracture of the sixteenth century, followed by the Wars of Religion, one of the penalties imposed on a church which, in Goldthwaite's considerations, had turned into capitalist and marketing expert, as it promoted the sale of religious art and then papal indulgences? The larger human expense, in short, had a place in both the high and popular culture of Renaissance Europe. It follows therefore that the production and purchase of worldly goods can be more deeply studied, more amply measured, if the analysis is carried out in the light of prices, wages, tax and fiscal structures, the different social classes, the rise and decline of new and old occupational groups, and disparities between rich and poor. To such inquiry we shall also need to add study of the ways in which goods, and especially surplus goods, entered the daily life of society to become the carriers of social signification - this apart from what they already were as practical wares.

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Author:Martines, Lauro
Publication:Renaissance Quarterly
Date:Mar 22, 1998
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