ART IN THE AGE OF GOLD

David Ekserdjian considers an interesting new history of the Renaissanc e, and takes the daring view that, in art, money might not be everything
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The Independent Culture
In 1533 Benvenuto Cellini was commissioned by Pope Clement VII to design a lavish mount for the most beautiful unicorn horn ever seen (actually the horn - or strictly the tooth - of a narwhal, an arctic species of whale). The horn was intended as a present on the occasion of the union between Francois Premier's son, Henri de Valois, and the pope's niece, Caterina de' Medici. In the event, another goldsmith won the contract, but Cellini records in his Autobiography that the horn alone cost 17,000 ducats. In 1506, Michelangelo had signed up to paint the Sistine Chapel ceiling for 3,000.

This particular juxtaposition does not feature in Lisa Jardine's riveting Worldly Goods, but it would not be out of place between its covers. Nobody could accuse Professor Jardine of knowing the value of nothing, but she is certainly not averse to informing the reader of the price of everything. The overriding aim of her boldly subtitled "New History of the Renaissance" is to explore the decisive and frequently interrelated innovations of the period in a whole range of human activities - art, science, diplomacy, trade - and to explain the extent to which money was the key to them. In the book's final sentence, she sums up: "The world we inhabit today, with its ruthless competitiveness, fierce consumerism, restless desire for ever wider horizons, for travel, discovery and innovation, a world hemmed in by the small-mindedness of petty nationalism and religious bigotry but refusing to bow to it, is a world which was made in the Renaissance."

Worldly Goods is long on anecdote, and the sheer volume of information it contains is bound to grip all but the most hair-raisingly polymathic of readers. I will now never be able to respond to that ubiquitous restaurant warcry "blackapeppasir?" without recalling the way the Fugger banking dynasty of Augsburg made a killing on the highly lucrative spice market by means of a cunning deal with the King of Portugal. Throughout, Professor Jardine is eloquently insistent on the significance of contacts with the East, with Africa, and with the Americas in shaping the world she brings to life.

For this particular non-specialist, the discussions of science were perhaps the most compelling parts of the whole edifice, and Professor Jardine is certainly not to blame if I am still rather hazy about the merchants' "rule of three" and the finer points of double entry book-keeping. What she does explain wonderfully well is the effect of science and even mathematics on what some people naively call the real world, not just in terms of commerce, but rather by way of improved weapons of war and navigational aids. The topical relevance of a Hungarian engineer and cannon manufacturer called Urban selling his weaponry to the Ottoman Sultan to besiege Constantinople is pointed up by the author's referring to it as a "super-gun", and map thefts by Christopher Columbus's brother certainly strike a chord in the age of industrial espionage.

Given the desire to reach as many people as possible, I could have done with more signposting. The author almost never troubles to explain why printing - say - is examined when it is, rather than earlier or later on in the book. In the same vein, one is not told why whole areas of Europe and vast levels of human accomplishment go virtually undiscussed.

No doubt Scandinavia is ignored because it scarcely contributed to the progress Professor Jardine has set out to chart, but can the same be true of France and the Low Countries, or is their comparative neglect a case of forgivable playing to one's strengths? Similarly, it is tempting to presume that literature is not deemed to have improved on its finest achievements of the 13th and 14th centuries, and it is certainly the case that the epics of Ariosto and Tasso seem far more remote to us than Dante's Divine Comedy. On the other hand, Francois Villon is incomparably more "modern" than Petrarch or any earlier vernacular lyric poet, and might have earned a mention as the first and best bad-boy poet. Even more alluringly influential on our world is the change from plainchant to polyphony, but maybe both literature and music fail to qualify because their evolution is unaffected by money. That is hard to believe, however, when even the peregrinations of writers of learned commentaries on Ptolemy, such as one Trapezuntius, are able to flit from patron to patron like sulky football heroes until they find the recognition they feel they deserve. In any event, if literature and music mysteriously fail to fit, then I think we should be told. After all, the common reader - very possibly as a sop to the spirit of Take Nothing For Granted across the Atlantic - has to be informed Ovid was a Latin poet.

If experts read books about their chosen fields in pursuit of error, then one of the joys of this sort of production should be the feeling of liberation that comes from realising that one has to take almost all the facts on trust. I have a hunch that the art history (my thing), of which there is a great deal in the Prologue, is suspect, and have not let it poison my mind about the rest. Nevertheless, it is lowering to read someone as sparklingly intelligent as Professor Jardine writing "canvas" when she means "painting" (you only have to stand in front of Holbein's "Ambassadors" to see that it is painted on wood panels), and to catch her referring to Paolo Giovio as a painter when he was a noted humanist.

These are mere details, of course, but I do think that art is one place where money - contrary to appearances - is not the be-all and end-all. The unicorn horn may have cost more than the Sistine ceiling, as indeed did tapestries resplendent with gold and silver thread, but that does not mean they were more highly rated. The strange gold and jewel-encrusted nonsenses in the Christmas catalogues of posh jewellers can cost tens of thousands of pounds, but that does not mean they are generally admired, or that we would all buy them if only we had the money. As Professor Jardine realises, tapestries served particular ends in terms of propaganda and prestige (the same is doubtless true of diamond and platinum tooth-picks), but Vasari was not being perverse when he side- lined them in his Lives of the Artists. For, once linear perspective and oil paint had come into their own, they signalled the end of tapestry, and indeed mosaic, as major art forms. Printing did the same for book illumination. The bottom line is not everything, except in the perverse sense that art forms can die out by becoming too expensive.

`Worldly Goods: A New History of the Renaissance' by Lisa Jardine is published by Macmillan at pounds 25

David Ekserdjian is editor of the Everyman `Vasari: Lives of the Artists' to be published next month.

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