Mail order Michelangelos
A new study presents the Renaissance as `a breath-taking cargo of costly gifts'. By George Bull; Worldly Goods by Lisa Jardine, Macmillan, pounds 25
Saturday 21 September 1996
The austere spirit of Michelangelo - who refuted the idea that an artist should keep a shop - and the Catholic Reform movement (which counterpointed the Reformation) is absent from these fascinating pages, but it was Michel- angelo's devoutly Catholic biographer, Giorgio Vasari, who noted in his life of Perugino that the arts were perfected in Florence because in this city minds were sharp and criticism was rife, hard work and making money were essential to survival, and the very air generated fierce competitiveness and the thirst for glory. The passion for material possessions, combined with a multitude of mixed motives for cutting a fine figure, was one of the powerful sources of Renaissance creativity.
Richard Goldthwaite, in his Wealth and Demand for Art in Italy (1993) gave a fresh twist to the spiralling historiography of the Renaissance as he elaborated the central task of his study, "to view art in the larger context of the world of goods of which it is a part... to say something about the new consumption habits of Italians that produced a major change in their material culture... change that was fundamental to the development of the west." Lisa Jardine's book (or as she calls it, her "project of redefining the achievements of the European Renaissance") develops this, imploring the reader to "take to heart the fierce pride in mercantilism and the acquisitiveness which fuelled its enterprises." She takes us from Crivelli's Annunciation with St Emidius, in the National Gallery, to the rationale of Luther's protest against the scale of indulgences. She amply demonstrates that "acquisitiveness" was "among the defining characteristics of the age which formed our aesthetic heritage."
Politically, today seems just the time for a rousing defence of "consumerism" against the hypocrites and ideologues. Historically, of course, there was far more to the Renaissance than that, as Jardine reveals, almost despite herself, through the range of her provocative book, as it moves from considerations of currency and printing to the advent of business-linked professional specialisms and the formation of a worldwide "culture of commodities". It's a bonanza, rather than a reduction.
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