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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
This cornucopia of a book seems like the Renaissance historian's Neiman Marcus Christmas catalogue as I remember it, that defiant yearly cele- bration of extravagant consumerism. Its breathtaking cargo of costly gifts - mink-lined helicopters, well-stocked zoos, Caribbean islands - is the 20th century equivalent of Lisa Jardine's lavish display of worldly goods from Renaissance stores: Papal alum mines, triumphal arches, huge tapestries, illuminated manuscripts, books printed on vellum, priceless gems and thoroughbred horses. These products of advancing technology and circulating wealth were, as often as not, portable and useful as well as sumptuous; proclamations of power and prosperity as well as aesthetic miracles. Among those who protested against the mercantile spirit of the age was the divine Michelangelo who, though he loved horses and Tuscan wine, admonished the Pope for wanting the Sistine ceiling re-touched with gold for fear it should start looking poor, because the Biblical figures depicted in it were poor themselves.

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.