During the 18th century it was considered an edifying entertainment to trace the stuff of which the finery in the smartest London shops was composed to its distant origins: whalebone from the Arctic Sea, for example, or muslin from India. This exercise encouraged wonder at the abundance and variety of nature as well as at the enterprise of traders and the ingenuity of manufacturers, but little awareness of labour exploited, or lives destroyed. It also led to a blithe complacency about the global tribute paid to Britain. In the opening stanzas of Isabella, Keats contrived to adapt this to subversive ends. Isabella lived long ago, but in one of the first great modern cities, the Manchester of the late Middle Ages, Florence. Her brothers are merchants, ‘self-retired/In hungry pride and gainful cowardice’, ‘ledgermen’ who stay at home. Yet slaves sweated for them ‘In torched mines and noisy factories’ and
For them the Ceylon diver held his breath,
And went all naked to the hungry shark;
For them his ears gush’d blood; for them in death
The seal on the cold ice with piteous bark
Lay full of darts.
These images of tropical and icy suffering are designed to destroy our delight in pearls and fur – the two most continuously esteemed accessories of beauty in Europe over the last five centuries or more.
The brothers are not responsible for this cruelty; or at least not directly and not entirely. It is part of the nature of international trade and finance, determined by market forces and giving priority to the profits of a distant agent:
Half-ignorant, they turn’d an easy wheel,
That set sharp racks at work, to pinch and peel.
Many writers have suspected that the cradle of the Renaissance was also the cradle of modern capitalism or at least of materialism; hence the revulsion felt by Ruskin and Ezra Pound, for example, at much 16th-century Italian art. In the Introduction to his book Richard Goldthwaite writes that it is an ‘enlargement of Jacob Burckhardt’s classic – and much-debated – vision of Renaissance Italy as the birthplace of the modern world’. But he takes no interest in the discovery of pagan antiquity, the natural world or the individual: he is concerned with ‘habits of spending’, and his thesis is that the ‘new attitude about goods that arose in Italy marked the first stirring of what today is called consumerism’. Goldthwaite is quite cheerful about consumerism and, indeed, about capitalism. He acknowledges that some of his readers will find some aspects of consumerism distasteful but, he claims, ‘we have enshrined its very spirit in our great museums. These veritable temples to the consumption habits of the past, 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.’
The book makes connections between evidence drawn from a very wide range of modern research. For this reason alone it is of great value, but anyone who is curious to pursue Goldthwaite’s sources will find the footnotes frustrating. We might want to know more about a mercenary commander mentioned on page 223 as being obsessed by architectural ambitions even when campaigning. The note refers to ‘Puddu, “lettere ed armi”, pp. 501-2’. Clearly the proper title must already have appeared. We find Puddu again in a note on page 202 but similarly abbreviated, and so have to continue backwards to page 193, where his full name and the title of the article are given, together with the information that the article appeared in a volume called Federico di Montifeltro. To discover the title, the names of the editors and place and date of publication, however, we have to work back to a note on page 163. It may seem trifling to mention this in a work of such outstanding erudition but Goldthwaite makes very big claims which need to be carefully checked.
We read, for example, that at the beginning of the 16th century the raw materials imported into Italy from the North ‘could hardly have added up to very much value’ – and he lists ‘timber, furs, pewter, tin, fish’. There are no footnotes in this case to support what is surely a dubious claim. After all, tin was essential to the copper alloys used for the armament industry. The taste for salt cod (from the North Atlantic) in Italy and other Mediterranean countries today must be the result of a massive import business in the past – but that seems to have developed soon after 1500. The real oddity in Goldthwaite’s list is ‘furs’, the abundance and variety of which are as evident in early 16th-century portraits of Italians as in those made in the cold Northern courts. Furs provided a challenge to the painter’s skill but they would not have been depicted had they not been enormously valued by the sitters.
Goldthwaite also claims that it is not easy ‘to find manufactured products of value that were imported into Italy in notable quantity’ at this date, and even that ‘imports of manufactured luxury products were virtually nonexistent.’ But what of German engravings, Netherlandish paintings (especially those painted on cloth in glue-size, most of which have perished but which feature prominently in Italian inventories), Netherlandish tapestries (which, to be fair, Goldthwaite mentions on the following page, together with carpets) and Oriental porcelain? Had Goldthwaite looked in more detail at some of this material, he would have found evidence in support of his general argument. Italians rapidly emulated (and pirated) work by German print-makers, a succession of tapestry factories was established in 16th-century Italy, and the earliest creditable European imitations of Oriental porcelain were made in Florence. Goldthwaite writes that in a sense his book is ‘not about art at all’ and is ‘largely indifferent’ to its quality. This does have disadvantages: a scholar with knowledge of ceramics would surely not claim, as Goldthwaite does, that the manufacture of maiolica in 16th-century Italy ‘reached a technical and artistic proficiency that has probably never been excelled since’. Had the Italians been convinced by this they would not have striven to imitate porcelain.
Again and again one wants to ask the author to slow down and look more carefully at the examples he cites. ‘New technology enabled artists to produce cheaper products, like the oil painters who could make larger pictures in less time and at lower prices, and like the Della Robbia who could produce cheaper sculpture in glazed terracotta. And what are the innovations in style associated with the Renaissance if not a kind of product innovation in fashion to win more of the market?’ No doubt the museum visitor should be reminded that Renaissance artists belonged to the ‘real world’ of industry and commerce, but it is crass to imply that the world in question was the same as ours. Oil paint did not replace egg tempera in the way that nylon stockings replaced silk ones. Indeed, some of the earliest documented practitioners used the new medium as an excuse for slow delivery – it didn’t dry in winter. Altarpieces executed in oil do not seem to have been cheaper than those in tempera, and as a whole the transfer from tempera to oil coincided with a steep increase in the price of paintings of quality. As for glazed terracotta, much of it was made as a superior and probably more expensive substitute for painted terracotta sculpture. Certainly, some of it was made to emulate more costly sculpture carved in marble; but it did not in any case become established in the way that oil painting did.
The equation of stylistic innovation with ‘product innovation’ sounds exciting but it is a gross distortion to liken Michelangelo’s invention of new proportions for the human figure or Masaccio’s exploration of a new conception of pictorial space to decisions made at Ford about the shape of automobiles. Goldthwaite believes that Vasari lends support to his association because the Tuscan artist and chronicler ‘explains the pre-eminence of Florentine painters in the progress of art by referring to the more competitive – and therefore more challenging – market in which they had to work’. Elsewhere he writes that Vasari’s ‘concept of progress in the arts was rooted in his understanding of what was happening in the marketplace in which artisans struggling for a living kept raising the ante in their competition to capture more of the market’. In fact, the competition Vasari commends is that of artist pitched against artist in the attempt to produce the best possible work for a discerning patron or public. New technology or cheaper materials or lower prices were immaterial in the contest between Brunelleschi and Ghiberti or Raphael and Sebastiano. Moreover, a very important factor which Goldthwaite never mentions limited the scope for innovation. In the very period he concentrates on, canons of excellence such as had not existed before were being established in art: whatever premium was placed on originality, immutable standards were acknowledged to exist in some ancient art and architecture and in the paintings of Raphael and a few others. Vasari’s conception of progress in fact entailed a recognition that the best had already been achieved. And this recognition was a major factor in the creation of those great European museums which Goldthwaite regards as the ‘supreme achievement of capitalism’.
The great value of Goldthwaite’s book is its provocative nature; and were he more attentive to exceptions and more cautious this quality would be lost. In his chapter on religious art he refers to altarpieces as part of the ‘material culture’ of the Church, and adds that the demand for them was stimulated by the increasing services required from the clergy, which were in turn occasioned both by the clergy’s own initiatives and by those of the laity. The problem lies in Goldthwaite’s account of causation. ‘The clergy came up with devices to meet the spiritual problems of a changing society, to focus the growing restlessness on legitimate practices, and to keep the laicisation of religion within acceptable bounds. The mendicant movement as a whole represented an institutional device to meet the needs of urban masses; other devices included confraternities, the cult of saints, indulgences, and the practice of commemorative and votive masses.’ One might be excused for imagining a central planning bureau of the Catholic Church concerned with forecasting supply and demand, but the theologians who established the doctrine of purgatory surely had no conception of the stimulus this would give to the cult of saints as intercessors or to the building and embellishment of oratories.
A feeling for ironies and unexpected consequences is absent from this celebration of the origins of modern consumerism. It is flawed, too, by its tendency to distinguish Renaissance Italy (which usually means Renaissance Florence) from any previous civilisation or any other part of Europe. Goldthwaite contrasts the new style of consumption in urban Italy with the ‘rural feudal traditions of the North’, but it seems likely that many of the novel phenomena he notes in urban Italy were found also in towns in the Netherlands, and some of the conditions he describes must have existed in the ancient Roman world. Nevertheless, you cannot read this book without thinking afresh about the purposes which great art once served and the circumstances in which it was created. It is a striking thought that the Italian Renaissance artist represented a ‘sector’ of the economy which, ‘however small, came to have built into it the capacity for renewing demand for its production’. It is certainly true that the demand for secular cabinet pictures was stimulated by ‘the new arrangements for the interior decoration of residences, be they patrician or princely’. And yet a Madonna and Child by Raphael or a villa by Palladio did not go out of fashion, as fine furniture or a suit of the best armour always did. The great paintings of the Renaissance were made in response to new patterns of consumption. But museums are not only ‘veritable temples to the consumption habits of the past’. In some respects they are the reverse. They enshrine values acknowledged as surpassing the needs or expectations of their original public.