Monday, 25 September 2000

Lisa Jardine: Worldly Goods (1996)

Edition: MacMillan, 1996
Review number: 625

An interesting idea, Worldly Goods looks at the Renaissance through its attitude to possessions. Two particular objects stand out in Jardine's analysis, the collection of carved gems belonging to a Gonzaga Cardinal, which eventually became stuck in the vaults of the Medici bank, as part of a complex system of pledges on loans; and Holbein's painting The Ambassadors, discussed at some length in the epilogue and clearly bringing together many threads from a wide ranging history.

There is an immense amount of ground to be covered, as Jardine looks at goods not just as works of art but trade items (so that topics such as exploration become relevant), intangibles such as learning, and books as goods (a major theme with the immense opening up of new avenues for the distribution of information which followed the introduction of printing). Most histories of the Renaissance don't connect the art with the idea of commodities, because it has become considered vulgar to think of art except for its own sake; the Renaissance happened before this shift in perception, and so these histories are not really giving a complete picture. One area which is missing from Worldly Goods is any interest in the less well off, though that is partly because the Renaissance was a phenomenon affecting the upper and middle classes, which made hardly any difference to the lives of the peasants in the fields and the urban poor.

The influence of the author's father is clear, both on the subject matter and the style, but Lisa Jardine is not as brilliant an integrator as Jacob Bronowski; sometimes her writing seems a little bitty and repetitive. Nevertheless, Worldly Goods is very interesting to read, and made me feel that I understood this brilliant period in history a little better than I had done beforehand.

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