Worldly Goods: A New History of the Renaissance

Volume 40 (1998)

Reviewed Work(s)

Jardine, Lisa. Worldly Goods: A New History of the Renaissance. New York : Nan A. Talese, 1996.

In Worldly Goods: A New History of the Renaissance, Lisa Jardine skillfully anchors Renaissance art and the Renaissance humanist — so often examined from an exclusively cerebral perspective — in the material world of supply and demand. Building on Richard Goldthwaite’s work of economic history, Wealth and the Demand for Art in Italy 1300-1600, Jardine starts from the baseline of examining art as the consumer good it was and constructs a cultural history of Renaissance material culture.

Jardine recasts humanist advisors and publishers who have often been portrayed as operating from solely intellectual motivations. She emphasizes how these men were also players in a market of supply and demand — they were pursuers and suppliers of artifacts and works of art demanded by their ruler-patrons or other buyers, both male and female. Jardine also emphasizes how sensitive all publishers were regarding what would “sell.” In fact, one could not partition humanist or scholarly pursuits from market pursuits. As Jardine writes, “the worlds of the scholar, the technical engineer, and the merchant were in practice inseparable.”

Worldly Goods is innovative and important for its inclusion of the Ottoman Empire as an integral part of Renaissance history. True to the trade and international relations realities of the time, Jardine weaves the Ottoman Empire into every chapter. To King Francis I, negotiations with Suleiman the Magnificent were as important as those with Henry VIII. Suleiman, for his part, sought to express his magnificence through the same modes as other European rulers; he patronized art, architecture and scholarship, as well as amassed collections of manuscripts.

Jardine’s title is somewhat misleading in that it hides her concentration on books and publishing. A full third of the work is dedicated to books and the blossoming book market of this period. Detailed and comprehensive, the chapters “The Triumph of the Book,” “Learning to Be Civilized,” and “New Expertise for Sale” focus almost exclusively on books and should be perused by those interested in the history of publishing.

Unfortunately, Jardine’s work is somewhat marred by careless errors and her over-enthusiasm for drawing direct parallels from Renaissance experience to our own. She attributes Francesco Guicciardini instead of Baldassare Castiglione with writing The Book of the Courtier and does not bother to learn when double-entry bookkeeping began, suggesting that it came into practice in the fifteenth rather than in the thirteenth century. Her desire to see exact parallels leads her to define Cosimo de’ Medici’s “so-called Platonic Academy” as “a research institute for the esoteric arts financed by a cultivated millionaire.” (60)

Jardine convincingly argues that the seeds of western culture’s consumerism were planted during this period, but the second tenet of her thesis — that the roots of multiculturalism can also be found in this period — has yet to be proved. Was “the Renaissance” a more multicultural era than others? Have cultures not continually collided and combined throughout history? Despite its flaws, readers interested in the material culture of early modern Europe should spend some time with this readable work.

Louisa P. Mattozzi


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