Of Worldly Goods: The Renaissance and Modern Times

The age in which we live is often criticized as one of rampant “consumerism.” Supposedly, the inhabitants of the wealthier parts of the world are obsessed with the acquisition of material things — houses, cars, clothing — at the expense of their spiritual well-being. The attack on private affluence has been marked by the publication of such books as John Kenneth Galbraith’s “The Affluent Society.” Other social critics have decried modern society as the triumph of “things” over the great intangibles, such as religion or community. The nightmare of the future of materialism run rampant can be found in Aldous Huxley’s brilliant futuristic book “Brave New World,” where technological and material success crushes all of the individuality and nobility of the human soul.

Although we live in an age of rampant social criticism, this particular criticism is all the more baffling for its seeming irreconcilability with our individual desires. It’s certainly true that the vast majority of people seem to want more “things,” rather than less, and that those with the least seem to have the most fervent desires to increase their material abundance; we live in a society constantly striving to increase its material wealth, yet seemingly ashamed of its striving.

Many of us, especially those of us living in North America and Europe, have been educated to look on the Renaissance as a period in history where art and learning and all the more sublime aspects of civilization re-emerged after a long period of dormancy in the Middle Ages. The Renaissance gave us the great writer Erasmus, the inventor Leonardo da Vinci, and the painter Michelangelo, to name just a few of the many creative geniuses of the time.

“The term ‘Renaissance’ prompts a litany of names of famous artists; it also provokes a particular kind of timeless achievement,” according to Lisa Jardine, professor of English at the University of London. How different, and how much better, those times may seem — dominated, at least from our modern perspective, by art and learning.

But was the Renaissance really better? Were people less concerned with tawdry things like money and material goods? Lisa Jardine answers some of those questions in her brilliant new book “Worldly Goods: A New History of the Renaissance.” As part of her extensive research Jardine performs a fascinating analysis of many Renaissance works of art. What she finds is that these works focus heavily on material objects: clothing, household objects, rugs and tapestries, and other “worldly goods.”

Analyzing Crivelli’s painting “Annunciation with St. Emidius” (1486) Jardine concludes that “this virtuoso painting is every bit as much a visual celebration of conspicuous consumption and of trade as it is a tribute to the chastity of Christ’s mother.” Such a comment may seem sacrilegious, but that is clearly not Jardine’s intent. Rather, she is saying that, to the inhabitants of the Renaissance world, material goods — “rugs from Istanbul, tapestry hangings from Arras, delicate glass from Venice, metalwork from Islamic Spain, porcelain and silk from China, broadcloth from London” — could be treated as objects of great value without in any way diminishing the sacredness of religion. Or, as Jardine says, “the entrepreneurial and the spiritual rub shoulders in this early Renaissance world.”

Great works of art of the Renaissance period — and they are great — were meant to be sold, if not to a private buyer then to public organizations or the Church. But, like modern business people and professionals, artists needed to make a living from their work. As Jardine says: “A painter’s reputation rested on his ability to arouse commercial interest in his works of art, not on some intrinsic criteria of intellectual worth.” The works of art of this period are crammed with possessions because the people of the time wished to record and celebrate their affluence. Many of the great paintings are a “celebration of ownership — of pride in possessions.” Jardine suggests that “those impulses which today we disparage as ‘consumerism’ might occupy a respectable place in the characterization of the new Renaissance mind.”

One’s initial reaction to learning of the acquisitiveness of the people of the Renaissance might be one of “looking down” — perhaps they were no better than us. After all, they shared our lust for material things. But perhaps this attitude is in the wrong spirit; perhaps we should be looking up to them. Could it be that in celebrating their possessions the citizens of the Renaissance were celebrating their skill in creating beautiful crafts, or their ingenuity in trading? Or perhaps they were celebrating the intelligence and hard work which enabled them to amass the means to commission great works of art?

Our modern society produces lots of “things”: bricks, automobiles, computer chips, household goods, books, office buildings, just to name a few. While it’s possible to disparage these things, and our abundance, it is very easy to miss the great qualities that went into producing these things. It is easy to parody “reverence” for a cheaply made product which falls apart, or fails to perform its function. But in modern society’s super-competitive business and economic environment more often than not the products which surround us are the product of a huge amount of hard work, great ingenuity, brilliant science, or profound creative ability. Look around you. How many of the things in your immediate surroundings could you create yourself?

It’s too easy to take the miracle of production for granted, surrounded as we are by its output. But the people of the Renaissance, the first age of affluence, realized that goods are not easy to produce, and that a beautiful or helpful object is something in which to take pride. And we have more of these things than ever before: computer programs that our parents could never have dreamed of, beautiful graphic designs in books (50,000 being published each year in the United States alone), houses that are bigger and more comfortable, cars that are safer and less polluting, and a multiplicity of restaurants creating a vast array of delicious foods.

As anyone who has ever created a product knows, it’s not easy to make something of value. But more things of value are being made today than ever before, and more positive values — intelligence, hard work, ingenuity and resourcefulness — are going into those products than ever before. If virtue is sound philosophy made real by action, then maybe a very well made product is spiritual value turned into material form. Nothing can replace the human spirit. But if you celebrate the well-made material things that surround you in the same way people did during the Renaissance, you will also be celebrating the spirit of achievement that made them possible.