Materialism and Renaissances

I’ve been trying to read up about the early Renaissance in order to give my students an overview. This has been a slightly odd experience since I must be one of the few people around who knew more about the Carolingian ‘Renaissance’ and the twelfth century ‘Renaissance’ than the actual Renaissance. One book I’ve read is Lisa Jardine, Worldly goods: a new history of the Renaissance. This has some very interesting discussions, particularly about the book trade, but in its focus on consumerism it seems to me to share many of the problems with more general materialist explanations of culture. (I’ve heard similar explanations of the earlier ‘Renaissances’).

The most obvious problem with explaining cultural innovation by the new wealth of a state is all the counter-examples. Firstly, developments in wealth are rarely sudden, but a gradual takeoff. Why was there in a Renaissance in 15th but not 14th century Italy? Why did the Venetian contribution to the Renaissance only really develop in the sixteenth century, when it was probably in slow economic decline, rather than earlier? Why do some wealthy states spend their money on art and some not? If money and the search for prestige really are the driving forces of culture why is the modern USA not creating its own Shakespeares, Leonardos or Picassos? Equally, are some of the small Renaissance courts such as Urbino really spending more on consumption than the kings of England, for example? Or is it just that they are spending their money on different types of consumption? Is conspicuous consumption really an invention of the Renaissance, as Jardine seems to imply, or is it a constant of medieval society?

The same problems come if you try and link cultural developments too closely to particular political circumstances. If you argue that the fragmented states of Italy produced the patronage that allowed cultural developments, why is the fragmented and prosperous Germany relatively unimportant in cultural history until substantially later? Why does high culture flourish under imperial Rome, Charlemagne’s empire and expansionist twelfth century France?

I don’t want to go back to the simple view that periods of cultural development are just unexplained outpourings of genius. Cultural markets are clearly important: if there is a demand for classicizing painting and more people are taking up the style and artistic careers then clearly you are more likely to get some extremely talented people producing masterpieces. (In the same way the sheer numbers of films developed by the Hollywood studio system and the sucking-in of talent increased the number of great movies). But systems of patronage or markets aren’t creative: artists are. It is only after Giotto had painted work like the Arena Chapel in Padua ( that patrons realised that this was the style they wanted (though in some Italian cities tastes obviously remained ‘old-fashioned’ for a long time, as Duccio’s success shows). Patrons and markets are largely reactive: they want what they’ve seen elsewhere, but a bit different (and better).

Similarly, patronage for scholarship means (at least in the initial stages) poaching people from elsewhere. Charlemagne’s court school of writers came from Italy, Spain and England, the products of earlier ‘mini-Renaissances’. Humanism as a literary form (classicizing Latin) seems to have existed for a hundred years or more before ‘civic humanism’ appears in late 14th century Florence as a way of providing prestige and propaganda for a state in turbulent times. Scholarship can develop and flourish at such centres, gaining from cross-fertilisation and producing new generations of students, but such gatherings are only a later stage of cultural development. Markets and money don’t produce artistic genius – if they did, the twenty-first century would have the greatest cultural achievements of any era.


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