Ive 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 Ive 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. (Ive 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, Charlemagnes empire and expansionist twelfth century France?
I dont 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 arent creative: artists are. It is only after Giotto had painted work like the Arena Chapel in Padua (http://www.wga.hu/frames-e.html?/html/g/giotto/padova/index.html) 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 Duccios success shows). Patrons and markets are largely reactive: they want what theyve seen elsewhere, but a bit different (and better).
Similarly, patronage for scholarship means (at least in the initial stages) poaching people from elsewhere. Charlemagnes 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 dont produce artistic genius – if they did, the twenty-first century would have the greatest cultural achievements of any era.