Jardine's history focuses on gems, books, furniture, plateware, tapestries, paintings, altarpieces, maps, instruments, cloth, and spices -- and the scholars, cardinals and kings and bankers who were aggressive consumers of these most worldly goods. Worldly Goods, a work produced, it seems to me, for popular consumption, functions as a series of eight related essays on the sources and effects of the Renaissance consumption culture and how that culture grounds the modern patterns of "multicultural and brauvara consumerism." (34) A focus such as this gives us a selective look at the Renaissance; highly trained artisans and craftsmen and the fortunate few who could afford their work and wares are alone in view. Deep social changes are represented by the creation of financial instruments, by the new humanist education, by the political and "munificence" competition between the Christian West and the Muslim East, by the explosive book trade, and by the famous international trading voyages for spices.
Each chapter takes as its theme one aspect of Renaissance consumerism. Jardine begins with a survey of Madonnas apparently resting in spectacular creature comfort (up to the point of Annunciation). She turns in Chapter One to the avalanche of changes accompanying the fall of Constantinople: the general flight of Greek scholars (such as Cardinal Bessarion) to Western cities and the scurry to re-establish trade lines from Venice, as city merchants pragmatically refused to jeopardize their trade with the Turks for anything like a religious motive. Chapter Two recounts the depth of debt a cardinal, merchant or royal could sink into in the pursuit of his (or her) status as an consumer of education and taste, and the seas of cross-linked merchants (Fugger at the center) upon which that debt floated. Chapters Three and Four together tell the tale of books: how they were printed and produced as high-priced specialty items, who backed the first presses, and who were the first customers. As new discoveries and new translations of ancient books became widely available, so a humanist education became a necessity for those who could afford it. Chapter Five glosses the traveling artisans, architects, scholars and theologians who offered their services to anyone at any court who could afford it; Chapter Six travels through the world spice trade, from Magellan's and Columbus's voyages, to the network of horses, copper, silk and silver that gave wind to the trade in the Indies. (Of interest to me were her brief descriptions of the new accounting practices, p. 321) Chapter Seven links some of the key players in religious reformation to those involved with new developments in instrumentation, astronomy and mathematics (Regiomontanus). As a closing point in Chapter Seven, Jardine notes that merchants had freed themselves, or were freed, from restrictive usury laws by the end of the 16th century. Chapter Eight gives a cautionary portrait of the too-avid collector, and recalls the lost glory of the costly and coveted tapestry. Jardine concludes with a discussion of Hans Holbein's The Ambassadors, an exemplary image of the political, scientific, and religious goods overflowing in Renaissance consumer culture.
A few questions occur during the reading of Worldy Goods. First,
although Jardine takes a truly engaging breadth of canvas, how balanced
a picture is this of Renaissance society? (It may be an unfair question,
because she may have intended no such thing.) Second, does Jardine
have an economic theory or thesis underpinning her work? Third, what
exactly does the rise of consumerism tell us about how the shape of the
Renaissance is distinct from other periods?