[Paleopsych] NYTBR: Merchandise of Venice

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Merchandise of Venice
[First chapter appended.]

[The first chapter is better than the review, for it invites comparison with 
Colin Campbell's _The Romantic Ethic and the Spirit of Modern Consumerism_ 
(Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1987). The book extended Max Weber's _The 
Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism_ by going beyond the 
Protestant theology of predestination that Weber invoked to later 
developments in Protestantism that morphed into Sentimentalism and 
Romanticism. These later developments foster the idea of the new and hence 
(though as much unintended a money-making was to Luther and Calvin) of 
buying and buying and buying in the latter eighteenth century England and 

[Keep this in mind as you read the review and the first chapter and try to 
avoid conflating shopping the Renaissance with shopping in England and 
America from the latter eighteenth century through today.

[So "rampant consumerism" is not something foisted onto us by wicked 
capitalists during just the past twenty years. I had somehow thought the 
meme "Fashion wears out clothes faster than women do" went back to 
Shakespeare. Googling <"wears out clothes"> and <"faster than women do"> 
turns up nothing. So let this be a meme of mine!]

    Consumer Cultures in Italy, 1400-1600.
    By Evelyn Welch.
    Illustrated. 403 pp. Yale University Press. $45.


    CAN'T afford to pay your Visa bill this month? Why not mail in a
    pair of socks? If two are hard to fit in an envelope, one might do.
    After all, there's rich precedent. In "Shopping in the
    Renaissance," her meticulously researched and elegantly illustrated
    book about spending habits in 15th- and 16th-century Italy, Evelyn
    Welch, a professor at Queen Mary University of London, explains
    that Bolognese debtors commonly used household items as collateral:
    "old hoes, hammers, cooking pots, a brass cup, a pair of scissors,
    or in one case, a single white stocking." Explain to your creditors
    that money is the root of all evil and see if fear for their souls
    prompts leniency.

    Long before the gold standard was dreamed up, before the invention
    of credit cards and before shopping had come to be recognized as a
    vital form of therapy, Italian shoppers had considerable difficulty
    grasping the notion of conspicuous consumption. In the minds of
    moralists, Welch explains, "Any exchange of merchandise for money
    was potentially tainted." In the 16th century, the humanist Paolo
    Cortesi moaned that "gluttony and lust are fostered by perfumers,
    vendors of delicacies, poultry-sellers, money-vendors and cooks and
    savory foods," while the Venetian writer Tomaso Garzoni bewailed
    the "detestable occupations" of "eating, drinking and enjoying
    oneself" shown by day-trippers who wandered the piazzas, "looking
    at glassware, mirrors and rattles," gossiping at barber shops and,
    worse, reading the news.

    Such indulgence smacked to Renaissance Italians of what Professor
    Harold Hill called "fritterin' " as he stirred the inhabitants of
    River City to rise up against idle youth. In a similar vein, the
    Sienese preacher San Bernardino lambasted shop owners for
    contributing to the delinquency of minors. "You know well to whom
    you sell pine-nut biscuits, candies, marzipans and sugar cake," he
    scolded. "Your conscience cannot rest easy unless you have no sense
    of guilt in turning boys bad." Nonetheless, sometime after the
    Black Death winnowed the population in 1348, ushering in a period
    of plenty, new generations of Italians acquired a taste for the
    material pleasures of this earth, which ensuing spates of disease,
    famine and jeremiad did little to curb.

    But the learning curve was slow. While bountiful harvests were
    considered a good thing, and poor harvests were rued - as can be
    seen in illuminations by the Florentine corn-chandler Domenico
    Lenzi, which picture angels rejoicing above scenes of abundance and
    devils with bat wings flapping above meager crops - to profit from
    the sale of staples was a no-no. The butcher, the baker and the
    candlestick maker who bartered their wares and services for
    tablecloths and cooking pots avoided criticism, but lowly retailers
    - rivenditrice - who sold produce they had not grown themselves
    were compelled to carry banners or tablets bearing the shameful
    letter "R" to indicate their stigmatized trade. The Florentine poet
    Antonio Pucci derided peasant women who hawked vegetables, eggs and
    poultry in the Mercato Vecchio, declaring, "I speak of them with
    harsh words, / Those who fight throughout the day over two dried
    chestnuts / Calling each other whores / And they are always filling
    their baskets with fruit to their advantage." Decent women did not
    rove city streets, bickering with strangers about the price of
    garlic. They were expected to "either remain indoors or to move
    through the city with deliberate purpose."

    The question arises - who was buying the nuts and chickens if
    respectable ladies weren't? The answer was personal shoppers
    (although at the time they were known as servants, spenditore and
    courtiers), usually men, who were entrusted with purchases great
    and small by the bourgeois or ducal houses that employed them. They
    might go a-marketing for onions and haunches of veal, or they might
    be sent on quests for luxury goods. And the purse strings for all
    but sundry purchases were in the hands of the man of the house -
    unless the woman had ample resources of her own, both monetary and
    intellectual. In such cases, they could be more demanding and
    capricious than J. Lo before a concert.

    In a shopping list the teenage Marchioness of Mantua, Isabella
    d'Este, wrote out for a courtier named Zigliolo in 1491, she
    imperiously instructed, "These are the kind of things that I wish
    to have - engraved amethysts, rosaries of black, amber and gold,
    blue cloth for a camora, black cloth for a mantle, such as shall be
    without a rival in the world." Apparently, Zigliolo correctly
    anticipated her tastes, but a few years later, when a Ferrarese
    courtier provided the wrong sort of gloves from Spain, she
    complained that "he has sent us 12 dozen of the saddest gloves that
    had he searched all of Spain in order to find such poor quality I
    don't believe he could have found as many. . . . We would be
    ashamed to give them to people whom we love and they would never
    wear them. Can you please send them back." The marchioness was
    exercising her hyperdeveloped shopping muscle for a nation of women
    who mostly couldn't. Yet.

    From time to time, thrill-seeking nobles went out on the town to
    conduct their own treasure hunts, but such journeys were fraught
    with peril. In 1491, when Beatrice d'Este and her cousin, Isabella
    of Aragon, visited the markets of Milan wearing woolen headdresses,
    they were mocked by local women for their fashion sense. Beatrice's
    husband, Ludovico Maria Sforza, wrote to his sister-in-law in
    Mantua: "Since it is not the custom for women to go about with such
    cloths on their heads here, it seems that some of the women in the
    street began to make villainous remarks, upon which my wife fired
    up and began to curse them in return, in such a manner that they
    expected to come to blows." Even 500 years ago, shopping was not
    always pretty.

    But making purchases was tricky, even for people who had figured
    out the dress code, because Italian coins varied from city to city
    and political leaders minted their own vanity coins, much as
    today's celebrities brew their own signature perfumes. Political
    figures frequently banned the use of their opponents' coins. All in
    all, it was wiser to throw your socks on the counter and start
    haggling. When Isabella d'Este went to buy antiquities from the
    Medici collection, she offered Mantuan cloth in payment, and a
    large part of her 30,000-ducat dowry consisted not of gold pieces
    but of jewels, silverware and elaborate gowns - all of which could
    be pawned and pledged, whether to raise armies, buy art or pay for
    luxurious holiday trips. Her hope chest doubled as a bank vault,
    "enabling her, like any other wealthy Italian, to turn material
    wealth into ready cash." All this "expensive clothing, jewels and
    plate," Welch explains, "could be mortgaged over and over again,
    allowing men and women with possessions to spend in ways that far
    exceeded their immediate means."

    If they went too far, however, and couldn't redeem their goods in
    time, they might see their valuables auctioned on the piazza or
    risk other forms of public humiliation: being barred from the
    Rialto in Venice or forced to wear the debtor's crown of shame, the
    green beret, in Rome. It may be a pity we can't live in the style
    of Renaissance Italians anymore, swapping our clothes and casserole
    dishes for priceless antiquities, but it's no small consolation
    that we can incur debt the modern way, by charging it, and shop on
    the Rialto, even if we can't afford it.

    Liesl Schillinger, a New York-based arts writer, is a regular
    contributor to the Book Review.

First chapter of 'Shopping in the Renaissance'


    In February 2001 the British artist Michael Landy took over an
    empty department store in central London. Before a fascinated and
    occasionally distraught audience of friends, fellow-artists and
    strangers drawn in from the streets, he and his assistants placed
    all his personal possessions on a conveyor belt. Looping round the
    complex, mechanised route, Landy's furniture, record collection,
    clothing and even his car were first inventoried and then
    systematically dismembered, divided and shredded. The work
    attracted considerable press attention and provoked a powerful
    public response. Landy's emphasis on destruction was seen as a
    challenge to the champions of consumerism and as a strong
    commentary on the seductions of acquisition and ownership. The
    setting, the bare interior of a store stripped of its lighting,
    counters and displays, was central to the work's meaning (Figure
    1). As shoppers moved on from the performance into the
    still-functioning department stores and shops nearby, they were
    invited to reflect on the ultimate purposelessness of their

    Commenting after the event, Landy described his surprise when a
    number of onlookers equated his actions with those of a holy figure
    or a saint. Yet the disposal or dispersal of possessions has been a
    fundamental part of religious asceticism since early Christianity.
    But unlike the powerful image of Saint Francis of Assisi giving
    away his cloak to a beggar before stripping off all his clothes in
    order to refuse his father's wealth, Landy had no intention of
    forming a new religious order (Figure 2). Landy's attack on human
    attachment to material possessions was a secular act of artistic
    performance, a counterpart to contemporary celebrations of
    affluence and prosperity. As such he was, and is, part of a growing
    debate. Today, shopping, the process of going out to special sites
    to exchange earnings for consumable objects, is seen as both a
    force for good (consumer spending is saving Western domestic
    economies) and as a danger to society (consumer spending is
    destroying the environment and local diversity). Given its current
    importance, such behaviour has been closely scrutinised by
    anthropologists and sociologists who have often argued that the
    purchase of mass-produced items is a defining characteristic of
    modernity. In their turn, economists have looked for rational
    patterns of consumer spending, while an equally weighty literature
    has grown up to evaluate the emotive and psychological impulses
    that lie behind modern consumerism, culminating in a focus on the
    'shopaholic' or kleptomaniac, usually a woman who, for complex
    reasons, is unable to control her desire to either buy or steal
    from stores.

    Following in this wake, historians and art historians are using
    concepts such as the emergence of a public sphere and the agency of
    the consumer to map out a new narrative linking this changing
    social behaviour to the development of new architectural spaces.
    Some have found the origins for contemporary shopping practices in
    the American malls of the 1930s or in the opening of the first
    department stores, such as Whiteley's in London in 1863 or the Bon
    Marché in Paris in 1869 (Figure 3). These purpose-built buildings,
    with their fixed prices and large body of salaried personnel
    radically changed the nature of shopping. Buying became a leisure
    activity as well as a chore, one that women were increasingly able
    to enjoy. But while some have insisted that this was a distinctive
    feature of the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries, others have
    pushed back the transformation to the coffee-houses of
    eighteenth-century London, the mercers' shops of eighteenth-century
    Paris, or to the market halls and commercial chambers of
    seventeenth-century Amsterdam (Figure 4). As new social rituals
    developed, such as reading the paper, listening to public concerts
    or discussing scientific innovations, so too did a demand for new
    products such as coffee, tea, chocolate, porcelain and printed
    chintzes. Here bow-shaped glass shop windows, with their displays
    of exotic, imported goods are thought to have tempted buyers,
    sparking off a capitalist revolution and eventually liberating
    women from the home.

    In the search for the first modern shopping trip, these eighteenth-
    and nineteenth-century developments are often set against the
    backdrop of an undifferentiated late medieval past. The story of
    temporal progression requires more distant periods to be perceived
    as lacking in sophistication. The pre-industrial world is presented
    as having had a relatively limited access to a smaller range of
    regionally produced goods and a minimum of disposable income. Most
    of a family's earnings would have been spent on food. Little was
    left over for non-essentials, and most goods were produced within
    the home itself.

    These assumptions have meant that while many studies have looked
    for a growing mass-market for consumer goods in the eighteenth
    century, Renaissance scholarship has focused on elite patronage or
    international trade. Recently, however, there has been a tendency
    to argue that the supposed consumer boom of the enlightenment
    period started much earlier and that this revolution took place,
    not in London or Paris, but in fifteenth-century Italy. In 1993,
    for example, the economic historian Richard Goldthwaite argued
    that, 'the material culture of the Renaissance generated the very
    first stirring of the consumerism that was to reach a veritable
    revolutionary stage in the eighteenth century and eventually to
    culminate in the extravagant throw-away, fashion-ridden,
    commodity-culture of our own times'.

    But the question arises whether the Italian Renaissance consumerism
    was really the embryo of contemporary expenditure, a defining
    moment in the transition from the medieval to the modern. Does the
    detail from the 1470 Ferrarese frescoes of Palazzo Schifanoia
    depicting elegant shops with their customers represent a new form
    of activity or an ongoing tradition (Figure 5)? Is it in any way,
    however marginal, indicative of, or evidence for, a new form of
    consumer behaviour? While there will be much in this book that
    seems familiar, such as the pleasure that teenage girls took in
    trips to the market, there is a great deal that is very different.
    Indeed, far from pinpointing the start of 'ourselves' in fifteenth-
    and sixteenth-century Florence, the experience of the Italian
    Renaissance challenges rather than reinforces a sense of linear
    transfer from past to present. In particular, it threatens some
    basic assumptions concerning the connections between architecture
    and consumer behaviour. In the English language the links could not
    be closer. A standard dictionary defines shopping as, 'the action
    of visiting a shop or shops for the purpose of inspecting or buying
    goods'. A shopper is, 'one who frequents a shop or shops for the
    purpose of inspecting or buying goods'. But this correlation has no
    parallel in other European languages where there is little, if any,
    verbal connection between 'the shop' and the activity, 'shopping'.

    This is an important distinction because the impact of this assumed
    association between the architecture of commerce and modernity goes
    far beyond semantics. Early twentieth-century sociologists and
    economists who defined concepts of consumption relied on models of
    social development that considered shopping in stores as a far more
    sophisticated form of exchange than gift-trade or
    administered-trade. The latter were only phases that societies went
    through before finally emerging as fully developed (and hence more
    effective and efficient) market economies. This was not simply a
    theory. It was put into practice in countries such as Italy which
    only became a nation in the 1860s. From that point onwards,
    defining an Italian city as a modern urban society involved
    constructing new commercial and social spaces, particularly those
    modelled on the more seemingly advanced English and French
    examples. The so-called 'Liberty' or Art Nouveau style was adopted
    for some shop fronts while glass and iron proved popular for new
    shopping areas (Figure 6). When in 1864, for example, the city of
    Florence began demolishing its walls, gates and medieval market
    centre, it was to mark the town's transformation into the first
    capital of the new nation (Figures 7 and 8). Florence was not to
    stop, as one protagonist put it, 'in the lazy contemplation of our
    past glories but fight gallantly on the road to progress'. In 1865,
    it was even suggested that the entire market areas of the city
    centre should be transformed into a glass gallery on the model of
    the English Great Exhibition Hall before it was agreed to tear it
    down and rebuild the densely packed centre in a more piecemeal

    Likewise, in i864, the city of Milan marked its entry into the
    Italian nation with major urban renewal plans. This included a
    galleried arcade, whose construction contract was awarded to the
    British-based 'City of Milan Improvement Company Limited'. As the
    first King of the united Italy, Vittorio Emanuele II laid the
    foundation stones of the Galleria, the new glass and iron mall was
    presented as a symbol of the new country's future prosperity and a
    rejection of its backwards past (Figure 9)

    But these nineteenth-century debates reveal a more complex and
    contradictory set of attitudes than a simple embrace of British
    engineering. Photographers using advanced technologies for the
    period captured the emptied spaces of the old Florentine market
    while graphic artists produced postcard images of what was to be
    destroyed. Londoners who had visited the city wrote to The Times to
    decry the destruction of the old town centre and city walls. A
    sense of the need to preserve an attractive 'local' culture for the
    tourist market vied with the political desire to be accepted as the
    equal of the economically advanced countries of Europe and the
    United States.

    The issues raised by the Milanese Galleria and the destruction of
    Florence's old market centre have resonances that go far beyond the
    Italian peninsula and the nineteenth century. The competing values
    of preservation and nostalgia versus modernity and progress
    continue to have serious consequences today. Planners eager to
    impose change have tended to describe developing countries as
    having 'medieval' types of exchange. Open markets in Africa and
    Asia, systems of barter and supposedly informal networks of credit,
    have been presented as either backwards, or, conversely, as more
    romantic and natural than contemporary North American and British
    supermarkets and shopping malls. As in nineteenth-century Florence,
    seemingly unregulated and potentially unhygienic markets have been
    driven from city centres in places such as Hong Kong and Singapore
    by officials hoping to exclude elements perceived as old-fashioned
    from their growing economies. In contrast, highly developed urban
    areas such as New York and London, have re-introduced 'farmer's
    markets'. These evoke traditional street fairs in order to reassure
    customers that produce sold from stalls and served up in brown bags
    is somehow more genuine than shrink-wrapped goods removed from a
    refrigerated cabinet.

    Shopping in the Renaissance

    Given this context, it is difficult to step back and assess how men
    and women actually went out to shop in the past without falling
    into a narrative of either progress or decline. This is
    particularly acute for the Renaissance. During the period between
    1400 and 1600, the daily business of buying and selling was an act
    of embedded social behaviour, not a special moment for considered
    reflection. While international merchants' manuals do survive both
    in manuscript and in print, the ordinary consumer's ability to
    assess value, select goods, bargain, obtain credit and finally to
    pay, was learnt primarily through observation, practice and
    experience rather than through any form of written instruction.

    This means that any study of Renaissance buying practices, where
    exchanges were transitory and verbal, has to rely on scattered and
    often problematic evidence. The images, literary sources, criminal
    records, statutes, auction and price lists, family accounts and
    diaries used in this book all had their own original purposes and
    formats. Their meanings were rarely fixed and the same item might
    be perceived in different ways in different times and places. For
    example, a poem such as Antonio Pucci's fourteenth-century
    description of the Mercato Vecchio in Florence, might carry one
    meaning for its audience when heard during a time of famine and yet
    another when read in a period of prosperity. But despite its
    slippery nature, it is still important to set such 'soft' evidence
    against the seemingly more stable facts and figures that make up
    grain prices and daily wage rates.

    This book takes, therefore, the approach of a cultural historian in
    an attempt to gain an insight into the experience of the
    Renaissance marketplace. While some of the material goes over the
    immediate boundaries of the title, the book focuses primarily on
    central and northern Italy between 1400 and 1600. This is, in part,
    because of the wealth of documentation available for this period
    and region. Venice, an entrepôt whose retailers served both an
    international and local clientele, was exceptional in its
    commercial sophistication and specialisation. But the entire
    northern and central Italian peninsula, with its multiplicity of
    large and medium-sized towns and distribution networks of ports,
    canals and roads that reached far into the countryside, was much
    more urbanised than the rest of Europe. Unlike England where the
    inhabitants of villages and hamlets gravitated to larger market
    towns to buy and sell produce, even the smaller and more isolated
    of Italy's rural and urban communities housed permanent shops and
    regular markets. For example, sixteenth-century Altopascio, a
    Tuscan mountain village with a population of 700 inhabitants had
    five shoemakers, two grocers and a ceramic seller, a bottegaio di
    piatti, as well as a blacksmith. The slightly larger Tuscan town of
    Poppi in the Casentino had a population of 1,450. In 1590, its
    inhabitants benefited from nine grocery stores, two bakeries, two
    butchers, three drugstores, a mercer's shop, a barber, a tailor and
    a shoemaker along with workshops for wool, leather and iron as well
    as kilns producing ceramic wares. These amenities served the wider
    locality as well as the small town, a relationship noted when the
    municipal council allowed complete immunity for debtors on market
    days, `for the good and benefit and maintenance of Poppi,
    considering its location on a dry hill and in need of being
    frequented and visited by other men and people'.

    Of equal importance was the diversity and competition between these
    urban centres, both large and small. Italy's political
    fragmentation had considerable cultural consequences. By the
    mid-fifteenth century power on the peninsula was roughly divided
    between the Kingdom of Naples, the Papal States, the Duchy of Milan
    and the city-states of Florence and Venice. By the end of the
    century, however, the fragile balance had been disrupted as the
    growing powers of France, Spain and the Habsburg empire attempted
    to gain control. After 1530, Italy's two major territorial states,
    Lombardy and Naples, were ruled by viceroys who drew on local urban
    structures but answered to Spain. These multiple boundaries -
    local, regional and international - allowed for the coexistence of
    legal systems as well as for the circulation of different forms of
    currencies, dress, codes of conduct, gesture and language. The
    diversity had real material meanings. Velvets permitted to
    butchers' wives in Milan might be forbidden to those in Venice;
    hats that seemed desirable in Naples may have been rejected in
    Genoa. Although the costume books from the second half of the
    sixteenth century such as those of Cesare Vecellio and Pietro
    Bertelli often exaggerated the differences, the fashions forged in
    Rome were quite distinct from those in Mantua or Ferrara (Figures
    10-12). Even women living under the same jurisdiction, such as
    those in Vicenza and Venice, might wear different garments (Figures
    13-14). This created issues around novelty that were very different
    from those of nation-states such as France and England where the
    major contrasts were between a single capital city like Paris or
    London and the provincial towns and rural communities. . . .

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