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The best books on Renaissance Worlds

recommended by Mary Laven

New scholarship is opening up different ways of looking at the Renaissance. The historian explains what we should read to gain a wider appreciation of this key period in European history

Interview by Emma Mustich

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My first question is about your choice of topic – why “Renaissance worlds”?

Two developments in the way in which we’ve been looking at the Renaissance suggest this idea of “Renaissance worlds”. The first is the turn towards material culture – if you like, a more worldly vision of the Renaissance. That is to say, whereas perhaps we used to think that the Renaissance was a time of great genius – ethereal works of art and great works of literature – now we’re beginning to try to see the Renaissance in a far more grounded sense, in terms of the objects and things that surrounded people. The props of everyday life – the concrete context in which these developments took place. That’s one reason why I thought “Renaissance worlds”. The other is the increasingly global way in which we look at history generally, but the Renaissance in particular. There is a new attempt to de-centre the Renaissance as just another stage in the history of the triumphant West, and to instead think about connections with the Middle East and the Far East, discoveries of new worlds, and the way in which they had an impact on what we think of as being Renaissance culture.

How did you get involved in this field to begin with? What drew you specifically to cultural “encounters” in the study of the Renaissance?

I have to admit that I myself had a very unadventurous historical upbringing. As an undergraduate and a postgraduate, and then as a university teacher, my identity was as “a European historian” and I worked on Renaissance Italy – the traditional centre of the Renaissance. My PhD was on Venice. But as I got older and I saw all these developments happening around me, I began to think – actually, how can I begin to engage with these wider contexts?

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Because I work on Italy, I’m a historian of early modern Catholicism and my specialism is the Counter-Reformation – the period of Catholic reform in the 16th and 17th centuries – the particular route I went down was that of the Jesuits – one of the most famous Catholic religious orders, founded in the early 16th century, at this high moment of reforming energy – and their Mission to China. So I took a leap from the (for me) familiar world of Counter-Reformation Italy, Counter-Reformation Rome, the very centre of Renaissance and religious reform, and I followed these men on their extraordinary journey east.

The first book you’ve chosen is At Home in Renaissance Italy.

This is a beautiful book that was published in connection with an exhibition that took place in the Victoria and Albert Museum in London in 2006. The title – At Home in Renaissance Italy – suggests immediately the attempt of the curators to ground what we think of as being the Renaissance within the concrete environment of the home.

This isn’t the traditional exhibition that shows you great works of art, masterpieces, oil on canvas – it’s not that kind of exhibition at all. It’s an exhibition that brings to centre stage people’s possessions – clothes, beds, chairs, chests, cupboards, armour, lighting, mirrors. It shines particular light on women – for example, the contents of the Renaissance marriage chest. (When a woman got married, she took to her new home and to her husband literally a great big chest, what we might call the trousseau, which was full of white chemises, table linen, napkins, sheets, and so on.) And so it gives a really good sense of the different value of these possessions in a different age.

It also spotlights children – usually left out of the history of the Renaissance. In this book you will learn all about a Renaissance babywalker. One of the things I really like about this book is that it brings women and children into the picture.

Whose home exactly are we talking about, in this book?

That’s a good question! We’re talking about the noble home – and in fact, the exhibition which this book came out of actually recreated the piano nobile – the noble floor or main storey – of a Renaissance palace. Not entirely specific, but probably either in Venice or in Florence, or with mixtures of the two. And I suppose, much as I love the project and much as I love the book that came out of it, if I wanted to push the story a step further, it would be out of the elite home, out of the noble home, and into the more ordinary Renaissance home.

It seems like most of the books you’ve chosen deal primarily with elite culture, though – is that right?

That’s not entirely true. The next book on my list, Galateo – first published in Venice in 1558 – is a kind of how-to manual. It advises you on how to conduct yourself. And this was an absolute best seller, which reached far beyond the nobility, certainly into the literate urban middle classes. I guess it’s a book that gives ideas to people who are aspiring, but who haven’t necessarily made it.

This is also the only contemporary text on your list. Why is this such a good primary source?

I think it gives a very nice sense of the preoccupations of everyday life in the Renaissance. It’s telling you how to behave in the most concrete sort of way. This is the guide which really will tell you what to do and what not to do – and it’s very overt and frank in its instructions. For example: Don’t touch your private parts in public. If you’re walking down the road and you see a pool of vomit or a piece of dog shit, don’t point it out to your companions. If you blow your nose, don’t then look in the handkerchief as though you’re examining a handful of jewels. Galateo links in with my interest in the material and the grounded – the experience of the Renaissance.

Can you talk a little bit about the author, Giovanni della Casa? He was an archbishop, right?

Della Casa enjoyed the typical career path of an elite Renaissance man. He was born into a wealthy landowning Tuscan family, he studied law in Florence and Padua, decided to enter the church, wrote saucy poetry and Latin treatises and cosied up to cardinals. He’s really only famous for this one book. He follows in a tradition – perhaps better known is Castiglione’s Book of the Courtier, published about 30 years earlier. That’s another book that tries to tell you how to behave (although I think that Castiglione is a lot less frank, a lot less direct – partly because his work is written as a dialogue, a conversation between people discussing how best to behave). Giovanni della Casa really tells you how it is. And as you say, it’s interesting that this is coming from a cleric – it again slightly confounds our sense of what the Renaissance is about. Because although, traditionally, the Renaissance is often thought of as a secular age, the church was fundamental to much of the cultural creativity of this era.

Lisa Jardine and Jerry Brotton’s Global Interests is the next book you’ve chosen. Why is this one on the list?

I think this expands on the two features of Renaissance scholarship that I’m interested in, and that I mentioned at the beginning. On the one hand, it’s again focused on material culture – so it privileges discussion of coins, tapestries and horses over oil paintings and great works of literature. But it’s also a study that wrenches the Renaissance away from its traditional centre. For example, one of its opening gambits is to tell us about the portrait that Gentile Bellini – a very famous Venetian artist – painted of the Sultan Mehmet II while Bellini was in Istanbul in the 1470s. He’d been loaned to the sultan’s court by Venice as a sort of international relations initiative.

Again, we’re being pulled away from our assumptions. What the book shows again and again is the fascination which Renaissance Italians and Renaissance Western Europeans had with the East. The tapestries that the Westerners commissioned, which depict camels and giraffes, and their absolute obsession with Arab horses – it all really fleshes out the exchanges, and the very intricate cultural relationships between West and East during this period.

When reading about material culture in this way, how useful is it to actually see the objects (or pictures of the objects) that are being discussed? I don’t think this book has as much imagery as the exhibition catalogue that we were discussing earlier.

No – although it is published by Reaktion, who pioneered (or re-pioneered, perhaps) the notion that academic books should be beautiful books. And in fact there are some very beautiful illustrations in it – particularly of the tapestries – and I think these are important. Not only do the images enable Brotton and Jardine to develop their arguments in a clear and persuasive way, but they also permit the reader to engage with and question the interpretations that are presented in the book. No self-respecting historian would advance a theory without detailed reference to her documentary sources, and we should expect the same degree of transparency in the treatment of visual and material sources.

Let’s move on to your next choice, Craig Clunas’s Empire of Great Brightness.

In a way, this is perhaps a little bit of a surprise, because this is a book which is actually focused on China, and not a book about the exchange between Europe and China – although China is not presented as being entirely isolated.

My reasons for including it are two-fold. For one thing, its author, Craig Clunas, is one of the great historians of material culture practising at the moment – he really is able to show us how a society functioned by means of studying its objects and, again, it’s very beautifully illustrated. I also chose this book because Clunas plays a bit of a joke in the opening pages, where he describes China in its great age of print, and its age of cultural productivity – a time of discovery, a time of novelty, paired with great respect for the past, for antiquity – and he lures us into thinking that he’s describing Europe, because the description he offers is a very classic description of Renaissance Europe and he’s borrowing a lot of his terms from the great 19th century historian of the Italian Renaissance, Jacob Burckhardt. But then, of course, his punchline is: I’m talking about Ming China. I think it makes a nice parallel with the other books about Renaissance Europe.

Is it harder for historians of material culture to describe and explain objects when they are especially unfamiliar to us – as Renaissance Chinese items might be to people living in the West?

Yes, of course. Craig Clunas has spent his entire career immersed in this stuff, so he’s very good at guiding the reader through what is undoubtedly very unfamiliar material. Some of his “material” sources are texts themselves, which also indicates a new move, I think – a new kind of historical turn. We’ve talked a lot so far about material culture, but writing itself can be a material object. And this is obviously the case in China, where there’s this fascination with calligraphy and the beauty of the written word. In all kinds of ways, it’s very unfamiliar terrain. But Clunas’s great genius is his ability to convey this to an audience of non-specialists.

Your final choice is Dutch New York, Between East and West: The World of Margrieta van Varick.

I guess I’m stretching the traditional boundaries of the Renaissance here, because this is a book focused on the late 17th century. But it’s about a woman whose life spanned the globe, and whose possessions – which were recorded at the time of her death in a very extensive inventory – testify to the global connections of her own life. And I feel that these global connections, as we’ve already seen, were being forged in the Renaissance era. So it seemed like a good book to end up with, because this is almost like the fulfilment of Renaissance worlds, seen through the microcosm of one woman and her inventory.

What are the most interesting elements of that inventory, in your eyes? Does anything in particular stand out?

Yes. There are two main areas, actually, and they chime with what we’ve already discussed. Firstly, it’s women and children again. We have women’s caps and hairpins, a spinning wheel – so you’re given a real entrée into the female world. But also, at the time that she dies, Margrieta van Varick has four children, and she’s very concerned to share out her goods among them – to make provision for them in very specific, caring sorts of ways. And so she distributes among them her collection of baby clothes, or – I think this is amazing – 31 silver playthings, little silver toys that she owned. Her petticoats, her household linen – I think it really gives you a chance to think about the woman, the mother, the children. So that’s one area that I think is really interesting.

The other area is the global aspect, because among her possessions, van Varick has got Turkish carpets, Japanese lacquer work, palampores [Indian bedcovers], lots and lots of Indian floral chintzes – including baby clothes – and, of course, porcelain. This is a woman who was born in the Netherlands in 1649. She was herself orphaned, and at the age of 17 she was taken by an uncle to go and live in Malacca in the Dutch East Indies, where she married and then was widowed. She came back to the Dutch republic, and finally emigrated to America, where she lived in Flatbush in Brooklyn with her second husband. So her life completely crosses all the global boundaries, and this is reflected in the possessions which she leaves at her death – over 2,000 objects are recorded in her inventory.

How unusual is that? Is Margrieta van Varick very unusual?

Well, early modern people were obsessed with inventories – they loved lists. One tends to think that the further back in time you get, the less good records are going to be – and yet, if you or I die, it’s highly unlikely that there’s going to be an inventory listing every pair of knickers, every shirt, every napkin we ever owned. So at that level, this inventory is not atypical. People in the 16th and 17th centuries were accustomed to having very detailed inventories of their goods. And that again indicates the different value that things have over time.

On the other hand, for a woman to have left an inventory with over 2,000 objects in it – that is an exceptionally good source. Although, interestingly, the curators – this book also emerged out of an exhibition; this one was held at the Bard Graduate Center in New York – do repeatedly say that there’s something frustratingly sparse about the list. Although there are many, many objects that are itemised, they don’t necessarily give you the kind of details, or the personal details, that you really crave. Historians of this period have to put an awful lot of effort into reconstructing the life around these objects. But it’s definitely there to be reconstructed.

Sure, Margrieta was unusual. Undoubtedly, she was unusual. And yet I think what this case study, this sort of micro-history, draws attention to is that this kind of global connection was certainly anything but unique in this period. And in fact, when the curators were planning the exhibition, their strategy was clear. They had the list, but they didn’t have the possessions, so what they did was to get hold of equivalent examples to illustrate the items on Margrieta’s inventory. That they were able to bring together so many of the objects named on the list demonstrates that there were many people in 17th century New York who owned Indian or Japanese artefacts. Even if people themselves hadn’t travelled to any great extent, the goods were in constant circulation right across the globe during this period.

Where do you think “encounter studies” and the study of Renaissance worlds is going?

I suppose where I’d like to see it go is beyond the elites. And that’s where, actually, the example of Margrieta van Varick is a good one – because although, as we’ve said, she’s an exceptional person, who had ever heard of Margrieta van Varick before this catalogue and this exhibition happened? So I think this is one area where the history of global encounters in the early modern period definitely has to go – we have to find out more about the anonymous people who engaged in these exchanges.

Material culture can really help here. You asked me earlier how common it was in the early modern period to write an inventory. One thing I can say with absolute certainty is that it was a darn sight more common to write an inventory than it was to write an autobiography. So I think this is exactly where material culture can help us gain access – in the cases of lesser-known people.

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Another area that we’re really beginning to get to grips with is the relationship between Europe and the Near East. Traditionally we’ve been interested in the great voyages of discovery – but Lisa Jardine and Jerry Brotton are pioneers in bringing to the forefront these relationships between Europe and the very proximate Muslim world. There’s a lot of interesting research being done about that.

The other point you raised was an interest in material texts. I don’t think we can any longer think in terms of this total disjunction between written sources and visual sources. We’re far more attuned to the fact that visual sources often have verbal elements within them, and that written sources, in fact, are also objects. We have to contextualise these in their concrete world – not just think of them as abstracted texts.

Interview by Emma Mustich

November 14, 2011

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Mary Laven

Mary Laven

Mary Laven is a senior lecturer in early modern European history at the University of Cambridge. Her first book, Virgins of Venice, won the 2002 John Llewellyn Rhys prize. She published Women and Religion in the Atlantic Age 1550-1900 in 2013 and curated Treasured Possessions from the Renaissance to the Enlightenment at the Fitwilliam Museum in 2015.

Mary Laven

Mary Laven

Mary Laven is a senior lecturer in early modern European history at the University of Cambridge. Her first book, Virgins of Venice, won the 2002 John Llewellyn Rhys prize. She published Women and Religion in the Atlantic Age 1550-1900 in 2013 and curated Treasured Possessions from the Renaissance to the Enlightenment at the Fitwilliam Museum in 2015.