In this provocative and wholly absorbing work, Lisa Jardine offers a radical interpretation of the Renaissance, arguing that the creation of culture during that time was inextricably tied to the creation of wealth ― that the expansion of commerce spurred the expansion of thought. As Jardine boldly states, "The seeds of our own exuberant multiculturalism and bravura consumerism were planted in the European Renaissance." While Europe's royalty and merchants competed with each other to acquire works of art, vicious commercial battles were being fought over who should control the centers for trade around the globe. Jardine encompasses Renaissance culture from its western borders in Christendom to its eastern reaches in the Islamic Ottoman Empire, bringing this opulent epoch to life in all its material splendor and competitive acquisitiveness.Looks interesting though the illustrations in my edition are small and black and white, hampering the richness of the text. Here is the full picture:
But with the internet, that is solvable. Here is the text with my addition, interspersed, of illustrations matching that described in the text.
Crivelli's Madonna is a slip of a girl, bent dutifully over an open book.
Our eye is directed to her via a shaft of golden light which emerges from the heavens, enters the Virgins chambers through a tiny, convenient window in the wall above her head, and comes to rest on her temple. A symbolic dove, hovering along the path of the ray, tells us that this is the light of the Holy Spirit.
But the rest of the composition makes it hard to countenance the idea that this Virgin is truly meant to be the central subject and focus of all our attention in the painting. The sacred subject is almost crowded out of the picture by the profusion of the painting's physical, secular detail.
Mary is housed in an architecturally ornate Italianate building, on which Crivelli has lovingly inscribed the crafted ornamentation of revived Greek and Roman antiquity. The doorway through which we glimpse her is flanked by antique-style pilasters with Corinthian capitols;
a classical frieze runs around the building at first-storey level;
on the upper level, columns and arches frame an open loggia with an ornate geometrical ceiling; contrasting colours (gilt, terra-cotta, ochre and slate) and textures (brick, marble and stone) add to the richness of the exterior.
Within the room, panelled in precious wood, the clutter of prosperous living is as lovingly represented as the stitched and embroidered cloth of the Virgin's green cloak and russet gown.
A red tapestry hanging is drawn across the doorway;
the Virgin's open book rests on a carved reading desk;
behind her the table is covered with a green embroidered velvet cloth edged in gold, a pure white cloth is thrown across this,
and a pile of embroidered and tasselled cushions is stacked upon that.
The rear wall of the room carries a gilded frieze,
with, high on it, a shelf loaded with belongings — a brass candlestick, boxes and pots, a pile of deep porcelain dishes, leather-bound books with clasps, a crystal vase with a stopper.
In the window stands a small bush growing in a decorated majolica pot.
The profusion of lovingly depicted objects spills over outside the house. More plants in distinctive stone and earthenware pots stand on the loggia parapet,
across which is thrown an oriental rug partly obscuring a terracotta carving set into the low outer wall.
Alongside the rug stands an exotic peacock.
A birdcage hangs from a rail, on which perches a dove.
Beyond the building which encloses the Virgin is a further ornate arch, faced with terracotta carvings, marble and stone.
Another oriental rug hangs from its parapet, on which rests a large open book or ledger.
A well-dressed man reads a message which has apparently just been received by carrier pigeon (a visual joke about messages from afar and doves).
Alongside the cage which houses the pigeon is another bush in an earthenware pot.
The commercial transaction on the bridge — possibly a trading communication with a factor or emissary in a foreign land — mirrors and echoes the spiritual transaction between God and his chosen handmaiden in the foreground.
Outside the Virgin's window, the angel Gabriel greets the Virgin, while at the same time apparently conversing with St Emidius, patron saint of Ascoli Piceno (Crivelli's home town, by which the panel was commissioned),
who holds a meticulously detailed model of the town he guards spiritually.
The client discusses his ambitious town-planning project with his architect — or so it appears. They kneel together on a patterned marble floor, at the base of which is inscribed, in a print reminiscent of the great Italian Aldine printing press, 'LIBERTAS • ECCLESIASTICil ('Freedom from the Church').
These are the words (we are told) at the start of the papal declaration which gave limited rights of self-government to the people of Ascoli Piceno on the Feast of the Annunciation, 1482.
This virtuoso painting is every bit as much a visual celebration of conspicuous consumption and of trade as it is a tribute to the chastity of Christ's Mother. Masonry, marble, fabric and household goods are as carefully documented and as lovingly rendered as are the figures from the Christian story.
The imported carpets from Turkey might have been painted from life, hanging outside a rug-merchant's shop. Indeed, they were probably copied from carpets loaned by an obliging local dealer, or by a wealthy patron. Paintings like Crivelli's are used today by historians of Turkish carpets as documentation for the development in their designs during the fifteenth century. The carpet, in other words, is made 'real' with as much care as is the skilfully modelled flesh of the Virgin's arms and hands.
We do not need to have a specialist interest to find that the triumphantly realistic material objects, surfaces and decoration almost entirely absorb our attention. The thing depicted may in fact be a symbolic attribute of the Virgin: the stoppered crystal bottle, for instance, represents the purity of Mary's conception — as light passes through a glass vessel without its ray being diminished, so the Virgin conceived a child without losing her purity. Nevertheless, so precise are the representations that we would recognize such an object immediately if we saw it today. We could treat the painting like a modern mail-order catalogue, and order our own reproduction door-jamb carvings by the yard; we could comb the antiques markets, using the painting as our wish list for glass and porcelain, curtains, cushions and tapestries.
This meticulous visual inventory of consumer goods is not merely a record of acquisitiveness limited to Italy. The Virgin Mary's surroundings gather together desirable material possessions from across the globe. They announce with pride Italian access to markets from northern France to the Ottoman Empire. Here is a world which assembles with delight rugs from Istanbul, tapestry hangings from Arras, delicate glass from Venice, metalwork from Islamic Spain, porcelain and silk from China, broadcloth from London. The artist has represented with loving care the covetable commodities which by the mid-fifteenth century could be procured for ready money. His own work belongs to this exotic world of desirable possessions; celebrating global mercantilism is part and parcel of what is, after all, for him a commercial project — the entrepreneurial and the spiritual rub shoulders in this early Renaissance world.
Crivelli's Annunciation with St Emidius is breathtaking in the virtuosity of its physical detail.