Meditating on Materiality – a 3-part book review (Part 1)

This is a review article (posted in three parts) which has been accepted for publication in 2014 by Edinburgh University Press in Cultural History

Renata Ago, Gusto for Things: A History of Objects in Seventeenth-Century Rome (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2013) (Translated from the Italian by Bradford Bouley and Corey Tazzara with Paula Findlen).

Paula Findlen (ed.), Early Modern Things: Objects and their Histories, 1500–1800 (Abingdon: Routledge, 2013).

Tara Hamling and Catherine Richardson (eds), Everyday Objects: Medieval and Early Modern Material Culture and its Meanings (Farnham: Ashgate, 2010).

What do objects add to historical research?’ asks Giorgio Riello in Early Modern Things. This question, or variations on it, has been posed fairly frequently in the last decade or so as historical material culture has taken root as a distinct field. Such discussion has aimed to defend and justify a material culture approach. Yet, while by no means part of ‘mainstream’ history (if there is such a thing), material culture history has proven its worth. As Harvey Green concluded in his article in this journal, material culture is an important part of cultural historians’ ‘analytical arsenal’, offering ‘a new shaping of historical – and historians’ – consciousness with new tools’.

In fact, the three books reviewed in this essay answer Riello’s question by adding considerably to an understanding of the past; enough, perhaps, to make such a question redundant. Indeed, the thriving field of material culture study and its enormous range and diversity are well represented by these studies, from whose pages burst things from every corner of the globe: discarded London pins, Amerindian pet parrots, broken Dutch ceramics, Japanese swords, Chinese rhubarb roots and Roman silk flowers. Collectively, they demonstrate the variety of scale possible, with one book being a case study of a city, another a collection focusing on two European countries and the final one a volume spanning the globe. They also capture the numerous disciplinary approaches to analysing material culture in the past. In fact, the sheer wealth of objects discussed, from the mundane to the exotic, from the material to the immaterial or from an object itself to the space in which it was housed, can be disorientating and demonstrates that the definition of material culture history is by no means fixed. The authors and editors offer a variety of views. For Renata Ago it encompasses ‘all aspects of the relationship between human beings and objects’ (p. 3). For Paula Findlen it is the ‘history of the world in small things’ (p. 16). Tara Hamling and Catherine Richardson adopt Daniel Miller’s definition of materiality, which extends beyond the artefact to include the wider material world and relates objects, spaces and people to one another. As such they incorporate the practice and locations of objects (p. 12). What emerges from all their definitions is the capacious nature of material culture as a category of historical analysis, and the conviction that this is very positive. With this broader definition of materiality it is also therefore more appropriate to talk collectively of ‘things’ rather than ‘objects’. These things have a lot to say.

Gusto for ThingsGusto for Things addresses the presence, value and function of things in the possessions of seventeenth-century Romans, both male and female, from artisans to the lower nobility. Ago includes both the mundane and the treasured in order to assess how middling-sort Romans were defined by their material culture, offering several important findings. In the first place her case study confounds stereotypical expectations based on an eighteenth-century Western European material culture rooted in the consumption of new, globally sourced goods. The middle-class Roman world of things was far more limited and consisted of old and recycled objects, too; as a result, a ‘tendency to preserve rather than acquire new things was characteristic’ (p. 57). Ago also shows that ownership and possession need to be distinguished when exploring material culture. In Rome ownership was fairly limited, and things were frequently acquired through borrowing and renting. In this money-scarce economy the exchange value of goods was as critical as their symbolic meanings. Many objects’ monetary function outweighed any personal or emotional value. Dowry goods, for instance, were intended to be rapidly converted into money. Nonetheless, Ago finds that objects were mutable and ‘could pass from the status of merchandise to that of precious possession and back again’ (p. 4). Clothing is a good example of this since some items were used as a capital reserve to be liquidated when required, while others were preserved to be bequeathed. As Ago remarks, the ‘border between the alienable and the inalienable was uncertain, fluid’ (p. 122). In fact, some objects travelled in the other direction, removed from exchange and made inalienable through the intention to retain them for their intrinsic value. This particularly applied to those Ago objects calls ‘immaterial’ things, which were collected for their aesthetic qualities and stimulated the mind or senses, such as sacred and secular dolls, silk flowers, statues and toiletries as well as the more familiar paintings, clocks, books and bulbs. There was another reason to invest in ‘treasures’, for this was a way to transform money into superior social and cultural standing. Those who could do so entered into an ‘elite of taste’ (p. 214). Identity was forged through Roman material culture, and Ago argues that people were unified by a common culture of both material and immaterial objects more than by income or profession.

This was also a gendered world of things. After examining middle-class Roman houses, room use and the quantity and value of furniture in those rooms, Ago concludes that it was not so much wealth that distinguished room and furniture arrangements but gender. Men owned ‘the best and most beautiful things of the household’ (p. xxv) . Even so, and perhaps more surprisingly, women possessed lots of things relative to the size of their homes. Though women’s houses were generally smaller and though they owned less furniture than men, their rooms were fuller of (lower-quality) furniture. Men also owned more items of clothing and more ostentatious objects than women, including those intended for women’s use. Thus, perhaps sociability was also more limited for women, since Ago points out that collecting ‘treasures’ facilitated sociability, an activity required to confer cultural value on the objects.

Continued in part 2

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