For many, an interest in material culture grows from an aesthetic perspective. It was with the simple aim of spending as much time as possible staring at Botticellis and Berninis that I chose a paper on Early Modern Material Culture as part of my history undergraduate degree.
On studying the course, it soon dawned on me that I was still expected to consider wider structural and political issues, and Botticelli’s angels were probably far too busy drinking too much nectar to whisper the answers in my ear. Yet by considering the content and context of works of art as part of a wider catalogue of objects and buildings, and by exploring how their value and meaning are subject to their function as much as their form, the study of material culture can be as viable a form of historical study as the more traditional focus on written documents.
It was on the basis of early modern inventories revealing a widening range of social groups buying non-essential goods that German social-historian Werner Sombart argued that the birth of capitalism took place in the fifteenth century. In turn, the elaboration of goods reflected the proliferation of wealth through society, as more people could afford luxury items. Already by the late fifteenth century, nobleman Federico da Montefeltro felt compelled to surround himself with references to his higher status in his portrait, including polished armour, a weighty book and an exotic shell.
Indeed, the content of material culture can bear powerful political messages: the radical sans-culottes of the French Revolution refused to wear the fashionable silk knee-breeches of the moderate bourgeois revolutionaries. In contrast, the nineteenth-century jeunesse d’oree wore seventeen buttons in their jackets in reference to the deposed Louis XVII and even sported wigs reputedly made with the hair of guillotine victims.
At the same time, material objects can reveal wider cultural trends, as well as contributing themselves to cultural norms and practices. The increasing criticism of the formal fashions of the French court as ‘feminine’ in the later seventeenth and eighteenth-centuries formed part of a shift of political power away from the court, as well as perpetuating the patriarchal gendering of political virtue as male. Similarly, the layout of cities reflected the interwoven nature of religious and secular life in the early modern period. For example, large, central and elaborate baptisteries, such as that adjacent to the Duomo in Florence, reflected not only their role in welcoming people into the Christian Church but also into the civic community.