- Luxury Arts of the Renaissance
Over the last several years, a large number of publications that focus on material culture have come into print, and this sumptuously illustrated vol-ume adds to this growing list. Today objects made of gold and precious stones, [End Page 556] tapestries, and armor are considered minor arts, overshadowed by painting and sculpture in the art historical canon. Yet during the Renaissance throughout Europe, they were held in high esteem because of the precious and costly materials from which they were created. These precious material goods were reflections of the taste and virtue of their owners, and served as symbols of rank and privilege. Because of their repeated exaltation in the Bible, gold and jewels held spiritual authority, as well as magical and medicinal powers, and, along with other precious objects, they were valued above a mere painting or sculpture.
Marina Belozerskaya, whose previous book (Rethinking the Renaissance, 2002) reassessed the importance of the art produced for the Burgundian courts, continues this reappraisal in the current volume. The author examines luxury arts as "functional entities and looks at the practical purposes for which particular materials and artifacts were employed at the specific moment in time we call the Renaissance" (1). Her aim is to decipher the system of values and beliefs that underlay the period's appreciation for and consumption of precious material goods, to understand how these objects functioned in the Renaissance, and to discover what this tells us about Europeans in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries.
In the opening chapter aptly titled, "The Demise of Luxury Arts," the author begins with a discussion of what "art" meant to Renaissance patrons and artists — a craft or skill — and traces how the reputation of luxury arts declined starting with Vasari, continuing into the eighteenth century with the creation of the Royal Academy of Painting and Sculpture, and the rise of public museums in the nineteenth century, which favored painting and sculpture over other arts. From this thorough and insightful introduction, Belozerskaya moves to individual chapters devoted to the power of gold and precious stones, narrative tapestries, finely crafted armor, music and dance, and then concludes by looking at how all of these luxury arts were brought together to create a spectacle that seduced all the senses.
In chapter 2, "The Powers of Gold and Precious Stones," we learn that Isabella d'Este, Marchioness of Mantua expended far greater energy and resources on acquiring objects fashioned from rare stones and gold than she did on acquiring paintings by Mantegna, Titan, or Leonardo. She treasured her late second-century ce onyx vase (a color reproduction of which is included here) and her cameo depicting Augustus and Livia, bequeathing these sorts of precious material goods to her children, while her favorite ladies-in-waiting received a painting of their choice. This example alone is evidence of the value placed on luxury objects. It is significant to note here the range of objects included in this chapter: a table fountain, a silver and gilt ship with its own case, a toothpick in the form of a dragon, and reliquaries, to name only a few, all illustrated in color. Chapter 3, "Woven Narratives of Rule," is equally lavishly illustrated in color and discusses in detail the variety of tapestries produced, how they function within the court environment, and how they were produced. The splendor of these tapestries and the importance of their role in articulating a ruler's authority and might become evident; like gold and jewels, tapestries were held in higher esteem than paintings.
One would expect, in a book like this one, the discussion of objects made [End Page 557] of gold or precious stones and tapestries, but armor? Not necessarily — yet Belozerskaya shows us in chapter 4 how important these items were, pointing out how finely crafted and luxurious this metalwork could be. Nor would we expect music or dance to be a luxury. The author skillfully explains how music was employed alongside other forms of...