Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
May 30, 2014
Renata Ago Gusto for Things: A History of Objects in Seventeenth-Century Rome Trans. Bradford Bouley, Corey Tazzara, and Paula Findlen. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2013. 392 pp.; 38 ills. Cloth $55.00 (9780226010571)
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Renata Ago’s Gusto for Things: A History of Objects in Seventeenth-Century Rome is an English translation of Il gusto delle cose. Una storia degli oggetti nella Roma del Seicento, first published in Rome in 2006 (Donzelli Editore). The translation is by Bradford Bouley and Corey Tazzara with Paula Findlen. Findlen also contributes an important foreword that analyzes in detail the Nota delli musei, librerie, galerie et ornamenti di statue e pitture, ne’ palazzi, nelle case, e ne’ giardini di Roma, a list of collections in the houses, palaces, and gardens of Rome that was published in 1664 and traditionally has been attributed to Giovanni Pietro Bellori but which, as Findlen emphasizes, was reattributed to Fioravante Martinelli by Margaret Daly Davis in 2005 (Margaret Daly Davis, “Giovan Pietro Bellori and the Nota delli musei, librerie, galerie et ornamenti di statue e pitture, ne’ palazzi, nelle case, e ne’ giardini di Roma (1664): Modern Libraries and Ancient Painting in Seicento Rome,” Zeitschrift für Kunstgeschichte 68, no. 2 (2005): 191–233). The advantage of the translation is that it enables Ago’s research to reach a wider public.

Gusto for Things remains a hybrid title, with Findlen commenting on the translators’ desire to “playfully invoke the sense of the original” by retaining “gusto,” which conveys an intensity that the English terms “taste” or “appetite” lack (xxi). At the heart of the book lies the desire to uncover the quality of this “gusto” by tracing the emotional ties between people and their possessions. In her introduction Ago argues for the importance of telling the story of things, and in particular the relationship between people and their goods in seventeenth-century Rome. While this may seem self-evident in an age of greatly increased scholarship on material culture, it is striking how few studies there have been of daily life in seventeenth-century Rome in comparison to, for example, Renaissance Florence. Furthermore those studies that have emerged have overwhelmingly concentrated on aristocratic and papal life, such as Patricia Waddy’s masterly Seventeenth-Century Roman Palaces: Use and the Art of the Plan (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1990), or Richard Ferraro’s PhD thesis “The Nobility of Rome, 1560–1700: A Study of Its Composition, Wealth, and Investment” (University of Wisconsin, Madison; 1994), or for that matter Ago’s own useful study of ecclesiastical careers, Carriere e clientele nella Roma Barocca (Rome: Laterza, 1990). These studies, along with those that concentrate on individual cardinals or aristocratic patrons, overwhelmingly concentrate on those of disproportionate wealth who indulged in conspicuous consumption and lived in richly decorated palaces filled with art and antiquities. Ago instead concentrates on the “middling classes” of Rome, referred to by the seventeenth-century scholar and physician Giulio Mancini as the “ceto mediocre” (middle class), a sector of Roman society that has been little studied from the point of view of their collecting.

Ago’s book is based on approximately eighty inventories, of which only two are from members of the aristocracy, and one hundred wills. These documents relate to a range of individuals including lawyers, merchants, widows, furriers, goldsmiths, bankers, money-lenders, and painters. Ago is well aware of the impersonal nature of inventories, and the fact that they only record the contents of a collection at the moment of an individual’s death, but she supplements this material with the correspondence and the account books of certain individuals, such as Maria Isabella Vecchiarelli Santacroce, one of the two aristocrats included. She does not attempt to recruit material culture into a quest for “modernity”; rather, she examines how objects were used, and their changing status over time. Her research focuses on a few key questions: Were people keeping objects longer in the seventeenth century? How does an object develop a significance that goes beyond its economic or utilitarian value? Is this significance linked to individuals or can it transcend the personal to become inalienable over time? Do women and men relate to the objects they collect in different ways? Ago also sets out to challenge the idea that the middle classes of Rome in their collecting practice emulated aristocratic fashions, arguing that some collecting practices—such as a passion for novels or for landscape paintings—extended from the middle classes into other parts of Roman society, including the aristocracy.

The book is divided into three parts: “The Nature of Goods,” “Material Goods,” and “Immaterial Things”; each part is subdivided into chapters, and then into sections. In reality, though, the first and second parts form one half of the book, which is concerned with examining the archival material in great detail, while the third part has a wider scope, discussing collecting more generally and drawing on published and primary sources.

Part 1 examines the circulation of goods in Roman society, how they were used as money, how they could be exchanged, and how gifts, particularly foodstuffs and agricultural products, could be used in social contexts, for example to alleviate the restricted lives of cloistered nuns. Of particular interest here are the nuances of what was and was not appropriate as a gift: Cassiano dal Pozzo decided not to send “to the palace” a large chest of “most beautiful and delicate plums” fearing that a gift of foodstuffs may not be in the best taste. In a section within this chapter confusingly entitled “Objects Not Collected,” Ago includes a highly entertaining exchange of letters between Carlo Cartari and his mother in Orvieto about the tulip bulbs he had sent her and her joyous reactions to their eventual flowering.

The second chapter in part 1, “Reflecting on Things,” examines in detail the seicento passion for recordkeeping, and in particular the domestic accounting books that were kept regularly from mid-century that detailed with precision the day-to-day expenses of individuals. The most fascinating glimpse into an individual’s relationship with her belongings comes with the four inventories of Margherita Betti: a dowry inventory made on the occasion of her first wedding, the second made after the death of her first husband when her goods were restored to her, the third on the occasion of her second marriage, and the last at her death. Most of the things that appeared in the first inventory are still there in the last, including her fragile porcelain collection, which underlines a key finding of Ago’s: that Romans of every class tenaciously hung onto their possessions. What changed most over the course of Betti’s life were her clothing and jewelry, objects associated with the physical body.

Part 2 is the most important section in the book. Here Ago examines in great detail the furnishings in people’s houses and uses them to reconstruct their lifestyles. The relative poverty of women, a general trend noted by Ago throughout her study, is demonstrated poignantly by the two-bedroom home of Ippolita Venturola, which contained a bed (admittedly a luxury one), chests, a dresser, some chairs, and a coffee table, but no paintings, wall hangings, decorative objects, or even kitchen items. By contrast the fourteen-room house of the goldsmith Paolo Cangiani had a series of anterooms decorated with paintings, tapestries, leather hangings, ornamental beds, and statues, while the money changer Giovanni Rotoli lived in a three-story house with a courtyard decorated with a double loggia and a collection that rivaled those of many aristocratic families.

There are some unusual findings in this section, such as the absence of shoes in Roman inventories, and a more surprising lack of kitchens and kitchen utensils. Could the absence of shoes be explained by their removal by family members before the inventory was taken? And if so, what does this tell us about the status of shoes in a person’s estate? More puzzling is the lack of kitchen utensils and kitchens for most of the sample. Is it possible that even middle-class Romans cooked in common areas that were not recorded in individual inventories?

Also included in this part of the book is a section on furnishings and clothing that reveals the relative stability of styles of clothing over the course of the seventeenth century and the rapid changes that took place at the end of the century. Here Ago uncovers an extensive cottage industry of weaving and spinning carried out by Roman women from different classes directed to the market rather than for domestic consumption.

Part 3 provides an overview of the types of things collected by seventeenth-century Romans. The chapter on paintings complements the work of other scholars on the art market, such as Patrizia Cavazzini, in establishing that paintings were well within the reach of the middle classes, as they were cheap compared with other types of furnishings, and so were extremely popular (Patrizia Cavazzini, Painting as Business in Early Seventeenth Century Rome, University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 2008) (click here for review). This to some extent was already known, but Ago makes the point that paintings were disproportionally represented in patrimonies that were otherwise poor, suggesting that they had a particular and personal meaning for those who owned them. In relation to this, Ago’s analysis of the popularity of particular saints and the gendered nature of the viewing of devotional images is particularly important for an understanding of how these paintings functioned. “Immaterial Things” also discusses collecting more broadly, including the collecting of maps, weapons, devotional trinkets, prints, exotic plants and birds, musical and scientific instruments, as well as natural curiosities, jewelry, and clocks.

Gusto for Things is replete with extensive and extremely detailed tables of data which can at times make it heavy going, but there can be no doubt that Ago’s study is a fundamental contribution to the scholarship on material culture and life in seventeenth-century Rome. Encyclopedic in its scope, it will be indispensable for research on early modern Italy for many years to come.

Lisa Beaven
Lecturer in Early Modern Art History, Department of Art History and Film Studies, University of Sydney

Please send comments about this review to editor.caareviews@collegeart.org.