Value and symbolic practices: objects, exchanges, and associations in the Italian courts (1450-1500)
By Leah Ruth Clark
PhD Dissertation, McGill University, 2009
Abstract: Arguing for a reconsideration of the object’s function in court life, this thesis investigates how the value of an object is tied to the role it plays in symbolic activities, which formed the basis of court relations at the end of the fifteenth century. This study thus examines the courts of Italy (particularly Ferrara and Naples) through the myriad of objects—statues, paintings, jewellery, furniture, and heraldry—that were valued for their subject matter, material forms, histories, and social functions. Such objects are considered not only as components of court life, but also as agents which activated the symbolic practices that became integral to relations within and between courts.
These activities—the exchange of diplomatic gifts, the consumption of precious objects, the displaying of collectibles, and the bestowing of knightly orders—were all ways that objects acted as points of contact between individuals, giving rise to new associations and new interests. The end of the fifteenth century was a pivotal moment in the courts of Italy, fraught with alliances and counter-alliances involving not only the courts on the Italian peninsula but also abroad. The court was an important space where individuals sought to assert and legitimise their power, and this was often done through material and visual means. The court is thus examined from diverse angles, taking the object as a starting point, and tracing relationships and networks through visual, textual, material, and literary sources. Shifting the focus away from artistic intentions and patronage, this study examines how objects constitute relations, often in unpredictable ways, not only forging connections but also revealing instabilities and latent hostilities. The constant circulation of precious objects in the late fifteenth century reveals a system of value which placed importance not only on ownership, but also on the replication, copying, and translation of those objects in an array of media.
The quotation of both objects and texts in contemporary works of art, I argue, gave rise to new modes of viewing visual imagery that are most apparent in studiolo culture. This form of viewing requires decipherment; it asks viewers to piece together disparate parts and fragments thereby constructing meanings across space and media. Diverse material forms are thus brought together. A bronze fragmented horse’s head is examined as a gift that forged connections between two diplomats. Its fragmented equestrian form gives rise to narratives and discussion about its provenance and the object is connected to the lending, gifting, and racing of real horses. The circulation of jewels and gems between courts was facilitated by the practices of merchant-bankers through pawning and credit. Circulation gave these objects histories but also imbricated a wide range of individuals into complex webs of association, obligation, and dependencies.
A small devotional diptych belonging to a larger collection is examined in relation to humanist, social, and religious debates at the court of Ferrara, revealing how its particular form is closely tied to how one engages with, and interprets, the object. The diptych referenced other texts and objects and was also the model for numerous copies, encouraging the viewer to piece together the visual and textual quotations to produce meaning. The Neapolitan Order of the Ermine is examined through the mantle, gold collar, representations of the emblem, and statutes of the Order to demonstrate how these material aspects constituted the rites of the Order. These material objects became crucial components of membership by linking members across
Italy and Europe into forms of obligation and indebtedness. The court at the end of the fifteenth century in Italy, I argue, can thus be found not only in the body of the prince, but also in the objects that constituted symbolic practices, initiated political dialogues, created memories, and formed associations.