A few good things – the role of domestic and devotional objects

A few good things – the role of domestic and devotional objects

  • Composite of paintings by Joël Penkman of objects at the Fitzwilliam Museum
    Composite of paintings by Joël Penkman of objects at the Fitzwilliam Museum

To celebrate the 200th anniversary of the Fitzwilliam, Dr Mary Laven, Museum Syndic, examines the role domestic and devotional objects play in Renaissance life and why the very thingness of things gives them power.

Rosaries, crucifixes, figurines of saints, pilgrim souvenirs, devotional jewellery, stoups and sprinklers, printed prayer books and Madonnas wrought in every medium: these are just some of the devotional objects that filled the Italian home in the 15th and 16th centuries. Long before the era of factories and mass-production, artisans’ workshops churned out religious commodities to suit every budget; these were in turn snapped up by Renaissance shoppers, in an economy that favoured consumption. Together with colleagues working on a project funded by the European Research Council, my goal is to understand the meaning of these religious things to their owners and their power to transform and sanctify the home.

Sometimes the power of an object is only revealed when you hold it in your hand – a unique pleasure of curating an exhibition at the Fitzwilliam. But only a small proportion of the objects that we are interested in have been preserved. Those few have usually survived because they are prized by connoisseurs and deemed to have financial value on the art market. They inevitably skew our focus towards elite things of ongoing monetary worth. Occasionally, a church collection includes more humdrum, ordinary items, such as rosaries made of cheap glass beads or rosewood. Even more rarely the object’s life history survives alongside the object itself. Last year, we were delighted to chance upon a rare example of an agnus dei – a small disc of wax impressed with the Lamb of God – minted in Rome in the 16th century and perfectly preserved for four hundred years at Lyford Grange, in rural Oxfordshire. Its owner was the English Jesuit, Edmund Campion, who was arrested at the house – a recusant hideout – in 1581. Rediscovered in the attic in 1959, the agnus dei now belongs to Campion Hall in Oxford.


c. 1180-1219 fritware posset pot in the Seljuk style, from the collection of Oscar Raphael. Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge

Discovering objects through archives

But there are other ways of unearthing old objects and, as a historian, it’s natural for me to turn to archival sources. Fortunately for our project, Renaissance Italians were obsessive record-keepers. And the archives of the period 1400–1600 are bursting with lists of things. Inventories of household goods were drawn up by notaries in various circumstances but especially following the death of a testator. They draw attention to the value of ordinary goods in the pre-modern age. In compiling an inventory, the notary’s scribe moved through the rooms of the house and wrote down everything that he saw, from chairs and tables to pots and pans, sheets and pillow-cases. Renaissance households owned enormous quantities of linen, all of which was carefully described and itemised by the scribe: embroidered table cloths, lace-trimmed sheets, dozens of white chemises – the essential washable undergarments that were the foundation of every outfit for men and women.

I can’t quite think of an equivalent of these lists in today’s world. When you rent a furnished house, you will be presented with an inventory that will include sofas and TV sets alongside teaspoons. But it won’t include personal items like jewellery or underwear. We’ve recently updated our house insurance records to include new computers and bikes, but our clothes and duvets just get bundled together in the category of ‘other’. In our disposable culture, shop-bought linen or off-the-peg garments carry insufficient value to warrant itemisation, whereas in the Renaissance textiles were a way of storing capital. Inventories from this period are distinguished by their capaciousness and detail; they give a complete picture of the possessions that mattered to their owner.

Here the list of valuables routinely starts with the bed and its extensive paraphernalia of drapes, covers, mattresses, sheets, bolsters and cushions

The meaning of things

That said, the picture presented by inventories is a static one. The goods that were listed had often already been packed up into boxes and chests. They tell us what people owned but they give little clue as to the meaning of things or how their owners interacted with them. To gauge their significance we need to turn to other records that locate objects at critical moments of the life-cycle and chart their changing uses. Wills are more animated than inventories and we can sometimes reconstruct relationships by following objects in transition. A woman named Mita, who died in Brindisi in southern Italy in 1495, set up her maidservant with great care and generosity. Not only did she bequeath her a small property; she also left her a pair of trestles (the traditional foundation for a bed), four planks to go on top of them, an old mattress, an embroidered bedspread, two pairs of sheets (one new, the other used), four women’s chemises, numerous other items of clothing and – happily for my research – a silver rosary. The careful redistribution of personal possessions was a central aspect of the experience of death, much less evident today (you will look in vain in my will for mention of any specific objects).

The movement of goods was also fundamental to the rituals of marriage. Looking through marriage contracts from 15th and 16th-century Puglia I begin to see a pattern to the goods itemised in the bride’s trousseau. Here the list of valuables routinely starts with the bed and its extensive paraphernalia of drapes, covers, mattresses, sheets, bolsters and cushions. The importance of this item of furniture to a prosperous marriage is stated loud and clear. But if fertility is emphasised at the beginning of the lists, sanctity is key at the end. The contents of the trousseau nearly always culminate in small items of devotional significance: rosaries, agnus dei and coral necklaces. These last might have looked very pretty around a young bride’s neck (they often feature in Renaissance portraits) but they were also laden with symbolism, the red beads evoking Christ’s spilt blood.

Late 16th century Spanish illuminated manuscript from the collection of Charles Brinsley Marlay. Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge

Tracking objects through pawn banks

In our quest for Renaissance devotional objects, one of the post-doctoral researchers on our team comes up with an inspired idea: she sets out to trace the comings and goings of religious things in the registers of pawned goods. In Renaissance Italy, the Franciscans set up charitable pawn banks in many cities, as a means of supporting the poor while simultaneously circumventing the laws against usury (and putting Jewish moneylenders out of business). Those who had fallen on hard times flocked to these banks in order to take out small loans; as security they left whatever items of value they had at their disposal. Families would often pawn their warmest clothes and bed covers in the summer, only to come back and reclaim them in the winter months. Our attention is at once drawn to the high number of rosaries, little crosses and strings of coral that were pawned by men and women in urgent need of cash. These appear amid secular items: a pair of fine sheets, a gold ring and a small cross, for example, all pawned for eight florins by one Donna Ottavia Martia in 1593. Equally striking is the fact that these same hard-pressed individuals so often came back to redeem their devotional trinkets. (Donna Ottavia returned in 1597). We can follow these goods from the left-hand page (where the pawned items were registered) to the right (where their restitution was recorded) and sometimes backwards and forwards several more times. I’m reminded of how my mother told me that her grandmother, living in East London between the wars, repeatedly pawned her wedding ring (often replacing it with a thinner band) but was always desperate to buy it back whenever she had sufficient funds. Such histories tell us of the emotional pull of things. 

Egyptian limestone statue of Amenemhat III c. 1831-1786 BC from the collection of Oscar Raphael. Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge

Objects in the digital age

In our digital age, we might have expected ‘stuff’ to have receded from our lives. On the contrary, a new empire of things has opened up to us, and we are ever more covetous of the shiny gizmos that clutter our houses, our offices, our briefcases, our handbags and our mental space.

These things place us at the mercy of the material, as becomes clear when a cup of coffee spills over a laptop or a smart phone drops into the loo. The sense of shock felt on such occasions reminds us of how deeply things are embedded in our lives; below the level of conscious awareness, we are sustained and nourished by a host of objects.

Things provide comfort, security, familiarity and joy; they organise our lives, project our identities, mediate our relationships and protect us from the world’s sharp corners. It’s clear that their value goes far beyond their financial worth. And yet, for a historian, especially one whose subjects are long dead, it’s sometimes difficult to tease out the different threads of meaning – spiritual, social, economic, symbolic – invested in an object. Perhaps we need to stand back and acknowledge that things are not merely empty receptacles, waiting to be filled with human significance. Their power lies to some extent in their very materiality: a string of coral beads, smooth and translucent around a pale neck.

Dr Mary Laven is Reader in Early Modern History and a Syndic of the Fitzwilliam Museum.

Paintings by Joël Penkman

The Fitzwilliam was founded by a collector – Richard, VII Viscount Fitzwilliam of Merrion – in 1816. Today, the Museum continues to grow as a collection of collections, reflecting the private passions of its many benefactors.

This article first appeared in CAM - the Cambridge Alumni Magazine, edition 76Find out how to receive CAM.