Gilding the Market
Luxury and Fashion in Fourteenth-Century Italy
Susan Mosher Stuard
2006 | 344 pages | Cloth $59.95
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Table of Contents
Chapter 1. Introduction
Chapter 2. Desirable Wares
Chapter 3. Gravitas and Consumption
Chapter 4. Curbing Women's Excesses
Chapter 5. Costs of Luxuries
Chapter 6. Shops and Trades
Chapter 7. Marketmakers
Chapter 8. Conclusion
Excerpt [uncorrected, not for citation]
If the fourteenth century fashionable could have seen themselves! Perhaps the first age of fashion would have sputtered out rather than caught fire. As chance had it mirrors adequate for head to toe scrutiny came into use only toward the middle of the next century, so the constructive exercise of self-scrutiny was close to impossible. Consider what those pioneers of fashion might have seen with inspection of their decked out selves: robes hiked up to the calf, then the thigh, right up to the brink of indecency; padded shoulders, tight fit, parti-colored tunics and hose, tasseled hoods, floppy hats, slashed and elongated sleeves, linings as rich as robes themselves; enough gilded silverware in accessories so that the swish and rustle of fine fabrics were set off by the clink and clatter of metal ornament. Garish effects, bright colors, gilt, and military affectations ushered in the age of fashion in Italian market towns. And this refers to men�s fashionable garb, the curious role of women�s fashion comes into the discussion later.
For both men and women the restrained, the refined, the carefully prepared aesthetic staging of self, based on a sober discernment of the niceties of self-fashioning, had to wait for a later day. The first age of fashion was blatantly obvious and adamantly garish, which goes a long way toward explaining fashion�s initial impact on manners, urban culture, customer preference, and heightened demand for material goods in the fourteenth century.
Making wise decisions about the sometimes alarmingly expensive goods that composed fashionable outfits, both purchasing and disposing of them, became a pressing concern in the fourteenth century, not just in the prosperous era before the Black Plague, land wars, bank failures, and other economic misfortunes loomed over the Italian peninsula, but even in the second half of the century when fashion found its way into the normal routine of everyday town life. A fine sensitivity to the demands of 'le pompe,' that is, the public display of private wealth, spread from community to community. Display of wealth was a project for market towns where fashion flourished and men took up shopping as a diverting pastime. While the high style of court society had long been recognized by Italian merchants as a lucrative market to be cultivated and fed, courts represented relatively contained and inelastic opportunity. Newer fashion-fed urban consumption promoted a more robust, if volatile, demand for goods like fine fabrics and readymade objects of precious metal. Markets widened over the century even in the face of population retraction. More and more people became part of the fashion parade as popular fashions were interpreted in cheaper editions. Fashions leapt swiftly from place to place, encouraged by fresh ideas that were both playful and alluring. The pace of economic change quickened; where fashion led, townspeople followed.
These pages investigate the increased attention paid to consumption, that is, purchase and display of fashion goods in northern Italian towns in the fourteenth century. This was not in any sense the dawn of a new era in the medieval economy. Outside some mechanical clocks there were few genuinely novel products: buttons, for example, had become popular in the late thirteenth century and merely became more important over subsequent decades. There was no major reorienting of markets, imports of fine fabrics from the East were established well before the century began; there was no startling innovation in technology to promote the luxury trades, although it may be ventured that institutional arrangements capable of reducing market imperfections were introduced. For that matter, fashions did not transform class distinctions straight away, although here as well their potential threat to the social order was anticipated, criticized roundly, and sumptuary laws enacted to foil that outcome. Luxuries affected markets by promoting and enlarging exchange activity and turning urban marketplaces into proto-emporia for consumer goods, among them, significantly, fine, readymade goods. Shopping became popular and people of means began to care deeply about appearances.
Urban markets for fashion confirm the recombinant and adaptive forces at work in an economy increasingly wracked by war, plague, and other dislocations. Aggressive sellers adapted to compagnie de ventura (mercenary companies) in their neighborhoods and sold luxuries to soldiers when they were flush with their outrageously generous payoffs. In a certain sense there was a flight to quality in the north Italian economy, but that must be qualified as well, for it is apparent that an ambitious town found ways to diversify wares produced for and sold to people of lesser means. The relative wealth of towns was certainly a factor here: Giovanni Villani estimates that James II of Aragon and his brother the King of Sicily had combined yearly incomes lower than that of the city of Florence in the 1330s. Only Philip VI of France and the della Scala of Verona, who briefly controlled thirteen city states in this decade, significantly surpassed Florence in yearly income. And Venetian wealth probably outdid Florentine.
Venice dominated the luxury trades before the fourteenth century began and continued to do so when the century ended, while Florence rose to prominence in luxury production, eclipsing neighboring towns and absorbing both their expertise and some of their skilled personnel. Yet even this comes as no surprise: a few cities came out on top in a century that began amid widespread medieval prosperity in Europe and ended with wars and plague, as well as the first intimations of a bullion famine in Europe. Centers of production like Siena and Lucca were left diminished when their skilled emigrants moved elsewhere and inadvertently contributed to the prosperity of more fortunate neighbors. These two cities, early successes in the luxury trades due to industry and technical brilliance, demonstrate the danger posed by wealth acquired through superior industries, coupled with political vulnerability, and in Siena's case, a strategic geographic location on Italy's major north-south route, the Francigena. Sienese sumptuary laws, a reflection of the town's precocious wealth, began as early as 1249, and new spending brakes were applied to local consumption frequently thereafter. The prudent Sienese feared raising the envy of their powerful neighbors but laws did not succeed in diverting those who preyed on Sienese wealth.
Lucca began writing sumptuary law in 1308 and soon matched Siena in the pace of revisions. Even when some of Lucca�s most successful silk workers emigrated and made the fortunes of other city-states with their handiwork, silk fabric of new design poured from local looms and, cruelly, helped inspire future raids on Lucca's renewing wealth. In a sense the two city states of Lucca and Siena were the casualties of the first age of fashion. Artisans raided, workshops pillaged, products imitated or counterfeited elsewhere, and governments bankrupted by efforts at defense or buying off mercenaries, their dilemma lay in their envied wealth and renewing pool of talent. The stories of Siena and Lucca are interwoven into the stories of their more powerful neighbors, who attacked them but perhaps just as disastrously, absorbed some of their finest talent as well.
The transformation to consumer culture can be told through the histories of a broad spectrum of north Italian towns. Verona produced fine cottons that were incorporated into luxury ensembles; Cremona and Pavia produced famed fustians. Padua, a prosperous university town, attracted customers to its marketplace and built up luxury trades. Prato, a satellite to Florence, was home to the loose-knit Datini trading network that at its apogee dealt in luxuries although it began by trading more pedestrian goods and weaponry when Francesco de Marco Datini first established his trading shops at Avignon. Many cities underwent transformation to shopping cultures that attracted travelers to their streets and markets even if only anecdotal evidence remains to hint at the magnitude of the change. Among these Genoa, Milan, and Bologna are of particular significance.
Unfortunately, fourteenth century disarray in the voluminous runs of Genoese "documents of practice" and some lacunae in civil records limit proof positive of substantive changes in fourteenth century consumption and merchandizing. In 1157 Genoa had introduced civic sumptuary law to Italy, rendering the lack of any updated sumptuary legislation from that decade until 1402 all the more problematical, for when Genoa gives evidence of renewed sumptuary lawmaking in the fifteenth century, civil authorities promulgated eighteen new codes in less than a century, proceeding at such a clip that two laws a year appeared on two separate occasions. Throughout the fourteenth century prosperous Genoese merchants traveled the silk route to locate the finest imported textiles, and as highly respected conveyers of precious goods from across the known world, supplied European markets with fine silks, brocades, and imported gold. Of course this does not prove that luxury manufactures or shops flourished in town, but even here tantalizing shreds of evidence may be found. Genoa's reputation in the gold thread business was established in the thirteenth century when noble women contracted with merchants for production of gold thread, which was then assembled in their own households employing servants who received pay by contract for their labor. This production augmented the city's reputation as connoisseur and purveyor of opulent wares.
The Genoese enjoyed a large reputation for enjoying luxuries and rich attire. Giovanni Boccaccio could poke fun at Ermino Grimaldi's stinginess when he refused to spend his great fortune on fine clothing or good food and drink, "contrary to the general custom of the Genoese, who are used to dressing elegantly." Boccaccio was assured of sympathetic readers because Grimaldi's fellow citizens were sure to sniff at his miserly behavior. Grimaldi wealth was legendary and far outstripped that of better-dressed neighbors so Ermino might well be counseled to learn to be broad handed and spread his wealth around. Abroad the Genoese advertised their ability to do business with their rich attire that recommended them without a word being spoken when they set one gorgeous foot before the other in foreign markets; in a real sense, fine clothing could be justified as a reasonable expense of doing business. Gold passed through Genoese hands in abundance, but as was true elsewhere, Genoese gold was intended for coining, for use in exchange. Closer to home, Genoa's supply of Sardinian silver was pretty well played out by the fourteenth century, and this would limit the community's future capacity to mint silver coin; so, as a matter of course, supplies of silver for fabrication would be restricted as well. This was emphatically the case as the fourteenth century came to a close and silver scarcities became severe. This lesser precious bullion, silver, which could be profitably worked, gilded, and sold as luxury wares, required importing from afar placing Genoa in competition with other centers of luxury production, which had far easier access to it since most new silver hailed from Eastern Europe.
Some direct indication of a lively local market for luxury goods derives from Lucchese silk workers, who chose to migrate to Genoa when they fled their own town after 1314. Not only the well-known migration to Venice ensued, but the Lucchese scattered far and wide and other communities profited from Lucca's highly talented and industrious work force as well. Co-operating groups of spinners, dyers, weavers, and cocitori (the delicate hands who unwound silk filament from bolls of silk worms) settled at Genoa, and this suggests a Genoese reputation for enthusiastic consumption at home, abetted by exports to the North. It also suggests a strong Genoese inclination to encourage luxury manufactures through government initiative, since efforts to provide a future home for Lucchese workers were reliant on government initiatives. As a result rewards fell to the Genoese. By the mid-fifteenth century silk weavers numbered as the largest artisan profession in Genoa, at 11.6% of all workers in local trades, with makers of silk thread, silk dyers, and silk merchants adding further to these numbers. The silk industry, on the rise in the post-plague years, had become the largest employer in town. For the purposes of this study it is a serious lacuna that the initial fourteenth century plunge into large scale luxury production in silk is so poorly understood, and that the link between luxury production and merchandizing cannot be traced in as great detail as in Venice or Florence.
In the last analysis visual evidence presents the most compelling argument for a pronounced emphasis on the consumption of luxuries in fourteenth century Genoa. In an illustration of avarice from a Genoese treatise on the seven vices, dating from the second half of the fourteenth century, a local goldsmith's shop occupies center stage (see fig.1 Treatise on the Seven Vices). One customer and the goldsmith dicker over price using finger signals while a third figure seated at the end of the goldsmith's counter tallies up the results. Within the shop hangs a pole from which a fine sword with a hilt, readymade silver belts, and fine purses are suspended. A chasuble and a spouted silver pot stand on the Turkey-carpeted counter along with other readymade luxury objects like an embossed casket and some tools of the goldsmith's craft. A fourth figure fills the doorway, his arms laden with other fine wares. Ostensibly he is leaving the shop, but he might just as well be returning with precious goods to be refashioned or pawned. A crenellated wall and a loggia occupying the upper third of the illustration suggest this market activity takes place in city space, thus all the features of the marketing of silver and gilded silver in the new manner appear to be present. The message: luxurious wares encourage avarice.
Genoa's Anonymous Poet (active 1311 to about midcentury) also warns about the temptations of luxuria in Poem 136, although soon thereafter, in Poem 138, he is caught up in praise for the marvelous jewels, furs, naxici (very expensive imported cloth woven with gold thread), and pearls that represented the high end of trade goods supplied by Genoese long distance merchants. The Poet believed luxuria was the outward expression of overweening pride (soperbia in his lexicon, that is, superbia) but this had become such a commonplace for a moralist of his day that he passes over the issue without much further comment. Nevertheless, a tension between condemning local spending habits while urging display of precious goods to encourage trade to foreigners is manifest in the Poet's comments, in a manner similar to other admonitory literature offered in towns. Cultivating wealthy customers while attempting to curb spending at home became a source of considerable tension in market towns.
Readymade goods that drew on more than one craft or trade were the focus of a dispute in an unresolved lawsuit in Genoa in 1359: it involved rights of haberdashers, pursers, glovers, and makers of leather laces. Who among them had the right to sell wallets, purses, and change purses, sheathed and unsheathed knives, hats, and gloves? The problem revolved around goods produced out of a variety of luxury materials thus out of different shops practicing traditional trades. Rights to sell at retail finished goods with provenance in various artisan trades, for example, leather wares lined with silk, lay at the heart of the dispute. This is a strong indication that readymade luxury goods had surfaced in the market and they required new arrangements for distributing profits at odds with the traditional merchandising out of a single craftsman's bottega that had sufficed in the past.
In this less well-understood century of Genoese development, graphically illustrated readymade articles of precious metal tempting customers in a goldsmith's shop, luxury silk manufacture, and a dispute over jurisdiction in retailing readymade luxury goods indicate that the Genoese joined wholeheartedly in the new more consumer-oriented culture of Italian urban life. Conditions at Genoa favored transformation to a shopping culture, indeed its citizens' longstanding reputation as connoisseurs of rich living was itself an advertisement for a new sort of bottega that promoted retail sales. Genoa was a significant port of call with an endless stream of potential customers passing through; in particular pilgrims debarked and re-embarked here. As the century progressed Genoa was visited by increasing numbers of mercenaries when soldiers-for-hire exchanged battlefields in France for those of Italy, or reversed that itinerary. Mercenaries arrived from recent tours of duty with plenty of loose cash in their purses, making embellished weaponry and fine accessories desirable goods to stock in local shops. As the century progressed the punishing sums paid to mercenary companies by towns like Siena were only recoverable in Italy if rich goods were laid out to tempt troops before they left the region.
While a robust shopping culture at Genoa is poorly documented yet very likely, archival evidence is so meager in fourteenth century Milan that it thwarts research efforts. Once Milan had perfected plate armor around 1350 manufacturing establishments for embellished armor, weaponry, and armor garniture appear to have flourished, but how immediately and with what results it is difficult to know. Milan's experiments in marketing very likely combined the products of numerous crafts brought together to create a single armorial ensemble. Within the copious records studied by Luciana Frangioni in the Datini archives at Prato, carefully detailed lists of products, provenance Milan, might contain helmets, pointed helmets, buckles, jointed armatures, sword buckles, rings, spurs, and other assorted fighting gear ordered in the dozens. Catherine King has argued that one new component of fourteenth century artistic production was the successful integration of a number of crafts bearing on the creation of a single artifact. Reliquaries might use the skills of jewelers, goldsmiths, embossers, weavers, wood carvers, embroiderers and wire makers. In much the same spirit military fashions and weaponry decreed a coordinated assemblage reliant on different trades; this feature of military kit in turn influenced civilian dress and the two together encouraged reliance on integrated output from various craftsmen. A pourpoint (padded jacket) must fit snugly beneath plate armor and ideally harmonized with a cloak covering that armor. Designs on armor and helmet should compliment fabrics, and gorgets, belts, spurs, sallets, sheathed knives, and other weapons or dress accessories. In the thirteenth century, according to Bonvesin de la Riva, "noble cloths of wool and silk were woven in Milan," suggesting Milan provided a complex of textile crafts that supported armorers' specialties. Galvano Fiamma reiterates de la Riva's claim of fine craftsmanship in textile manufacture a century later.
Since a military look frequently set fashion for men in this age, compagnie di ventura (mercenaries), diplomatic missions, traders, and other men of consequence and means may have found it convenient to travel through Milan, which was strategically situated on north-south land routes. Very likely their visits encouraged craftsmen to experiment in merchandizing as well as in production although swift evolution in the design of Italian defensive armor may owe much to the successful arms industries at Venice and Florence as well. In her well-documented study Gli inganni delle apparenze, Maria Giuseppina Muzzarelli relies on two primary sources for fourteenth century Milan, a sumptuary law promulgated at the very end of the century (1396) and opinions of the chronicler Fiamma, although she acknowledges that surviving evidence is wholly inadequate given Milan�s rise to prominence as a center of trade and production. Rosita Levi Pisetzky�s excellent Storia del costume in Italia relies primarily on visual evidence for clothing in fourteenth century Milan, consequently what little is known of the city is pieced together from merchant records housed elsewhere, like those of the company of Francesco de Marco Datini, or from records in towns where Milanese products sold well. The chroniclers have dominated opinion on Milan with their moral message heard elsewhere: foreigners are responsible for introducing new fashions to the town and townspeople seem powerless to resist. Fiamma was particularly critical of Spanish influence. Fiamma also argued that youth and women indulge themselves in the worst excesses of fashion. Meanwhile the Milanese sumptuary law of 1396 echoes the laws of Bologna and other north Italian cities, thus it explains little about important local innovations and the tradesmen who made them. For information about Milanese tradesmen who spread the fame of Milan, Ambrogio, Bartolomeo Ciernella, Corrente Simone, Maffio del Moia, Martinolo, Pulce, Severo, and Verubio - their very names sold spurs, mail, swords and other armor garniture—brief references in orders within the Datini trading network are the only trace left.
Luca Mola notes that Milan, like Venice, Genoa, Bologna, Florence, and parts of Germany and France, received an influx of Lucchese silk works in the decades prior to the Black Plague. The story of silk is picked up again much later in surveys of the community's economic life, but this later evidence on the silk trades tells about an evolved industry, not about how it emerged and prospered. What the Milanese silk industry accomplished in the intervening years of the fourteenth century remains largely a matter of conjecture. Nevertheless, Milan's later fame for gold thread embroideries on silk, a fame that spread throughout Italy and further afield, very likely relied on fourteenth century foundations.
Wealthy Bologna was among the first cities to create dress norms for women and to place brakes on women's spending by recourse to sumptuary law. From the first comprehensive sumptuary code written in the second half of the thirteenth century a remarkable consistency prevailed restraining women's excesses. Bologna was prosperous, known for its abundance and the wealth of its citizens and the condemnation of wealthy women's efforts to dress in fashion appears to have resonated strongly in this papal town. It is possible that the Bolognese's efforts to curb women's fashions led to imitation and adoption of its laws by neighboring communities. Bologna passed new sumptuary legislation every few decades, setting a high standard for keeping up with new fashions through amending highly detailed and specific provisions. Whether this effort to keep pace reflected significant industries that fed women's fashion in Bologna is different question. Bologna's laws indicate that, above all, rows of frixis (embroideries or beaded bands) on women's clothes were regarded as outrageous. Generally speaking, fashions, not expensive material, drew the law's censure, which in time became a fairly common feature of civic sumptuary laws elsewhere as well. Frixsis or frisis were trims added to fine clothes, and not overly expensive when they were sewn on at home. Bologna's sumptuary law assumed, as did Florentine and Venetian laws, that women embroidered and re-trimmed their dresses producing effects that made them conspicuous, thus the objects of all eyes. Then and again sumptuary codes are not reliable indicators of local manufacture since high prestige goods in Italy traveled from town to town and prohibitions on offending fashions, rather an expense, often crept into the laws.
In 1313 the widowed Donna Elena Gozzadini called to account her mother-in-law to produce an inventory of goods in the estate of Elena's son, Giacomo, and her suit required an extensive listing of personal possessions. Caskets, strong boxes, swords, foodstuffs, and domestic wares appeared, but as a whole garments and dress accessories represent the real wealth in this inventory. It is difficult to imagine pupillus Giacomo, (at university?) finding use for his extensive wardrobe, including a dark twill housecoat "de Florentia" (connoting, most likely, a fashion). A blue mantle (guarnacchiam) trimmed with enamels over gold, and accessory gilded silver trims, was valued at 10 lira and a silver-trimmed iron collar, a military touch for his wardrobe, was estimated at 5 lira. Perhaps more important Giacomo Parigi's sleeves, hose, and gloves came in multiples, not merely pairs, suggesting attention to coordinated ensembles that harmonized his numerous robes, cloaks, and furs with accessories. Inventories turn out to be much better indicators than sumptuary laws on how wealthy individuals spent their money: Giacomo lived a modish life wearing Florentine fashions and sporting military touches even if he was a youth.
So consumption, even the rising consumption that repeated sumptuary lawmaking in towns implies, does not reveal much about spending patterns or urban trades. But medieval Bologna was determined to attract artisans to the community, and went to lengths to promote local industries. In the thirteenth century trained Veronese textile workers immigrated into Bologna, which helped establish a nascent cotton industry. In the fourteenth century, silk workers from Lucca arrived, and in the proper combination to establish Bologna as a center of silk production. The Bolognese remarked on the former sufferings of these workers, and demonstrated every sign of welcoming this highly skilled community that would increase Bologna�s prosperity. Veils became a specialty of manufacture, and by the sixteenth century, the Bolognese introduced inventions into silk manufacture that spread throughout Italy.
The Arte della Lana (wool guild) was prosperous by the last years of the fourteenth century. Cloth trades balanced old, established trades like goldsmithing. With representation in the governing structures of the town, gold and silversmiths tended to set themselves somewhat apart from the center of trade in the Strada Castiglione, and occupied their own street of shops. See Plate 10 Nicolo da Bologna, Guild Statutes illus.). The noble guilds of Notai (lawyers), Cambiatori (bankers), Drappieri (cloth-merchants) and the Arte Serica (silk-merchants) followed policies favorable to local trade and manufacture, particularly in the years when they dominated politics. Bologna supported other trades devoted to paper and books, which of course were luxury wares in their own right. The university community and delegations of wealthy prelates of the church who visited the town patronized local tradesmen. Bologna was geographically well situated to attract customers to its markets since the town sat at a crossroads of Tuscany and Lombardy. As a university towns Bologna welcomed an endless round of new students, who were valued for the wealth they brought to the community and the cosmopolitan culture they helped create. Mercenaries passed this way as wars multiplied in the second half of the century. Bologna enjoyed all the advantages of a manufacturing center that presented high-end goods to a constant stream of travelers.
Although the Genoese, Milanese, and Bolognese remain somewhat enigmatic actors in the new world of fourteenth century fashion, their histories indicate that fashions, unlike styles, were urban phenomena of consequence here as elsewhere in northern Italy. Fashion was likely to thrive where communities actively courted foreign customers and promoted manufacture of cloth, accessories, and military gear. All three wrote sumptuary laws that expressed concern over fashions that had caught on in city streets. These laws confirm that fashion was all about appearances in public places. Fashion flourished where inspiration took hold: glimpsing some feature of dress that could be echoed, or imitated, or mocked, or parodied, or surpassed by others fed the trend. Viewing others served as an invitation to join the parade and create an extreme length for sleeves, or cut of gowns, a new border, a new twist to a hood or headdress, adopt a military accessory like gorgets, even if those iron collars sat very hard on the throat. Fashion meant reworking one�s old silver wares into new accessories, retrimming garments, and striving for novel effects out of materials found in home cupboards. Fashion was a wider social phenomenon than spending on wares although it managed to soak up discretionary income and it certainly encouraged spending. Fashion deepened its hold in a community where tradesmen produced expensive luxuries in cheaper editions, or where second hand clothes dealers sold worn but still serviceable fabrics to the less prosperous, or women produced their own fashions at home. Fashion obliterated local costume replacing it with fashions that spread like lightning from town to town. Extreme fashion could stun and awe the crowd because of its great expense. But fashion was also small novelties and it was dynamic, fickle, and volatile; it flourished where townspeople could not stand to be left out of the new, riveting parade in the streets.
In response urban sumptuary laws drew distinctions among persons by sex and age in attempts to curtail spending and establish order, an indication perhaps that inhabitants' outward show in public urban space was now highly suspect as a source of disorder. By contrast royal or ducal sumptuary codes tended to distinguish entitlement by rank and office. Laws for the southern Italian towns of Palermo and Naples tend toward this latter pattern, so do those for northern cities home to, or near, royal residences. A regal model also inspired codes in Rome once the papacy was re-established there; laws from Aragon follow this model as well. In contrast the extant 1396 Milanese sumptuary law is similar to the laws of other market towns, a response, perhaps, to the tension caused by holding the line at home while maintaining markets open to foreign customers.
The reader should know that this is a study of fashion rather than style, or more precisely it investigates an era when high style, largely a product of court society, gave way to fashion, which flourished in market towns. Generally theorists have assumed that stylishness "trickled down" from courtly circles to prosperous townspeople, but the mechanism for change in towns examined here is somewhat at odds with that interpretation. Court style was generally too lavish to be imitated. As Elias Norbert argued, "the French king felt himself to be a nobleman, le premier Gentilhomme, and stated that he was shaped in his actions and thoughts by the aristocratic attitudes with which he was brought up." Norbert goes on to explain that this cannot be understood unless one studies the origins and development of the French monarchy in the Middle Ages. Regal style was a distinctive element of the king�s premier status and by definition royalty or their surrogates set court style.
When Silk Was Gold, a title aptly chosen by Metropolitan Museum of Art for its exhibition on Central Asian and Chinese cloth of gold imported into Europe, captures the distinction between regally set, and maintained, style in court society, and the new phenomenon of fashion: cloth of gold, almost beyond price, was imported expressly for kings and popes, it was simply out of reach for townspeople. Christine de Pizan noted that Charles V of France purchased cloth of gold from merchants visiting his court with little if any thought to its enormous expense; kings could afford this ultimate luxury. But these fabulous textiles also passed through the hands of merchants on their journey to royal and papal courts, and as such they were examined and could inspire designs for more affordable fabrics. Cloth of gold figured in urban milieu, if only fleetingly. In religious paintings Andrea di Cione known as Orcagna (b. 1315-20, d. 1368), Bernardo Daddi (ff. 1320-1348), and Simone Martini(1284-1344) developed techniques for representing these extraordinary luxury textiles, thus paintings informed audiences about precious imports. Imported fabrics also inspired design among Lucchese silk weavers, not necessarily because kings bought these imports, but because, for a time at least, their exquisite designs were on view to artisans, who in admiration copied design elements into their own weaving. Elias Norbert might interpret this as a component of a power shift in society at large, since locally woven fine fabrics lay within the reach of townspeople. Townspeople had an opportunity for participating through buying local weaves even if royal style was beyond their means.
In market towns sumptuary laws placed restraints on those with the wherewithal to imitate the consuming habits of leading citizens, rather than kings; these role models were the designers of the laws like as not. As a result laws affected, initially, the members of the community's wealthiest households, that is, the wives and children, and on occasion the servants, of the town's wealthy lawmakers. This reveals something important about urban markets. Since markets were open to all comers, even if luxury goods were intended to serve the needs and purposes of men of wealth and standing, local wares could be purchased by, or for, anyone who met the price. This was the marketing dilemma that lay at the heart of the transformation of Italy to a consumer culture. Following fashion meant access to the products that constituted modish attire; wealthy households acquired and stocked those items like fine gilded and enameled belts, buttons, chains, and purses. Within households many made use of these luxuries. Wealthy fathers tended to indulge daughters with wedding gifts of great value, and husbands gave gifts to wives befitting the dignity and standing of their lineages, so fashion goods had a way of spreading out to wives, youth, and children within wealthy circles in a community. In these circumstances it is not surprising that family members who followed fashion proved worrisome to lawmakers. "Le pompe" was only welcome in towns with the provision that a seemly hierarchy of display was maintained.
A few early experiments in the Florentine laws that restrained shopkeepers from selling to local women were not very successful and were not, apparently, enforced, probably because they were deleterious to open trade. In Florence a 1396 petition was received by the commune on behalf of Genoese women asking for an exemption from local sumptuary laws. A certain Mariette of Genoa had been called into court because of (locally prohibited) pearl buttons on her mantle and the Genoese community in town was not pleased by this extension of Florentine authority to their wives. The Genoese, at least, believed that Florentine laws aimed to limit Florentine women, which was probably an accurate reading, but it suggests why laws tended to target the behavior of local consumers of luxuries rather than purveyors. Towns faced the two-prong challenge of selling fashion goods to foreign customers on open markets while maintaining order in regard to the spending and consumption behavior of local inhabitants, a very tall order. These conflicting agendas were probably beyond the effective reach of any attempt to create sound law, but nonetheless lawmakers amended and rewrote their sumptuary laws in this futile exercise, as if they could find no other effective course of action.
The fuller coverage devoted to Florence, which built consumer markets over the century, and Venice, with its history of successful luxury markets prospering well before the fourteenth century began, is also occasioned by these cities' more extensive records of trade and a rare density of scholarship on related economic subjects, most notably on money and banking. Retailing luxury wares to the wealthy, particularly dress accessories of precious materials, was to an extent a by-product of banking and money changing activity. Florentines set up banks in Venice at the Rialto in partnership with Venetian bankers and this renders both Venetian and Florentine merchant bankers pioneers of a sort in retailing fashions to the wealthiest customers. At Venice goldsmiths challenged bankers' traditional privileges in retailing silver and gold by the 1330s in a quest for greater market share.
The luxury trades, wherever they flourished in Italy, floated on the full tide of medieval prosperity; that is to say they took advantage of the complex European business and financial networks that had been constructed over previous decades. Silver was understood to be inherently valuable and gilding only enhanced that value. Precious bullion, and jewels as well, possessed liquidity that appealed to bankers' most affluent customers, so on occasion bankers and money changers displayed these fine goods on their benches (bancorum). This, of course, further raised the cachet of precious accessories. Significantly as well, this fashion in wearing precious metal emerged before the aesthetic revolution of the fifteenth century that reformed taste, favoring painterly skill over gilding, and images, books, sculpture, and antiquities over garish dress and ornate, gilded accessories.
Fourteenth century retail markets may have lacked the power to reverse the troublesome economic currents of the last decades of the fourteenth century but luxury markets added a new dimension to the medieval economy nonetheless. Over the century luxury trades endowed urban markets with increased cultural consequence. People paid attention to what was available on markets and learned to assess displayed wealth, current styles, and any other messages that might be conveyed through apparel and display, that is to say, markets no longer met traditional or established needs, they created new demands by raising customers' visual acuity and inspiring customers to follow fashion, to possess fine goods, and to appear in full public view as persons worth watching. This may well be a late-added feature to the emergence of a market economy in medieval Europe; if so, it was to have significant consequences for subsequent centuries. In the following chapters the work of economic behaviorists who find a motive for fashion in fear of being left out rather than envy of one�s superiors, has been useful. To an extent their new ideas about the motives that promote fashion have superceded Werner Sombart's formulation, which sketched a descent from stylish court consumption to the spending preferences of townspeople.
Theory that adequately explains increased spending on material goods in medieval society has been a concern of economic historians for a considerable time. Carlo M. Cipolla and Robert S. Lopez both encouraged a more thorough investigation of demand in the medieval economy a generation ago. The Venetian economic historian Frederic C. Lane called for a theory of consumption to explain demand because he believed that economic needs fueling demand may include power and esteem as well as sustenance and therefore should be understood as flexible. Of the economist Thomas Eucken's ideas about economic needs Lane noted, "But man's conception of his needs and how to satisfy them has varied [over time]. These variations deserve historical study, but cannot usefully be described by [phrases like] 'meeting needs' and 'seeking profits.'" Consumption that moves beyond sustenance and acts as a stimulus that encourages demand is a complex historical matter. In these pages there is no pretense at creating a theory of medieval consumption to explain this more robust demand for fine wares that appeared in the fourteenth century, but the study does try to draw together some of the relevant historical information that should be considered. A conjuncture occurred between a market driven by experiments in retailing and new consumption preferences. Effects were felt in a number of communities rather than just a few. Beyond Italy wealthy Avignon felt the impact and the same is certainly true for royal and ducal court cities that encouraged consumption.
Prior to the fourteenth century, Eucken�s proposed "economic needs" had already revealed their time-sensitive nature; the trade in spices and other exotic goods from across the Mediterranean provide a case in point. For centuries pepper had been a highly significant long distance import that satisfied taste without meeting a need for sustenance. Social constructions of the power and esteem nexus that Lane had identified continued to evolve over the course of the fourteenth century and in turn affected the way wants and needs were perceived; those changes drew upon visual acuity just as surely as pepper had raised the consequence of "taste" in earlier times. By the end of the fourteenth century wealthy people in cities had pretty well determined that their outward appearance should mirror their social status and that precious materials best conveyed that message. They could marshal a variety of arguments to justify collecting luxury wares that were less perishable than pepper and provided plenty of opportunity for ostentatious display.
While there was little that was identifiably new in the fourteenth century, there are reasons for isolating this period for close observation. Many voices were raised in criticism of a new emphasis on appearance and fashion. In Italy this began in earnest among Franciscan clergy in the last decades of the thirteenth century. By the end of the fourteenth century it had become a chorus of religious and lay voices, observers of the social scene who cried out against "le pompe," even if, as was at times the case, critics themselves figured among the new more flamboyantly attired. Except for the rare person who repudiated ostentation altogether, people in towns rushed headlong after fashion and no effort could stem it: sumptuary laws were written and rewritten, punishments like confiscation and even floggings meted out; stiff fines were exacted. Attempts to lay blame often missed their mark and, since traders and artisans made good livings from luxuries, economic wellbeing was tied to the luxury trades and urban people knew it. Deep ambivalence underlay condemnations of luxury consumption wherever they were voiced.
Costume had begun to be subject to disturbing changes. As Fernand Braudel noted "The history of costume is less anecdotal than would appear. It touches on every issue - raw materials, production processes, manufacturing costs, cultural stability, fashion and social hierarchy. Subject to incessant change, costume everywhere is a persistent reminder of social position." He went on to discuss the sumptuary laws that, of course, began in earnest in this century. Italians discovered fashion and poked fun at the changes sweeping towns and cities, where local dress was replaced by new fashions arriving from other nearby places, or by new and more alien modes of dress like the turban. The silhouette changed and clothes became more form fitting as well as subject to sudden whim. The simplicity of a basic garment common to men and women and differentiated only in its details gave way to close-fitting and gendered costumes where men showed off their legs in hose and women tightened their bodices displaying their shoulders and breasts. Embellishments further heightened difference.
Fernand Braudel chose1400 as his point of departure for consumption-driven markets but as was his habit he stretched back his time frame, in this case to about 1350, creating a longer continuum for fashion. He could justify this, since in about 1350 the components of fashion markets and heightened demand emerged all in a heap, so to speak.
"If luxury is not a good way of supporting or promoting an economy, it is a means of holding, of fascinating a society. And those strange collections of commodities, symbols, illusions, phantasms and intellectual schemas that we call civilizations must also be invoked at this point. In short, at the very deepest levels of material life, there is at work a complex order, to which the assumptions, tendencies and unconscious pressures of economies, society and civilizations all contribute."In such circumstances, fashion became a kind of language: "fashion is a search for a new language to discredit the old" and it has a way "of inventing, of pushing out obsolete languages." While Braudel acknowledged it was not the best way to promote growth in the economy he saw fashion as the means for producing "big changes," even when wrought by frivolous acts like rich men shortening their robes. Other men were prone to adopt the fashion, and in urban societies rapt attention was paid to new ideas like shortened robes toward the middle decades of the fourteenth century. Braudel argued, "material progress was occurring: without it nothing would have changed so quickly." So while it may not have been the best way to promote growth in the economy, by 1350, Braudel argued, it was Europe's way.
Attending to fashion as a factor determining the pace of material progress has not always characterized thinking about capitalist development, indeed demand for luxury goods sits rather precariously in the canon of classic economic theory. In Wealth of Nations Adam Smith (1723-1790) expressed disdain for those attracted to luxury spending, and this prevented him from assigning luxury goods any role whatsoever in theoretical formulations about demand. For Smith, luxury markets were a political consideration rather than an economic one because consumer goods played primarily a political role in bringing about the peaceful conditions required for the promotion of inter-regional trade among hardworking tradesmen. Luxuries, it seems, tamed the warlike feudal nobility. In Book III, he noted: the feudal nobility "[made] war according to their own discretion, almost continually upon one another, and very frequently upon the king: the open country [became] a scene of violence, rapine, and disorder." Foreign commerce (he was thinking of England) introduced a change: lords could now spend their wealth for "a pair of diamond buckles, trinkets and baubles, fitter to be the playthings of children than the serious pursuits of man." Luxuries were so attractive to lords that they would divert funds from warfare, foster cordial relations with traders, and "for the gratification of the most childish, the meanest and the most sordid of all vanities [the feudal nobility] gradually bartered their whole power and authority." In Smith's opinion, the sober middle classes were too canny to follow this lead. Smith's contempt for the wellborn consumer lured into purchasing luxuries was palpable, although his dismissive phrase "baubles and trinkets" may have seriously underestimated the cost of luxury goods and their capacity to serve as repositories of value. He believed the nobility were excessive in their self-indulgence and prone to foolishness when it came to assessing value in a commercial transaction, thus he awarded the luxury trades no causal role at all in economic growth.
His contemporary Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832) did consider demand for luxuries in his theoretical formulations and in doing so revealed himself to be heir to the long history of robust consumer markets. This is most apparent where Bentham presumes the public "always" pays close attention to consuming retail goods. He noted the public is by nature prone to consume more whenever it can, so he subsumed demand for goods into theory as a constant factor, and the interpretation built upon this invariability became his tool for analyzing choice, a tool too powerful, perhaps, to risk historicizing and holding up for re-examination. Utilitarian theory assumes an individual acts rationally in self interest, that tastes are a given and set upon acquiring goods and services, that it is rational to respond to a fall in prices with a readiness to buy a larger quantity of any good, and to a rise in prices by buying less, with all choices consistent with income. Amassing any good leads to a weakening of desire for further increments of that good. To place under examination the moment when demand for consumer goods first became a force to be reckoned with, and began to affect demand, meant a challenge to basic assumptions on the nature of demand itself.
Braudel's original periodization, 1400 to 1800 for the enhancement of material life in Europe, has led to the creation of an important literature on fashion goods and the enhancement of material life. Robust demand, such as Bentham described, is more easily assumed for these centuries after 1400 because of the changes that occurred over the course of the first age of fashion that came before. Bentham never dealt with the possibility that healthy markets may exist that are not derived from robust demand among local consumers. He never imaged a time when markets did not exert much direct influence over the cultural preferences of people who lived near them and made their livings on them. From the late eleventh through the thirteenth century, as medieval Europe's Commercial Revolution evolved, markets in towns flourished in the midst of populations who remained surprisingly true to their old-fashioned dress and local consumption preferences. Exotic condiments might pass through a community only to find customers further along a trade route. Markets need not be fulcrums for change in taste or create new local preferences in order to thrive on the lengthy trade route that linked East to West. Substantivists and formalists may continue to argue about the relative importance of the market forces of supply and demand in the development of the European economy, the phenomenon that requires explanation here is a lesser one: the sudden interest in luxury wares and fashion goods among fourteenth century townspeople who were already familiar with long distance markets and adept at trading on them. If any transformative processes were at work, they were modest in scale and involved a set of new market features that emerged as fashion took hold. If these processes had implications for changing the social order they largely lay ahead. There was as yet no place in fourteenth century towns or cities for the claims that have been made for the Western economy that consumption is tantamount to modernization, indeed encompasses the entire project of becoming modern.
Recent interpreters of the advent of fashion have had to scramble to find frameworks that accommodate new consumption and spending patterns. Fernand Braudel turned to Werner Sombart's earlier Luxus und Kapitalismus for some of his cues. Elias Norbert looked to the development of court society as a function of power shifts in society at large. George Simmel pointed to the emulation of elites. In 1977 Albert O. Hirschman produced The Passions and the Interests, linking taste and a broad range of human behaviors to economic motives. In 1973, in a preliminary article on consumer goods, Hirschman identified envy as a universal motive for competitive consumption. The anthropologist Mary Douglas argued back in The World of Goods in 1979 that Hirschman's ideas about envy produced a weak argument. The social sciences, she countered, had identified an array of social conventions and tools for accommodating or resolving envy, which prevented it from operating as a primary human motive in the economy.
More recently in Luxury Fever, Robert Frank has argued that social context often determines spending patterns, with wealthy spenders providing the climate for others to increase their levels of spending. People tend to spend to avoid being left out rather than from the more focused motive of envying their betters, he notes. Frank suggests that context encourages spending, with wealthy spenders providing a favorable environment for the less wealthy to increase expenditures on fashion goods that will enhance their public appearance; people spend to avoid exclusion, which is a powerful social motivator. This argument has relevance to the experience of the fourteenth century. The wealthiest men in Italian cities, that is, the leading citizenry, had achieved a success that in many ways raised them to the level of Europe's most powerful magnates. They were less likely to envy kings and magnates than to take full advantage of their newfound access to circles of power and privilege. Indeed, in Venice and Florence the highest echelons of the merchant citizenry imagined themselves princes of a sort. To consort with kings meant that leading citizens saw it as appropriate to dress as kings, as splendid as the Magi, as depicted in paintings that celebrated the newly popular cult of The Three Kings. The aristocratization of Italian society is recognizable in these early pretensions to dress lavishly, especially when a fashionable wardrobe had the added advantage of serving as a sound investment, one that set an example for one's wealthiest foreign customers. While successful long distance merchants and bankers entered new circles of power and influence their spending at home provided a favorable climate for other townspeople to increase their spending levels.
This theory forwarded by Frank emphasizes the forces set in play when many people wish to join the fashion parade. If men led the charge into fashion, women followed headlong after, and added their own distinct contribution to what passed in the streets. Women, youth, even children were restrained in their consumption wherever civic sumptuary laws governed behavior. Nevertheless they were not prohibited from consuming only limited, generally to lesser consumption or shorter lengths to trains, or fewer buttons, than men. Was this was enough to create defiance among women and other restrained parties? There is some evidence that married women worked over and embellished the basic wardrobes of fine dresses they received when they wed, creating fashions that they then wore out in public. If men were more lavish and constant in spending on apparel, women contributed to fashion by making swift and playful changes in their costumes. These caught the public's eye, and since they amused, begged for imitation.
The initial line of inquiry in this study was an investigation of what sold in markets and who bought. Sales, commissions, tradesmen's account books, financial records and inventories of goods provided that essential information that grounded later lines of inquiry. The more difficult task of hunting down fashion goods that have survived from the fourteenth century followed. These were essential evidence for proving beyond a doubt that what was described in the "documents of practice" noted above actually saw the light of day. Frequently fine goods described in inventories appeared too ponderous, cumbersome, or expensive to be practicable. The elegant gilded and enameled Cleveland belt, ninety-two inches in length and fabricated in Siena, illustrates the value of examining fashion goods and assessing them against the written record, (see fig. 2 Cleveland belt). Next costs of luxuries were compared to cost of living. This proved to be a valuable exercise not only because it revealed how great an investment the fashionable made in their wardrobes, but also because it allowed for comparisons of what women and men owned and wore. Armed with this knowledge it was possible to next examine genre painting for what artists observed and recorded. Taken together this information provided a context for re-examining sumptuary law and literary evidence. The tensions in sumptuary law writing became more apparent and the opinions of social critics of day resonated against a backdrop of consumer preferences, innovations in retailing and readymade goods, as well as a deepening of the market for fashion goods in towns. Evidence of confusion and fear of disorder that infected urban space took on added meaning. Diane Owen Hughes captured that confusion when she wrote that people in Italy's cities believed theirs was still a society of orders. Rich apparel and fashion indicated otherwise.
So much turned on the frivolous cut of a sleeve in the first age of fashion.