BOOKS: Ancient Art of Shopping; Shopping in the Renaissance by Evelyn Welch, Yale, Pounds 30/the Business of Art, Contracts and the Commissioning Process in Renaissance Italy by Michelle O'Malley, Yale, Pounds 22.50

Article excerpt

Byline: Reviewed by Richard Edmonds

You may remember that in Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet, set in Renaissance Italy, it is Lord Capulet, Juliet's father, who goes off to shop in the late evening in order to prepare for Juliet's wedding.

"Sirrah," says Capulet to a servant, "Go hire me 20 cunning cooks," vowing he will "play the housewife for this once".

Evelyn Welch's beautifully illustrated book claims that shopping was just as important in the Renaissance as it is today.

Middle class and courtly consumption was all part of conspicuous spending. Your financial outlay with particular merchants or at community markets, established for all and sundry the power of your bank balance.

And food was only part of it. By the time the 15th century arrived, great families along with the households of rich merchants were buying luxury goods as a staple hedge against inflation.

Silver, rich cloth, stained glass, books, ivory and holy relics were put out on show and commanded respect.

And mostly it was the men who headed up the household and who went out to barter.

Evelyn Welch must be congratulated on producing a delectable book which is not only richly illustrated with the kind of provocative paintings that stop you in your tracks, but which also has chapter headings that illuminate and discuss ideas scarcely dealt with by other less learned authors. Welch writes in detail of the great fairs with their bidding and gambling and ecclesiastical surveillance.

She also includes a chapter called Men in the Marketplace where Shakespeare's skimpy lines are fleshed out into a larger picture of what was going on.

For example, one's social position was of great importance. A wealthy merchant from Prato called Francesco di Marco Datini required meat from a Florentine butcher.

He advised his correspondent to, "go to the store where you see most people gathered and say, 'give some good veal for that gentleman from Prato, and make sure you give him the best!"' Presumably prime cuts of veal went back in time to Francesco.

And social snobbery certainly took a tumble when the Holy Roman Emperor Frederick III came to Venice in 1469 on a state visit.

Apparently, his behaviour in the Venetian shops scandalised the locals since it offended protocol.

In Venice, people of quality had their purchases sent home by the carrier and did not eat things in public. Frederick would have none of it.

At the apothecary's shop he lingered for ages, discussing prices while at the confectioners he munched sweets handing out fistfuls to his retinue while shouting the prices aloud as he bartered.

Quite a lot of cheating went on and Welch tells a sad tale of a woman who laid out her hard won ducats on an embroidered bodice which failed to show up. …