American Baroque: Pearls and the Nature of Empire, 1492-1700

American Baroque: Pearls and the Nature of Empire, 1492-1700

American Baroque: Pearls and the Nature of Empire, 1492-1700

American Baroque: Pearls and the Nature of Empire, 1492-1700

Synopsis

Pearls have enthralled global consumers since antiquity, and the Spanish monarchs Ferdinand and Isabella explicitly charged Columbus with finding pearls, as well as gold and silver, when he sailed westward in 1492. American Baroque charts Spain's exploitation of Caribbean pearl fisheries to trace the genesis of its maritime empire. In the 1500s, licit and illicit trade in the jewel gave rise to global networks, connecting the Caribbean to the Indian Ocean to the pearl-producing regions of the Chesapeake and northern Europe.
Pearls--a unique source of wealth because of their renewable, fungible, and portable nature--defied easy categorization. Their value was highly subjective and determined more by the individuals, free and enslaved, who produced, carried, traded, wore, and painted them than by imperial decrees and tax-related assessments. The irregular baroque pearl, often transformed by the imagination of a skilled artisan into a fantastical jewel, embodied this subjective appeal. Warsh blends environmental, social, and cultural history to construct microhistories of peoples' wide-ranging engagement with this deceptively simple jewel. Pearls facilitated imperial fantasy and personal ambition, adorned the wardrobes of monarchs and financed their wars, and played a crucial part in the survival strategies of diverse people of humble means. These stories, taken together, uncover early modern conceptions of wealth, from the hardscrabble shores of Caribbean islands to the lavish rooms of Mediterranean palaces.

Excerpt

The story of pearls in the early modern period could be told as a simple one: pearls mattered a lot at the start of the era and less so at its end. They were worn as jewelry in 1500; they were still worn as jewelry in 1700. But such a story would be misleading, just as the simple beauty of pearls obscures the complexity that produced them and moved them throughout global markets in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. the story of pearls is not, in fact, simple. It is baroque.

Today, pearls are predominantly associated with a modest adherence to rules of understated feminine beauty. Cheap or expensive, in pendant earrings or knotted ropes, pearls in the modern imagination convey an unassuming elegance to the woman who wears them, an air of unimpeachable and straightforward good taste. We think, for example, of a strand of pearls adorning a prim, feminine neck. Or of endless rows of the jewel sewn into hemlines and sleeves on extravagant costumes from a distant era. Or of a single luminous earring, enhancing the appeal of the bearer. They are an accommodating jewel: their simple, natural beauty presents no challenges and suggests that the woman who wears them will offer none herself. How did pearls shuck their earlier association with the riot of tastes and motivations that shaped their production and circulation four hundred years ago? American Baroque recovers this messier history of the jewel, seeking to restore complexity to our understandings of pearls.

The beginning of this story is a familiar one. Columbus set sail from the southern Spanish port of Palos in August 1492, having struck a pact with the Catholic Monarchs Ferdinand and Isabella for a share of whatever wealth he might find as he charted a new route to rich Asian markets. Less familiar, though, are the terms of that pact. Pearls topped the list of the items he sought; 10 percent of the same was to be his. the crown’s explicit desire for this unusual maritime jewel put wind in the admiral’s sails as he helped bring Spain’s Atlantic empire into existence, and it was a prescient imagining of the wealth his wanderings would generate: pearls proved to be one of the most spectacular products of the New World Columbus stumbled upon. in the decades following his voyage, millions of them cascaded into Spanish . . .

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