Part I covers not only the earliest chronological period in the book but also the most extensive timespan of any part of the anthology: the first text dates from c.1204, the last from c.1690. With the exception, however, of the first four texts, which form a chronologically separate cluster, all the rest date from the mid‐fifteenth century to the late seventeenth century, a period of approximately 250 years. In the arts, this includes the Renaissance as well as the later founding of the French Academie Royale, and with it, the inception of the academic system which not only dominated French art for the next two hundred years but also provided the model that fundamentally shaped art practice throughout Europe. In a broader perspective the timespan also covers the late fifteenth‐ and sixteenth‐century Age of Exploration and the seventeenth‐century ‘scientific revolution’. By any standards, that amounts to a world‐historical epoch, and although the existing volumes of Art in Theory do not encompass Renaissance art theory (precisely because it was felt to constitute a subject distinct from our concern with the modern period and its academic predecessor), the present anthology of necessity does seek to address this period of Europe’s earliest encounters – since antiquity – with the wider world.
It is now widely accepted both that capitalism is a worldwide phenomenon (in the sense that no geographical zone can be said to lie outside the capitalist world‐system) and that the origins of the modern capitalist world‐system can be traced to the period covered by this first part of the anthology. Immanuel Wallerstein and Giovanni Arrighi, among others, locate its beginnings in the city states of the Italian Renaissance, notably Genoa, Venice, Florence and Milan. Both in turn take their cue from the magisterial work of Fernand Braudel. In his three‐volume Civilisation and Capitalism, Braudel argues that it is the conjunction of internationally based centres of capital accumulation with emergent state formations that gives rise to the modern world‐system. Braudel further argues that capitalism as such should be considered as analytically distinct both from the realm of daily material life and the realm of low‐level market transactions, both of which have a much longer history than the modern capitalist system. A key role in the emergence of both regional systems and the eventual fully fledged world‐system thus accrues to the development of cities, long‐distance trade and related developments in ‘high’ finance.
It is to be noted that such ‘world‐system’ accounts of the origins of modern capitalism conflict both with ‘liberal’ accounts and with a more conventional Marxist explanation. The former tend to identify capitalism with the operation of the market economy under a rubric of ‘free enterprise’ and as more or less congruent with a key aspect of human nature extending back through history. The latter normally date the ‘transition from feudalism to capitalism’ to seventeenth‐century England, and the emergence there for the first time of a proletarianized working class, the extraction of surplus‐value from whom is held to provide the impetus for subsequent capital accumulation.
These debates between a production‐oriented explanation of capitalism, originating in a single nation‐state and spreading outwards from there, and an explanation based in systemic relations rooted in trade and finance, lie beyond the scope of the present volume; salient references can be followed in the bibliography at the end of the book. That said, what we can pertinently observe here is that the latter speaks more readily than the former to our central concern with art, material culture and the sphere of representation in general, and it is they which have formed the underlying framework of the present book.
For Braudel, Wallerstein and Arrighi, the crucial developments were concentrated in the Mediterranean area and encompass its developing trade both with northern Europe and with civilizations further east: the Islamic lands of what we now call the Middle East, and beyond those, India and China. These perspectives are further developed by the argument of Janet Abu‐Lughod that the Western‐dominated capitalist world‐system had been preceded by an earlier ‘world‐system’ which reached its height in the early fourteenth century. That system was distinguished from what came later by the fact that its three main economic and cultural zones (the Middle East, the Indian subcontinent and China) were all approximately equal in power, and that Europe was marginal to all of them. It is a corollary of Abu‐Lughod’s argument that the customary periodization of ‘Western civilization’ (which is conventionally constructed in terms of pagan antiquity, followed by a long period of collapse and gradual rebuilding characterized by a mix of feudalism and Christianity, culminating in the Christian–humanist synthesis of the Renaissance), simply does not apply there. There is no intervening gulf of ‘the Dark Ages’ – precipitated by the collapse of the western Roman Empire – between an interconnected classical antiquity and the flourishing early modern civilizations of Islam, India and China.
The existence of this sphere of advanced civilization in the eastern part of the globe, based on high levels of wealth and trade, with its consequent effect on levels of material and intellectual culture, is crucial for what followed over succeeding centuries in terms of the changing status of the West in the world. Growing participation, albeit at first marginal, in networks of cross‐cultural interaction during this period, is of no small significance to the narrative of the present volume. A further range of factors bearing upon our central concerns also interact with these developing financial and economic relations: geo‐political developments impacted upon the cultural crossings which we are trying to bring into focus. The most important of these were, on the one hand, the Crusades: the successive military campaigns in which western Europeans came to occupy significant areas of the Middle East for a prolonged period of just under two centuries, ending in 1291. On the other hand, there are the consequences arising from the unanticipated incursion into Europe at approximately the same time of armies of the Mongol Empire under Genghis Khan.
Remote as all of this may seem at first sight from the sphere of ‘Art’, it is these complex but fundamental developments that underwrite Part I, especially the first section, conceived under the title ‘Figures of Wealth and Power’. The first four texts, dating from a time between the early thirteenth and mid‐fourteenth centuries, are separated by over 150 years from our subsequent selections. They form a kind of ‘prologue’ to the rest of the book. The Fourth Crusade, led by a coalition of the Roman Catholic Church and assorted feudal aristocrats, achieved notoriety by diverting its planned attack on the Muslim‐held ‘Holy Land’ in favour of an assault on the capital of its notional Christian ally, the Byzantine Empire in Constantinople. Robert of Clari’s account here signifies the moment when western Europe first encounters in a palpable way the fabled ‘riches of the East’.
It was only a few decades after the sack of Constantinople in 1204 (and the transfer of many of its treasures to Venice: plunder which contributed decisively to the distinctive fabric of that city) that Europe was shaken by the military victories of the Mongols. These were nomad armies from central Asia who had already wrought significant destruction on the advanced Islamic civilizations of the Middle East, including, not least, the destruction of Baghdad in 1258. The paradoxical effect of the Mongols’ success, and the ensuing ‘Pax Mongolica’ across great expanses of the Eurasian landmass, was to stimulate attempts by Europeans to initiate contact with civilizations further east. First, there were religious initiatives, as the pope in Rome sought to enlist ‘Tartar’ help against what was assumed to be the common enemy of Islam: a strange kind of attempt to, as it were, advance the Crusades by other means. Second, and more effective, were overtly commercial initiatives, as merchants sought to take advantage of the unanticipated stability arising in the wake of the Mongol conquests to open up land routes giving access to the luxury goods of the Far East. Representatives of the Church’s ambition included the Franciscan friars Giovanni di Pian de Carpini and William of Rubruck. The most famous of the commercial endeavours are those of the Venetian Polo brothers and their nephew Marco. We have included extracts from both Carpini’s account of Tartary and China and Marco Polo’s descriptions of what he saw en route to the court of the great Khan in ‘Cathay’. Finally, we have also included a short account taken not from an actual traveller but from the fictional (but for all that, influential) Travels of ‘Sir John Mandeville’. Our extract purports to describe the mythical realm of Prester John, a Christian monarch in the heart of Asia who would come to the aid of Christians in their conflict with sundry heathens and representatives of anti‐Christ. Together, these four accounts offer a glimpse of what it was about the material culture of the East that drew Europeans into the wider world: a world that, as Abu‐Lughod points out, had to have been richer and better organized than Europe or there would have been nothing for Europeans to covet and to invest all their efforts in securing.
Following on from those early descriptions, ‘Figures of Wealth and Power’ goes on to offer a selection of Renaissance writings describing various encounters with the East. These include a cluster of texts underlining the far from insignificant role of art in transactions between Italian city‐states and the Ottoman Empire in the late fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries. These are then followed by a range of accounts by travellers to the East in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, all offering vivid testimony to the wealth and high levels of material culture they encountered.
The first cluster of texts centres on a series of exchanges which the Venetians and other Italian cities had with the Ottoman Turks, who had captured Constantinople in 1453. The Ottomans were by then the principal competitors of the Italians for trade in the eastern Mediterranean, as well as forming, along with the Egyptian Mamluks, the conduit for the products of the East, including silks, metalwork and, above all, spices into Europe. The remaining texts in this section refle...