Domestic and Institutional Interiors
in Early Modern Europe

Victoria & Albert Museum, London
19-20 November 2004

Please note, the conference will consist of fourteen papers (Abstracts below) and will close with a plenary discussion to be led by contributions from Professor Dame Olwen Hufton (Royal Holloway, University of London), Dr. Anton Schuurman (Wageningen Agricultural University) and Dr. Louise Durning (Oxford Brookes University).

Speakers' Abstracts

RENATA AGO (University La Sapienza, Italy)
‘"Middle Sort" Domestic interiors in Seventeenth-Century Rome’

The study of material culture in late Renaissance Rome is interesting for a number of reasons: on the one hand the Roman court was well ahead in the area of cultural consumption, on the other hand it is usually claimed that the city’s social structure was clearly polarized between a very rich nobility, and very poor groups. Although we know that in Rome the art market was thriving, we know very little of the circulation of other types of goods. The use of domestic furnishings and objects, can tell us a lot about questions such as taste, the social distribution of cultural consumption, the nature of domestic goods and objects, and people’s standards of living. Drawing on nearly seventy inventories, my paper looks at the domestic interiors of men and women from middle social groups – gentlemen, lawyers, merchants, and artisans. Some documents allow us to have an idea of the layout of the house, and the distribution of goods and objects within the house. Other documents just provide a general description of every object found in the house. The crucial points which emerged from my research are:

• the rather clearly marked difference between male and female domestic interiors
• the evolution of style from the beginning and the end of the seventeenth century
the continuity of certain features
• the large presence of imported products, mostly from other Italian states
• the abundance of 'cultural' manufactured products
• the progressive diffusion of 'gallant' objects


LUÍS ANTUNES (Instituto de Investigação Científica Tropical)
‘Some Domestic Interiors in the Inventories of Lisbon Merchants: An Appraisal of the Symbolic Value of Asian Objects’


By the end of the seventeenth century the luxury industries in textile, house ware and furniture were virtually non-existent in Portugal. In contrast, the domestic interiors of the wealthy were marked by the presence of many Oriental sumptuary objects. They reached Lisbon from the Indian Ocean at relatively low cost, and were sophisticatedly crafted, reaching a technical level that no domestic industry could supply. Even when Brazil replaced India as the most profitable Portuguese colony, Brazilian merchants continued to purchase Asian objects that were used mainly to furnish their houses.

The domestic use of these objects cannot be forgotten. Even if owned by merchants, they were not used as merchandise, and were mainly transmitted in the family, being an important element in the formation of the social identity of their owners.

In Lisbon, these items were powerful status symbols, and in a pre-banking era were used as a means of accumulating wealth. Being both an investment and a luxury asset, they occupied a significant place in post-mortem inventories. This paper deals with the study of inventories from some of the Portuguese merchants who traded with India and Brazil, with the purpose of appraising their weight in comparison with landed property. Also, an evaluation of the hierarchy of values accorded to different objects shall be attempted.


BARBARA BETTONI (Università degli Studi di Brescia, Italy)
‘Domestic Interiors and Devotion in Sixteenth- and Seventeenth-Century Brescia’


This paper provides an overview of the domestic space assigned to devotion in Brescia during the sixteenth and the seventeenth centuries. Attention will focus in particular on families belonging to the middle and upper classes. The analysis is based on inventories, polizze d’estimo and private correspondence, and it considers both the rooms designated to devotion inside the house, and the furnishings, books, linen and art objects devoted to this function.

After an introduction outlining the transformation of domestic spaces into devotional ones (chiesa, cappella, sacrestia, camera), the contribution provides a description of the furnishings and objects that were specifically produced for devotional purposes, as well as of altari, oratori, acquasantiere, agnus dei and reliquiari. Then attention shifts to objects that were not specifically created for devotion but turned into devotional objects during their 'life', according to the owner’s personal taste and necessity (e.g. pettiniere and toilette tables used as little altare in the private rooms and in the bedrooms).

The case study presented in the central part of the paper concentrates on a family that played a very important role in this period not only in Brescia but also in the Republic of Venice: the Gambaras. What is interesting about the Gambara family is that they were not living in a court environment. The material culture of the Italian aristocracy has been studied so far as a reflection of courtly fashion and standards of consumption. In Brescia, the upper class interior seems by contrast to have been rather free of negotiating different cultural models, taking inspiration from the Republic of Venice, the Courts of Mantua and Ferrara and the symbols of ecclesiastic power in Milan. The Gambara family appears therefore to have played a creative role in their visual and material culture that ties in with their role as political mediators.

Like other Brescian families in this period, the Gambaras were also particularly devoted to San Carlo Borromeo to whom they were related by kinship, they usually had a private chapel and specific rooms in the house specifically designated to this devotion. This practice was not just widespread among the local aristocracy but also involved families belonging to the lower middle classes (artisans and shopkeepers, for instance) who usually reserved an area of their dwelling, normally of the bedroom, to devotion.

MOLLY BOURNE (Department of Fine Arts, Syracuse University in Florence)
‘From Court to Cloister and Back Again: The Circulation of Objects in the Mantuan Convent of Sant’Orsola’


With the suppression of the Mantuan convent of Sant’Orsola in 1786, a detailed 'Inventario generale de’Mobili, Arredi, e Suppellettili sagre' was drawn up. Today in the Mantuan State Archives, this document shows that the convent church’s decorative program had remained essentially unchanged from the original vision of its founder, Margherita Gonzaga d’Este (1564-1618), who established the Clarissan convent of Sant’Orsola in 1599 following the death of her husband Alfonso II d’Este, Duke of Ferrara. A formidable art collector, the dowager Duchess of Ferrara returned to her native Mantua in 1597 accompanied by fifty cart-loads of possessions, including her personal quadreria. Margherita used her paintings and objects to adorn the interior spaces of Sant’Orsola (according to the inventory, over fifty of the convent’s nearly 200 rooms were decorated), where she presided over her own female monastic ‘court’ from 1603 until her death in 1618. Athough Sant’Orsola’s nuns lived in clausura, Margherita did not take vows and enjoyed special privileges, receiving relatives, ambassadors and important guests in her private apartment that was designed to prevent visitors from seeing members of the convent. Yet not all of Margherita’s art collection entered Sant’Orsola with her: correspondence in the Medici Granducal Archives in Florence indicates that she donated an Ecce Homo by Correggio to Caterina de’Medici (1593-1630), who came to Mantua in 1617 to marry Margherita’s nephew, Duke Ferdinando Gonzaga. Caterina brought this painting into Sant’Orsola when she withdrew there after Ferdinando’s death in 1626, although when she departed Mantua six months later it returned to the Gonzaga collections, where it is listed in the inventory of 1626-27. Letters and inventories related to Caterina’s brief sojourn with the Mantuan Clarisse provide further notice of objects that moved back and forth between convent and court: while inside Sant’Orsola, she received fine linens, special Lenten foods and other gifts, but when she left for her native Tuscany she took along objects like her scented glove holders, silver fruit cups and a 'straw hat that once belonged to Sig.ra Margherita [Gonzaga d’Este]'. Finally, in her will – drawn up in Sant’Orsola on the eve of her departure – the Medici Duchess bequeathed a wooden crucifix, a silver pietà, and paintings of saints and devotional subjects to the Abbess and other named nuns in the convent.

Using examples such as these, my paper examines the presence of Margherita Gonzaga d’Este and Caterina de’Medici Gonzaga at Sant’Orsola as catalysts for the bi-directional passage of objects through its monastic walls and the reciprocal influence between domestic courtly and female institutional space in post-Tridentine Mantua.

HENRY DIETRICH FERNÁNDEZ (Rhode Island School of Design, US)
‘A Temporary Home: Bramante’s Conclave Hall for Julius II’


During the Renaissance, the Vatican Palace was the site of the most worldly of all religious institutions, lavishly adorned with splendid architecture, furnishings and frescos. The pope, his cardinals and the members of the papal famiglia moved freely between the spiritual and secular worlds. In Paolo Cortesi’s De cardinalatu, cardinals, like the heads of the baronial families, were portrayed as princes of Renaissance Rome, living in sumptuous fashion. Yet there was a moment in the lifecycle of most cardinals when they would have to endure enclosure, and be shut away from the rest of the world, along with their fellow princes of the church. This was the time of conclave, when they were locked in a room together to elect a new pope. This paper will consider the motives behind the design of a massive never-completed Conclave Hall, ca. 1509, for Julius II by Bramante, and how a conclave hall functioned within the institutional life of the papacy. Julius, as Cardinal Giuliano della Rovere, had participated in four conclaves, including his own, and the election of his nemesis, Alexander VI. As such, he had experienced first hand all the tensions, squabbling and political bargaining between cardinals to see their favourite elected.

Previously, housing of the ever-increasing College of Cardinals during a conclave had been a logistical problem, grouping the cardinal’s bedsteads in a series of rooms including the Sala Regia and the Sale Ducale. Julius wanted to see elections proceed in a more socially and spatially harmonious fashion. To remedy this problem, Bramante’s scheme would have created a space that could accommodate them all within one colossal hall, surpassing the size, by more than four times, and the splendour of the Sistine Chapel.


MARIA HAYWARD (The AHRB Textile Conservation Centre, University of Southampton)
'Signs of a Spiritual Life? An Analysis of the Possessions and Houses of the Black, White and Grey Friars in Mid Sixteenth-Century England’


This paper will focus upon the series of inventories taken of the monastic houses owned by the Black, White and Grey Friars in the 1530s at the time of their dissolution. The inventories record the Friars' possessions house by house and then room by room within each property. Consequently, it is possible to get a clear picture of what these all-male communities owned and how their possessions were distributed and a view of what was held in common and what, if anything, was not. It is also possible to assess the level of provision made for the individual communities, the quality of the objects they owned, the provision of objects to provide comfort, both corporal and spiritual, and the split of objects between the religious and domestic space within each monastic house.

Many of the objects recorded within the inventories reflect the traditional way of life enjoyed by the Friars within these religious houses since their establishment and so they provide a sense of continuity within the community. Notes on the inventories also make it possible to chart what happened to some of the objects at the time of the dissolution – sale, conversion to secular use, the re-use of materials and destruction. In particular, the inventories provide some interesting glimpses into the use of devotional objects, such as alabaster carvings, small panel paintings and altar pieces. Context will be provided by considering how the use of objects and domestic space by the friars compares with secular use at the time and the use of objects within parish churches.


HELEN HILLS (University of Manchester)
'The Housing of Institutional Architecture: Searching for a Domestic Holy in Seventeenth-Century Italian Convents’


This paper examines the possibility of a 'domestic holy' interior within female conventual institutions in seventeenth-century Rome and Naples. In considering the inter-connections between domestic and conventual interiors in early modern Italy, scholars have generally approached the problem by searching for dynastic markers and signs of familial comfort within convents, particularly inside the cells of individual nuns. And indeed nuns' cells did sometimes boast a significant array of luxury goods, furniture, and furnishings. The model here is of the 'domestic' being transplanted to an institutional interior, and recognised as 'domestic' because it reproduces aspects of dynastic palace living/ furnishings.

While this model has allowed us far better to understand the degree to which aristocratic nuns maintained their noble habitus within grand convents, it tends to present the domestic exclusively in terms of the secular, and to ignore the communal spaces of conventual complexes. By contrast, little attention has been paid to the ways in which holiness within conventual interiors was rendered domestic and personal. And little consideration has focused on how nuns themselves described, or reflected on, the interiors of their institutions in their writings.

This paper examines how nuns domesticized and personalized institutional space outside their cells, and how they wrote about this. The paper considers whether nuns can be said to have personalized or domesticized the holy, or at least specific aspects of devotion, as they sought to carve out personalized devotions and informal altars outside of formal church space. In discussing the way in which nuns themselves wrote about conventual spaces, this paper suggests that our scholarly conflation between the domestic and the dynastic (blood family) and bourgeois `home' has tended to obscure the degree both to which convents were indeed familial and necessarily domestic institutions, and the degree to which religious devotion might be rendered domestic.

JANE KROMM (Purchase College SUNY, US)
‘Domestic Spatial Economies and Dutch Charitable Institutions’


Civic institutions built or enlarged during the early modern period in the Netherlands were indebted on various levels to domestic models and practices. Above and beyond the common monastic prototype which they shared, hospitals, workhouses and asylums in particular featured such discrete residential architectural elements as gallery and hall (voorsael), and incorporated the domestic strategies associated with these spaces into their routines and regulations. The governing bodies of these institutions were often preoccupied with issues relating to access, ingress, and observation, those socio-visual practices that accrued around the treatment of entry and gallery spaces. A concern with the boundaries between public and private, and with the ritual practices associated with threshold locations not only influenced the design and protocols of these institutions in the direction of residential prototypes, it also affected the iconography of the sculptural ornamentation commissioned for facades and gardens. This paper will examine the spatial arrangements and sculptural representations at three Dutch institutions – St. Elisabeth’s Gasthuis in Haarlem, the Pesthuis in Rotterdam, and the Dolhuis (asylum) in Amsterdam – in order to explore the symbolic economy of prospect and recess, of access and
enigma, that characterized Dutch domestic interiors and civic institutions.


ANNE EC McCANTS (MIT, US)
‘A Home Fit for Children: The Material Possessions of Amsterdam Orphans’


This paper explores the multiple material worlds of seventeenth and eighteenth century orphans from Amsterdam. Using probate inventories drawn up on those households leaving minor children to the Municipal Orphanage following the death of both parents, in combination with documents concerning the material life of the institution itself, this paper compares the well-being of children, as measured by their access to material goods, before and after the dissolution of their natal households. Of particular interest are the kinds of furniture, clothing, precious objects, and especially toys and/or games available to the children in both of these settings. Life in the orphanage was on average materially richer than in the poor to middling households from which the children came. But it was also more uniform, suppressing even the limited capacity for self expression that is manifested in the children’s households of origin. It is also the case that the average financial contribution made for each child once orphaned was substantially greater than what all but the wealthiest of these households could have afforded for their own children.

Furthermore, this paper explores the allocation of the orphanage’s substantial financial expenditure on each child, again with a particular emphasis on the quality of the material life which it afforded. How did the institution make allocation decisions between the quantity and quality of food provision versus more durable goods such as clothing, furniture, and educational materials? What factors, either religious and/or civic, contributed to the felt need for such generous care of orphans? The provision of special clothing and Bibles to all of the children, and in addition hats to the boys, at their graduation from the institution speaks particularly clearly to the social mores which dictated the level of care and the composition of the material goods available to orphans in the Amsterdam Municipal Orphanage.


SUSAN MERRIAM (Bard College, Division of the Arts, US)
‘The Garland Pictures’ Two Receptions’


This paper examines the differing receptions of the so-called 'garland pictures' within an ecclesiastic institutional environment, and within middle-class and royal private collections. Garland pictures depict a holy figure enframed by a richly painted floral wreath, and were a popular devotional genre in parts of seventeenth-century Europe. Milan-based Cardinal Federico Borromeo has been credited with the form’s invention: he commissioned the first garland painting from his favorite artist, Fleming Jan Brueghel, who completed it in collaboration with fellow Fleming Hendrick van Balen (with few exceptions, garland pictures tended to be collaboratively made). Borromeo used the garland picture and eventually, two others like it – for teaching in his academy, a tripartite institution designed to foster the artistic goals of the Counter Reformation. Scholars have interpreted Borromeo’s garland pictures as evidence of his desire to revive the cult of images in the wake of the sixteenth-century iconoclasm.

In the first portion of the paper, I look closely at the images’ form, and at their use by the Cardinal. I argue that while it is true that the Cardinal’s images are devotional, and linked to Counter Reformation aims, they must also be viewed as curiosity objects – that is, the kind of natural and artificial wonders then popular in private collections. The images’ collaborative execution (conjoining two styles), juxtaposition of art and nature, and trompe l’oeil aspects are just some of the characteristics that link them to the culture of curiosity.

In the second portion of the paper, I show how Jan Brueghel imported the garland pictures to northern Europe (they had almost no afterlife in Italy), and argue that collectors were attracted to these devotional images in part because their 'curious' aspects related to contemporary collecting practices. I then consider the complex ways garland pictures functioned in middle-class and royal collections, using inventories, paintings of collections, and the images themselves. I demonstrate that middle-class and royal collectors alike placed much more emphasis on the display of the image within the collection than did Borromeo, who emphasized its presence as a discreet object. Royal collectors, for example, played-up decorative aspects of the tribute wreath, developing elaborate wall-sized displays of floral forms. Middle-class collectors frequently placed the garland pictures on the chimney, the most important display space in the room (and one that in some ways functioned as a secular altar). Finally, I show how middle-class and royal collectors alike often foregrounded the 'curious – particularly trompe l’oeil – aspects of the garland pictures, to the extent that their devotional meaning was substantially changed and in some instances, completely obscured.

ISABEL DOS GUIMARÃES SÁ (Universidade do Minho, Portugal)
‘Between Spiritual and Material Culture: Devotional, Domestic, and Institutional Objects in Sixteenth-Century Portugal’


This paper deals with a period of Portuguese history in which wealth became an issue, that is, the moment when king D. Manuel started to benefit from large sums of money coming from the spice trade. Heir to the tradition of devotio moderna, the royal court did have to justify in the eyes of God the increasing presence of luxury objects, which contrasted with the ideals of Franciscan voluntary poverty that were very influential at the time. One of the solutions to dealing with the problem of surplus wealth was through the acquisition of objects that could furnish the private chapels of royal courts. Another was the gift of liturgic objects that were given on a personal basis to recently appointed bishops. Such objects could serve God and testify to the devotion and generosity of either the owner or the donor. I shall explore both inventories of private chapels and the series of objects donated to metropolitan sees. These religious objects contrasted sharply with both domestic and hospital interiors, where simplicity and frugality was the rule, even if the respective oratories or chapels were lavishly equipped with liturgical and devotional objects, in which books were non-negligible items. This contrast testified to an order of values in which luxuries of the body were sinful in the eyes of God and men, and where wealth should serve the spirit.

RAFFAELLA SARTI (Università di Urbino, Italy and Centre de Recherche Historiques, ÉHÉSS, Paris)
‘Masters and Servants: Separate and Common Spaces in Early Modern Italian Interiors’


This paper will focus on separate and common spaces for masters and servants in early modern Italian interiors. On the one hand, there were separate spaces for domestic personnel, particularly in palaces and big houses. On the other hand, however, servants – because of their work and duties – had often to stay very close to their masters, often even sharing bedrooms with them and sometimes the bed itself (particularly in non affluent families).

The aim of the paper is to evaluate if and how spaces and furniture were conceived and used to shape the master’s and the servant’s role as well as the servants’ hierarchy. Moreover, the paper will devote particular attention to the issue of gender, trying to identify female and male spaces both in the case of masters and servants.

The analysis will start with the case of the Ducal Palace of Urbino, which had both an institutional and a domestic role, given that it was at the same time the site of the court and the residence of the ducal family. I will analyse the Palace not only through maps, plans, drawings and ancient descriptions, but also by examining some domestic objects and some graffiti that have survived on the walls until today.

Although the material concerning the Urbino Palace will be the main source for this paper, the study will also employ other sources (architectural texts, normative texts, trials and iconography). This will allow me to some extent to expand the analysis to other cases, concerning both elite and lower social groups.


ANNE JACOBSON SCHUTTE (University of Virginia, US)
‘Interiors of Monastic Hell’

Between the late 1570s and 1798, more than 500 monks, friars, and nuns submitted supplications to the papal Congregation of the Council for release from their monastic vows on the ground that they had been compelled by force and fear to take them. In petitioners' homes, a large cast of characters – parents, step-parents, uncles, aunts, grandparents, godparents, siblings, and servants following their masters' orders – employed reclusion, food deprivation, threats or imposition of physical violence, and psychological pressure to intimidate adolescents into entering religious life. In monastic houses, once they had unwillingly professed, these religious avoided as much as possible conforming to the monastic discipline imposed on them. Only many years or even decades later, after the deaths of the forcers, did most reluctant religious dare to petition for release.

Emphasizing the domestic spaces in which force and fear was exerted and the monastic spaces from which the supplicants sought release, this paper considers two particularly revealing cases. The ordeal of Catherine Guillermin (b. circa 1659; case heard 1705-07) began in a patrician residence in Toulouse, where her father and maternal grandmother, aided reluctantly by her mother, employed various means of forcing her to become a nun. That of Teresa Livia Felice Pallavicino (b. 1692; case heard 1716-21) commenced in the modest Roman dwelling of her maternal grandmother, where her mother was deflowered and impregnated by a nobleman. When the fruit of this coerced union reached her teens, it continued in her mother's house and father's palazzo, where he used repeated threats of withdrawing financial support from his long-time lover and his daughter to achieve the same end.

Inside their convents (five successive ones in Guillermin's case), both expressed their conviction that forced professions had not made them real nuns in such spatially related ways as refusing to attend services in the choir and threatening to escape by drowning themselves in the well or plunging to their death from the walls. Guillermin made wax impressions of the key to the exterior door of the convent in the vain hope of letting herself out; Pallavicino imagined the keyhole's expanding so that she could crawl through it. In locations ranging from cells to windows adjoining those of other convents to grates in parlors, they availed themselves of every opportunity to harangue fellow nuns, novices, educande, servants, and visitors about their plight. Despairing of release, they foresaw spending eternity in a subterranean space, hell. The Congregation of the Council granted both petitions, at which point Guillermin's and Pallavicino's stories, like most legal tales, end.

MARKO STUHEC (University of Ljubljana, Slovenia)
‘Changes and Stability in the Domestic Interiors of the Nobilities in Slovene Lands in the Seventeenth Century’


The paper deals with characteristics of the domestic interiors of nobilities in Slovene lands. The author has analysed probate inventories of the noble persons who died in the decades 1651-60 and 1701-1710. He has also used data from other sources. The seventeenth century witnessed the conversion of mansions and castels from fortifications into more comfortable residences. The desire to shape a comfortable living environment was more pronounced in the second half of the century. It is discernible in an increasing number of objects at homes listed in the inventories of the first decade of the 18th century which are connected with drinking coffee or tea. They reflect new types of consumption, new tastes and new forms of sociability. Differentiation and diversification of implements used for eating clearly point to individualisation and to more sophisticated conduct at table which was reinforced by general use of forks during the second half of the 17th century. The wish to create more comfortable domestic conditions can be seen also in wall coverings of different materials which often matched in colours with bed curtains and window curtains. The latter began to appear in the second half of the century and slowly extended the space of intimacy from the bed to the room. In spite of the window curtains the beds, both simple beds made of crude framework with interweaving bands and large sumptuous beds with canopies or with flat wooden baldahin, still remained the privileged place of intimacy. The multifunctionality of most rooms was still prevalent in the seventeenth century but the trend towards specialisation and individualisations of the rooms within castels and other dwellings became more pronounced in the second half of the century. In spite of drastic differences between rich and poor nobles the fundamental structure of aristocratic homes was the same. This means that the basic behavioural patterns and life routines at homes of nobilities in Slovene lands were basically similar.