History@Portsmouth

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Material Culture – Adam and Eve Powder Flask, Austria ca. 1600

Tom Underwood, a second year History student at the University of Portsmouth, has written the following blog entry on the Adam and Eve Powder Flask for the Introduction to Historical Research module. Tom discusses the flask’s importance as a marker of social standing in the Renaissance period. The module is co-ordinated by Dr Maria Cannon, Lecturer in Early Modern History at Portsmouth.

In the Abrahamic religions Adam and Eve are the symbol of life, the creation of humankind, the genesis of man. Firearms, on the other hand, are representative of quite the opposite, death, destruction and a complete collapse of humanity that would not look entirely out of place in the Book of Revelation. Whilst this seventeenth-century Austrian powder flask did not intend such a sardonic juxtaposition, it does bring into question how objects mediate past ideas and experiences, not only of the specialist that sculpted, engraved or designed them, but those that saw and interpreted the appearance of such aesthetic items. This blog, which will centre on a flask that once belonged to a member of the zu Welsberg family of the Tyrol, shall asses the multi-dimensions of material culture which can offer not only visual, but scented and tactile manifestations of the past. [1]

Adam and Eve Powder Flask held at the Victoria and Albert Museum, London.
Image: Wikimedia

To truly understand the nature, and more importantly extract the meaning, of this Austrian powder flask which once formed part of a garniture of firearms, one must first penetrate and conceptualise the world in which it was created. In a Renaissance world, a time of genuine materialist exceptionalism, both Michelle O’Malley and Evelyn Welch argue that consumption and consumerism was an ‘arena’, where not only culture was fought over but where social standing was won and lost. [2] Ulinka Rublack has suggested that early modern people created a sense of being, not just through a cross-comparison with other people, work, space, or religion, but through a ‘creative exchange with the material world’. [3] Rublack argues that, as such, when historians begin to explore past societies, they must first concern themselves with the ‘life of objects’ and the part material culture played in people’s lives. [4] Clothes, as with other wearable objects like the powder flask, performed an immediate role in constructing identities, for they impart their aesthetic qualities that enables the representation of taste, values and spirituality. [5] Public appearance established and up-held identity.

The outward projection of materiality enabled a conduit for not only how past people perceived themselves within their society, but how they wanted to be perceived by others. [6] Ludmilla Jordanova argues that ‘sight’ is crucial, not only for the historian in understanding the material world, but how it was understood in past societies. [7] It is important to distinguish objects as an entity which it is, in its very design, intended to be looked at. What is seen, however, and how it was meant to be seen, Jordanova stresses, necessitates historians’ attention. [8] Decoding the iconography of the powder flask can offer significant insights into how this particular piece of material culture should be read. Carved in relief with Adam and Eve flanking either side of the tree of Life, the image closely resembles the work on the same subject by Albrecht Dürer. [9] Employing a similar style implies that the flask dates from the time of Dürer’s revival in the early seventeenth century. [10] Whilst the flask has the more overt religious and artistic overtones associated with space and culture, the piece is also embedded with a more personal meaning. Towards the top of the piece is the quartered arms, partnered by the initials I.Z.W., which indicates that the owner is likely a member of the zu Welsberg family of the Tyrol; furthered by the eagle displayed at the bottom. [11] Angus Patterson argues that of all the objects that were on offer during the renaissance, none of them spoke more firmly of a nobleman’s honour than his armaments. [12] In this sense, the flask is suggestive of more than just O’Malley and Welch’s interpretation that objects are a marker of Renaissance consumerism, items bought simply as possessions of value. The flask shows that noblemen were not just equipped for battle, they were dressed for fashion.

Arjun Appadurai has argued that objects, much like people, have social lives. [13] Appadurai explains that material objects exist between desire and pleasure, human interaction endows these meanings onto objects through ownership. [14] David Gaimster, Tara Hamling and Catherine Richardson argue that the exploration of the material world, people’s possessions, clothing and household, enables an understanding of past people’s daily life, their experiences and fundamentally the way they saw themselves in, and their responses to, the societies that they lived. [15] Gaimster et al. argue that early modern material culture was ‘implicated in the negotiation of a rapidly changing social structure’. [16] The authors question the extent materiality appropriated social difference and how material culture enabled the negotiation of societal place in distinguishing different groups from one another. [17] As such Gaimster et al. challenge whether material culture can be isolated into ‘popular’ and ‘elite’. [18] One can argue that practicality is a huge determinant in this debate. The powder flask, whilst it is, strictly speaking, equipped to fulfil its designed role, it is likely that it was intended for display rather than use. [19] Carved staghorn with silver-gilt mounts, it is, to say the very least, a grandiose display of opulence. [20]

Whilst material culture can provide a cultural understanding of the lower sections of early modern societies that may not always be present in other forms of historical source, objects themselves are not free from certain limitations. Appadurai argues that commodities are ‘culturally regulated’, the interpretation of objects can be manipulated. [21] In this sense, Jordanova argues that it is not just the production process that should be analysed by the historian to uncover hidden meanings, but the forms of display and use. [22] With its personalised inscriptions and iconography, the powder flask is clearly a commissioned piece designed and intended for its owner; not a piece for practical use, but an object of wealth, a marker of social standing. Understanding the production of an object can be important in the analytical methodology of the historian as each object had and has a purpose, and likewise a life-span. [23] Adrienne D. Hood has argued that, from this perspective, historians are not ‘equipped’ to undertake object centred research because a reliance on traditional written documents will always take control. [24] Gaimster, Hamling and Richardson believe that an inter-disciplinary approach to material culture, employing the disciplinary skills of art history and archaeology, can further the functionality of objects in understanding past social structures, practices and cultures.

To conclude, objects, as with other forms of historical source, are subject to human interaction, the ideas that passed the maker’s consciousness are inscribed in the item, entwined with the social practices of historical societies. In the case of the flask, an object produced out of a commission, it reflects the nature of an early consumerist society that was not only driven to buy material goods in an exhibition of wealth, but to reassert honour and social standing.

Notes

[1] Unknown, Adam and Eve Powder Flask, V&A museum (234-1854); Adrienne D. Hood, “Material Culture: The Object”, chapter eleven in History Beyond the Text: A Student’s Guide to Approaching Alternative Sources, Sarah Barber and Corinna Peniston-Bird eds., 176-198, (London: Routledge, 2009), 177-178.

[2] Michelle O’Malley and Evelyn Welch, “Introduction” in The Material Renaissance, Michelle O’Malley and Evelyn Welch eds., 1-10, (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2007), 3; Mary Hollingsworth, “Coins, Cloaks and Candlesticks: The Economics of Extravagance”, chapter twelve in The Material Renaissance, Michelle O’Malley and Evelyn Welch eds., 260-287, (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2007), 260-262.

[3] Ulinka Rublack, Dressing Up: Cultural Identity in Renaissance Europe, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010), 3; Erin Sullivan and Andrew Wear, “Materiality, Nature and the Body”, chapter nine in The Routledge Handbook of Material Culture in Early Modern Europe, 141-157, (London: Routledge, 2016), 143-145; Giorgio Riello, “Global Things: Europe’s Early Modern Material Transformation”, chapter one in The Routledge Handbook of Material Culture in Early Modern Europe, David Gaimster, Tara Hamling and Catherine Richardson eds., 29-45, (London: Routledge, 2016), 34.

[4] Rublack, Dressing Up, 3-4.

[5] Nicole Boivin, Material Cultures, Material Minds: The Impact of Things in Human Thought, Society, and Evolution, (Cambridge: Cambridge University, 2008), 30; David Grummitt, “Arms and Armour”, chapter thirteen in The Routledge Handbook of Material Culture in Early Modern Europe, David Gaimster, Tara Hamling and Catherine Richardson eds., 196-205, (London: Routledge, 2016), 197-198.

[6] Erin Sullivan and Andrew Wear, “Materiality, Nature and the Body”, chapter nine in The Routledge Handbook of Material Culture in Early Modern Europe, 141-157, (London: Routledge, 2016), 141-142; Susan Vincent, Dressing the Elite: Clothes in Early Modern England, (Oxford: Berg, 2003), 13.

[7] Ludmilla Jordanova, The Look of the Past: Visual and Material Evidence in Historical Practice, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012), 1.

[8] Jordanova, Look of the Past, 2-3.

[9] Unknown, Flask.

[10] Unknown, Flask.

[11] Unknown, Flask.

[12] Angus Patterson, Fashion and Armour in Renaissance Europe: Proud Lookes and Brave Attire, (London: V&A Publishing, 2009), ii.

[13] Arjun Appadurai, “Commodities and the Politics of Value”, introduction in The Social Life of Things: Commodities in Cultural Perspective, Arjun Appadurai ed., 3-63, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2017), 3-5.

[14] Appadurai, “Commodities”, 3.

[15] Tara Hamling and Catherine Richardson, “Introduction” in Everyday Objects: Material and Early Modern Material Culture and its Meaning, Tara Hamling and Catherine Richardson eds., 1-26, (Surrey: Ashgate, 2010), 1-3.

[16] David Gaimster, Tara Hamling and Catherine Richardson, “Introduction”, in The Routledge Handbook of Material Culture in Early Modern Europe, David Gaimster, Tara Hamling and Catherine Richardson eds., 3-28, (London: Routledge, 2016), 21.

[17] Gaimster, Hamling and Richardson, “Introduction”, 22.

[18] Gaimster, Hamling and Richardson, “Introduction”, 22-23.

[19] Unknown, Flask.

[20] Unknown, Flask.

[21] Appadurai, “Commodities”, 3-4.

[22] Jordanova, Look of the Past, 5-7.

[23] Karin Dannehl, “Object Biographies: From Production to Consumption”, chapter eight in History and Material Culture: A Student’s Guide to Approaching Alternative Sources, Karen Harvey ed., 171-186, (London: Routledge, 2017), 172-173; Giorgio Riello, “Global Things: Europe’s Early Modern Material Transformation”, chapter one in The Routledge Handbook of Material Culture in Early Modern Europe, David Gaimster, Tara Hamling and Catherine Richardson eds., 29-45, (London: Routledge, 2016), 46.

[24] Hood, “Object”, 177; Karen Harvey, “Practical Matters”, introduction in History and Material Culture: A Student’s Guide to Approaching Alternative Sources, Karen Harvey ed., 1-23, (London: Routledge, 2017), 7.

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