Devine Bovine: Counting Cows—Curating Relative Values: The Cost of Art in the Northern Renaissance

Devine Bovine: Counting Cows—Curating Relative Values: The Cost of Art in the Northern Renaissance, Jeanette Lamb

 

Devine Bovine: Counting Cows—Curating Relative Values: The Cost of Art in the Northern Renaissance
What’s it worth to you?

The Art of making 16th Century prices meaningful

Devine Bovine: Counting Cows—Curating Relative Values: The Cost of Art in the Northern Renaissance–Pouring through ink blots and weathered stains decorating 16th-century documents containing everything from itemized inventory lists and artists’ contracts one begins to glean a sense of the overall price artisanal goods used to sell for.

What does this tell us? Well, knowing the cost of everything from tapestries, paintings, ceramics, glassware, wooden objects, and stained glass gives us an idea of what an object was valued at then. However,  it should come as no surprise the bookkeeping back then is not as straightforward as that. Throughout Europe, a single currency market did not exist in the mid-16th century.

To gain a sense of what an object’s value, one has to convert the varied money units into a shared standard–much like gold is today. Recently, curator Elizabeth Cleland, Associate Curator, Department of European Sculpture and Decorative Arts did just that.

She converted this standard by assessing how many cows an artisan object was worth during the economic wild-west of the Rennaisance.  She estimates that in 1550, the cost of one milking cow cost 175 grams of silver — give or take.

The cow valuations allow us to quantify how dramatic the hierarchy of value among different art objects in 16th-century northern Europe would have been. Using this system—along with data gleaned from the Antwerp paintings’ market, records of Philip II’s tapestry acquisitions in 1560s Brussels, contracts for alabaster sculptural projects, and tile purchase records—we can see that a painting like Rest on the Flight into Egypt in the exhibition, when for sale, would actually have cost the equivalent of five cows, the tapestry more than ten times that at 52 cows, the alabaster approximately 40 cows, and the tile a modest half a cow.

 

 

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