For many years I have studied sixteenth century documents in Italian archives, trying to find new information about the material culture and the everyday life of Renaissance Italians. I have been particularly interested in how the ordinary people such as barbers, bakers, shoemakers and innkeepers experienced and understood the Renaissance culture. The picture that has emerged from this research is fascinating. It demonstrates that Italian people from most social classes, including modest artisans, had potentially access to, and an interest in fashionable goods and cultural conventions of the period. One famous visual example is the portrait painting of the tailor, painted by Moroni around 1570, seen on the left. The tailor is depicted in a self-confident pose, wearing a fine pinked cream doublet and red hose and looking straight out to the spectator. Even peasants and vendors often decorated their best outfits with lace borders, ruffs and embroidered patterns. The decorative details on the right are taken from Vincenzo Campi’s painting of a Fruit vendor, 1570s.
A few years ago, however, I began to ask new questions. I was wondering especially how the European Renaissance influenced the culture in Scandinavia in the period, in particular in my own home country in Finland, which is seen on the right in Carta Marina, the first wallmap of Scandinavia by the Swedish historian Olaus Magnus in 1539 (below).
The earliest wallmap of Scandinavia, Carta marina, by Olaus Magnus. The caption reads : A Marine map and Description of the Northern Lands and of their Marvels, most carefully drawn up at Venice in the year 1539 through the generous assistance of the Most Honourable Lord Hieronymo Quirino.
The new curiosity towards the cultural past of my homeland was born out of an increasing awareness that generally us Finns -let alone the international community of scholars- do not seem to know much about the country’s 16th-century cultural past. We tend to assume that while the Italian wealthy princes and merchants celebrated the cultural achievements of their artists and humanists, we Finns were so cut off from the European civilization and their cultural codes that we ‘could not even use glass on our dining tables because there were too many drunk people mocking about”, as Olaus Magnus wrote in his ‘Histories of the Nordic People’.
But was Finland really entirely culturally isolated from the rest of the Europe in this period?
One way to approach the question is to look at international trade. In the early modern period, Finland was part of the Swedish Kingdom situated in Scandinavia along the Baltic Sea and the Gulf of Bothnia (map, 1560). Despite the peripheral geographical location of the area in the North of Europe, the favourable position along the Hanseatic trade route provided the Swedish and Finnish noble families and merchants with great access for European culture and markets for luxury goods. It has been calculated by one scholar named Olle Ferm that by the end of the sixteenth century, up to 1/3 of the noble households’ goods in Sweden may have consisted of foreign imports.
Most foreign trade was focused on textiles. Fabrics from diverse European geographical areas such as England, Flanders, Germany Spain and Italy were imported in the biggest trading ports of Turku, Vyborg and Helsinki.
The imported textiles also included luxury fabrics that were ordered by noble families for special occasions such as weddings. For example, one Carl Gustafson from the Finnish town of Turku ordered European luxury floral velvet, red satin, and silk veil worth a stunning sum of 649 daler for the wedding of his daughter Brita in 1591. However, due to the high cost of luxury fabrics, fine fabrics were rather rare in both Finland and Sweden. In 1559, for example, 38,5% of all goods that were imported in Sweden in this year consisted of textiles. 25,1% of this was broadcloth, 6,4% linen and coarse wool, and 4,3% silks and cloth of silver and gold.
How do we know all of this? It is because customs records have survived well for Finland in the sixteenth and early seventeenth century. For example, for Turku they are available for the years of 1556, 1559, 1576-78, 1581-85, 1591-94, 1601, 1606, 1611, 1613, 1616, 1617. Here are two surviving examples from Turku from 1556.
Turku customs records, 1556 (233b)
Although customs records cannot be seen as comprehensive sources of all imported textiles, because many families and traders bought goods directly from foreign merchants, they nonetheless provide extremely rich infromaton about the kind, quality, quantity, cost, origin and destination of the kinds of European fabrics that were bought and used in Finland in the period.
Thanks to the extensive efforts of the Finnish national archive to make historical soruces available in digital form, these valuable documents can be found online (unfortunately only in Swedish!). To find them, go to the Finnish National Archive’s Digital Archive in http://www.narc.fi or follow this link.