Material Culture

Inventories like that of the joint property of Isabel da Vega and Emmanuel Ximenez offer scholars some of the most direct and comprehensive data available on the material culture of early modern households. By focusing on the objects that people owned, used, and interacted with on a daily basis we can learn much about their values, outlooks, and activities. In the case of the Ximenez-da Vega inventory, we have an exhaustive and variously detailed list of items comprising many material and functional categories in a broad range of monetary values. Despite the fact that none of the items mentioned have survived (or at least, they cannot be identified today), historical and archeological research on the same types of objects offers insight on how the family likely experienced them.

A number of categories stand out within the inventory. For example, the household contained a remarkably large collection of silver tableware, whose value for the family would have been measured on two fronts, that of the monetary worth of its materials (which could be melted down if desired), and its currency as a marker of social standing, particularly when it was prominently displayed or used for serving guests. Clothing is also quite abundant and described in detail, and combining the information we have about these garments with secondary literature and comparable cases in other locations, we can surmise what the process of getting dressed was like for various family members, how individual items were made and by whom, where they might have been purchased and how much they would have cost, and in what sorts of social settings they would have been worn. Similar investigations can be done with jewelry, which could take on both decorative and talismanic functions and also served to display status and wealth. Conversely, the books in Ximenez's library are evidence not only of wide-reaching intellectual interests but also, when combined with his correspondence and records of many of his book purchases, of the complex web of knowledge exchange that defined his cultural milieu. The inventory furthermore points to interests in novelty and especially local production. For example, we find the first known example of a room dedicated to the display and storage of porcelain, while paintings by recently deceased and still-living Antwerp artists (like Frans Floris, Gillis Mostaert, Hendrik van Balen, Jan Brueghel the Elder, and Peter Paul Rubens) decorated the walls. The majority of the glassware, earthenware, and musical and mathematical instruments, and probably also the clothing and jewelry, were likewise made in Antwerp and often represented recent technological innovations as well as the highest quality that money could buy. Finally, we can use this document to infer much about the lives not only of the wealthy family members, but also of their servants, who would have been the primary users of spaces like kitchens, storerooms and animal stalls, and objects like cooking equipment, brooms, buckets, and carriage harnesses. These records of objects thus offer windows onto the household that other kinds of documents could not.

The possessions kept within the Ximenez-da Vega house can be locally contextualized within the socio-economic environment of early seventeenth-century Antwerp from a number of angles. First, the family was one of several dozen comprising the elite group of merchant-bankers, many of whom, like Emmanuel Ximenez, had been elevated to the petty nobility, and whose prestige and privilege in the city was second only to that of long-established noble families. In a broad culture of conspicuous consumption, we can assume that the family's possessions were important markers of their social standing. The years in which Isabel da Vega, Emmanuel Ximenez and their children lived in the Meir house were ones of increasing standards of living following the major economic problems and population decline that had resulted from the Dutch Revolt, and we might imagine that they viewed their more luxurious purchases with optimism, as investments in a bright future. In addition, the family was one of a subgroup of Portuguese ex-patriot merchants, and we can see that national identity reflected in some of their possessions. Yet at the same time their material surroundings reflected their own unique and idiosyncratic circumstances – for instance the fact that Emmanuel Ximenez was the head of the Antwerp chapter of the Knights of Saint Stephen, whose corporate property was kept in his home – and must have also resulted from their own personal tastes and interests. Finding the balance between the representational and the personal within the Ximenez-da Vega inventory presents complicated problems that the various scholars in this project have begun to solve, and their diverse approaches to the material culture of this Antwerp family have already made great strides in elucidating the ways in which archives and objects can be used together to access historical experiences.

Sarah Joan Moran, University of Bern & University of Antwerp


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