The Emotional Life of Objects

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Bishop’s Gloves, first quarter 17th century. Silk & metal.Courtesy of The Metropolitan Museum of Art.

By Lisa Beaven, CHE postdoctoral researcher at The University of Melbourne

Our relationship with things is complex. Often we acquire and use them without consciously being aware of them, until they are lost or broken. Something we considered unimportant or utilitarian can unexpectedly emerge as a marker of a particular time in our lives, like a piece of music, ambushing us emotionally. In this interaction they are revealed as something more than possessions, with qualities that shape us in return, revealing the porous nature of the boundaries between people and things. At other times owning things can be a huge burden, so that we keep objects we would much rather throw away, in the belief that somehow, someday they might be important to a larger history that needs to be told.

In relation to the complex issue of how people and objects interact I always think of the Toas in the South Australian Museum. These ‘way-markers’ are very beautiful and tactile objects made of wood and gypsum, often painted and incorporating other materials, such as cloth, feathers and sometimes teeth.

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Toas collected from Killalpaninna mission near Lake Eyre in South Australia by Lutheran missionary J. G. Reuther. Collection housed at The Museum of South Australia.

They were collected at Killalpaninna mission near Lake Eyre in South Australia by Lutheran missionary J. G. Reuther. He repeatedly asked local indigenous people for statues, or statuettes – an art form which particularly interested him – and eventually members of the community brought him Toas, describing them as way-markers. Later anthropologists were puzzled to find that they were unique to the Killalpaninna mission and only produced there after European settlement. On balance the evidence suggested that the toas represented a cultural innovation, created in that form especially in response to European interest, and possibly prompted by Reuther’s attention. An entire range of cultural artefacts, encoded in sophisticated ways with maps of aboriginal country and important dreaming stories, may have had their shape determined by the obsessive and very specific interests of one individual.


For my own period, the seventeenth century, things can provide a direct gateway to the past, by-passing the more political and public histories, to take us directly to the domestic life of individuals, providing an insight into what they cared about enough to keep, or pass onto their children, or give to their loved ones. What interests me is the idea that we could use things to retrieve what Prown called ‘the feel, the affective totality of what it was like to be alive in the past’.[1] How do objects develop layers of emotional significance, like textures, as they circulate between people? How do they function as sites of memory and commemoration?

I remember once finding an inventory, compiled in front of a notary, in a bundle of documents in the state archives of Rome, which I didn’t document because I didn’t think it was important, a decision I now regret as it has stayed with me. In the absence of a dowry, it was a list of all the possessions owned by a prospective bride in the seventeenth century, with values attached to each object. It listed all the pots and pans (used), sheets (old and patched), a mattress, two dresses and some small pieces of jewellery owned by the woman, and estimates their value (very small). As I read it I found myself becoming indignant that the groom had subjected his bride to this humiliating inventory of all her belongings, exposing her poverty and hard-won respectability. I wondered about his motives: Was he was trying to obtain financial gain from the meagre objects she possessed? But, if so, why have it documented by a notary? Due to the idiosyncratic nature of the binding of such seventeenth-century documents, the second part of the document was right at the back of the volume, with 200 other legal agreements in between. After some searching to identify the matching handwriting I found it. It stated that the groom would undertake to pay his family the remaining value of the dowry in cash in order to marry her. Suddenly this document shifted from being a register of the bride’s pitiful belongings, to instead become an affective indicator of a relationship.

A document that vividly describes the nature of friendship through the gifting of objects is a will written by the seventeenth-century Cardinal, Sforza Pallavicino, who died in Rome in 1667.

Portrait of Pietro, Cardinal Sforza Pallavicino. 1663. Artist unknown. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

After discussing his burial arrangements he sets out to detail objects precious to him, to give to people precious to him.

To Cardinal Francesco Barberini, to whom he owes ‘inestimable thanks’, Sforza Pallavicino leaves a cross that is also a reliquary. It was made, he believed, from the wood of the staff that had been planted by St Francis and germinated, and contained relics of all the saints and the blessed of the Jesuit order. This, then, had multiple layers of signification: on one level it represented Christ; on another it was not only associated with St Francis but also constituted a form of contact relic. The will also reveals that Sforza Pallavicino wore this always on his chest. In bequeathing it to Francesco, it demonstrates how emotion can circulate between bodies and sometimes stick to objects, in this case to the cross.[2] Something that had been in intimate proximity to his body and had developed an accumulated affective value through the repetition of actions over time is transferred to his friend, revealing something of what Ahmed has described as the ‘sociality of emotion’.[3]

To the Duchess of Bracciano, whose perpetual kindness towards him would overpower any attempt he could make to describe it at length, the Cardinal leaves something that is very precious to him: a little silver reliquary with a relic of St Thomas Aquinas, ‘his special advocate’, that he carried around with him in his pocket.

And finally, to Cardinal Rospigliosi, who had always demonstrated to him the ‘most tender love’, he leaves a breviary. It had been given to him by the Pope, who had used it himself for the space of 30 years, and it was annotated in various places in his hand.

For Sforza Pallavicino, these reliquaries are precious because they contain relics of saints he loves, whom he believes advocate and intercede for him, and protect him. Other objects are important because they are tokens of past relationships, valued by others who had given them to him as acts of friendship, charged with personal significance and memory. He in turn gives them to his closest friends, demonstrating how objects circulate as signs of emotional investment and attachment between people.

Lisa Beaven is a Postdoctoral Research Fellow at The University of Melbourne. Her doctoral research involved reconstructing the collecting and art patronage of Cardinal Camillo Massimo (1620-1677) in seventeenth century Rome (2001, University of Melbourne). She has continued to research art patronage and collecting, concentrating in particular on the paintings of Claude Lorrain in relation to place. Her research interests are concentrated in the area of patronage and art collecting in seventeenth century Rome, on the architecture and urbanism of the city, and on the nature of visual culture and the Catholic church in early modern Europe. Other research interests include digital mapping, travel writing, relics and the relationship between Catholicism and antiquarianism in the seventeenth century.

Further explorations of the affective impact of material culture can be found in the Objects and Emotions Research Cluster

[1] Jules David Prown, ‘The Truth of Material Culture: History or Fiction?’, in American Artifacts: Essays in Material Culture, ed. Jules Dabid Prown and Kenneth Haltman (East Lansing: Michigan State University Press, 2000), 6.

[2] This terminology is indebted to Sara Ahmed’s terminology and discussion of how the objects of emotion circulate through culture. See Sara Ahmed, The Cultural Politics of Emotion(New York: Routledge, 2004), 11.

[3] Ahmed, The Cultural Politics of Emotion, 8.

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