Luxury Abstracts

Luxury and the Ethics of Greed in the Early Modern World

25-26 September 2014

Thursday 25 September 2014, Villa I Tatti, Florence

Luxury and Greed: Defining the terms

Catherine Kovesi (University of Melbourne), ‘The Birth of Luxury: the creation of a new concept in the Early Modern world.’

It has long been assumed that the Renaissance was an ‘Age of Luxury’. Conjuring up the gaze of Johan Huizinga’s ‘dreamers of past beauty’, with a world bathed in purple and gold, the term is often used imprecisely and unreflectively to cover a range of distinct consumption practices from elites such as the Medici or Isabella d’Este, to a growing group of consumers lower down the social hierarchy. A closer examination of this concept however, reveals an altogether more complex concept, and indeed an initial lack of a precise term for what we would call ‘luxury’ altogether. This paper outlines the origins of the concept and its first vernacular usages in Italy. It suggests that Italy was possibly the first country in Europe, if not the wider world, to develop a vernacular term for these new consumptive practices.  Taking as its starting point the perceived challenges posed to elites by consumers who were merely monied, this paper aims to elucidate the altogether seamier world of luxury in the period, what Leonardo Dati called ‘stomacoso luxo’ – disgusting luxury.  It then examines the ways in which elites’ multifarious attempts to keep the aping classes at bay, resulted instead in the creation of an ever more aspirational level for practices of consumption; the release of the behemoth of luxury in a sense that is closer to modern conceptions and uses of the term. By so doing this paper aims to clarify the terrain of fertile research in consumption practices in the Early Modern world. 

Lino Pertile (Villa I Tatti), ‘Dante’s She-Wolf: A beast whose greed is never satisfied.’

Symbol of human greed (cupiditas in Latin) in all its forms, the She-wolf is for Dante the ultimate cause of the corruption and degeneration of individuals and public institutions alike, and the primary loci of its unbridled manifestation are the highest offices of Church and State. Dante identifies the economic factor as the mainspring of human action, but he does not believe that it has, or can have, any positive role in improving the human condition. Instead, in the desire for power and material possessions, he sees only an element of profound and chronic instability, the cause of strife in society and unhappiness in individual lives. Dante curses the maladetto fiore – the powerful new Florentine coin – as the principal agent of public and private corruption.  His religious ideal is a primitive Church stripped of all its economic and political power; his political model a universal monarchy capable of restoring  and preserving the small, static, closed  communities of the past, content in their immobility. He rejects not only present greed with its attendant factional strife and social unrest, but also the new dynamism, the new reliance on individual enterprise and the quest for material improvement with its tough, though potentially egalitarian, rule. Greed is a literary theme and an obsession that permeate the Divine Comedy, but also an everyday reality that Dante considers responsible for his own exile, the disorder and turmoil of society, and the current overcrowding of Hell. This paper will focus on Dante’s analysis of greed and of its pervasive, economic, social and moral consequences on the quality of people’s lives around the year 1300.

Consuming Luxury: Cloth and Clothing

Giorgio Riello (University of Warwick), ‘Luxury and the Early Modern World of Exchange.’

This paper wishes to challenge the easy divide between luxury and commodity in the early modern world of exchange. By focusing on the case of cotton cloth, it argues that its success as a global commodity was based on its luxury appeal. In contrast to the Asian luxuries at the reach of the few such as silks, precious stones, ivories and rarities, Indian cottons have been portrayed as the first mass commodity satisfying the everyday needs of Chinese peasants, African slaves and European housewives. One might conclude that, whatever the definition of luxury adopted, Indian cotton textiles did not fulfil well any of the criteria. Yet, as this papers shows, production of cotton textiles included not just cheap traded varieties but also a range of products that we could classify as luxuries. The inclusion of cotton textiles among the ‘luxury commodities’ traded in the early modern period prompts us however to reconsider the very meaning of luxury. This paper provides a general framework and divides luxury into three categories of ‘positional’, ‘ceremonial’ and ‘aspirational’ luxury. Each of these categories is then considered in three respective areas of the world: South Asia – where most of such textiles were produced, in Southeast Asia and in Europe. I argue that in each of them Indian cottons were considered luxuries, though each case underlines a different definition of luxury. The success of Indian cottons as commodities was therefore based on their ability to embody different notions of luxury.

Maria Giuseppina Muzzarelli (University of Bologna), ‘Vesti bollate: the Italian fashion gazette of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries (shapes, colours, decorations, and accessories).’

The Italian practice of "marking of garments" (bollatura delle vesti) allowed for forbidden clothes made prior to the issuance of a sumptuary law to be recorded, stamped with an appropriate sign, and then worn. Examining documents recording this practice allows us to obtain detailed information about the mode of dressing in the period that provides a rich supplement to other written and visual sources. These notarial records speak of styles, materials and colors and are therefore invaluable sources for the reconstruction of the way of dressing at the end of the Middle Ages.
This paper outlines the beginning of a new research project which utitlises three key sources of vesti bollate: descriptive lists of elite Florentine wardrobes between 1343 and 1345; the list of branded garments in Bologna in 1401; and the records of male and female dress forbidden by a sumptuary law of 1617 also covered by a vesti bollate clause.

Religion and the luxury economy

Brodie Waddell (Birkbeck College, University of London), ‘Luxury, greed and charity in English Protestant culture: the parable of Dives and Lazarus.’

Early modern retellings and interpretations of the biblical parable of Dives and Lazarus – the rich man and the beggar in Luke 16 – provide a valuable case study in English protestant thinking about luxury and charity. In the King James Bible, the rich Dives, condemned to hellfire for refusing to relieve the starving beggar Lazaraus, was described as ‘clothed in purple and fine linen, and fared sumptuously every day’. This vivid description gave contemporaries an opportunity to explore the dangers of sins such as greed, gluttony and vanity. This paper will analyse how this parable was ‘vernacularised’ by commentators in early modern England. The story was frequently adapted and reinterpreted in preaching and print as well as in paintings, etchings, plays and even ceramics. Many contemporaries used Dives’s ‘fine’ clothes and ‘sumptuous’ diet to illuminate the problems associated with luxury and as a lesson in ‘the right use of riches’. Wealth could be laudable if used correctly. They damned those who, like Dives, spent money on greedily gratifying ‘base desires’ or seeking social advancement through conspicuous consumption. If, on the other hand, one lived in a manner appropriate to one’s ‘degree and estate’, fine food and apparel could be perfectly acceptable. Indeed, ‘liberal’ spending was often praised as long as it included godly generosity to the poor. It was only during the tumult of the 1640s and 50s that some radical preachers went further and used the parable to condemn all ‘proud clothing’ as damnable. Taken together, these various interpretations show how Protestants attempted to reconfigure a key biblical text to suit their own circumstances and, in so doing, revealed their own preoccupation with ‘the right use of riches’.

Peter Howard (Monash University), 'The language of Dives and Lazarus:  Preaching generosity and almsgiving in Renaissance Florence'

In fifteenth century Florence a range of ideas clustered around the urban realities of wealth and poverty. As an ethos of charity was more and more institutionalized to relieve the plight of the poor, the rich were assigned a new role. From the 1420s to at least the late 1480s the cry of the preacher was not for charity, but for justice. Biblical categories were re-worked in the light of a re-appropriation of earlier, diverse traditions that had once circulated in the newly thrusting church of late antiquity. For pastoral inspiration, and to tease out ideas underpinning a Christian social order where wealth was re-distributed, Archbishop Antoninus and preachers like him turned to the writings of Gregory the Great, along with the followers of Thomas Aquinas who mediated key ancient texts, not just Aristotle, but Cicero as well. Serious thought about poverty correlated with attention to the meaning of the wealth which was transforming not just the material, but, as well, the social and political landscape of the burgeoning city. For those with the means the burning question was: did the fate of dives of the gospel story await them, or could they be saved from perdition?

Disseminating luxury through the early modern world

Rosa Salzberg (University of Warwick), ‘Discussing and Disseminating Luxury on the Streets of Renaissance Italy.’

The sixteenth century in Italy was a crucial phase in the dissemination both of luxury goods and of discussions about the social implications of this phenomenon. In the public spaces of Italian cities, pedlars of small luxuries and street performers who sold goods on the side were an increasingly common sight, hawking everything from perfumes and cosmetics to haberdashery and cloth, hats and rosaries to printed images and pamphlets. These mobile figures appear to have proliferated across the century and offered an ever greater array of goods to diverse urban (and increasingly also rural) publics. At the same time, the spread of printing allowed for new voices and opinions to enter the public arena, with a number of cheap printed texts commenting in some way on luxury. These ranged from manuals advising on appropriate modes of consumption to songs and poems that complained about the excesses of the rich and the suffering of the poor. This paper considers these various aspects of the dissemination of luxury in Italian Renaissance urban culture as well as the debates that this aroused.

Sean Roberts (Villa I Tatti), ‘Luxury, Technology, and the Diplomatic Gift in the Early Modern Mediterranean.’

Presenting a copy of his De re militari to the Ottoman sultan Mehmed II in 1461, Roberto Valturio wrote that he offered “neither gold nor gems, of which we have little and you need even less.” Instead, the Riminese humanist’s classicizing treatise on tactics and war machinery was provided as a gift representing his “soul, [his] mind, and the sum of [his] abilities.” Far from extraordinary, Valturio’s attitude toward appropriate giving was a common one among ambassadors, diplomats, and the princes they served. This paper asks what kinds of gifts sufficed when the materially lavish could - or would - not do. Automata, fireworks, war machinery, products of the printing press, maps, and especially information about such feats of technical innovation served as a vital component of early modern diplomacy. I explore how gift givers and recipients positioned displays of ingenuity and artfulness as alternatives to excessively lavish offerings in deference both to practical and moral constraints in both the Christian and Muslim Mediterranean. Indeed, while diplomatic goods were often wrought from precious metals or cut from the finest cloth, gift-givers nonetheless framed their contributions as useful rather than extravagant, pleasurable, and luxurious at the courts of sultans and signori alike.

Friday 26 September 2014
The European university institute, Florence

Consuming Luxury II: Food and its Crockery

Laura Giannetti (University of Miami), ‘“Taste of Luxury” in Renaissance Italy: in practice and in the literary imagination.’

In Inferno Canto xxix Dante singles out a Sienese brigata spendereccia that enjoy the extravagant and lavish custom of using cloves to flavour their roasted meat and thus distinguish themselves from their fellows. Likewise other foods of the early modern period – because of their cost, rarity and their position on the Great Chain of Being - were considered the reserve of the rich and powerful, fresh fruit, sugar, fowl, game and certain types of fish.  As is well known, conspicuous consumption of luxury foods was constantly chastized in prescriptive literature and in practice through the promulgation of sumptuary laws.  On the other hand, lower classes and the new merchant class, who did have some means, had to content themselves with base vegetables, soups and preserved meat. It was as if their food of ‘necessity’ – in the formulation of Pierre Bourdieu – had to coincide necessarily with their taste.  But in fact a ‘taste of luxury’ foods emerges in specific sixteenth-century literary texts with telling discussions that reveal a new appreciation of elaborate rich meals for non-elites. This paper will hopefully complicate the traditional picture and show how the literary imaginary allowed also for a newer more positive vision and a ‘taste of luxury,’ and in the long run contributed to changing conceptions of food, taste and class.  

Timothy Wilson (Ashmolean Museum, Oxford), ‘Italian Maiolica and Gift-Giving Between Women, c.1480-1600.’

From the closing years of the fifteenth century, Italian painted maiolica reached such a level of artistic sophistication that it came to be of interest to clients at the highest social levels and was seen as suitable material for aristocratic and diplomatic gifts. Many examples survive with the arms of princely and wealthy recipients and sometimes notarial documents or letters survive documenting commissions.
Examination of these documents, of the armorials, and of the circumstantial evidence relating to known commissions suggests that, more often than has generally been realised, maiolica services were commissioned by women as gifts to other women. In this context, the significance of impaled coats of arms on such maiolica needs to be re-assessed: although such arms are usually described as “the arms of husband and wife”, it may be that it would often be more accurate to describe them as the arms of the wife (who impaled her arms with her husband’s).
This paper will examine some cases of surviving commissions which were certainly or possibly made as gifts between women. These range from a set perhaps commissioned about 1490 for Beatrice, the Neapolitan Queen of Hungary, by her cousin Camilla, regent of Pesaro, to two sets commissioned in Urbino in the 1590s by Isabella, sister of the Duke of Urbino, as gifts to the wives of successive Spanish Viceroys of Naples.

Rebecca Earle (University of Warwick), ‘Chocolate in the Historical Imagination.’

The chocolate had been stored for eight years in a cedar chest before it was used.  Great care had been taken in grinding the cocoa beans, which were then combined with fragrant cinnamon and moistened with wine.  Only after the paper-wrapped pastilles had aged sufficiently would they be mixed with boiling water to make hot chocolate.  Served in little cups, the delicate beverage exhaled an incomparable, intoxicating perfume.  To savour this chocolate one should close the eyes and open the soul.
The nineteenth-century Colombian author of this sensual evocation was José María Vergara y Vergara, a scholar, journalist and first director of the Academia Colombiana de la Lengua.  In his essay on the decline of wholesome customs, such as drinking hot chocolate Colombia-style, Vergara hoped his alluring description would tempt readers away from their recent obsession with foreign beverages such as tea and coffee.  Tea, in his opinion, was a miserable, unsatisfying drink, while coffee was drunk only by pretentious fashion victims.  To complete his ode to hot chocolate, Vergara insisted that this beverage was the fuel that powered Colombia’s glorious victory over Spanish colonialism a half-century previously, when republican insurgents had driven out the colonising Spanish.  Had the founding fathers sipped tea, he sneered, they would never have had the strength to sign Colombia’s declaration of independence in 1810.
As this vignette reminds us, celebration of chocolate’s sensory qualities considerably predates contemporary advertising campaigns for Cadbury’s chocolate bars.  Indeed, Wolfgang Schivelbusch’s Tastes of Paradise famously contrasted the languorous self-indulgence he considered characteristic of Catholic chocolate drinkers with the vigorous activity of Protestant coffee-drinkers. This paper reviews the historical roots of the idea that chocolate is in its essence a decadent luxury, to explore the processes through which a local trade-good became a global commodity associated with pleasure, luxury and women.

Faking It: the pretense of luxury

Timothy McCall (Villanova University), ‘Material Fictions of Luxury in Fifteenth-Century Italy.’

In 1498, the humanist Giovanni Pontano posthumously slandered the Milanese lord Galeazzo Maria Sforza (assassinated over two decades prior) for duplicitously exhibiting “as rare and most precious a number of false gems that he had secretly purchased.” Galeazzo was, however, just one among many fifteenth-century signori bedecked in fictive gems, pearls, and metallic surfaces simulating gold and silver, and, moreover, it was only at the turn of the century, and into the following – during and in the wake of the invasions of Italy – that such moralizing, hortatory invectives against the effeminized, glittering princes of the quattrocento gained widespread currency. 
Great pressure was placed on these lords – and likewise, as we shall see, on artisans in their employ – to present suitably aristocratic appearances through splendid surfaces producing brilliant visual effects which established patriarchal authority by separating classes visually and materially. In the quattrocento, lordly radiance embodied in array and adornment was often fashioned and enhanced though fake gems, jewels, and pearls, and through the application of foils and tints on precious things both natural and counterfeit. 
This talk thus explores material fictions of luxury – both their fabrication (actual and representational), and likewise the ways that their regulation was legislated but also contravened – in relation to discourses of authenticity and courtly masculinity. Far more troubling than the display, possession, or even manufacture of gems and pearls, typically, was the danger that they might be mistaken for genuine items by those who bought or wore them, rather than by those who saw them worn. Legislation served to protect the buyer, but not his or her eventual audiences, and radiant visual properties – light-emitting and light-reflecting effects – were often more efficacious and desirable than material authenticity.

Paula Hohti (University of Copenhagen), ‘“Cheap Magnificence?”: Imitation and Low Cost Luxuries in Renaissance Italy.’

The use and display of domestic luxury goods and art works, such as tapestries, small bronze statues or gilded and silver plates, was one of the principal ways in which powerful Renaissance families could manifest their magnificence, wealth and power. The high cost associated with luxuries, however, inspired individuals also to acquire cheaper substitutes, such as pewter plates that looked like silver or glass vases that imitated porcelain. This was the case also among the wealthy Italian elites. Fra Sabba da Castiglione, for example, mentions that his study included a figure of Saint Jerome, made of terracotta, but ’finished so as to imitate bronze’. How were such goods regarded by Renaissance Italians? Focusing on low cost luxuries and imitations both within the homes of the wealthy Italian elites as well as among the lower social classes, this paper will explore some of the meanings that were associated with the use and consumption of imitations and low cost luxuries in Renaissance Italy. One of the aims is to highlight that imitations were not necessarily regarded just as inferior or cheap versions of luxury goods but some of them were precious objects that were valued for the novelty and the skill that was involved in making them. This way, by looking at imitation not simply as a direct emulative practice by the lower classes within a new consumer economy, but as a broader ‘subculture’ with rules, regulations and values of its own, this paper will try to provide an alternative way to examine and understand luxury and imitation in Renaissance Italy, both in terms of the consumers and the goods consumed.

Marta Ajmar (Victoria and Albert Museum, London), '”Those who are not familiar with this matter think that they are looking at one substance alone”: Understanding materiality and material imitation in Renaissance Italy.’

In his Historia Naturale (1599) the Neapolitan natural philosopher and collector Ferrante Imperato observes that
the excellence of porcelain ware resides as much in the body as in the glaze. In them, the whiteness of the one [body] is so similar to the whiteness of the other [glaze] that those who are not familiar with this matter think that they are looking at one substance alone.
Taking as a starting point Imperato's attempts to discern materials structurally, this paper suggests that the marked innovation in the use and manipulation of technologies and materials – many embodying global encounters – generally associated with the Renaissance went hand in hand with a novel effort to understand the specific nature of matter and to classify materials. Focusing on wood intarsia and imitation lacquer, two cross-cultural wood-based technologies capable of transforming the ontology – and thus the value – of artefacts by creating multimedia structures of difficult material identification, the paper explores the complex interconnection and occasional collision between natural philosophy, experimental artisanal practice and the contemporary discourse on material imitation and material worth.