- Luxury and the Ethics of Greed in Early Modern Italy ed. by Catherine Kovesi
The timeline for the birth of modern consumption practices in Western Europe is constantly in scholarly flux. Some say that the modern consumer society began in the nineteenth century in places like America, others in England or France during the late eighteenth century at the dawn of the industrial revolution. Others still will argue for the seventeenth century with the invention of joint-stock companies and the proliferation of cheap goods that trade from the East and West Indies offered European consumers by the end of that century. [End Page 221]
In the introduction to this edited collection of twelve essays, derived from a conference held in 2014, Catherine Kovesi pinpoints the birth of modern consumption practices to Italy during the fifteenth century, when debates about luxury and greed were reframed for the first time since antiquity to critique growing trends of aspirational consumption among newly moneyed communities. This is a bold claim to make, but one that this edited collection does so quite convincingly as it moves from discussions of the meanings of luxury and greed in early modern Italy, to essays dealing with the consumption, dissemination, and imitation of luxury consumer goods throughout the Peninsula.
Section 1 identifies the meanings of the term ‘luxury’, placing it squarely in the context of what it meant in the changing moneyed and consumer landscape of Florence. Kovesi argues that Italy was the first country in Europe to develop a vernacular term—lusso—in the fifteenth century, to describe consumptive practices by people with new money and aspirations. She argues that tracing the term luxury through the genealogy of the Latin luxus has led historians astray, as lusso is related to luxus/luxuria but was purposely created in the vernacular to critique new cultures of consumption rather than lust/sensuality. Essays by Kovesi, Lino Pertile and Peter Howard in this section all challenge the assumption that luxury and greed were exclusively associated with the elites, as they discuss the difference between magnificence and luxury, the former being the inherited right to extravagance (framed as a virtue) of the elites, the latter being attributed to the newly moneyed.
Section 2 and Section 3 carry on discussion by examining how goods such as food, clothing, household objects, and books were consumed and disseminated by craftspeople, street pedlars, vendors, and diplomats throughout the Italian Peninsula and beyond. Essays by Maria Giuseppina Muzzarelli and Rosa Salzburg explore the clothing and small luxury items consumed by non-elites who often skirted the boundaries of sumptuary legislation, while those by Timothy Wilson and Sean Roberts examine luxury gift-giving between women and between diplomats. Jola Pellumbi discusses magnificence in her essay on Venetian senatorial dress, a burdensome expense that could financially cripple those patricians forced to wear them. As these robes reflected the dignity of the state, they were considered a magnificence as opposed to a luxury. However, as many nobles simply could not afford magnificence, the significant question posed is: when does magnificence become luxury?
Essays by Laura Giannetti and Rebecca Earle also discuss food and luxury. Earle challenges north-western European ideas about chocolate that associated the food with decadent luxury, pleasure, and idleness. She argues that Spanish discourses stressed chocolate’s ordinariness due to its association with the American colonies where it was widely consumed. Earle’s article, while fascinating, is primarily focused on Spain. Besides a short description of chocolate consumption in the Spanish territories of Sicily and Naples, very little attention is paid to chocolate in a wider Italian context. Was chocolate considered ordinary [End Page 222] in the north of Italy like it was in Naples, or was it a luxury? This question is not answered; probably because it is not part of Earle’s overall research focus. As a result, it sets this otherwise excellent essay out of joint with the rest of the collection.
Two of the most...