Recent history may seem vulgar, but during the Renaissance, ostentatious displays of wealth were so extreme that they were banned entirely.
Our nation’s ambivalent relationship with conspicuous consumption is nothing new. Admiration and resentment of the nouveaux riches, in particular, have been around as long as the nouveaux riches themselves. If anything, the extravagance of our era's parvenus pales beside that of the Renaissance merchant class-the bourgeoisie that emerged with the rise of European commerce in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries and celebrated its burgeoning wealth so ostentatiously that an alarmed nobility enacted sumptuary laws to curb the flamboyant vulgarity.
These displays of wealth prescribed the production of increasingly sumptuous accouterments. Venice became famous for the splendor of its silver and gold utensils (including the fork, which it popularized); gold toothpicks; gold, silver, damascened-copper, and bronze vases, trays, bowls, water pitchers, and wine basins; and white linen tablecloths, which were changed repeatedly during the course of a meal. Practitioners of the prestigious art of napkin folding created elaborate sailboats, fish, otters, griffins, double-headed eagles, and castles complete with parapets and towers (the napkin's complexity corresponding to the social rank of its user). And of course no banquet was complete without an expert majordomo who, while overseeing the table linens, finger bowls, candlesticks, and scented water, also ensured that the serving of the courses didn't interrupt the musical and dramatic interludes.
But perhaps these excesses are best expressed by a pair of statistics: in 1415, one prosperous Florentine merchant spent fifty-four florins on his marriage celebration; a well-paid artisan earned about eighteen florins annually. Still, the lower classes probably didn't mind; one of pageantry's purposes was to impress the peasantry, who like today's tourists gaping were thrilled by their proximity to such splendor.
The vulgar world of commerce sometimes invaded even the realm of the court. The June 1368 marriage festivities of Violante, the daughter of Galeazzo II Visconti (whose family had risen from the ranks of the minor nobility) to Lionel, King Edward Ill's son, served as both a social triumph and an efficient advertising venue for Milanese armor manufacturing and the breeding of warhorses, which were actually dispensed as party favors to the guests.
Such extravagances alarmed the established aristocracy, which considered them needless expenditures at best they preferred the money to remain available for their own purposes-and a threat to society at worst. By the 1400s, sumptuary laws restricting expressions of wealth from fans to funerals had been enacted throughout Europe, as Old Money tried (mostly in vain) to keep New Money in its place.
The sumptuary laws were especially prevalent in Italian communes. As early as the thirteenth century, weddings in Bologna, Florence, Genoa, and Venice were hampered by dictates concerning everything-the number and social rank of guests, the timing of banquets, the number and lavishness of courses, the value of the trousseau, wedding gifts, and the nuptial chest itself. The protocol of funerals fell under similar restrictions.
The exorbitant feasts of the signoria (a city's governing body, which was largely composed of nobles), however, were rarely thwarted by their own edicts. Even laws that theoretically applied to the aristocracy as well as the bourgeoisie were rarely enforced in the case of the high-born. During the reign of England's Edward II (1307-1327), a proclamation was issued against the "outrageous and excessive multitude of meats and dishes," which the great men of England served in their castles. There is little evidence, though, that the great men of England ever moderated their dining habits. Nor is it likely that Renaissance fashion victims heeded commandments to dress down. Sumptuary laws regulating fashion were even more painstaking-and more dreaded-than party-giving restrictions. The expense and luxury of women's attire in particular worried French and Italian city fathers, who issued draconian ordinances prohibiting sartorial arrogance in the name of the common good.
some anciens nouveaux riches, as depicted in The Feast, by Abraham Janssens.
Every segment of society - or so the theory held - had a proper role in God's social order, and clothing was its indelible expression. The bourgeoisie's passion for finery, however, swiftly eroded the boundaries between these categories, and regulating every aspect of adornment became necessary to confirm the wearer's God-given status. Laws forbade merchants' wives from possessing multicolored, checked, striped, brocaded, or figured velvet and gold-or silver-embroidered gowns. Florentine officials stopped women on the street to inspect their clothes and raided wardrobes to uncover the incriminating luxuries hanging within. In two days in 1401, 210 gowns were confiscated in the commune of Bologna when a routine inspection turned up numerous violations of the city's dress code, which governed, among other things, jewels, belts, rings, fur, shoes, fringe, dresses, and buttons.
Of course, the more style-obsessed citizens found ways to circumvent the laws. Restricted attire could be discreetly worn under other garments; silk or fur sleeve linings were unlikely to be detected. And why, after all, should the bourgeoisie obey regulations the nobles openly flouted? A wedding gown made in 1447 for a noble Florentine heiress to the Strozzi banking fortune was decorated with a garland of two hundred peacock tail feathers, pearls, and shimmering bits of gold, all accented by flowers and gilt leaves. The gown cost 636 livres, equivalent to five hundred days' wages of a skilled laborer. The garment was not confiscated.
Given the recent fervent disapproval of the flamboyant life-styles championed by the nouveaux riches of our ‘Roaring Times', one wonders whether such drastic measures as those implemented during the Renaissance should also be employed in our times.
Actually, we have little need of sumptuary laws today. Confronted by luxury taxes, animal-welfare groups, fear of robbery, and the economic depression, we will be forced to become much more modest on our own.