In recent rhetoric, the ‘rise’ of consumerism has been challenged. Our throw-away culture has led to a multitude of problems for the environment, as well as issues surrounding body-image, debt and over-corporatisation. In a recent article, George Monbiot, for example, argued that ‘regardless of what we consume, the sheer volume of consumption is overwhelming the Earth’s living systems’. Whilst the scale of this problem and its issues are in many ways unique to our age, questions surrounding the ethics of consumerism are certainly not new and our passion for acquisition is one which has its roots deep in the past.
According to historians such as Richard Goldthwaite, it was during the Renaissance in Italy that the birth of a recognisably modern consumer society emerged. Goldthwaite argued that a rise in living standards and increased wealth of the middling classes led to the development of new forms of art and affordable luxury products.
The Renaissance saw increased production of luxury items, such as painting, embroidery and lavish clothing for the rich. This went hand-in-hand with the development of ‘populuxe’ consumption for the lower echelons. Many artisans in this period started to make more standardised, rather than bespoke products. This meant that items such as religious paintings were often mass-produced and sold for small sums. People could then adorn their houses with these more ephemeral objects, intended for both the purpose of display and devotion.
There were a multitude of ways in which people could obtain goods, in a web of exchange that was intricately tied to social relationships. People went to markets, shops, auctions, fairs and lotteries to obtain new items for their bodies and homes. Many goods could be bought on credit, so people lower down the social scale could be part of this culture of consumption. As Paula Hohti has demonstrated, even modest artisans in Siena were able to acquire a range of goods, from jewellery, to furniture, clothing and textiles.
In the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, cities like Venice relied heavily on their role as commercial emporiums, with trade playing a significant role in economic development. Despite this, these cities often had a complicated relationship with consumption. Venetian subjects, for example, were expected to live by the ideal of mediocritas, living modestly and not ostentatiously displaying wealth. Venice was a ‘society caught in paradox’, especially struggling with the idea that a newly wealthy group of workers were able to construct more prestigious images of themselves through purchasing specific material commodities such as silk and jewellery. Indeed, so concerned was the government about the increase in purchase and display that in 1514 the Senate established the Magistrato alle Pompe, which aimed to prevent immoderate expenditures, which they viewed as an offence to God. Luxury was equated with the sin of luxuria and therefore excessive consumption was often treated with contempt.
However, whilst many polemicized about the dangers of excess, it was also viewed in a positive light by others, including Giovanni Pontano, who encouraged conspicuous consumption and display in his De Splendore. Sight of pleasant objects, he argued, could bring ‘prestige to the owner of the house’. Similarly, Leon Battista Alberti wrote that ‘one can gain fame and authority by adopting riches in ample and noble things’.
Peter Burke has argued that it was during the Renaissance that a shift in mentality surrounding the household and consumption of material objects took place. The idea of ‘masserizia’, or living by the daily essentials of life, was coming into conflict with the idea of ‘magnificenza’, which suggested that spending outwardly on art, architecture, and items for the home could help someone to live a virtuous life. Whilst sumptuary legislation came into place in many cities across Italy to try to curb such ideals, there was little stopping the tide of consumerism, as people saw the purchasing of specific items as a key to establishing a more desirable identity.
Although the nature of the challenges to consumption may have changed, what is not new is the continuing conflict between our desire to consume and questions surrounding the ethics of consumption. Decisions about what to eat, wear and adorn our houses with are inherently political and project images about our affiliations and individualities. This was as much true in the Renaissance as it is today.
 Richard Goldthwaite, Wealth and the Demand for Art in Italy (London, 1995).
 James Farr, Artisans in Europe (Cambridge, 2000).
 Paula Hohti, ‘”Conspicuous” consumption and popular consumers: material culture and social status in sixteenth-century Siena,’ Renaissance Studies, 24 (2010).
 Patricia Fortini Brown, Private Lives in Renaissance Venice: Art, Architecture, and the Family (Princeton, 2004).
 Giovanni Pontano, I tratti delle virtu sociali, ed. Francesco Talteo (Rome, 1965), p. 270. Translated in Syson and Thornton, Objects of Virtue: Art in Renaissance Italy (London, 2001), p. 29
 Leon Battista Alberti, Opere Volgari, ed. Cecil Grayson (Bari, 1960), p. 14. Translated in Syson and Thornton, Objects of Virtue, p. 24.
 Peter Burke, The Historical Anthropology of Early Modern Italy (Cambridge, 1987). See also Margaret Anne More, ‘The Arts of Domestic Devotion in Renaissance Italy: The Case of Venice’ (unpublished PhD thesis, University of Maryland, 2006).
Image: Paolo Antonio Barbieri, La Spezieria, 1637 (via wikimedia commons, public domain)