Magazine

When bling was a crime

  • 22 October 2010
  • From the section Magazine
Fists with rings

Even in times of austerity and hardship, curbs on elaborate displays of wealth fail, says Sarah Dunant in her A Point of View column.

In the spring of 1519 Agostini Chigi, a banker living in Rome, held a series of Lenten dinners for the Pope in his home in the Villa Farnesina.

With the aid of a little interior design by Raphael, and a menu so exotic that each of 20 foreign cardinals consumed food and wine brought in from their own countries, all served on silver platters, it was obviously something of a must-get invite on the Roman power circuit of the day.

By the early 16th Century, bankers were already big players in the economy of Christendom. Just think of the Medici, who some 70 years before had risen through banking wealth to be the effective rulers of Florence.

The history of the profession is fascinating because strictly speaking in a Christian world it was a forbidden activity. The lending of money at interest, ie for overt profit, was defined as usury, which was a sin.

In many cases lower-level loans were handled by the Jews. Seen as a necessary evil within a burgeoning capitalist world, they could charge interest (remember Shylock's pound of flesh?), but their position was always vulnerable - if not from direct violence then because they were banned from buying property, and so unable to root themselves within the economies they were helping to create.

The Medici gained political power through banking

The early Christian bankers found means of getting round the usury problem by conducting business under the veneer of exchange rates rather than interest. A letter of exchange - in fact a loan - taken out in one currency to be redeemed in another, with a built-in margin for profit on the deal. Since there were huge numbers of currencies in operation, even in Italy alone, bankers quickly got their feet under the table.

When it came to the size of the table, there was no one to rival Chigi. By 40, he was already reputed to be the richest man in Rome. His business employed some 20,000 people, he had a bed covered in ivory, gold and precious stones, a taste for parrots' tongues and live eels, and more silver and gold plate than the rest of the Roman nobility put together.

In case anyone should doubt it, at the end of each course of that banquet rather than use the same ones again, he had his guests throw their silver platters into the Tiber. It was by anyone's standard an outrageously ostentatious display of wealth.

But while this was an era of huge fortunes, it was also a time when governments could be nervous about levels of conspicuous spending. It is largely forgotten now, but for many centuries, Italian city states and other countries had in place regulations known as the sumptuary laws, which legislated against ostentatious display in all manner of things - from men and women's clothing to banquets, weddings and funerals.

Historians are divided on the meaning and importance of these laws, though not on their efficacy - everyone agrees they didn't really work. But the fact that they existed at all is worth exploring, particularly as we are now living through a devastating economic crisis where many people are angry at what they see as the excessive undeserved wealth of a few - bankers in particular - and the government's apparent reluctance to control it.

The original sumptuary laws had a religious element to them. We all know how hard it is for camels, let alone bankers, to get through the eye of a needle. And certainly most rich men, Chigi included, made sure they gave a share of their wealth to the church. His account books, like most others had a column dedicated to "To God and to Profit". What proportion of that filtered down into social welfare is hard to assess.

The wealthy would decorate churches

For each early Bill Gates or Warren Buffet, there were many others who were more interested in securing immortality through the building of their own chapels or decoration of churches. Art lovers standing in awe in the Sistine chapel have long had to square their own circle of a church which produced such sublime art at the expense of the brutally poor.

In fact, many of the states imposing limits on what you could spend on banquets, or weddings or funerals, did so because they were worried about the impact on the social and economic fabric, though not necessarily in ways you might expect.

At times when it cost serious dowry money to marry off daughters, the more you spent on weddings - and boy did people push the boat out, descriptions of some marriages read like the pages of Hello magazine - the more the state tried to urge restraint. This is the preamble to a 14th Century law in Lucca: "An inordinate multitude of ornaments, pearls, garlands, belts, banquets and other expenses at weddings means that women do not marry and so our city decreases, the old pass away and few children are born."

How far one spent one's money on luxuries rather than necessities was also under scrutiny. Though all that gold and silver stuff might give employment to a few artisans, there were times when there were more pressing needs for the economy. "Our state is less strong because money which should navigate and multiply lies dead, converted into vanities." So said the rulers of Venice.

The people who made the laws, of course, were exempt from them. The Doge and his family happily strutted their ceremonial stuff in public, even sailing in a gilded galleon each year to throw a gold ring into the lagoon to mark Venice's marriage with the sea. Such theatre of wealth, of course, was necessary for state identity. No-one's asking the Queen to sell off a couple of her tiaras to lessen the national deficit.

However, once his term of office was over, so - theoretically - was the Doge's allowed level of ostentation. And when things got shaky, as they did in the 16th Century after a humiliating defeat on the mainland, a ruling Doge once sent his own niece home from a ceremony because her dress had too much fabric in it. It may have been an example of political posturing, but it looked good.

I can't help thinking how for the last three years the Tory conference has banned the public drinking of champagne for fear of the message it might give out about fiddling while Rome burns.

Actually, at times of discontent or instability curbs on displays of wealth had less to do with worry about revolution from below than take over from the middle. With things going badly, men excluded from the ruling classes - the new merchant rich if you like, raking it in and showing it off - gave out a signal to the rest of the population that they looked - and perhaps could act - as powerful as the ones making a mess of it at the top.

Seen through this lens, the tension between the present government and the banking magnates as to who knows best how to create wealth and how they should be rewarded, seems queasily familiar.

Expensive weddings were targeted in 14th Century Italy

By Chigi's time, the ways around the laws were growing ever more insolent. The greatest failure was probably women's clothing. Who in their right mind would try to legislate for fashion? My favourite is a 15th Century story based on a true event in Florence, when the sumptuary police stop noble women on the streets because they are wearing silver buttons.

Far from being intimidated the women just laugh. "Oh, but these are not silver buttons." "Well, they look like buttons." "That may be, but they are actually snaps. Really! You don't know about snaps." And the poor officers go away in bewilderment, knowing they have been had, but not quite able to work out how.

On the other hand, I have a certain sympathy for the law in Venice which banned high-stilt shoes - often the preferred attire of courtesans - because they use too much material to cover them and risked injury and miscarriages. Who says we can't learn from history?

Greed

In the end nothing they did could stop people wanting to make money and show off the results. It was, after all, a function of human nature. Falling foul of the 10 commandments may have kept people at confession - or buying pardons on account - but it also kept the world turning.

After a while many didn't bother to hide it. Pagare le Pompe - paying the fine - was its own badge of wealth. Greed like usury was a sin that was fast becoming embedded into the economic system.

The Doge did not scrimp on luxuries

But get it wrong, take too many risks, bankrupt your business and no-one would bail you out. The Medici bank crumbled partly because of bad debts (except their creditors were Emperors and Popes), and partly because Lorenzo the Magnificent was more interested in collecting art and discussing Plato than balancing the books. No Northern Rock hand out there.

Indeed, when things got tough politically his son, a very uncharismatic chip off the old block, was booted out of Florence, their palace ransacked and its treasures auctioned off by the state. The dynasty was back in power soon enough.

But while their history includes corruption and tyranny, in their early banking days the Medici also spent a good chunk of their personal fortune financing the Florentine renaissance. Maybe if Fred Goodwin had been more of a Bill Gates, or even a Maurice Saatchi, his huge pension payout might not have incurred quite the level of public wrath.

Meanwhile, back at the Villa Farnesina the morning after that banquet, servants of the Chigi household were seen winching up nets from the bottom of the River Tiber to recover all that silver the guests had thrown in. Even the richest men know excessive waste when they see it.