Cheap Magnificence? Imitation and Low-Cost Luxuries in Renaissance Italy

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Research units


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.


Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationLuxury and the Ethics of Greed in Early Modern Italy
EditorsCatherine Kovesi
Publication statusPublished - 1 Dec 2018
MoE publication typeA3 Part of a book or another research book

Publication series

NameEarly European Research

    Research areas

  • Early Modern, Renaissance, Material culture, luxury, history

ID: 34350782