The sculptures and jewellery of Julia deVille are both luxurious and forbidding. No baroque extravagance is alien to her repertoire: silver chargers with cartouches on their architectural flanges, urns with volutes and florid articulation, copious ornaments from the age of authority. As if preparing the mise en scène for some exquisite banquet, she then sets the table with splendid rarities, like foetal deer or baby rabbit.
With these delicate condiments, however, the other side of baroque consciousness—vanitas—looms fatefully and grimly through taxidermy: all life, however young, ends in death. As spectators, we aesthetically savour animals who died in exquisite perfection, their bodies morbidly conserved as elegant artefact, encrusted with gems. The idea of combining opulence and death has more than lurid motives. DeVille’s discourse is not about love-death; her work has no interest in the vision of voluptuous expiry, where Romantic artists might have seen some heady appeal in perishing aesthetically. Her tender beasts sit in state and experience neither ecstasy nor pain in succumbing to their death, which must have happened in the abstract. Rather, her combination of natural beauty, ornamental grandeur, sentimentality, and the language of gastronomy invites us to contemplate the aesthetic economy, right down to the structure and basis of luxury.
Few concepts are so fraught with moral and aesthetic contradictions. Luxury, though sought with envy and cultivated competitively by all the advanced economies, has always attracted criticism. The ambivalence is so deeply a part of European culture that it finds an expression in the very language by which the idea is communicated. Our word luxury derives from the Latin for plenty (luxus) which spawned a derivative (luxuria) that already indicates a kind of rank superabundance, a sense retained in the English term luxuriant, as in describing thick undergrowth or a prolific pot of basil.
In the Renaissance, however, the somewhat wanton and overgrown associations of the Latin overtook the root, so to speak, to express an outrageous libidinous energy, impulsively lusty and expressing lack of control. The Italian term lussuria expressed lust or ‘illegitimate lewdness’, as Cesare Ripa says in his book of emblems from the early seventeenth century, which became a famous source-book for artists.1
Is luxury good or bad? You can almost see the development of language neurotically hedging its bets. To get around the embarrassment that we don’t know, that we simultaneously want to admire luxury (and to possess it) but also to abhor and stigmatize it, the European psyche hatched two terms which might take care of the equivocation. Let lussuria be disgusting and lewd; let it go wild and convulse, whence it indicates moral abandon and fornication alongside the randy appetites of goats and rats. Meanwhile, let us—as people of culture and aspiration—have the luxury of things, lusso, grand halls bedight with pictures and stucco and replete with tables bearing unaffordable sweetmeats.
Although the idea of luxury as a purely material superfluity—untainted by erotic excess—retained a separate term (lusso), in fact this form of privilege was also not without anxious suspicions and concerns for social control. Anything good by the neurosis of western culture is also something bad, because it might be owned by the wrong people or put to the wrong effect. In the fourth book of his influential treatise The Book of the Courtier from the early sixteenth century, Baldassare Castiglione implores us to ‘temper all superfluity’ for economic reasons, because wasting resources lays cities to ruin.2 Around lusso, he includes over-sumptuous private buildings, banquets, excessive dowries and pomp in jewellery and clothes. Productive capital would be tied up in aesthetic nonsense or vanity.