Throughout history, the noble classes have been famed for their decadent lifestyles. The landed gentry are renowned for the vastness and splendour of their plush homes, estates, palaces and castles. Stories of wealthy aristocrats over the ages are rife with lavish parties and bountiful balls. The higher echelons of the nobility have become synonymous with rich living and extravagant banquets, their immense dining tables heaving with swathes of sumptuous food and drink. And the finest ladies of the esteemed upper classes are notorious for their love of exquisite fashions and opulent jewels.
Although the aristocracy first began to emerge into a structured social hierarchy during the Middle Ages, the period most evocative of this noble decadence is undoubtedly the Age of the Renaissance.
The Aristocracy & The Renaissance
The Renaissance period was a time of discovery and rebirth in many ways, including a cultural shift towards an appreciation and enjoyment of the finer things in life. And the social groups most likely to experience first-hand this return to life's pleasures and delights were the royal and noble classes of the day.
Gerard van Honthorst, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
Living in the orbit of the immensely wealthy royal families, the dukes, earls, counts and lords who lived and prospered during the centuries of the Renaissance were ideally placed to witness and enjoy this new style of living - an unprecedented age of extravagance, opulence and ostentation.
High-born & High Living
These Renaissance nobles were very much a product of their times - times very different from the ideas of equality and democracy that are so familiar to us today. Many aristocrats were raised from birth in palatial and decadent surroundings, taught to consider themselves as superior and elite, raised to view wealth, luxury and the best of everything as completely normal, maybe even accompanied by an inborn sense of entitlement.
The idea that the privileged elite had been assigned their lot in life by a higher power was a very popular idea during the development of the royal and noble classes. Many nobles believed that life had dictated their place in the social order, that they were destined for wealth and plenty, just as the lowliest peasant was born into their place in the world. It’s thought that during these pre-modern times, people accepted their status without question, quite often glad of their position in life. The idea that the peasants would aspire to noble life is applying modern ideals to a time before similar notions had developed. In this light, the lavish living is more understandable, and perhaps the hedonist Renaissance nobles could be forgiven for their excesses and extravagance.
A Spirit of Decadence
The extent to which many Renaissance nobles enjoyed and flaunted their wealth and privilege may seem indecent, profligate or immoral from today's politically correct standpoint, but during earlier centuries, life could be extremely unpredictable. The threats of war and disease were ever-present, and the changing favours of the monarchy could reduce a noble family's fortunes virtually overnight. The average lifespan during the 15th, 16th and 17th centuries was far from the 4 score years and ten that we can hope for today. Life expectancy throughout Europe between the 1500s and 1800 was between 30 and 40 years old - approximately half the life span that many are fortunate enough to enjoy today.
Allowing for the uncertainty and volatility of the times, along with the fact that by the Renaissance period, many noble families had enjoyed advantaged lives and upbringings for several generations, it's easy to imagine that a spirit of decadence and unrestrained enjoyment of life might be more acceptable.
The extent to which the lifestyles of the nobility could be viewed as decadent is solely by comparison to the lifestyles of the other members of their community or fellow countrymen and women. It's only by comparing the rich living to the poverty and mundane existence of the larger peasant populations that the noble classes excesses seem to be immoderate. And yet many noble families were generous benefactors to the local community, establishing charitable organisations to help the most disadvantaged groups. Although the Renaissance nobles lived much richer and grander lives than the feudal nobility of their ancestors, plenty of these modern aristocrats maintained the old traditions and values of charity, benevolence and helping those less fortunate.
The Nobility & The Arts
The aristocrats of the Renaissance period undoubtedly spent enormous sums of money on their lavish lifestyles, follies and fancies. Yet they were also responsible for funding many of the historic and pivotal advances in the arts. Many noble families were patrons of the important artists, sculptors, scientists, explorers and inventors responsible for some of the Renaissance’s most exciting and enlightening cultural advances.
John Collier, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
The Borgias, for example, were one of the most infamously decadent of Renaissance noble families, famed for their vast wealth and liberal spending, yet they were also the benefactors for substantial works of art and architecture, such as the magnificent St Peter's Basilica in the Vatican City.
For those fascinated by the lifestyles of the aristocracy throughout the ages, the Renaissance period offers some of the most opulent and extravagant examples of decadent noble living. From the fashions to the culinary delights, from the homes and gardens to the luxurious banquets and parties - the lavish lifestyles of Renaissance nobles provide a tantalising glimpse of the decadence that can accompany the enviable position of power and wealth within a flourishing society.
And if an accident of birth had determined that their role in the social order would be one of wealth and privilege - who could blame them for enjoying it?
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