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Luxury of ostentation and luxury of comfort. Between economics and politics: a Milanese language of reform in the age of Il Caffè. This essay considers the eighteenth-century European debate on luxury and focuses in particular on the distinction between positive luxury – which was considered economically useful and capable of enhancing economic and social development – and negative luxury – which was seen as an essentially unproductive form of overspending. In the Italian setting that distinction, which had been at the centre of European debate since the 1750s, was especially discussed in Milan during the 1760s and 1770s within the circle of reformers gathered around the periodical Il Caffè. One purpose of this essay is to analyse the way in which the contrast between negative and positive luxury took shape in the specific context of the Milanese circle of Accademia dei Pugni. In particular, the essay sets out to prove that the contrast between negative and positive luxury became key to the political language of reform and criticism of hereditary aristocracy and of the conservative institutions regulating landed property and its transmission. The reformers’ goal was in fact to give impetus to a new legitimization of the ruling classes on the basis of economic effectiveness and to promote the abolition of legal institutions such as the majorat and the fideicommissum, which were designed to protect the property of traditional nobility. In this perspective the Milanese, or rather the Italian, context emerged as a distinctive case characterised by a language of transformation of the ancien régime social structures and by strong demands for the redistribution of wealth. Another purpose of the essay is to explore the circulation of ideas between France and the Milanese intellectual environment, and in particular to examine how the circle around Il Caffè was stimulated by the French debate on luxury through the opposing perspectives developed, respectively, by writers around the superintendent of commerce Vincent de Gournay and the Physiocrats. Among the writers who took a positive view of luxury, Forbonnais’s and Plumard de Dangeul’s criticism of luxury whenever it was not associated with productive activities such as trade and agriculture, followed a precise political strategy by attacking the financiers and their accumulation of huge fortunes concentrated in the French capital. The Physiocrats took a different view and identified two different types of luxury. In particular, Quesnay distinguished between luxe de décoration and luxe de subsistence. He justified the former as a manifestation of landowners’ free disposal of wealth, but was also aware that, differently from the luxe de subsistence, it could seriously reduce the net product available for reproduction and accumulation. The essay, by focusing on the semantic dimension, shows that Milanese writers such as Beccaria and Verri developed an original framework combining the consideration of the contrast between useful and harmful luxury in view of a specific political objective (a theme characteristic of Vincent de Gournay’s circle) with the emphasis on agriculture and landowners’ expenses (a typical feature of the Physiocratic approach).
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