In Something of Myself, his 1935 autobiography, Kipling remembers that when he was a young man, working for the English newspaper in the Punjab, “I no more dreamed of dressing myself than I did of shutting an inner door or—I was going to say turning a key in a lock. But we had no locks.” Then follows a definition of ultimate luxury, “luxury of which I dream still.” It is a definition which I have tested on a number of persons of my acquaintance, if only to see whether they would be able to comprehend it in all its vastness, and all of them have admitted that they cannot. With the reader’s permission, I shall keep the magician’s white handkerchief draped over the birdcage for a few moments longer.
In a recent issue of Vanity Fair, a man introduced as “a top information-age entrepreneur”—which is how one might think of introducing Lorenzo de’ Medici—describes how he bought himself a private jet. He writes anonymously, because to his top information-age mind the shame of being thought a sybarite is greater than the exultation of being considered rich. Indeed, much of the story of his $I2-million purchase and refurbishment of the Gulfstream III (yes, an interior designer called Ms. Guice puts in an ostensibly long-legged appearance) is a kind of college sophomore’s simulacrum of a moral argument involving a furtive, shamefaced, mournfully subjective conscience (which asks, “who was I to spend this kind of money on myself?”) and a boastful, big-mouthed, practical necessity (which induces him to pay $36,000 “for two flat-screen TVs”). Finally he drops the name of Warren Buffett, one of the world’s wealthiest men, who has christened his private plane “The Indefensible as partial penance for the incongruous luxury.” Ah well, iss aw right th’n, innit, as fashionable people say nowadays in the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea.
Kipling was nothing if not honest, both as a writer and as a man, and there is no reason to doubt that while in Lahore he never worked less than ten and “seldom more than fifteen” hours a day, despite persistent fever and chronic dysentery. “I discovered,” he recalls, “that a man can work with a temperature of 104, even though next day he has to ask the office who wrote the article.” Typhoid and cholera were rampant, and “death was always our near companion.” At the start of his six-year stint on the paper, his salary was 100 rupees a month. He was only able to return to London after managing to sell the copyrights to Plain Tales from the Hills and Departmental Ditties to a native “who then controlled the Indian railway-bookstalls.” In short, I would wager that the colonial journalist had more stamina in his little finger than the top information-age entrepreneur has in his whole wallet. Luxury is not necessarily enfeebling.
Even the ultimate luxury experienced by Kipling, which was. . . . Reader, beware. I am being perfectly straightforward. I am not about to drop some relativistic paradox of the Russian soul school from Tolstoy to Solzhenitsyn, where a drink of water and a crust of bread are like the costliest wines and viands, where a man bereft of everything discovers the joy of the smallest something, where a once proud and powerful ban vivant experiences ecstasy in a jail cell as his body begins to absorb the almost human warmth of a rude wooden stool. The ultimate luxury experienced by Kipling was that every morning his valet would enter the bedroom while he was asleep bearing the razor and the soap, approach his master’s bed with feline, Machiavellian tread, and, without so much as a creak of a floorboard, begin to lather his cheeks.
“I was shaved before I was awake!” Can the top information-age entrepreneur fawned over by Vanity Fair get his sophomoric conscience around that one? Can I, a sincere sybarite in the closing years of the 20th century? Can anyone out there? But the real problem, of course, is not one of conscience. The problem is that, in the closing years of the 20th century, nobody can find a professional barber even in a barbershop— in London I once had a shave at Trumpers, the sole surviving gentlemen’s establishment in Curzon Street, with an aesthetic result as disastrous as the spiritual wounds were enduring while any prospect of engaging a valet who happens to be an amateur barber, at least capable of shaving his employer while he is awake, belongs to the realm of Hollywood fantasy. To expect him to do what Kipling’s valet did is fantasy cubed, and as I say, every man to whom I have read the relevant passage has agreed that the luxury it describes is closer to being absolutely and utterly unimaginable than any absurd fancy or secret longing which his own sinful mind has ever conceived.
But this is a letter from Florence, and I had better relate these musings to life in the cradle of the Renaissance before anybody feels cheated. First of all, there are still a few barbershops left here. Secondly, apart from the usual sightseers, tourists, and what British travel agents call “holiday-makers,” the town is crammed to overflowing with students—very rich and rich, young and not so young, but mostly American—who have come here “to study art” (if they went to a private school) or “to learn about art” (if they are pretty girls, as a few of them are). None of these people, as far as I have been able to determine, is aware that the elusive reality of which they seek to acquire a traveler’s knowledge, as though art were a fact of geography and education a discounted railway pass, is a cultural promontory that runs through the expanse of skill, such as that of a nonpareil barber, and the depth of luxury, such as the pleasure of being shaved in bed.
It is a truism tending toward banality that, during the centuries that made Florence what it was, art was craft. The artist’s divine gift was but a fanciful way of invoicing the artisan’s rare skill, another way of counting the cost of—and paying for—the frescoed ceiling, the family portrait with the angels, the inlaid commode, the marble putti in the ancestral chapel. Of course, this form of accounting is older than the Renaissance, as witness the origin of the word “talent” in the Greco-Roman monetary unit, but it was here in Florence that the system was properly modernized and streamlined. Here Orcagna, Brunelleschi, Ghiberti, Donatello, Uccello, Gozzoli, Verrochio, Pollaiuolo, Ghirlandaio all started out as apprentice goldsmiths. Here you could get your mistress painted snacking on almond macaroons with the head of John the Baptist in the foreground, and pay with a credit card.
Which brings us round to the equally venerable and corollary truism, this one concerning indulgence, dissolution, and all manner of unspeakable sumptuousness and naked luxury. Take a city of top information-age entrepreneurs with hardly an ethical scruple between them, add innumerable Talentis and Buontalentis in place of the sad little Ms. Guice, and instead of a sniveling article in a Conde Nast publication you get one of the longest chapters of Western civilization, say, 1246 (Santa Maria Novella begun) to 1580 (Palazzo Uffizi completed). It is obviously true that, in those days, even as art was craft, profligacy was aesthetics, more was more, and “simplicity,” in the words of the Russian proverb, “worse than theft.” Which did not mean, however, that everybody simply got drunk every night and made merry by leafing through pornographic magazines. For not only isn’t luxury necessarily enfeebling, it isn’t always a precursor of debauchery. Besides, how surely do the ways of austerity lead to vigor? And how good a safeguard against bestiality is discomfort?
Every great truism can only benefit from a timely and judicious inversion, and it occurs to me that, as the American boys and girls arrive in Florence to learn about art, they ought to be told that they are barking up the wrong tree. Because in the closing years of the 20th century, craft—not art—is art. Painters, poets, playwrights, philosophers are now a dime a dozen, thanks to the universal system of liberal education, while the skills of a professional barber, an accomplished baker, or a distinguished restaurateur are now as rare, as valuable, and as imperiled by the scruples of those who would not be known as sybarites as the talents of artists and writers in the darkest, hardest, meanest, least civilized or indulgent ages. Those who have no sympathy for the decline of such skills, and no will to save them through individual acts of patronage at the risk of being themselves considered decadent, can never acquire the knowledge of the genesis and procreation of talent known as the Renaissance, for which they have come here.
But instead of sympathy, passivity. Instead of absorption, blinkered, slavish diligence. Instead of Florence, a bottle of Coke and three straws. And finally I begin to dream of addressing these bejeaned Savonarolas, these top information- age entrepreneurs of the future, through a megaphone from the Amolfo Tower down to the Piazza della Signoria. You want to learn about art, boys and girls? Then patronize an expensive barber, for God’s sake! Buy a pink crocodile suit, have a master furrier make you an opera cloak trimmed in sable, have fresh millefoglie in bed every morning. Try not to order pizza by the slice! Who knows, perhaps the day will come when somebody suggests that you should get a Gulfstream, and you will answer that you’ve decided to get a valet instead, an old Florentine who is simply the Machiavelli of the straight razor. That would show education!