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Biagio di Antonio and Jacopo del Sellaio’s Morelli Chest and Spalliera, with scenes from Roman history, 1472. Photograph: Richard Valencia/The Courtauld Gallery

The room glows with gold and art. Colossal chests with feet carved into talons squat luxuriously. The paintings embedded in them – scenes of tournaments, battles, episodes from ancient history – seem frankly secondary to the sheer display of wealth. Rich people certainly knew how to live in Italy five hundred years ago.

Love and Marriage in Renaissance Florence at London’s Courtauld Gallery is an exhibition of “wedding chests”, huge items of furniture that were an essential part of the equipage of a newly married couple of good family in 15th and 16th-century Florence. These ornate, finely carved items were decorated with paintings and also had painted backboards above them: if you look at Renaissance paintings in the National Gallery, including Piero di Cosimo’s Battle of the Centaurs and Sandro Botticelli’s Venus and Mars, you may wonder why they so often have a wide horizontal shape. This is probably because they were originally associated with this kind of bedroom furniture. The Courtauld owns the only two examples of these chests that still possess their original backboards – so this is a chance for them to contextualise their treasures.

It is also a lie.

Perhaps lie is too strong a word. But this exhibition – which is at a gallery closely associated with Britain’s leading academic department of art history – expresses a view of the Renaissance that I believe is fatally skewed. This is the idea that the Renaissance was above all a great burst of consumerism, a wave of buying, in which wealthy merchants splashed out on objects of all kinds. It’s an idea that grew up in the 1980s and 1990s, popularised by Lisa Jardine’s book Worldly Goods, theorised in Richard Goldthwaite’s work Wealth and the Demand for Art in Italy 1300-1600, and recycled since then in many exhibitions and learned articles. I wonder if this idea of the Renaissance as one huge spending spree will survive the current economic crisis.

People look for mirrors of themselves in history. In the 19th century, the Swiss historian Jacob Burckhardt saw the Renaissance as the birth of the modern middle-class world he inhabited. In the 1980s, when greed was good, people started to fixate on the gilded consumers of the past – and not just in the Renaissance. Consumer revolutions have also been discovered in the 18th century and even in the Bronze Age. I suspect these commodity-conscious theories will start to look less interesting now the wheels have fallen off the free market.

There’s something narrow and dry about reducing the Renaissance or any other cultural epoch to “material culture”. Sure, people spent lots of money on art in the Renaissance and paintings were luxury items, but aren’t there more interesting things to say about, for example, Titian’s Diana and Actaeon?

I’m not pleading for a spiritual idea of art over a material one. Art is a part of everyday life, but it touches on many regions of that life, from beliefs in magic and the supernatural to politics, war and sex. The greatness of Renaissance art lies in its ambition and poetry, which has more to do with ideas than objects. In another current exhibition, a reconstruction of Paolo Veronese’s Petrobelli Altarpiece at Dulwich Picture Gallery (until 3 May), you can see an immensely extravagant religious painting commissioned by private donors. But you miss the point if you dwell on how much the Petrobelli family paid for it. You reduce the sublime to the slightly dull. The materialist view of the Renaissance has helped make the greatest period in cultural history a bit less exciting.

Jonathan Jones