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Magnificence and Splendor:
Redefinitions of Wealth in Fifteenth Century Florence
Magnificence is an attribute of expenditures of the kind which we call honourable, that is those connected with the gods --votive offerings, buildings, and sacrifices-- and similarly with any form of religious worship, and all those that are proper objects of public-spirited ambition, as when people think that they ought to equip a chorus or a trireme, or entertain in the city, in a brilliant way. But in all cases...we have regard to the agent as well and ask who he is and what means he has; for the expenditure should be worthy of his means, and suit not only the result but also the producer. Hence a poor man cannot be magnificent, since he has not the means with which to spend large sums fittingly.... But great expenditure is becoming to hose who have suitable means to start with, acquired by their own efforts of from ancestors or connections, and to people of high birth and reputation, and so on; for all these things bring them greatness and prestige.... A magnificent man will also furnish his house suitably to his wealth..., and will spend by preference on thse works that are lasting.... [Aristotle, Nichomachean Ethics, 1122]
Wealth is indeed useful, since it is both an embellishment for those who possess it, and the means by which they may exercise virtue. It is also of benefit to one's sons, who can by means of it rise more easily to positions of honor and distinction [Leonardo Bruni, Preface to Book I of the Aristotelian Treatise on Economics, or Family Estate Management Addressed to Cosimo de' Medici: p. 305]....
Richard Goldthwaite, Wealth and the Demand for Art in Italy 1300-1600:
p. 206: ...Petrarch and the first generation of his followers at the end of the fourteenth century who upheld the model of the contemplative life, had embraced the ideal of poverty, inspired no doubt by Franciscan spirituality but also by the Stoic doctrine of indifference to material things found in some Roman writers.... The next generation of humanists, however, had very different ideas, especially those Florentines who addressed themselves not so much to other intellectuals as to a public of wealthy entrepreneurs. They discovered a different side of Aristotle --above all, in the pseudo-Aristotelian Economics, translated and edited by Leonardo Bruni --that opposed poverty and reevaluated the importance of private wealth for both the well-being of society and the self-fulfillment of the individual. Bruni, Alberti, and Matteo Palmieri, far from condemning wealth, or being suspicious of it, now extolled it as a necessary condition for the exercise of virtue in the active life. Wealth presents a moral challenge because it puts virtue to the test in ways not experienced by the person who is not burdened by the encumbrances of material possessions. These Florentine writers assumed an active involvement in civic life, where the rich have a special role to play; and they recognized both the reputation and the special authority the rich enjoy among their fellows. What these intellectuals were in fact doing was establishing the nobility of a wealthy upper class that had no cultural traditions to appeal to for underpinning its status: its only credential was wealth and what wealth could buy --political power and social status....
The central problem that had to be addressed was the proper use of wealth. The humanists considered the problem entirely in secular terms, although their reliance on classical sources, above all Aristotle, who had exercised so much influence throughout the Middle Ages, gave their arguments a familiar ring. For them wealth does indeed have a usefulness beyond the traditional claims on it by charity and good works, and this usefulness can be entirely a matter of private advantage / p. 207: and pleasure.... To an extent they defined the usefulness of wealth in the traditional aristocratic terms of glory seeking, albeit now in a civic context; but the consumption model the humanists came up with was not the traditional one of the feudal nobility. It reflected the new habits of spending that possessed Italians at the time: it centered on architecture. As indicated in the previous section, the quality of magnificence associated with architecture was highly touted throughout the fifteenth century by numerous writers.
|Magnificence is a more elevated form of liberality having to do with enormous expenditures --for example, when someone builds a public theater, or sponsors the Megalensian Games, or a gladiatorial show, or a public banquet. These acts, and acts of this sort which surpass the powers of the average private person, have a certain aura of greatness about them and are spoken of, not simply as liberal, but as magnificent [Leonardo Bruni, An Isagogue of Moral Philosophy, p. 276]....|
Magnificence is the key term in the discussion by the humanists of the positive uses of wealth. In dealing with the subject they of course referred to classical authorities; but at the same time they were also appropriating a medieval notion associated with the uses of wealth by princes. Feudal princes became more self-conscious about magnificence when they began to lead a more settled existence. The concept involved the splendor with which they sought to endow their presence with the authority of their position in the feudal hierarchy, but it also called for generosity in the spirit of virtuous liberality. Medieval discussions of liberality, largely inspired by Aristotle, focused on the right uses of wealth: liberality was the mean between the extremes of the vices of prodigality and avarice. It was, however, a princely virtue involving those gestures of spectacle, feasts, gifts, and charity by which a prince asserted a public presence.... Magnificence, in a sense,was a rationalization for luxury, which was otherwise condemned as sinful and unnatural. In the courtly literature of England, which has been carefully combed for usage of the term, magnificence was synonymous with magnanimity and was inextricably associated with the Christian concept of nobility; and it was demonstrated in generous and splendid hospitality on a grand public scale. This sense of term continues to find expression in the literary tradition through the Renaissance and into the seventeenth century....
The January page from the Très riches heures presents a good example of what Goldthwaite calls princely magnificence. In this miniature the patron of the manuscript, Jean duc de Berry is shown celebrating the New Years Day feast of étrennes. He and the rest of his court is turned out in luxurious fabrics. On the side board are exhibited the luxurious metalwork which were presumably gifts exchanged at this feast. In the background hangs a tapestry illustrating the Fall of Troy which provided the medieval noble the model of a good warrior. The feast of étrennes was specifically associated with the renewal of allegiances. The gifts exchanged gave physical testament to the personal allegiances.
/p. 208: In Italy the term underwent a redefinition to fit a nonfeudal society. The basic meaning remained the same: magnificence is the use of wealth in a way that manifests those qualities that express one's innate dignity, thereby establishing one's reputation by arousing the esteem and admiration of others. But it is now distinct from princely magnanimity and largely deprived of its overtone of Christian charity. It becomes associated with that greatness of spirit so characteristic of the humanists' notion of the civic nature of man. True to the Aristotelian idea, however, it is regarded as a social concept, involving a grand gesture made toward the collectivity of society if for no other reason than it provided a spectacle on the public stage.
Also truer to the original discussion of the concept in Aristotle, the Italians explicitly associate magnificence with the proper use of wealth and money in general and not just by princes in particular; it is a virtue that only the rich can possess.... Giovanni Pontano, who takes up the subject in a tract written on just those social virtues that involve the spending of money, opens his discussion calling magnificence the "fruit" of wealth. Although magnificence involves an extraordinary manifestation of wealth and luxury, these writers shift the emphasis from expenditures for the public good to private expenditures to establish one's public reputation or simply to give one pleasure. Aristotle had emphasized the public-spirited nature of magnificence and only in passing allowed for its application alsos to the furnishing of the rich man's house as a suitable use of his wealth. Alberti, however, elaborates on how such possessions, by enhancing a man's reputation and fame, strengthen the public image of his family and help build those networks of friends that were so important in urban public life. Pontano, too, shows how magnificence can consist of private possessions as well as extravagant expenditures for ceremonies, feasts, hospitality, gifts, and the other gregarious activities of an expansive social life. Thus a classical notion with all its added feudal overtones was detached from claims of feudal legitimacy and power and appropriated to serve an elite in a society with different foundation....
pp. 220-221: The concept of magnificence was by far the most frequently cited rationale for building in fifteenth-cetury Italy. The point of departure was Aristotle's notion, found also in Aquinas, that the virtuous use of money consisted in expenditures for religious, public, and private things if they were permanent.... The humanists took full possession of this classical notion that buildings as permanent private monuments adorning public space assured the fame that great and worthy men seek. "Since all agree that we should endeavor to leave a reputation behind us, not only for our wisdom but our power too," asserts Alberti (appealing to the authority of Thucydides), "for this reason we erect great structures, that our posterity may suppose us to have been great persons." Building is therefore an activity that could be rationalized (always echoing classical authors) as the proper expression of one's inner qualities, a moral act as the measure of a man: "the magnificence of a building," according to Alberti, "should be adapted to the dignity of the owner," and for Palmieri "he who would want...to build a house resembling the magnificent ones of noble citizens would deserve blame if first he has not reached or excelled their /p. 221 virtue."
p. 248: The Medici palace represented one of the most splendid residences in fifteenth-centuy Ialy, and the famous inventory of its contents made on the death of Lorzenzo il Magnifico in 1492 reflects something of the new spending habits. The forms of conspicuous wealth associated with princely treasuries in the north are less in evidence: there is little silver plate, and liturgical utensils and vestments in the chapel fill up less than three folio sides. Arms and armor are concentrated in the chamber of Lorenzo's son Piero, and in the munitions rooms; and little was in evidence in the rest of the house. Most of the gold jewelry falls into the range of only 15 to 30 florins, and the most precious jewels are assessed at no more than the ancient cameos. The extraordinary collection of Chinese porcelain had a relatively modest monetary value. The most valuable items are antiquities, such as cameos and objects made out of semiprecious stones. The splendor that emanated from the contents of Italy's most magnificent household at the time was not in the intrinsic value of rare materials or even in market value.
In the overall picture of luxury expenditures, in short, consumption demonstrated taste more conspicously than wealth. The more intimate relation with objects sharpened one's appreciation of them for their craftsmanship apart from the inherent value of materials and generated that self-conscious refinement of a sense of taste that is one of the highest expressions of culture developed in Italy during this period. Perhaps, as is often said, there is no accounting for taste; but it is another /p. 249: matter when taste, whatever that taste may be, is extended to new kinds of objects. What is taste, after all, but one way of transforming physical objects into high culture, thereby rationalizing the feeling of possessiveness, the sense of attachment to physical objects. These objects incorporated values other than sheer wealth: for a product as mundane as a maiolica plate, these values ranged from standards of personal comportment at table to the literary erudition displayed by its painted decoration. These were social values through which people sought to say something about themselves and to communicate that to others, thereby establishing their credentials as a new elite, one of wealth, to be sure, but also one of taste and refinement. As Sabba da Castiglione wrote in his chapter on household ornaments, musical instruments, sculpture, antiquities, medals, engravings, pictures, wall hangings all testify to the intelligence, civility, and manners of the owner.
Splendor is one word Italians repeatedly used in talking about this phenomenon. The humanist Matteo Palmieri exalts splendor as the quality sought in all those things needed to enhance one's life with beauty ("per bellezza di vita"), including the house, its furnishings, and other apurtenances for living in private splendor.... Machiavelli observes that Italians eat and even sleep with greater splendor than other Europeans; and Pontano criticizes the French because they eat only to satisfy their gluttony and not to endow their lives with splendor. It is the complement of magnificence, being the logical extension of magnificence into the private world. Whereas magnificence is manifest in public architecture, splendor expresses itself in the elegance and refinement with which one lives his life within buildings; it therefore consists of household furnishings, everyday utensils, and ornaments of personal adornment a things that do with town houses as well as in the gardens that go along with villas in the countryside.
Excerpt from Richard Goldthwaite, The Building of Renaissance Florence: p. 83: At the center of the humanist justification of the social value of wealth was the concept of magnificence, the visual expression of a man's inherent worth that gained him respect, friendship, and authority. Magnificence was a public concept expressed in display --in elaborate ceremony and in possessions, above all, buildings. As enduring private monuments that adorned public space, buildings assured the fame that great men seek. "Since all agree that we should endeavor to leave a reputation behind us, not only for our wisdom but our power too," asserts Alberti, "for this reason we erect great structures, that our posterity may suppose us to have been great persons." Once the building became the measure of the man, its construction became a moral act. For Alberti "the magnificence of a building should be adapted to the dignity of the owner"; Palmieri warned that "he who would want ... to build a house resembling the magnificent ones of noble citizens would deserve blame if first he has not reached or excelled their virtue." This theme could be played in a Christian mode as well, as it was when the Augustinian canon Timoteo Maffei came to the defense of what seemed to many to be the /p. 84: extravagant building activities of Cosimo de' Medici. Taking up Saint Thomas's notion of magnficence as virtue Maffei made the point that a building --he had in mind the Badia at Fiesole, subsidized by Cosimo-- was the material evidence for the qualityh of its builder and a worthy example for others to follow. As the Duke of Milan was told in a report from his Florentine correspondent on the newly built Medici palace, "Because of the magnanimity and greatness that you have, you too would want to do something worthy -- and not only equal this but surpass it if that were possible."
This rationale for building was not just so much rhetoric. Building was widely regarded as the mark of the man, worthy of mention in any biographical assessment. Hardly anyone writing about Cosimo de' Medici failed to mention his building. Giovanni Rucellai, himself no mean builder , considered all of Cosimo's building "worthy of a crowned king," and it was the only thing a much simpler man, the money-changer and scribe Bese Ardinghelli, commented on when he briefly noted Cosimo's death in his book of memoranda. Fame came to Filippo Strozzi almost as soon as work began on his great palace. No one less than the duke of Ferrara sought plans and details of the building, and at home and abroad the project loomed as monument to a man and his family....
The argument that fame could be achieved through building made a great deal of sense to Florentines and to upper-class Italians everywhere. Unlike the feudal elites of northern Europe, they lived in cities, where there was a public to whom they could display their status with appropriate monuments, and with ruins all around to remind them of the grandeur that had been Rome's, they had a model to follow in their desire to make their mark on the future. Inasmuch as the new architecture of the Renaissance consciously imitated that of Rome, style itself became an important element of the immortality these men sought in their buildings....
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