Aristotle’s concept of the magnificent emphasizes moderation (Howard). In his treatise on magnificence, Aristotle begins by considering money, distinguishing between a liberal man and a magnificent man by insisting that the former deals with ‘large sums’ while the latter concerns himself with ‘small ones’ (960). Through this analogy, Aristotle invites the reader to think of magnificence as that which arises from moderation. The opposite of magnificent for Aristotle is excess, which is ‘a sort of ’empty vanity,’ and deficiency’undue humility’ (960). Throughout his treatise, he applies concepts of moderation to define magnificence of various forms.
For architectural design in Renaissance Florence, Aristotle’s concept of magnificence had particular significance in the promotion of moderation as a desirable characteristic. Whereas traditional Christian ideas about penitence and charity call for an emphasis on something other than magnificence as defined by Aristotle, celebrating instead sparsity to an extent and the minimizing of material culture except in relation to the church and the worshiping of God, as Richard Goldthwaite suggests in ‘Identity and Consumerism in Renaissance Florence,’ the revived interests in classicism and in ideas about man’s relationship to the world encouraged consumer behavior and generated a willingness among individuals to pursue economic opportunities and engage in consumer activities (2-3).
As Goldthwaite comments in Wealth and the Development of Art in Italy, 1300-1600, the secular patronage of art arose from the growth of engagement in commercial activities among ordinary citizens, from the expansion of consumerism, which was also a product of the reintroduction of classicism and the revived interest it inspired in humankind rather than in the divine. The celebration of human excellence through art, through the patronage of it and through the collection of it, became something that ordinary citizens could aspire to. On the other hand, Aristotle’s notions about magnificence still seem to have fed into ideas about what types of art should be produced. As is apparent in the design of buildings such as the Arena Chapel and the Foundling Hospital of Florence, there was an interest in creating a balance, in preserving moderation as a guiding principle to achieve magnificence. The Arena Chapel is, externally, a relatively modest building. The Foundling Hospital, similarly, has a quite simple design. There is not the opulence that is found in earlier constructed religious buildings. Yet, these buildings clearly demonstrate an Aristotelean magnificence through their celebration of moderation; they show an engagement with Aristotelean principles of design because they are formed to be aesthetically pleasing.
The distinctions between the two buildings apparent in the timeframe between their constructions is perhaps worth considering, too. The Arena Chapel reflects the spending of money upon a clearly religious cause and reflects the more traditional mode of patronage applicable in Europe. The Foundling Hospital, however, with its emphasis on a distinct, social function, is much more engaged with the idea of citizenship. The relative functions of these buildings also tie into some of the ideas that Goldthwaite brings up in Wealth and the Development of Art in Italy, 1300-1600, namely the way that the role of the citizen in cities expanded during the Renaissance period through moderation.
In part, it could be argued that the moderation reflected in the design of these buildings, balanced to achieve magnificence, is a reflection of their function. The Chapel is a religious building and the hospital is intended to perform a public service, meeting a social need by providing care to the less fortunate. In relation to Aristotelean notions of magnificence, it would presumably be inappropriate for such buildings to demonstrate great opulence because it would detract from their function. This idea is somewhat reminiscent of the idea of the liberal man and the magnificent man and how they treat money according to Aristotle. The need for moderate humility also calls for balance, though. Aristotle rejects ‘undue humility’ (960) as readily as excess. The symmetry and the scale of the buildings, however, reflect the appropriate interest in achieving not empty vanity but appropriate aesthetic quality.
By engaging with the principles of magnificence that Aristotle promoted, Renaissance architecture promotes a new kind of value that applies not just to the physical appearance of buildings but to wealth and to the individual as a citizen of states. Although, as Goldthwaite suggests in Wealth and the Development of Art in Italy, 1300-1600, there was a certain degree of competition among citizens, an excessive show of wealth was not desirable either. Engagement with Aristotelean values established clear parameters for secular building projects and citizen involvement in them.
- Aristotle. ‘On Magnifience.’ The Basic Works of Aristotle. Ed. Richard McKeon. New York: Random House, 1941. [Pages]. Print.
- Goldthwaite, Richard A. ‘Identity and Consumerism in Renaissance Florence.’ [Book]. Baltimore: John Hopkins University, [Date]. Print.
- Wealth and the Demand for Art in Italy, 1300-1600. Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press, [Date]. Print.
- Howard, Peter. Creating Magnificence in Renaissance Florence. Toronto: Centre for Reformation and Renaissance Studies, 2012. Print.