Book Launch: Magnificence in the Seventeenth Century Jacob van der Ulft, The Town Hall on Dam Square (1653). Drawing, 415 × 541 mm. Collection Atlas Splitgerber, City Archive Amsterdam.

Book Launch: Magnificence in the Seventeenth Century

On February 4th, Professor Stijn Bussels (Leiden University), Dr. Gijs Versteegen (Universidad Rey Juan Carlos), and Professor Walter Melion (Emory University) presented their new publication, Magnificence in the Seventeenth Century: Performing Splendour in Catholic and Protestant Contexts.

The book, edited by Bussels and his colleagues, discusses how the concept of magnificence functioned as a social construction in seventeenth-century Europe. They argue that, although this period has been described as the ‘Age of Magnificence’, no concrete attempts have been made to investigate how the term functioned. Working from an ethical, religious, political, aesthetic, and cultural standpoint, the book reflects on how the concept of magnificence was engaged with in both Catholic and Protestant contexts. Specifically, how magnificence was expressed in and through civic and courtly festivities, such as ceremonies and theatre, and visual art, like architecture, painting and sculpture.

After an introduction by Stijn Bussels, both Gijs Versteegen and Walter Melion emphasised the multidisciplinary approach of the volume, noting that this resulted in a nuanced and varied examination of magnum facere (the Latin origin of ‘magnificence’). This is evident in the multitude of themes that can be found in the book, from Alessandra Mignatti’s chapter on the connection between regality and magnificence in Milanese festivals, to Michèle-Caroline Heck’s reflection on Aristotle’s definition of magnificence in art theory. Versteegen argued that this circumstantial condition of magnificence explains its adaptability to different cultural, religious, and historical contexts. Melion concluded that what studies on magnificence needed “was a book like this to explain how this critical category of magnificence operates in and through the apparatus of spectacle and the ceremonial of festivities”.

Federico Bianchi & Cesare Laurentio, Exequies in S. Maria della Scala for Philip IV of Spain, 3 February 1666. (1666). Engraving, 26.4 × 19.5 cm. Civica Raccolta delle Stampe Achille Bertarelli, Milan.

The launch continued with two reflections on the publications by Nafsika Athanassoulis (independent researcher) and Guido Guerzoni (Bocconi University).

Athanassoulis commented on the philosophical thread running through all contributions. As explained in the introduction of the volume, Aristotle defines the concept of magnificence (μεγαλοπρέπεια) as a virtue connected to the idea of wealth, implying that the performance of magnificence requires “the magnificent man to be able to spend a large sum of money”. Athanassoulis claimed that, as little research has been conducted on the intersections between philosophy and magnificence to date, this study exemplifies how “magnificence can be expressed centuries after Aristotle in a huge variety of ways”.

Guido Guerzoni praised the volume as a foundational book with several promising points of development. First, the political awareness of magnificence that is touched upon in this book provides insight into the useful theoretical frameworks that motivated everyday decisions in the seventeenth century. Projects such as the building of the Cappella dei Principi at San Lorenzo in Florence, described by Lindsay Alberts in the volume, provided jobs for workers and involved various budgets, ultimately resulting in a redistribution of the effects of magnificence beyond the ‘magnificent man’. Secondly, according to Guerzoni, this book offers valuable insight into how magnificence involves ideas of social emulation and the imposing of certain role models and standards.

The session concluded with interesting questions from the audience, most of which were centred on the idea of magnificence in our current time. One audience member wondered whether being charitable can be considered the ‘new magnificence’, asking whether providing clean water, for instance, is a contemporary form of showcasing magnificence. It is clear that today, celebrities and modern monarchies (as one audience member noted) are increasingly engaged in philanthropy and charitable giving; King Willem-Alexander and Queen Máxima, for instance, are engaged with the Orange Fund and support social engagement. There is, however, a distinction, as charity implies a distribution of resources to give to others while magnificence is the display of wealth for the sake of display.

Magnificence in the Seventeenth Century: Performing Splendour in Catholic and Protestant Contexts is currently available in the University Library and on Brill.com. It is also possible to watch the book launch here.

Cappella dei Principi at San Lorenzo in Florence. Elias Rovielo, 2017 (Flickr).

Cassandra Langenskiöld is an MA Museums and Collections student at Leiden University. Her main interests lie in the art of Early Modern Europe and the Renaissance but also of the modern and contemporary periods. Her thesis focuses on the use of portrait collections by female regents in the legitimation of their rule in the 16th century Netherlands. Alongside her studies, she volunteers in the gallery scene in Rotterdam.


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