On the Price of Magnificence

On the Price of Magnificence

A summary of a conference in Madrid (May 2019).

Only last Monday, a newspaper headline in The New York Times said ‘Ethics Outcry as Trump Touts “Magnificent” Doral for Next G7’, referring to the preparations for the 2020 G7 Summit in Doral, Florida. In response to the president’s statement of a ‘series of magnificent buildings’, The Associated Press generously filled the article with as many conflicts of interests as they could find. Only recently, other similar cases – from Mitterand’s Pyramid and Putin’s Winter Olympics –inspired the organisation of an international conference that aimed to reflect on the early modern history of magnificence, zooming in on the ethics of political expenditure and the role of public interest. Last spring saw the organisation of the conference ‘Magnificence in the 17th Century. Performing Splendour in Catholic and Protestant Contexts’. It was directed by Stijn Bussels (Leiden University), Bram Van Oostveldt (UvA), Gijs Versteegen and José Eloy Hortal Muñoz (Universidad Rey Juan Carlos, Madrid), and Ana Diéguez Rodríquez (Instituto Moll, Madrid), and took place in Madrid from 7 to 9 March 2019.

Giovanni da San Giovanni Giovanni da San Giovanni
Not surprisingly, the attributes of the allegory of magnificence are a crown, a cornucopia and coins. [i]

To truly grasp the history of seventeenth-century magnificence, we should, for a moment, turn away from its overwhelming splendour and theatricality, towards the philosophical reflections of ancient and medieval writers. To be magnificent in most seventeenth-century courtly and religious contexts meant to be aware of the ethical views written down by thinkers such as Aristotle and Thomas of Aquinas. They both described magnificence as a virtue: the virtue of spending large sums of money to contribute to noble and public purposes (see image). The Madrid conference not only addressed the rich multitude of milieus in which these ideas were studied in seventeenth-century Europe, but also revealed the extent to which these texts and their core concept could be used, cultivated and liberally interpreted – for the concept of magnificence works particularly well as a rhetorical means to boost and legitimise political actions. It could be stretched to suit whatever cause or logic: as an argument in favour of extravagant spending, or as an action of humble piety in service of God. To quote Anne-Madeleine Goulet (CNRS, Tours), magnificence turned out to be an ‘endogenous concept’ during the seventeenth century, an ethics that developed differently within different social contexts. In this sense, Victoire Malenfer (École Normale Supérieure, Paris) similarly argued, actions of magnificence generated their own discourses. This led many seventeenth-century thinkers to reflect on the nature and place of magnificence: was it a virtue or an instrument, did it emanate from the patron or the artist, and can poor people be magnificent? Four centuries later, the discourse on magnificence has not lost any of its seventeenth-century appeal.

[i] Giovanni da San Giovanni,Fame Showing the Wandering Philosophers to Tuscany and Magnificence, ca. 1635, fresco, Palazzo Pitti, Florence.