Magnificence (History of ideas)

Magnificence (History of ideas)

The word magnificence comes from the Latin “magnum facere”, which means to do something great. The Latin word draws on the Greek “megaloprépeia”. This noun conveys the meaning of doing something great which is fitting or seemly to the circumstance. Magnificence is a philosophical, aesthetic and socio-economic notion deeply rooted in Western culture since classical antiquity. It regards the greatness of actions, courage, excellence, honour, generosity, and splendour of lifestyles of noble purposes.


Magnificence in Classical Antiquity


Plato offered the first philosophical interpretation of the concept of magnificence. He separated megalopsychía – magnanimity – from megaloprépeia, which had been synonymous in archaic Greek [1] [2]. Plato’s idea of magnificence is presented in the fifth and sixth books of the Republic as the quality of the philosopher-king. Only those with a philosophical and educational temperament understand the difference between good and evil. The philosopher has an excellent memory, learns easily, is magnificent, gracious, the friend of truth, justice, courage and temperance (487 a2-8)[3]. This, then, is the person to whom the state must be entrusted, when perfected by age and education.

Herodotus and Xenophon

The historians Herodotus and Xenophon proposed an economic and social interpretation of magnificence. They used the term to describe the donation of private money and property to support public works or needs. In ancient Greek and Middle-Eastern societies it was a widespread custom. In fact affluent citizens holding public positions were expected to use their own money for a wide range of activities which were deemed important by their communities. Magnificence is thus connected to liberality, to high lifestyles, and to wealthy citizens. In the Histories, Herodotus gives numerous examples of magnificence. Amyntas invited the Persians to feast with him and entertained them with great generosity and displays of friendship (5, 18). Clisthenes, who is seeking a good wedding for his daughter, treats the suitors sumptuously (6, 128). Xenophon, in his treatise Oeconomicus introduces magnificence within the meaning of wealth and social obligations [4]. Connected to the phenomon of evergetism described by Paul Veyne,affluent citizens are called upon to offer many costly sacrifices such as building all sorts of public works, such as fortifications, war boats, temples, or amphitheatres, to supplying an army with all the equipment and provisions it needed, to offering entertainment and shows, and offering lavish hospitality to and hosting prominent foreign guests. Even fellow-citizens must be plied them with all sorts of nice things. Magnificence is thus connected to liberality, to high lifestyles, and to wealthy citizens. In the Histories, Herodotus gives numerous examples of magnificence such as Polycrates (3, 123, 1), or the Scythians who celebrate a festivity of the goddess Cybele with magnificence (4, 7, 3). In the Oeconomicus, Xenophon addresses the meaning of wealth in Greek society. Critobulus, says Socrates in the dialogue, is called upon to be magnificent in order to live up to his reputation as an affluent citizen. All these deeds gave public honour to the wealthy citizens and the entire city. Xenophon extends magnificence also to women [5]. Mania, the widow of Zenis, governor of Aeolis, non only convinced the Persian satrap Pharnabazus to appoint her as the new governess, but excelled in her military, political and economic duties. Furthemore, she never lacked in magnificence whenever it was needed ('Hellenica', III, 10-13).


In the works Eudemian Ethics and Nicomachean Ethics Aristotle offered a philosophical, ethical, and aesthetic interpretation of magnificence which would have an extensive influence throughout the following centuries. In the fourth book of the Nicomachean Ethics, magnificence is described as the ethical virtue concerned with money: “it is a fitting expenditure involving largeness of scale” (IV, 2, 1122a 23). Aristotle however insists the type of expenditure must be appropriate to the circumstance. Hence not every type of action requires the same type of expense. As we can see, Aristotle, like Plato, consolidated the separation of the virtues of magnificence and magnanimity. Drawing, however, on Xenophon, he solemnized the economic aspect of a great expenditure turning it into an ethical virtue. With Aristotle’s interpretation, magnificence also becomes an aesthetic concept [6]. Magnificence becomes an art in itself. It requires that one understands what type of expenditure is needed and does so tastefully. A magnificent man knows that the expenditure should be large, but appropriate to who is actually spending, the circumstance and the object of the expense. It is no surprise that the great Aristotelian scholar David Ross suggested one of the most interesting comments on the concept when he claimed that: magnificence turns out to be mainly a matter of aesthetic good taste [7]. This connection with aesthetics will influence the concept of magnificence in rhetoric, the arts, architecture and art criticism.

Cicero and Rome

Cicero introduced magnificence into ancient Roman and Italian civilization. In his youthful work on rhetoric De inventione, “is the consideration and management of important and sublime matters with a certain wide seeing and splendid determination of mind” (II, Liv, 163). Thus Cicero carried out an extraordinary synthesis between the Greek and Roman traditions. Firstly, he transformed the Greek magnificence into a Roman concept. The Latin word "magnificentia" comes from the expression "magnum facere", which literally means “to do something great”, referring to the greatness of the task undertaking, the intention to realize it, and the determination to get it done. The relevance of this approach cannot be over-estimated, because Cicero’s interpretation would influence Thomas Aquinas and his Summa theologiae over one thousand years later.

Magnificence in Ancient Rome

In ancient Rome magnificent gains typical features. Firstly, it is a public phenomenon connected to the institutions, political power and the Roman state. The magnificence of the buildings, roads, public buildings and festivals was under the control of the aediles. Secondly, magnificence has nothing to do with luxury [8], rather it reflects a system of republican virtues and values embraced by the previous Roman oligarchy [9]. When Cicero claims that “the Roman people loathe private luxury (luxuriam) but they love public magnificence (magnificentiam)” (Pro Murena 76), he is making an explicit reference to a political system which was being undermined by a new generation of politicians. Whereas luxury represented the use of wealth to serve personal satisfaction, magnificence rested on the ancient republican ideals according to which the proper relationship between private and public life should be respected.

Rhetoric, Demetrius and Art Criticism

In classical rhetoric, magnificence is one of the models of the grand or elevated style. However the most important work on magnificence in the classical world is On Style (Perì hermēnēías) written by Demetrius probably in the first century B.C. Demetrius then proceeds to give a technical description of the typical features of the elevated style [10]. Thucydides and Sappho are regarded as the leading exponents of this style. Demetrius’ treatise did not gain the same success as Longinus’s On the Sublime. Although magnificence and the sublime both belong to the grand style, there are significant differences between them. Magnificence insists more on form and solemnity. It aims to impress without causing fear or indignation [11]. The sublime inspires awe, veneration, loss of rationality, ecstasy and deep emotions. The grand style of magnificence also became a technical term of ancient Greek art criticism. In fact the Greeks drew on rhetorical terminology to describe and evaluate sculpture, painting and architecture [12]. Magnificence is applied to works of art, which express grandeur and other lofty features. The grand style of magnificence is thus transferred to works such as Zeuxis’s painting of Zeus, and the statue of Zeus by Phidias.

Vitruvius and the Magnificence of Roman Architecture

In his monumental De architectura Vitruvius analyzed both the artistic-aesthetic and the philosophical-ethical aspects of the concept and solemnized magnificence in classical architecture [13]. In the sixth book, Vitruvius argues that the client (public or private) is magnificent, because the beauty of a building depends on its cost (6, 8, 9). The materials employed should be of the best quality, the most beautiful, which means that they are usually the most expensive. Magnificence, therefore, for Vitruvius is not only a typical artistic and aesthetic feature of architecture, but is also connected to the social and political prestige of the client. Architecture becomes the means by which a public or private sponsor of a building can show his honour. It is no surprise that ancient Romans granted such importance to public architecture. Even the ancient historians and geographers celebrated the Romans’ ability to create buildings, which were not only useful, but beautiful as well as magnificent. Dionysius of Halicarnassus stated that the three greatest examples of magnificent Roman architecture were the aqueducts, the roads and the cloacae (Roman Antiquities 3, 67, 5). Strabo (Geography, V, 3, 8) and Livy (History of Rome, 1, 38, 5-6; 39; 44) celebrate the hygienic functions of the aqueducts and the cloacae. And even Pliny the Elder has left one of the most moving descriptions of the engineering skills used by the Romans when they rebuilt the sewage system of their capital, which is still in function today (Natural History, 36, 104-105).

Magnificence in the Italian Middle Ages

Thomas Aquinas

Thomas Aquinas has left one of the most significant mediaeval interpretations of the concept drawing on the Graeco-Roman tradition and blending it with Christian precepts. Furthermore he brings together the pagan idea of human magnificence with the Jewish-Christian mentality according to which mankind should always be reverent towards God [14]. In the Summa theologiae magnificence is a virtue that belongs to God’s which can also be shared by men (Summa, IIa IIae q. 134 art. 1). Aquinas adopts Cicero’s definition of magnificence, highlighting how it consists in doing great things. Magnificence finally belongs to the virtue of fortitude, or courage, because it regards the undertaking of great things and actions, and persevering even when circumstances can make their realization arduous and difficult (Summa, IIa IIae q. 134 art. 1-4).

Dante Alighieri

Dante, drawing on Aquinas, regards magnificence as a divine virtue connected to God’s grandeur and perfection. Then, following Aristotle’s and Aquinas’ traditions, Dante states that magnificence is the fourth virtue “which regulates great expenditures, in administering them and setting limits to their size” (Convivio IV, XVII, 5).

Magnificence in Renaissance Italy

With the advent of the Renaissance, magnificence underwent a deep transformation drawing on the cultural movement which supported the rebirth of both classical culture and urban centres. What surprises most is that magnificence became an idea which would deeply affect Renaissance society in Italy [15].

Magnificence as a Civic Virtue

Magnificence acquires new vitality within the process of renewal of Italian cities as cultural and political centres. Magnificence thus reflects the transformation of traditional political structures and epitomizes the flourishing of a new type of civic culture based on virtues which were completely different from the previous feudal values. A novel type of human excellence was developed which had nothing to do with medieval aristocratic privileges connected to birth and rank. Marsilio Ficino in his work De virtutibus morabilus (1457) claims magnificence is the virtue par excellence, because it expresses God’s greatness. Cristoforo Landino in De vera nobilitate (1487), magnificence is indicated as one of the parts of fortitude. The two virtues, however, reflect the new idea of nobility which has nothing to do with blood heritage and aristocratic ideals, but which rather puts the emphasis on activities and works realized by men who behave according to the exercise of virtue and their culture [16].

Magnificence and Patronage in Renaissance Italy

By the first half of the 15th century, magnificence had already become a well-known and highly practiced virtue in Renaissance Italy. It concerned the custom of wealthy citizens spending large sums of money on building projects and to patronage of architecture and the arts. Cosimo (the Elder) de’ Medici was actively involved in practising the virtue of magnificence from the 1430s onwards and many other distinguished citizens followed suit all over Italy [17] [18]. Lorenzo de’ Medici gained the title “magnificent” due to his support to humanist scholars, artists, painters, establishing one of the most sophisticated courts in Italy. Magnificence regains its ancient splendour also as an aspect of works of architecture and art. The rediscovery of ancient rhetoric and the pre-eminence given to Vitruvius throughout the Renaissance influence not only patrons’ tastes, but also the architects and artists who are commissioned to create wonderful masterpieces, that would give fame to the both themselves and the entire town. In the De re aedificatoria Leon Battista Alberti draws on both the philosophical and aesthetic concepts of magnificence. Numerous Italian Renaissance architects and artists applied magnificence both in their artworks and in their writings. Antonio Averlino, known as Filarete, Giorgio Vasari and Andrea Palladio gave great relevance to the philosophical and aesthetic aspects of magnificence. Magnificence, however, is not only a practice engaged in by distinguished citizens, princes, popes, architects and artists, but is also analyzed by humanist scholars. In Naples, the humanist and poet Giovanni Pontano wrote a philosophical and ethical treatise De magnificentia (1498). Magnificence is connected to how to employ wealth on behalf of the Neapolitan kings and aristocracy, and their lifestyles. Pontano’s De magnificentia and his other philosophical treatises on the use of wealth and the role of the prince probably anticipated the courtier’s ethic and the doctrine of how to behave appropriately, which would find the most mature expression in 16th-century Italian literature thanks to Baldassare Castiglione’s Book of the Courtier(1528) and Giovanni Della Casa’s Galateo ovvero de’ costumi (1558).

Magnificence in the Eighteenth Century

Giovanni Battista Piranesi

During the 18th century Italy had become one of the main destinations of the Grand Tour visitors, who came from Northern Europe to study and admire Italian art and architecture, and also to absorb classical culture. With Giovanni Battista Piranesi (1720-1778), magnificence received one of its final interpretations in the Italian cultural context [19]. Universally known as the etcher of the Prisons and the Views of Roman monuments, Piranesi was an eclectic personality, who pursued a wide range of interests. Giovanni Battista Piranesi had a prominent role within the Graeco-Roman debate. In this controversy Piranesi supported the superiority of the architects and designers of the Roman Empire and demonstrated the indigenous roots of Roman culture, arguing that the Romans had been influenced more by the Etruscans than the Greeks [20]. In his polemical treatise Della Magnificenza ed Architettura de’ Romani (Concerning the Magnificence and Architecture of the Romans) (1761) Piranesi draws on the entire heritage of the philosophical, ethical, economic and artistic aspects of the notion. He controversially conceives magnificence as a virtue which was shared by the entire ancient Roman population. Furthermore he argues that the Romans used the most advanced technical and hydraulic skills, and the finest materials available. They excelled in public buildings and proved they were better at them than the Greeks.


  1. ^ John Cook Wilson. “Μεγαλοπρεπεια and μεγαλοψυχια”, Arist. Classical Review, 4, 1902.
  2. ^ R. A. Gauthier, Magnanimité. L’idéal de la grandeur dans la philosophie païenne et dans la théologie chrétienne. Bibliothèque thomiste, XXVIII, Paris: Vrin, 1951.
  3. ^ Linda Rabieh. Plato and the virtue of courage. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2006: 155.
  4. ^ Antonio Cozzo, Le passioni economiche nella Grecia antica, Palermo, Sellerio, 1991.
  5. ^ Sarah F. Maclaren, “Magnificenza e mondo classico”. Ágalma. Rivista di studi culturali e di estetica, 5: 2003.
  6. ^ Sarah F. Maclaren, “Magnificenza e mondo classico”. Ágalma. Rivista di studi culturali e di estetica, 5: 2003: 43
  7. ^ David Ross, Aristotle. (1923). New introduction. London: Routledge, 1995, 6th edition: 144
  8. ^ Sarah F. Maclaren, “Lusso, spreco, magnificenza”, Ágalma. Rivista di studi culturali e di estetica, 2, 2002: 43-62
  9. ^ Emanuele Narducci, Modelli etici e società. Un’idea di Cicerone, Pisa, Giardini, 1989: 226-265
  10. ^ Demetrius. On style. Translated by William Rhys Roberts, 1902
  11. ^ Dirk Schenkeveld, Studies in Demetrius On Style. Amsterdam: Adolf M. Hakkert: 1964: 60
  12. ^ Jerome J. Pollitt, The Ancient View of Greek Art: Criticism, History and Terminology. New Haven-London: Yale University Press, 1974
  13. ^ Sarah F. Maclaren, “Magnificenza e mondo classico.” Agalma 5 (2003): 113-125
  14. ^ Sarah F. Maclaren, La magnificenza e il suo doppio. Il pensiero estetico di Giovanni Battista Piranesi. Milan: Mimesis 2005: 9-12
  15. ^ Sarah F. Maclaren, La magnificenza e il suo doppio. Il pensiero estetico di Giovanni Battista Piranesi. Milan: Mimesis, 2005 13-23
  16. ^ Maria Teresa Liaci, ,Ed. Cristoforo Landino. De vera nobilitate. Florence: Olschki, 1970: 17
  17. ^ A. D. Fraser Jenkins, “Cosimo de’ Medici’s Patronage of Architecture and the Theory of Magnificence”, Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes, 33, 1970: 162-70
  18. ^ Peter Howard, “Preaching Magnificence in Renaissance Florence.” Renaissance Quarterly 61.2, (2008): 325-369.
  19. ^ Sarah F. Maclaren, La magnificenza e il suo doppio. Il pensiero estetico di Giovanni Battista Piranesi. Milan: Mimesis, 2005: 30-45
  20. ^ John Wilton-Ely, The Mind and Art of Giovanni Battista Piranesi. London: Thames & Hudson, 1978

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