- Creating Magnificence in Renaissance Florence by Peter Howard
For those interested in the history of magnificence in Renaissance Florence and the self-fashioning of the ruling classes, A. D. Fraser Jenkins’s 1970 article on Cosimo de’ Medici and the theory of magnificence has long been the standard in the field. This research has been built upon by others such as Louis Green in relation to the Visconti, Patricia Rubin in relation to Lorenzo de’ Medici, and Guido Guerzoni in relation to magnificent Renaissance lifestyles more generally. But it has had no major rearticulation. Peter Howard’s magnificent little book is therefore a really welcome contribution that re-envisions Fraser Jenkins’s original arguments. What we have here is a placing of a work (On the Magnificence of Cosimo de’ Medici of Florence against His Detractors, produced by monastic prior Timoteo Maffei) not into the broader classical secular understandings of the term magnificence, but within its appropriate theological framework as presented through popular preaching. Howard argues that the ideas of magnificence as a moral virtue were promoted and promulgated far earlier than previously supposed. For Howard, it is vital to look at the idea of magnificence not as an isolated, pre-existing phenomenon in a disembodied history of ideas, but as a living concept manifested in the piazzas of the city.
Few have as detailed an understanding of the important role of preachers in the life of Renaissance Florence as Howard. His articulation of the idea of “local theologies” is a compelling one, and the way in which the theologians of Florence articulated their own local theology relating to the ruling body and the virtue of magnificence is invaluable. In particular, however, Howard is the foremost expert on the life [End Page 924] and writings of Antonino Pierozzi (archbishop and later St. Antoninus). Placing Maffei’s well-known text within a broader trajectory of other theologians and their sermons in the city puts it into a far more interesting and compelling setting. Howard has long argued for the centrality of the preacher and his sermons in the culture of the Renaissance, and here again he demonstrates the way in which preachers were central in the forging and development of a public ethos, now largely studied in a secular realm. Maffei’s oft-cited work becomes, in Howard’s revisioning, a later articulation and expression of arguments already made by theologians over a century earlier and preached in detail by Antoninus several decades earlier.
Over six chapters, Howard traces the development and origins of the local Florentine theology of magnificence as articulated in the 1420s to 1450 and then provides a final reflection on its disapprobation by preachers such as Giovanni Caroli and Girolamo Savonarola by the 1480s and 1490s. These chapters function as a perfect introduction to three texts transcribed in their original Latin, and translated into English for the first time, in three appendices. These are a sermon of Antoninus, an extract from his Summa where he discusses magnificence, and finally the complete text of Maffei’s defense of magnificence. The latter, in particular, is invaluable and fascinating to read in its entirety.
This is more than a work on the idea of magnificence itself in Renaissance Florence. It is an accomplished study of the ways in which ideas were transmitted and mediated from earlier theologians into new contexts. The book is therefore bound to be of use to those interested in orality and the printed word, translation studies, theology, cultural history, and the dynamism of ideas and their expression. It is written with clarity and is recommended wholeheartedly.