Magnificence in Renaissance Italy: Vice or ‘Impure’ Virtue?

Statue du condottiere Bartolomeo Colleoni in Venice. Photo by Antoine.

This is part two of a two-part series on magnificence, generosity, and virtue.


We should not decide on the status of virtues – whether they are separate or subordinate to one another – on the basis of theoretical considerations alone. Instead, we should identify and differentiate virtues by examining how they emerge in the contexts of various forms of life. ‘Form of life’ is a well-known Wittgensteinian notion. Its applicability to understanding virtue is owing to the fact that virtues get their purchase in situ – in our daily lives. Virtues are shaped by cultural contexts and the forces of daily living. Anthropologists have studied virtues in situ, and we have much to learn from their investigations. In the spirit of this approach, I will sketch a case that magnificence in northern Italian Renaissance military men who aspired to political power – condottieri — was likely either a vice or an impure virtue. If the latter, it could well have been a distinctive virtue, not a specialization of generosity.


In an interesting study of the rise of art as a consumer product in Italian Renaissance society, Richard Goldthwaite makes the following observation:

In short, Italian society was subject to a dynamic of change unlike that of any other in Europe. Elsewhere wealth was predominantly in land and less subject to instability, it was largely in the hands of a closed caste that experienced less mobility, and it moved from one generation to another over well-charted and confined genealogical routes. . . . In Italy the political, economic, and ecclesiastical elites were much more subject to turnover in their ranks, so that wealth flowed from one’s hands to another’s and kept getting spent over and over again (Goldthwaite 1993, 52).

Goldthwaite goes on to note that Italian princes, especially in northern Italy, being upstarts, were anxious to “. . . establish their credentials by propaganda” (1993, 173). They viewed their courts as public relations agencies, undertook architectural projects, and included humanists, scholars, and artists in their courtly households. Goldthwaite (1993, 173) writes: “With their interest in learning, letters, and the arts, all rooted in the culture of antiquity, the humanists introduced new legitimating values into courtly culture. Scholar, poet, and artist produced the propaganda that glorified and commemorated the prince in terms now of classical history and mythology.” Writing of the northern Italian princes — the condottieri or mercenary soldiers whose armies fought for hire — Goldthwaite remarks: “Their courts had all the trappings of feudal rites and ritual. Inside their palaces despots like the Gonzaga, d’Este, Della Scala, and Visconti surrounded themselves with tapestries and frescoes depicting scenes from courtly romances, chivalric heroes, and the aristocratic pleasures in general” (Goldthwaite 1993, 171). The pettiest of condottieri, Goldthwaite claims, seized on learning and the arts with real passion (Goldthwaite 1993, 173).


Alison Cole (1995) also explores the theme of the union of military might and the uses of art and architecture by the northern Italian princes to project certain images of themselves in efforts to consolidate and maintain power. She notes that Aristotle’s views on magnificence had been revived in the early fourteenth century as part of the political ideology of Azzone Visconti, Lord of Milan (ruled 1302-1339). Galvano Fiamma describes Azzone’s magnificence in his contemporary chronicles. Public buildings attested to Azzone’s concern for the common good; churches and chapels, to his piety; good taste was reflected in the costliness of materials used in the art, the quality of the workmanship, and the exoticism of the objects; and the work of masters in frescoes displayed lofty moral tones (see Cole 1995, 19). Cole observes: “In propagandist terms, magnificence belonged to times of peace, when the lord was free from his enemies and could dedicate himself to making his house ‘glorious’ and secure. Fiamma makes clear the effect that Azzone’s fortified palace was intended to have on subjects: ‘thunderstruck in admiration,’ they were to judge him a prince ‘of such power that it [was] impossible to attack him” (Cole 1995, 19).


The primary exemplar, then and now, of the combination of military skills and humanistic learning among the condottieri was Federico da Montefeltro, Duke of Urbino (see Goldthwaite 1993, 173). Through his military skill and love of art Federico transformed Urbino, a small country town, into a fair-sized city and an important center for the arts (Cole 1995, 67). Cole (1995, 69) comments on the complexity of his motives for doing so:

First and foremost, he had an urgent need to assert the legitimacy of his succession and to promote himself as a prince of incorruptible Christian virtue. At the same time, art was used to advertise his military prowess and propagate his image as a just and benevolent ruler. Another key theme was the celebration of the Montefeltro dynasty – Federico’s paternity was the subject of much speculation and it was many years before his wife bore him an heir. The ‘magnificent’ scale of his patronage was also designed to win him esteem both at home and among the kings and princes whom he regarded as his equals as well as his employers.

She continues, “The recurrent qualities of much of the art commissioned by Federico are clarity, order, and dignity” (Cole 1995, 69).


More could be said about how different Italian princes used magnificence to project piety, glory, power, and even diplomatic skills (see Cole 1995). However, I believe that enough has been said to establish that condottieri used magnificence in different ways to consolidate and maintain political power, and this historical trend can be traced, at least in part, to a political ideology that drew on Aristotle’s views on magnificence. So Aristotle had at least some influence, albeit distorted, on actual manifestations of magnificence by the condottieri. Was their magnificence a virtue? At first glance, I think the answer is ‘no,’ — at least, it seems not to have been a virtue in Aristotle’s sense. This is because Aristotle’s virtue of magnificence was apparently distorted by these men, who used it not purely or solely for the public good, but to promote their own power, images, and glory. But this fact opens a range of interesting questions about the possible motivations for magnificence, and when, if ever in the case of the condottieri, it might have been considered a virtue, if not in Aristotle’s sense, perhaps in another, despite initial appearances to the contrary.


Works Cited

Aristotle. 1985. Nicomachean Ethics. Translated by Terence Irwin. Indianapolis, Indiana: Hackett Publishing Company.

Aquinas, St. Thomas. Summa Theologica 2-2, Q. 134, a. 4. Accessed 28 December 2015.

Cicero. Treatise on Rhetorical Invention, Book II. Accessed 28 October 2015.

Cole, Alison. 1995. Virtue and Magnificence: Art of the Italian Renaissance Courts. Englewoods Cliffs, New Jersey: Prentice Hall, Inc., and New York: Harry N. Abrams Publishing, Inc.

Goldthwaite, Richard. 1993. Wealth and the Demand for Art in Italy 1300-1600. Baltimore, Maryland: The Johns Hopkins University Press.

Russell, Daniel. 2009. Practical Intelligence and the Virtues. New York: Oxford University Press.

Aristotle’s own conception of magnificence would not have been immune to being distorted or to being an ‘impure virtue’ in its manifestations in ordinary life. We are reminded of this by Russell’s comment that votive offerings were sometimes used to display the wealth of the giver (see Russell 2009, 212).

 Nancy Snow is Director of the Institute for the Study of Human Flourishing at University of Oklahoma and a scholar with Virtue, Happiness, & the Meaning of Life.