Virtue, Women, and Public Theology in Quattrocento Florence

Botticelli, Fortitude
Botticelli, Fortitude

To anyone who graced the doors of a church or public edifice in Renaissance Florence female depictions of the virtues were quite conspicuous. As I recently had the opportunity to experience, portrayals of the feminine form as personifications of virtue (usually the cardinal virtues – prudence, justice, temperance, fortitude) are plainly visible from the bronze baptismal doors outside of Brunelleschi’s famous Duomo to many of the interior walls of the Palazzo della Signoria and beyond – not to mention the ubiquitous outdoor paintings and sculptings of the virgin Mary, Judith, and other religious heroines. These portrayals of women in such idealized and often angelic virtuous form were not unique, as the many Late Medieval works of art in Florence confirm.

As Peter Howard argues in “Preaching Magnificence in Renaissance Florence”, however, there was a renewed emphasis on the moral virtues as perfectly holy while at the same time worldly states of character in the mid to late 15th century. Howard notes that the virtue of magnificence, much praised by Aristotle and other classical authors, was proclaimed from the pulpit of Santa Maria Novella, San Lorenzo and elsewhere as a natural and religious duty of the wealthy. According to Howard,  the preaching of Antonio Pierozzi, the Archbishop of Florence, was instrumental in motivating Cosimo di Medici to fund the construction of the monastery of San Marco including the famous frescoes by Fra Angelico which adorn the interior wall of each monastic cell. Around the same time that Cosimo was patronizing some of his most elaborate projects, Fra Antonino was preaching on the importance of magnificence specifically for funding the construction of beautiful architectural works. Howard notes:

More importantly, Fra Antonino moved discussion of magnificence forward to include secular, not just ecclesiastical, architecture: just like King Solomon, “the magnificent man provides for himself a suitable dwelling of a lasting nature.” Presumably it was palazzi that Antonino has in mind. He not only explicitly links magnificence to architectural patronage, but also effectively encouraged great men to be magnificent — with perhaps an implicit reference to the example of Cosimo de’ Medici and his ally Giovanni Rucellai — since fine houses were themselves to be considered ornaments to the city, further rendering it divine. A theology of magnificence had been thus carefully articulated by Antonino, the city’s archbishop, and put into circulation in his Summa and the various sermons and tracts that preceded it a decade before the boom in palace-building in the 1460s. (Howard, “Preaching Magnificence in Renaissance Florence,” Renaissance Quarterly, Vol. 61, No. 2 ((Summer 2008), pp. 325-369), 355).

Is it really plausible, however, that a simple sermon could have such a profound effect on the production of Florentine art during this time? Howard argues in the affirmative, noting that there is a marked increase in references to the “common good” in the theology of the time:

Theology of this [mendicant] sort was not simply a scholarly, cloistered discipline. It was a theology of the piazza, bridging the gap between the ideals of the theological tradition and the daily experience of life in the city. This public theology tackled such questions as: could interest be earned on a loan, should the commune provide for the healthcare of widows and orphans, was conspicuous consumption a sin, what was a just wage? Intentionally, then, mendicant preachers engaged the issues of the day and the needs of different social groups, involving themselves by scrutinizing human affairs in the light of doctrine and authoritative commentators. The most adept preachers were singled out for the way in which they were able to enter into citizens’ lives and link them to doctrine, thereby constructing worlds of meaning that consoled the populace and encouraged it to think about the common good. Contemporaries praised Fra Antonino particularly for his skill in this. (Howard, 343).

An interesting connection between this renewal of virtue ethics via “public theology” and its effect on the production of art in 15th century Italy is that the correlative increase in the number of visual representations of virtue personified as women corresponds to an increased awareness of the plight of women in literature. Mario Equicola, who once studied with Marsilio Ficino in Florence, wrote a short treatise De Mulieribus in which he uses Aristotle’s tabula rasa concept to argue that there is no essential difference between women and men. Once again, this sort of literature was not new. Boccaccio lamented the cloistering of poor young girls in monasteries despite their desire for marriage. Equicola, however, writes during a time when the public theology had begun to shift to reflect a concern, not only for the essential definitions of things, but for the adornment of things and all of life in beautiful imagery, whether visual or spoken. Having argued that the physiological makeup of women depends more on custom than on nature, he argues:

Dedit nobis natura rationem imperfectam, sed quae perfici possit. Dedit omnium artium semina, dedit virtutum scintillas, sed tanta est corruptela malae consuetudinis, tanta vis, ut illi virtutum igniculi extinguantur, exoriantur, et confirmentur vitia.

Nature has supplied us with imperfect reason which is, nonetheless, capable of being perfected. It has also given us the seeds of all the arts and the little sparks of the virtues, but so great is the corruption of bad customs and of so great power that these little flames of the virtues are extinguished and vices spring forth and are strengthened [in their place].

Prudence on Giotto's Campanile
Prudence on Giotto’s Campanile

Equicola argues that it is bad custom alone which leads to inequality among the sexes and he laments the status of women who were confined to their homes and disciplined if they were to “conceive of anything in their minds other than needles and thread.” Because flawed human reason is capable of being perfected, then the popular acceptance of this bad custom may also be removed. At a time when the adornment of language in Rhetoric was seen as inexorably linked to the virtues of wisdom and restraint taught in Ethics, it is interesting to see a man argue by means of these methods for the equality of women in a time when the “public theology” was motivating the quite wealthy citizens of Florence to spend their money on the most important woman of all, that is the Civitas. Citizens such as the Medicis were to exercise their magnificence for the city, not only for the sake of maintaining her current status but for adorning her with works of beauty in the way that poets heap eloquent words of praise upon their beloved. Virtue, as Aristotle demonstrates, does not merely place a restraint upon the desires but guides them toward their proper end and, when accompanied by right judgment and motivation, inevitably frees the desires to flame ever higher toward the attainment of the highest good.

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