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The Role of Community in Shaping Art and Architecture: A Catholic Perspective

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he Diet of Worms in 1122 brought a rather turbulent chapter in Europe’s history to a close. For nearly fifty years the question of where the authority of a bishop derives from, whether it comes from the pope or the emperor, had been the cause of civil war, excommunication and strongly worded letters between the parties loyal to the pope and the emperor.[1] At the Diet of Worms, compromise ruled the day, and it was decided that the spiritual authority of a bishop derives from the pope, while his temporal authority comes from the emperor.[2] Despite an official end to this controversy, however, this rift allowed for continued fighting. This was especially true in Italy, where the controversy, merging with local politics and interests, morphed into the dizzyingly complicated feuding between the Guelphs (the prop papal faction) and the Ghibbelies (the pro emperor faction).[3] This not being complicated enough, when the Guelphs defeated the Ghibbelines in 1298 they decided that they were all having too much fun feuding, and promptly separated into two Guelph factions, the Black Guelphs (pro pope) and the white Guelphs (pro emperor) so that the fighting could continue.[4]

The chaos caused by the struggle between imperial and papal factions was further compounded by social and economic divisions within each of the Italian cities, for example in noble families competing with the rising power of the merchant class. It is in this context,[5] in despair at the state of Italy, that the theologian and philosopher Remigius dei Girolami wrote: “…there will be those who love themselves, who are greedy, puffed up and proud…who, because of their very great and inordinate love for themselves have neglected the good of their communities…and, driven on by a demonic spirit, have thrown the castles, cities, provinces and the entire region into confusion…”[6] This lament opens what is, perhaps, Remigius dei Girolami’s most famous work, the De Bono Communi.[7] This work, along with the De Bono Pacis,[8] the Sermones de Pace[9] and the De Iustitia,[10] are a foray into this world of political upheaval.[11]

This foray is a cautious one, however, and there is great care taken to avoid pinning fault for the crisis on any one party.[12] Instead, the fault lies at the foot of each Florentine citizen individually, for putting their own interests, or the interests of their families and political parties, over the interests, the good, of the state as a whole. In formulating his argument in this way, Remigius attempts not only to avoid disenfranchising one party by putting them on the defensive, but to bring both parties to go beyond their squabbles and focus on their common interest, the city.

Remigius and the Principle of the Part and the Whole

How Remigius understands the relationship between the citizen and the state is vital to understanding his vision for the end of this conflict. In the De Bono Communi he presents two paradigms in exhorting the citizens of Florence to overcome their differences and show that an individual must love the state more than himself. For the first eight chapters, Remigius presents examples of those who sacrifice for the common good, including examples from Scripture and of the saints,[13] examples of Classical Romans and Greeks[14] and even examples from the natural world.[15] The rest of the text, especially chapter nine, bases the relationship of the citizen with the state on the Aristotelian principle of the part and the whole[16] in which the part is entirely dependent on the whole: “The same principle follows secondly as well, since the existence of the part, such as it has, depends on the existence of the whole. The part existing beyond the whole is no longer a part, as it was called while it was part of the whole.”[17] The relationship between part and the whole is likened by Remigius to a hand or foot as part of the body, because these have no function outside of their existence as parts of the body:

The hand, when it is cut off, is not a hand…the hand does not have the ability to operate independently, for example to sense what is being touched, to bring food to the mouth, to cut and other such things…The foot will not exist if the whole is destroyed, nor will the hand…All things are defined by their function and virtue; for this reason, if they no longer serve this function they can in no way be called this… since these things are lacking in the operation and virtue by which they are defined, as the definition of the foot is that it is the organic member having the virtue to allow walking.[18]

In formulating this understanding of the dependence of the part on the whole, Remigius depends greatly on the works of Aristotle,[19] even his example of the hand and foot are taken from Aristotle’s Politics. Aristotle also applies this concept to the relationship of the citizen to the state and Remigius even quotes from the Politics: “the city stands before the home, and before each one of us, for it is necessary that the whole stand before the part…”[20] to underscore his point. Remigius goes well beyond Aristotle’s position, which focuses on the households of a city, Remigius reduces the individual citizen to an appendage of the city, making his very existence as a human dependent on the state: “As he who was a Florentine citizen, because of the destruction of Florence is no longer to be called a Florentine, but rather a weeper. And if he is not a citizen he is not a human, since a human is naturally a political animal…”[21] Existence, in this case, means the ability to function as a citizen,[22] since a person without the ability to exercise their function as a citizen is likened by Remigius to a hand that has been cut off, one that has been effectively destroyed since it can no longer fulfill its purpose.

Beauty in the De Bono Communi

The very existence of the individual being dependent on the health of the state, as a part of the whole, argues Remigius, makes the state more to be loved than the individual himself. There are four other elements that “are loved naturally by all”[23] which also lead the individual to love the community more than themselves, all of these depend on the relationship of the individual part to the communal whole: “the good of the community, beauty…God and happiness.”[24] Of these, beauty is an especial focus for Remigius, because: “the greatest art and architect is the community.”[25] This dichotomy, that the community both creates beauty, as an architect, and is beautiful as art lies at the center of Remigius’ argument as to why members of the community are naturally drawn to and love it.

In Remigius’ understanding of how beauty relates to his argument of the part and the whole, we can again see his great reliance on Aristotle. Interesting, however, is that this is one of the few places in the De Bono Communi, and the only one of the five things which are “loved naturally by all” discussed in Chapter IX without an actual quote from Aristotle. In fact, Aristotle only receives one brief mention: “For, according to the Philosopher and to Dionysius, beauty consists in proportionality, without which it cannot exist.”[26] Far more prevalent in this discussion is Dionysius[27] and Augustine. The choice of Dionysius is especially important, as Remigius only quotes him twice in the entirety of the De Bono Communi. The other quotation of Dionysius is, perhaps, telling, as to why Remigius uses his work here as well: “God turns all things to Himself…”[28] It is this idea of upward movement in Neo-Platonic thought which makes Dionysius so important here, while Remigius’ conception of what the beauty of the whole is is Aristotelian, his understanding of what this beauty does for the part is Neo-Platonic.

Aristotle points out two aspects which are necessary for beauty: “…a beautiful object, whether it be a living organism or any whole composed of parts, must not only have an orderly arrangement of parts, but must also be of a certain magnitude, for beauty depends on magnitude and order.”[29] Concerning community as art, as that which is beautiful in itself, Remigius says: “…that which is more beautiful is more loved. The beauty of the state exceeds the beauty of each individual citizen, since there are many beautiful people there, and this beauty is more intense…The beauty of an entire field in bloom is greater than that of one individual flower…”[30] Aristotle does qualify his statement, while greater beauty is tied to a greater magnitude, there is a limit, beyond which the object is no longer beautiful “for …the eye cannot take it all in at once…”[31] It is, in fact, Remigius’ interpretation of a passage from Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics that leads him to diverge with Aristotle’s understanding of beauty: “…it is better and more perfect to support and save a community; it is certainly pleasant for one person, but truly more divine for whole peoples and nations.”[32] From this Remigius creates an ever ascending hierarchy of communities, starting with the private citizen leading up to the largest community, the “universal church.” Since the larger community has more good, as there are more people within it, the good of each of these to be loved more than the good of the smaller community that is a part of it.[33] Remigius parallels the ever increasing beauty in ever larger communities, since the larger the community, the greater the number of beautiful people in it, with the greater good in the larger communities, making them more to be loved.

Beauty is not the only good that increases in intensity as the community increases in size. In chapter twelve, Remigius discusses intellectual and moral virtue as well: “since there is more virtue of every type, and even greater, therein than there is in himself.”[34] One of the central points of Remigius’ argument, however, is that the good of the whole is better for the part than the good of the part is for itself, and merely being more beautiful, although this is one reason that naturally “moves men to love others” would not be enough to prove this point.[35] The greater beauty, intellectual and moral virtue, then, must be of some use to the private citizen, the part. In these cases, the good of the whole is transformative; the greater good in the whole creates a greater good in the part. Remigius gives the example of a student in a large city: “when there are many learned men in a large city, here, through mutual exercise with other students, he can make greater progress.”[36] An individual has the ability to court intellectual virtue, but it is in the participation of the part with the whole that he can reach his potential, because it is only in the context of the whole that the “learned man” can teach as well “since ‘science is the noble possession of the soul, and it grows by being distributed.’”[37] Moral virtue too can be sought as an individual, but it is as part of the whole, that the individual can “be made more virtuous…since he is more spurred on to virtue and to good works by the examples of other virtuous men.”[38]

Similarly, for the good of beauty, the community as the architect, as a creator of beauty, works to make each part of itself beautiful “since a part, which on its own seems ugly, is made more beautiful when considered as part of a whole…”[39] Since the community is both art and architect, Remigius explains this claim using an example from art and from architecture. In art certain colors: “black and ashen” are considered to be ugly on their own, but in the context of the whole, the painting, these ugly colors become beautiful. In the same way the ugly parts of buildings, such as the “stables and the privy” are beautiful because they are part of a beautiful whole, a palace. It is in this context, as architect, that Remigius takes up some Neo-Platonic elements, that something ugly, or at least less beautiful, is drawn up toward the beautiful by being part of a whole. In the discussion of the beautiful, Remigius goes beyond that which he discusses in the context of intellectual and moral virtue. A private citizen is able to be learned or moral alone, but becomes better through their participation in the whole. A part, however, “whether or not it is beautiful in and of itself”[40] cannot be considered beautiful if it is not in a proper relationship with the whole, proportionality being an important Aristotelian principle of beauty.


Remigius dei Girolami’s adoption of Aristotelian and Neo-Platonic strains of thought in his understanding of the community, the whole, being both beautiful in itself and as a transformative element in making its constituent parts beautiful, allows him to underscore his view of the relationship of the part and the whole, that the part ought to love the whole more than itself. Remigius runs the danger, however, of the purpose of this work, convincing the citizens of Florence to put aside their squabbles in the best interest of the state, being lost in what seems a theoretical philosophical exercise. While the examples given in the text ground the discussion somewhat. Examples of color, architecture, even body parts, as parts of their respective whole, however, do not necessarily equate to a citizen in a community.

In order to refocus his readers on the practical outcomes of his argument, Remigius does periodically, especially in chapter IX, discuss what this means in the context of Florence specifically. It is in these contexts too, when Remigius is attempting to refocus his readers, that he begins to play with language, especially with the name of the city of Florence: the Florentine becomes the Flerentine, the weeper,[41] because of the destruction of the city, and the pronunciation the common people use for the city, “Firenze” is equated to the French[42] expression of disgust “fi fi.”[43]

If the community, the whole, is destroyed, then the part, which is not only made more beautiful by the whole, but is only beautiful in the context of the whole, is no longer beautiful. What, however, is this beauty of the part? Remigius makes this theoretical argument concrete for his readers by equating the beauty of the citizen with their prosperity: “Where, therefore, can the citizen or the Christian be beautiful with the flower of prosperity if his city or the church is withered, oppressed, destroyed? This is not possible. A flower is beautiful in the meadow, not in dung or in the manure pile.”[44]

Bibliography and Further Reading

  1. Barnes, J. Aristotle and Political Liberty. In Patzig, G. (ed.) Aristotles’ ‘Politik’: Akten des XI. Symposium Aristotelium, Friedrichshafen/Bodensee, 25 August – 3 September 1987 (Göttingen: Van den Hoeck und Ruprecth, 1990).
  2. Blumenthal, Uta-Renate. The Investiture Controversy: Church and Monarchy from the Ninth to the Twelfth Century (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1988).
  3. Browning, Oscar, Guelphs and Ghibbelines: A Short History of Medieval Italy 1250-1409 (London: Methuen and Co. 1894).
  4. Cowdrey, H.E.J. Popes and Church Reform in the 11th Century (Burlington, Vermont: Ashgate, 2000).
  5. ——————- Pope Gregory VII, 1073-1085 (Oxford University Press, 1998).
  6. —————— The Register of Pope Gregory VII, 1073-1085: an English Translation (New York: Oxford University Press, 2002).
  7. Davis, Charles T., Remigio de Girolami and Dante: A Comparison of their Conception of Peace, in Studi Danteschi 36 (1959).
  8. ———————, An Early Florentine Political Theorist: Fra Remigio de’ Girolami, in Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society 104.6 (American Philosophical Society, 1960), pp. 662-676.——————–, Education in Dante’s Florence, in Speculum 40.3 (Medieval Academy of America, 1965), pp. 415-435.
  9. ——————–, Ptolemy of Lucca and the Roman Republic, in Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society 118.1 (American Philosophical Society, 1974), pp. 30-50.
  10. ——————–, Dante’s Italy and other Essays (Philadelphia: University of Philadelphia Press, 1984).
  11. Egenter, Gemeinnutz vor Eigennutz: Die soziale Leitidee im Tractatus De Bono Communi des Fr. Remigius von Florenz, in Scholastik 9 (1934), pp. 79-92.
  12. Emerton, Ephraim. The Correspondence of Pope Gregory VI. (New York: Columbia University Press, 1932).
  13. Henderson, Ernest F. (trans.), Select Historical Documents of the Middle Ages (London: George Bell and Sons, 1910).
  14. Hofmann, K. (ed.), Der Dictatus papae Gregors VII. Eine rechtsgeschichtliche Erklärung von Dr. Theol. Karl Hofmann (Paderborn: Ferdinand Schöningh, 1933).
  15. Kempshall, The Common Good in Late Medieval Political Thought (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999).
  16. Keys, Mary M., Aquinas, Aristotle, and the Promise of the Common Good (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006).
  17. Mayhew, Robert, Part and Whole in Aristotle’s Political Philosophy. In The Journal of Ethics Vol. 1 No. 4 (1977), pp. 325-340.
  18. Minio-Paluello, Lorenzo, Remigio Girolami’s De Bono Communi: Florence at the Time of Dante’s Banishment and the Philosopher’s Answer to the Crisis, in Italian Studies 11 (1956), pp. 56-71.
  19. Morrison, Karl F. The Investiture Controversy: Issues,Ideals and Results (New York: Winston Inc, 2005).
  20. Ottman, H., Geschichte des politischen Denkens: Das Mittelalter (Stuttgart: Verlag J.B. Metzler, 2004).
  21. Panella, E., Per lo studio di Fra. Remigio dei Girolami (†1319): “contra falsos ecclesie professores’ c.c. 5-37, (Memorie Dominicane, 1979).
  22. ————, Remigiana: Note biografiche e filologiche, in Libro e imagine (Memorie Dominicane, 1982), pp. 366-421.
  23. ———–, I quodlibeti di Remigio dei Girolami (Memorie Domincane, 1983), pp. 1-149.
  24. ————, Nuova cronologia Remigiana, in Archivum Fratrum Praedicatorum 60 (1990), pp. 145-311.
  25. ———– (ed. and trans.), Remigio dei Girolami, Dal bene commune al bene del commune: I trattati politici di Remigio dei Girolami (†1319) nella Firenze dei bianchi-neri De bono communi – De bono pacis – Sermones de pace, in Biblioteca di Memorie Dominicane 9 (Firenze: Edizioni Nerbini, 2014).



[1] Such texts as the Dictatus Papae (1075), the Register of Pope Gregory (1078) and the papal bull Libertas Ecclesiae (1079) as well as letters by the Holy Roman Emperor Henry IV (1056-1106),

[2] See Henderson (1910) 408-409 for translations of the Concordat.

[3] Browning (1894), 192; Najemy (2006), 68-71

[4] Browning (1894), 49 ff. Dante, for example, belonged to the White Guelf faction, and was exiled from Florence because of it. This led him to put many of the leaders of the Black Guelf faction into the Inferno (cf. Dante Inferno VI. 58-72).

[5] Dating the De Bono Communi, Panella points to the devastation of Florence in the text as indicating a date of authorship after 1301 (Panella (2014), 38-57).

[6] Remigius dei Girolami De Bono Communi I: “erunt homines se ipsos amantes, cupidi, elati, superbi… qui quidem, propter nimium amorem atque inordinatum sui ipsorum bona comunia negligentes…spiritu diabolico agitati, castra civitates provincias totamque regionem…confundunt…”

[7] On the Good of the Community or On the Common Good. A topic that is of great interest in Medieval philosophy, Kempshall (1999) and Keys (2006).

[8] On the Good of Peace

[9] The Sermons on Peace

[10] On Justice

[11] Although by no means his only treatises, Remigius dei Girolami was a very prolific author and wrote on theology, science and music as well. Davis (1960), 664.

[12] This is not to say, however, that Remigius had no particular invested interest in the conflict. There are several points in his works in which his support for the papcy comes through. As an example: “The ecclesiastical good is to be preferred over the temporal good, just as the head of the church, that is the pope, is to be preferred over the head of the temporal power, that is, over the emperor.” (De Bono Pacis V).

[13] Chapters I, VI, VII and VIII.

[14] Chapters II and V.

[15] Chapters III and IV.

[16] As seen, for example in his analogy of the hand in relationship to the body (Aristotle Politics 1253a 18-29). Cf. Barnes (1990), 263 and Mayhew (1997), 325-340.

[17] Remigius dei Girolami De Bono Communi IX: “Secundo quia ipsum esse partis quale habet, dependet ab esse totius. Pars enim extra totum existens non est pars sicut prius dicebatur dum esset in toto.”

[18] Remigius dei Girolami De Bono Communi IX: “Manus enim abscisa non est manus nisi equivoce…non enim habet operationes manus, puta sentire tangibilia, cibum ori porrigere, scalpere et huiusmodi. Interempto enim toto nec erit pes neque manus…Omnia enim opere diffinita sunt et virtute; quare non iam talia existentia non dicendum eadem esse…quia scilicet carent operatione et virtute per quam diffiniuntur, sicutdiffinitio pedis est quod est membrum organicum habens virtutem ad ambulandum.”

[19] Remigius dei Girolami, as a student of Thomas Aquinas, is very reliant on the works of Aristotle, quoting them as often as he does Scripture. In discussing the part and the whole, Remigius dei Girolami also cites Aristotle’s De anima and Metaphysics.

[20] Remigius dei Girolami De Bono Communi IX: “

[21] Remigius dei Girolami De Bono Communi IX: “

[22] That is: “the soldier in military matters, the merchant in selling, the artist in the carrying out of his art, the official in his office, the head of the family in family affairs and the universally free man in his freedom that is in going to visit his holdings, in making embassies, in having dominion over foreign cities and suchlike.”

[23] Remigius dei Girolami De Bono Communi IX. “ab omnibus naturaliter amari”

[24] Remigius dei Girolami De Bono Communi IX.. scilicet bonum in comuni,pulcrumDeus et beatitudo.”

[25] Remigius dei Girolami De Bono Communi II (quoting Aristotle Topics I. 1094a). “ars et maxime architectonica est civilis”

[26] Remigius dei Girolami De Bono Communi IX. “Secundum enim et Philosophum et Dyonisium, pulcritudo consistit in quadam proportione sine qua esse non potest.”

[27] That is Ps. Dionysius the Areopagyte.

[28] Remigius dei Girolami De Bono Communi IX. “quia Deus omnia convertit ad se ipsum.”

[29] Aristotle Poetics I.VII (translated by S.H. Butler).

[30] Remigius dei Girolami De Bono Communi XIII.  “quod est magis pulcrum magis amatur. Sed pulcritudo civitatis excedit pulcritudinem cuiuscumque civis tam extensive, cum ibi sint plures pulcri, quam etiam intensive…Magis enim est delectabilis pulcritudo unius prati floridi quam unius floris, certe quia maior est utroque dictorum modorum.”

[31] Aristotle Poetics I.VII. (translated by S.H. Butler).

[32] Aristotle Nicomachean Ethics I.1094b. Text in Remigius dei Girolami De Bono Communi II. “maiusque et perfectius quod civitatis videtur suscipere et salvare; amabile quidem enim et uni soli, melius vero et divinius genti et civitatibus.”

[33] Remigius dei Girolami De Bono Communi II. Quasi dicat: Quanto bonum est comunius tanto est magis amandum, scilicet bonum civitatis magis quam bonum unius civis et bonum provincie que multas continet civitates magis quam bonum unius civitatis. Unde et per consequens bonum regni magis amandum est quam bonum unius provincie et bonum universalis ecclesie magis quam bonum unius regni. “This is as if he said that however much good is in common so much more is it to be loved, the good of the city is more than the good of a private citizen and the good of a province, which contains many cities, more than the good of one city. From whence also and as a consequence the good of a kingdom is more to be loved than the good of a province and the good of the universal church more than the good of one kingdom.”

[34] Remigius dei Girolami De Bono Communi XII. “cum plures sint ibi huiusmodi virtuosi et etiam magis quam ipse sit.”

[35] Since this cause is “especially prevalent in the youth, in whom the passions dominate the most…” (Remigius dei Girolami De Bono Communi XIII. “ideo talis amor specialiter invenitur in iuvenibus, in quibus maxime dominantur passiones sensuales”).

[36] Remigius dei Girolami De Bono Communi XII. “tanto commodius quanto civitas maior existens plus habundat doctoribus. Ubi etiam per exercitium mutuum cum discipulis aliis magis potest proficere.”

[37] Remigius dei Girolami De Bono Communi XII. “quia ‘scientia est nobilis possessio animi, que distributa suscipit incrementum.’”

[38] Remigius dei Girolami De Bono Communi XII. “Moraliter etiam potest fieri magis virtuosus… tum quia ex exemplis aliorum virtuosorum magis provocatur ad virtutem et ad bonam operationem.”

[39] Remigius dei Girolami De Bono Communi IX. “…quia pars, que in se turpis est, ex ea consideratione qua in toto est pulcrificatur a toto.”

[40] Remigius dei Girolami De Bono Communi IX. “que pulcra reputatur in se considerate.”

[41] Remigius dei Girolami De Bono Communi IX. Ut qui erat civis florentinus, per destructionem Florentie iam non sit florentinus dicendus sed potius flerentinus. “As he who was a Florentine citizen, because of the destruction of Florence is no longer to be called a Florentine, but rather a weeper.”

[42] Perhaps showing off his educational background, as he had studied in Paris with Thomas Aquinas.

[43] Remigius dei Girolami De Bono Communi XIII. Denique flos exfloritus est et odor fame ipsius conversus est in horribilem fetorem infamie, iuxta prophetiam appellationis vulgaris civium: non enim “Fiorença”, ut persone extranee, sed “Firençe” ipsam appellant. Gallici enim quando fimus vel aliquid aliud fetidum transit dicunt “fi fi” obturantes nares suas, quasi dicant “O quantus fetor est iste!” “Finally, the flower is wilted and the scent of fame is turned into the horrible odor of infamy, this fulfills the prophecy of its own name among the vulgar people, for they do not call it “Fiorenza” as foreign people do, but “Firenze.” The French, when they come across dung, or some other fetid thing, say: “fi fi” holding their nose, as if to say: “Oh how much this stinks!”

[44] Remigius dei Girolami De Bono Communi IX. “Quo igitur flore prosperitatis poterit pulcher esse civis vel christianus si sua civitas vel ecclesia sit exflorida, sit oppressa, sit destructa? Absit. Flos enim pulcher est in prato non in fimo vel sterquilinio.”

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