Brunello Cucinelli, a modern-day Renaissance humanist, shows how Renaissance ideas can help us to create a better, more satisfying world today.
The ultimate goal of Renaissance humanism was to create a better, more flourishing world. Those inspired by its ideas would ask themselves, “How could I lead a more humane life?” (Quam sit humaniter vivendum?)
Renaissance humanism was not just a quest to revive the classical knowledge of ancient Greece and Rome: it aimed to improve society. For example, businesspeople in Florence, Italy, were deeply influenced by the ideas of humanism. By bringing together the ideas of Renaissance humanism with the mercantile wealth of Florence, these new merchant humanists aimed to contribute to the civic good—the common good of society. Civic humanists also explored the moral value of wealth, which could profoundly contribute to social well-being.
By using mercantile wealth to support classical values and the recovery of ancient knowledge (including architecture and philosophy), humanists desired to discover and create the best possible world. In the process, they transformed the city of Florence into a work of art, whose beauty and accomplishments can still inspire us today.
The core idea of civic humanism—improving one’s community through “civic virtue”—possesses a timeless value. It can be drawn upon today and applied at many levels of scale, from individuals to organizations, both large and small.
One remarkable example of how Renaissance ideas can be applied today is found in the work of the Italian businessperson and philosopher, Brunello Cucinelli (Figure 1). While Cucinelli’s work draws upon many classical and Renaissance ideas, it stresses the Renaissance ideas of human dignity and contributing to the common good. In his own words, “The great dream of my life has always been to make the work of mankind more humane, knowing that work raises the dignity of human beings.”
As a child, Brunello Cucinelli grew up in a poor farming family near the medieval village of Solomeo, Italy. His family lived in a stone house without electricity or running water. In his teens, his father wanted to leave farming to work at a cement factory in nearby Perugia, where he was treated quite inhumanely by the people running the business. This caused Brunello’s father to come home with tears in his eyes each day, and it inspired Brunello’s interest in treating people with dignity and respect.
During Brunello’s college years, he developed a serious interest in philosophy by conversing with friends at a local coffee shop. Then he became concerned with earning a living. So, in 1977, with a $550 loan, he made his first batch of brightly dyed cashmere sweaters, which sold out immediately.
Based on his philosophical reflections, Cucinelli built his now-thriving international fashion business on what he calls “humanistic capitalism,” which he traces partly to Renaissance ideas.
For Cucinelli, humanistic capitalism highlights the moral and economic dignity of human beings and “the values of defending life, respecting and helping others, and adopting a spiritual attitude towards nature.” In Cucinelli’s words, humanistic capitalism is rooted in fairness:
A fair and sustainable profit, a profit harmonized with giving back . . . striking a balance between profit and giving back; donating to the world as guardians of creation, leaving to those coming after us not the very same world we found, but a more amiable one.
As part of Cucinelli’s program, he pays his workers 20 percent more than other comparable employers, provides them with a locally grown lunch, and prohibits work after hours. He also provides them with a lovely setting in which to work, emphasizing the need for beauty in daily life.
Significantly, Cucinelli donates 20 percent of his company’s profit to his private foundation, which has totally restored the medieval village of Solomeo, where around 500 of his delighted employees now live (Figure 2). In addition to restoring the hamlet of Solomeo, he has constructed a 200-seat theater, offering dramatic performances and a summer concert series (Figure 3). He has created a School of Arts and Crafts there, which helps develop artisans of the future (Figure 4). Using traditional design principles from Renaissance architecture, he has created a simple but elegant Monument to Human Dignity. He has also worked to restore Solomeo ecologically by turning an area of run-down warehouses into a green, flowering oasis.
In addition to short-term business planning, which has made his company very successful, Cucinelli sets himself apart by thinking long-term—very long term—because he wants his work to have a lasting impact for centuries. In this vein, his new project, the Universal Library of Solomeo, based upon the example of the ancient Library of Alexandria, he describes as “a gift for the next thousand years.” The library will be filled with the world’s most universal books in philosophy, architecture, and literature, and it will contain an estimated 400–500 thousand volumes.
In May of 2022, I visited Solomeo to see firsthand what the Cucinelli Foundation has accomplished, which is nothing short of remarkable. (You can read a bit about my visit there at the end of another article, “How Beauty Can Save the World.”)
Cucinelli’s work draws upon the best ideas of ancient Greece and Rome as they were revived, given new life, and expanded upon by Renaissance humanists. His campus in Solomeo contains beautiful busts of famous ancient philosophers and Renaissance thinkers. In addition, Cucinelli credits Saint Benedict of nearby Norcia for his guiding belief that human beings should see themselves as “the caretakers of creation.”
This means that we are the guardians, not the owners, of everything we have.
(Dr.) Brunello Cucinelli has been awarded three honorary doctoral degrees for his groundbreaking work in creating a successful international business based on humane, philosophical principles. The Harvard Business Review has also studied his work.
Refreshingly, while Cucinelli endorses environmental sustainability, he also stresses the importance of economic sustainability, cultural sustainability, spiritual sustainability, and moral sustainability—essential values that are often overlooked in our modern world.
The Renaissance Program Summer Institute. Five incredible days in Florence, Italy. Learn in person about “The Energizing Ideas Behind the Italian Renaissance.” Read more >>