Episode 13: Ficino and Pico

The Birth of Venus by Sandro Botticelli (1445-1510)

The Birth of Venus by Sandro Botticelli (1445-1510)

As was mentioned, the Renaissance is best known for its artistic and architectural achievements; for the names of Leonardo, Michelangleo, Brunelleschi, Raphael, Botticelli and many others.  But it was the rediscovery of Platonic and other early texts that provided a philosophical underpinning for much of this work.  It provided a new view of man, not as a creature damned by original sin which could only be expiated through the church, but as a rational being, full of wonders in his “natural” state, and one who could choose to reclaim his godlike status through the exercise of his reason.  In this episode, we will look at two of the most influential proponents of this view, Marsilio Ficino and Giovanni Pico della Mirandola.

Marsilio Ficino (1433-1499), Bust in the Duomo, Florence

Marsilio Ficino (1433-1499), Bust in the Duomo, Florence

Ficino was born in 1433, the year before Cosimo de Medici returned to Florence after an exile in Venice, and his life would be intertwined with the Medici for the rest of the century.  Cosimo had been exiled by rival factions who feared his money was buying him too much power, and they were right–when he left and took his money with him, the economic hardship became so great he was asked back.  When he did return, he became the de facto ruler of Florence, and used his great wealth to support many civic projects, as well as artists and scholars.  Ficino was one of these.

His father Diotifeci, (“God made thee”) was Cosimo’s personal physician, who nonetheless did not become wealthy himself because of his habit of not charging the poor who also came to him for care.  Marsilio was scholastically precocious, especially in the field of languages, and early on he was put to work by Cosimo editing and translating the many ancient texts that were being recovered throughout Europe.  In addition to his skill with words, he was also an accomplished musician and healer.

He also seems to have taken naturally to the scholarly and spiritual life, and to possess the constancy of purpose and habits that enabled his prodigious output of translation and writing.  In a letter in 1476 he says to Carlo Valguli, “You ask me, my Valguli, what am I doing today?  That which I did yesterday.  Again you ask what am I planning to do tomorrow?  That which I am doing today.  Our Plato has  persuaded me that I would in the end accomplish most if I always did the same thing.”¹  He did not marry or have a romantic relationship that is known–his love, expressed throughout his writing, was Platonic.  In 1473, after a serious illness, he became a priest of the Catholic church and a canon of the Florence cathedral.

Like most Renaissance scholars, he pursued studies in many different fields of learning being rediscovered, among them astrology and “magic,” which landed him in some trouble with the hierarchy of the church, although not as much as Pico and some others.  Ficino knew how to phrase his thoughts so they did not appear threatening to the church, and of course he had the protection of the Medici.  He became tutor to Cosimo’s grandson Lorenzo, who would continue to support Ficino’s work when he came into power.

When Ficino was thirty, Cosimo assigned him to what would be his

A Latin translation of Plato's "Republic"

A Latin translation of Plato’s “Republic”

greatest achievement: the translation of all the newly rediscovered Platonic dialogs from Greek into Latin, realizing the plan of Boethius from 900 years before.  And as mentioned in the previous episode, he interrupted this work partway through to translate the works of Hermes Trismagistus which had recently been brought from Constantinople, and afterward translated many of the neo-Platonists also, Plotinus and Proclus among them.  In addition to the translations though, he produced many of his own works, and it soon becomes evident when reading any of them that he is not just refashioning ancients texts; he has penetrated into the good himself and is writing from first-hand experience.  For example, in a late essay The Book of the Sun (De Sole) he invokes Plato’s analogy of the sun as “the child of the Good,” and says:

Seeing that it really is possible to ascend to the archetypal pattern partly by the taking away of that which is worse and partly by the adding of what is better, take from the Sun – from whom Averroes took gross physical matter – all definite quantity. But leave it with the potency of light, so that there will remain the light itself, cleansed by miraculous power, defined neither by a definite quantity nor by any definite shape, filling with its presence a space immense with respect to the imagination. This pure light exceeds the intelligence just as in itself sunlight surpasses the acuity of the eyes. In this way, in proportion to the strength you receive from the Sun, you will almost seem to have found God, who placed his tabernacle in the Sun.²

As mentioned last time, Ficino’s circle formed an Accademmia Platonica,which provided an intellectual background to many of the more visible activities of the quattrocentro.  As Peter Hall has put it,

Marsilio Ficino’s Platonic Academy played a particular role. It was not an organized institution like the academies of the sixteenth century, but merely a circle around Ficino. Its activities were closely linked with Ficino himself: improvised conversations with friends or visitors; organized banquets and discussions such as the famous celebrations on Plato’s birthday; speeches or declamations delivered by Ficino; public courses given by Ficino in the church of Santa Maria degli Angeli on Plato, on Plotinus, on St Paul; and some private instruction, based on reading Plato and perhaps other authors. It sought to bridge the yawning gap between medieval dogmatic theology and Aristotelian scholasticism, through a metaphysical Platonism based on reason.³

Detail from "Zaccaria in the Temple" by Ghirlandaio

Detail from “Zaccaria in the Temple” by Ghirlandaio, showing Ficino (left) and members of his Academy: Christoforo Landino, Angelo Poliziano, and Demetrios Chalkondyles

He used his unique position as a Platonist as well as a priest of the church to attempt a reconciliation between the two, as so many others had done before him.  It is generally acknowledged that his articulation of the doctrine of “the immortality of the soul,” as described by Plato in the Phaedo, caused it to become adopted by the church.

Giovanni Pico della Mirandola would seem to be a worthy successor to Ficino.  Thirty years younger than Ficino, they first met in 1484, supposedly on the day that Ficino published his translations of Plato, which greatly impressed the astrologer in him.  Tall, good-looking and confident, Pico seems to have charmed everyone with whom he came in contact–in Florence at least.  He was also precocious when it came to languages; he know Latin and Greek of course, but also Hebrew, Arabic and Aramaic, and was widely read in the philosophical and religious texts native to them.  He quickly became Ficino’s student.

Giovanni Pico della Mirandola (1463-1494)

Giovanni Pico della Mirandola (1463-1494)

But either because of his youth or his temperament, he did not possess the same singlemindedness toward philosophy.  He fell into an affair with the wife of one of Lorenzo’s cousins and was almost killed as a result–it took a personal intervention on Lorenzo’s part to prevent it.  Also while in Florence he improbably became fast friends with the severely ascetic Savonarola, and would eventually choose him over his Platonist friends.

In 1486, when he was twenty-three, he produced the works for which he is most remembered: a set of 900 theses intended to show the common roots of all religions and philosophies, as well as An Oration on the Dignity of Man, which was intended to defend them.  While it is a landmark text in humanism, extolling the wonders of man and his powers, it nonetheless places him in a hierarchy of being and admits of his ability to ascend to its top–to realize union with the Supreme Being.

For, raised to the most eminent height of theology, whence we shall be able to measure with the rod of indivisible eternity all things that are and that have been; and, grasping the primordial beauty of things, like the seers of Phoebus, we shall become the winged lovers of theology. And at last, smitten by the ineffable love as by a sting, and, like the Seraphim, filled with the godhead, we shall be, no longer ourselves, but the very One who made us.4

In 1487 he traveled to Rome, audaciously throwing down a challenge to all comers to debate him.  But naturally the church, in the person of Pope Innocent VIII did not take to being lumped together with any pagan schools, and some of the theses were declared heretical.  Pico was forced to retract them, which he did, but with his fingers crossed.  An Apology he wrote defending himself was also found to contain heresies, and Pico fled to France where he was tracked down and imprisoned.  Again it took the intervention of Lorenzo to get him released, and only on the understanding that Pico would live in Florence under Lorenzo’s watchful eye.

He continued to write under this benign form of house arrest until Lorenzo’s death in 1492, but grew more and more under the harsh influence of Savonarola, as did much of Florence.  He died in 1494 at the age of 31 under mysterious circumstances; a suspicion has persisted that he was poisoned by surviving members of the Medici family because of his close ties to Savonarola.  His extreme nature had swung back the other way, and he forgot what he had written in the Oration about the precepts of the Delphic oracle:

As a matter of fact that aphorism: meden agan, this is: “Nothing in excess,” duly prescribes a measure and rule for all the virtues through the concept of the “Mean” of which moral philosophy treats. In like manner, that other aphorism, gnothi seauton, that is, “Know thyself,” invites and exhorts us to the study of the whole nature of which the nature of man is the connecting link and the “mixed potion”; for he who knows himself knows all things in himself, as Zoroaster first and after him Plato, in the Alcibiades, wrote. Finally, enlightened by this knowledge, through the aid of natural philosophy, being already close to God, employing the theological salutation ei, that is “Thou art,” we shall blissfully address the true Apollo on intimate terms.5

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This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.  Graphics are not copyrighted and are believed to be in the public domain.  Music courtesy of Stefan Hagel, and used by permission.

¹Marsilio Ficino, Meditations on the Soul, translated by members of the Language Department of the School of Economic Science, London, Clement Salaman, ed.  Inner Traditions, 1996.

² Marsilio Ficino, De Sole, trans. by Geoffry Cornelius et. al., Sphinx 6: A Journal for Archetypal Psychology and the Arts, 1994

³Sir Peter Hall, Cities in Civilization, Pantheon, 1998

4Giovanni Pico della Mirandola, Oration on the Dignity of Man

5Giovanni Pico della Mirandola, Oration on the Dignity of Man