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Marsilio Ficino


This biography forms the introduction to The Letters of Marsilio Ficino, Volume 1, © 1975 Fellowship of the School of Economic Science, London.

MARSILIO FICINO (1433-99), the Florentine, was a man who wrought a deep and lasting change in European society. From him and his Academy the Renaissance drew its most potent intellectual and spiritual inspiration. To Ficino the writings of Plato and his followers contained the key to the most important knowledge for Man: knowledge of himself, that is, knowledge of the divine and immortal principle within him.(1) Not only does this knowledge appear from his letters to have been actual experience for Ficino, but he possessed the magic to make faith in this principle a living ideal for his age.

1: Plato, Timaeus, 41. Phaedrus, 245c-246a. Letters 110, 111.

He was apparently one of the least active of men. it is probable that in his sixty-six years he never set foot outside the territory of Florence and the record of his life is little more than the chronicle of his books. And yet, associated with his Academy and under his immediate influence was the most conspicuously brilliant group of men ever to have assembled in modern Europe. These were the men who embodied the Renaissance -Lorenzo de' Medici, Alberti, Poliziano, Landino, Pico della Mirandola. Directly inspired by Ficino were the great Renaissance artists, Botticelli, Michelangelo, Raphael, Titian, Dürer, and many others. Professor Kristeller has said that the whole intellectual life of Florence in his time was under his influence.(2)

2: P. O. Kristeller, Eight Philosophers of the Italian Renaissance, ch. 3.

It is hard to capture or define the elusive quality of spirit that not only bound so many great men in Florence to Ficino, but attracted to him, both in person and by correspon-dence, leading statesmen, scholars and churchmen from all over Europe. Indeed the site of Ficino's Academy at Careggi became a place of pilgrimage both during his life and after his death. The letters provide four main clues: first, the love which he extended to all who approached him; second, the wisdom which enabled him to see so clearly into the nature of his correspondents and to touch on those points which could lead them to make the best use of their talents;(3) third, he seemed to understand clearly how the various activities of his correspondents related to the divine principle in Man and also to their function in the State; fourth, the letters have a quality of timelessness, so that Ficino seems to be speaking to us as clearly today as he spoke to his contemporaries in 15th century Florence. Almost absent from them are accounts of the disappointments and satisfactions resulting from physical events, which render most letters out of date immediately they have been written. He was a true man of the spirit; largely independent of the 'blows of fortune' upon the body,(4) he imparted tranquillity and strength, like his own, to those who listened to him. For instance, a meeting of writers who were assembled to discuss a crusade against the Turks had become exceedingly doleful. At the time, the apparently invincible Turks were a serious threat to Europe. Ficino picked up his lyre and by his music immediately gave back to the company its confidence and strength.(5)
3: See especially letters 7 and 122.

4: Letter 50.


5: See R. Marcel, Marsile Ficin, p. 396, quoted from B. Colucci, Declamationes.

Ficino seemed to understand the principles of every art and to embody in himself the Renaissance ideal of the complete man. He was first of all philosopher, but he was also scholar, doctor, musician and priest. As scholar, apart from his original works, he trans-lated into Latin the whole of Plato and many of the classical writings in the same tradition. This he did at amazing speed and so well that his translations remained the standard editions until those published in national languages in the 19th century. As a doctor his skill was such that many, including the Medici, preferred to call upon his services before any other's. In the tradition of Hippocrates he never took a fee. (6) As a musician his main object was to arouse devotion, and in this his contemporaries recognised him as extra-ordinarily effective. Singing his Orphic Hymns to the lyre, Ficino enthralled Bishop Campano who was traveling through Florence. In a letter Campano says it was 'as if curly-headed Apollo took up the lyre of Marsilio and fell victim to his own song. Frenzy arises. His eyes catch fire ... and he discovers music which he never learnt.' (7)
6: G. Corsi, Life of Ficino, ed. Marcel, XVIII-XIX, p. 687.

7: A. Della Torre, Storia della Accademia Platonica, p. 791, quoted from G. A. Campano, Epistolario, ed. Mencken, Leipzig, 1707.

To Ficino the visual arts were of especial importance. Their function was to remind the soul of its origin in the divine world by creating, through art, resemblances to that world. It was largely through Ficino's insistence on the importance of this art that the painter's position in Florentine society was raised nearer to that of the poet than that of the car-penter, where it had previously been. The image of painting is Ficino's most frequent metaphor. He was himself on close terms with the Pollaiuolo brothers and closely directed the painting of Botticelli's Primavera. In the Platonic Theology he describes the first impulse in the creation of a painting. He writes: 'The whole field appeared in a single moment to Apelles and aroused in him the desire to paint.' (8)
8: Platonic Theology, III, I, Opera Omnia, p118: ed. Marcel, Vol. I, p. 135.

Ficino became a priest in 1473 and later a Canon of Florence Cathedral. The priesthood was to him the highest function of all, 'standing in God's place, performing his work among men'. (9) When he himself preached in the Cathedral, Corsi tells us that people flocked to hear him speak and were delighted by his sermons on the gospels. (10) He was not afraid to write to the leaders of religious orders (11) and once to the Pope himself, (12) urging them to fulfil their responsibilities, at a time when corruption in the church was general. Ficino also wrote to lawyers, rhetoricians and others. He wrote so authoritatively because he related all the activities to the central aim of Man: to return to his divine source.
9: Letter 75.

10: G. Corsi, XI, ed. Marcel, p. 684.

11: Appendix 1.

12: Opera Omnia, p. 808.

It is not surprising that even in Florence, the centre of so many men of genius, Ficino should have been selected as tutor to Lorenzo de' Medici, who became the effective ruler of Florence in 1469 in succession to his father, Piero, and grandfather, Cosimo. Lorenzo was a man of great versatility, the outstanding statesman and Italian poet of his day. He was a life-long friend of Ficino, though perhaps never more so than during the period covered by these letters. He also remained devoted to the Academy and Platonic philosophy, which he practised as a statesman and celebrated as a poet.

The meetings at the Academy must have been the main means by which Ficino taught philosophy to its illustrious members. Rich though they are, the 131 letters in this volume, many to bare acquaintances, can only give a faint reflection of the discussions that must have taken place within its walls, among men of such stature. They were a spiritual com-munity bound together by a common bond of love to each other and to Ficino. (13) He was their centre and they were the centre of the Renaissance.
13: P. O. Kristeller, Eight Philosophers of the Italian Renaissance, ch. 3.

Cosimo de' Medici had resolved to establish a Platonic Academy in 1439, and Ficino writes that he was selected to run it when he was still only a boy. (14) Cosimo had been moved to this decision by the arrival in Italy of Gemistos Plethon, who had come with the Greek Emperor and Patriarch to discuss at the Council of Florence a proposed union of the Greek and Roman Churches. Plethon was so steeped in the philosophy of Plato that he seemed to contemporaries like another embodiment of the great philosopher. However, it was not until 1462 that Cosimo gave Ficino the villa at Careggi, which became the headquarters of the Academy. It was situated on the southern slopes of Montevecchio and overlooked the Medici villa a kilometre away.
14: Opera Omnia, p. 1537.

Ficino wrote to Lorenzo in 1474 (15) that he should take care of his health, as without Lorenzo neither his country nor the Academy could prosper. In this he was prophetic, for shortly after Lorenzo's death (1492) and the expulsion of his son Piero, the activities of the Academy were greatly reduced, (16) although it continued into the 16th century under Francescoda Diaceto.
15: Letter 26.

16: A. Della Torre, Storia della Accademia Platonica, p. 831 seq.

Ficino was born at Figline in the Val d'Arno on October 19th, 1433. His father, Diotifeci, was doctor to Cosimo de' Medici. Of his mother, Alessandra, we know little except that she was much respected by Ficino and appears to have had the gift of 'second sight'. She lived to an advanced age, dying only a year or so before Ficino. In later life Ficino lived with and cared for both his parents.

Little is known about his education except the names of his early teachers and that he studied under the Aristotelian, Niccolo Tignosi, at Florence University. It is not certain when Ficino first became attracted to the writings of Plato. But since Cosimo de' Medici had had an enthusiastic interest in Plato, at least since 1439, and Ficino writes that he had discussed philosophy fruitfully with Cosimo (who died in 1464) for more than twelve years, (17) it must have been at least since 1452. Late in learning Greek, he had at first to rely on Latin authors, and the few dialogues available in translation, for his knowledge of Plato. His first work (1456), the Platonic Institutions (now lost) was based on these sources; and after he read it, Cosimo told him not to publish anything until he could read Greek." (18) However, the letter in this volume on 'Divine Frenzy', (19) composed the following year, shows the authority and power with which he was already writing.
17: Letter 86.

18: Opera Omnia, p. 929.

19: Letter 7.

St. Antoninus, (20) the Archbishop of Florence and Chancellor of the University, whom Ficino greatly respected, advised him at about this time to study less Plato and more St. Thomas Aquinas. He may well have studied more of the latter, of whom he gained con-siderable knowledge, but his enthusiasm for the Platonic tradition in no way diminished.
20: P. O. Kristeller, Supplementum Ficinianum, II, p. 204.

By 1462 he was already producing his first Latin translations of Greek authors, which included the Hymns of Orpheus and the Sayings of Zoroaster. The following year he completed a translation of the Hermetic writings, which subsequently became his most frequently published work. (21) He then resumed the translation of Plato's dialogues, which he finished by 1469. He was afflicted with illness and 'deep melancholy' in 1468, and was then advised by his 'unique friend' Giovanni Cavalcanti to cure himself by writing a dialogue on love; (22) this is his commentary on Plato's Symposium, De Amore. In this work he explains how creation is brought into being, sustained and again gathered to its source through the flow of love. This movement was illustrated by the role of the Graces in Renaissance art.
21: The Hymns of Orpheus, the Sayings of Zoroaster and the Hermetic writings are considered by modem scholars to be works of late antiquity, although possibly based on earlier sources.

22: G. Corsi, VIII, ed. Marcel, p. 683.

In the following year Ficino began The Platonic Theology or The Immortality of Souls. This was his major work. It extended to eighteen books and occupied him for the next five years. In proving the immortality of the soul he showed the single source and unity of two fundamental elements in the life of Western civilisation; Judaic-Christian religion and Greek philosophy. (23)
23 : See D. P. Walker, The Ancient Theology, Introduction.

Ficino became a priest in 1473, and in the same year began The Christian Religion. This work emphasises, in addition to the divinity of Man's soul the personal relationship be-tween Man and God, so beautifully expressed in letter 4. In this book he writes of Man:

Let him revere himself as an image of the Divine God. Let him hope to ascend again to God, as soon as the Divine Majesty deigns in some way to descend to him. Let him love God with all his heart, so as to transform himself into Him, who through singular love wonderfully transformed Himself into Man (Opera Omnia, pp. 22-23).

Numerous short treatises followed The Christian Religion. From about 1484 to 1492 he was engaged in translating and commenting upon the philosopher Plotinus (204-270 A.D.), and his successors, Porphyry and Proclus. in 1489 he published the medical and astrological work The Three Books on Life, and in 1492 he completed his translation of Dionysius. (24) Ficino had his letters published in 1495. In 1496 his commentaries on Plato were printed and in 1497 his translation of Iamblichus; his last extant work is an unfinished commentary on St. Paul's Epistle to the Romans.
24: For the importance of the writings ascribed to Dionysius, the Areopagite, see D. P. Walker, The Ancient Theology, Introduction.

Giovanni Corsi, Ficino's early 16th-century biographer, describes his appearance and character: (25) 'He was short in stature, slim, and slightly hunched in both shoulders. He was a little hesitant in speech, and stammered in pronouncing the letter "S". On the other hand he was not without grace; his legs, arms and hands being well proportioned. The set of his countenance gave him a mild and gracious appearance. He was ruddy in complexion and his wavy golden hair curled high over his forehead.'
25: G. Corsi, XV-XVI, ed. Marcel, pp. 685-6.

According to Corsi, Ficino's health was generally poor, although it improved after his forty-fifth year. He says that although Ficino was gay in company he was melancholy when alone. This melancholy 'he burned up by unremitting work at night'. In tempera-ment, 'he was mild, although when moved by bile, he sometimes broke out into swift anger, which like a lightning flash quickly disappeared. He readily forgot an injury. He was never forgetful of his own duties. He was not at all inclined to sensual passion, but he was rapt in love, just like Socrates, and used to converse and debate with the young about love in the Socratic manner. Throughout his life he was content to have few clothes and household possessions. He had fine but not extravagant taste, for all indulgence was fundamentally foreign to him. He attended carefully to the necessities of life; although sparing with food, he obtained the most excellent wines.'

To Ficino, discipline was essential to the spiritual life. Following the example of Pythagoras, he was a vegetarian who encouraged his followers not to eat cooked food, and throughout the year to rise with the sun, or an hour or two earlier. (26) He led a life of abstinence and chastity, the importance of which he explained in a long letter in Book VIII. (27) Yet although he believed in discipline, his mind soared beyond dogma. There could be many roads to the source even though the Christian one was the best. He writes in The Christian Religion: 'Divine Providence does not permit any part of the world at any time to be completely without religion, although it does allow rites to differ. Perhaps variety of this kind is intended ... God prefers to be worshipped in any manner, however unwittingly ... than not to be worshipped at all through pride. (28)
26: A. Della Torre, p. 633.

27: Opera Omnia, p. 875. 28: The Christian Religion, ch. IV, Opera Omnia, p. 4.

Not far below the surface, in many of his letters, is his sense of humour. (29) Take, for example, his letter to Lorenzo de' Medici, recommending him to support the Aristotelian philosopher, Oliviero Arduini. (30) He grants that Lorenzo may query whether such a philosopher should ask for financial help but begs that he should give the money first and raise the query afterwards.
29: See letter 39 for Ficino's view of humour in Plato.

30: Letter 101.

Ficino's Academy awoke Europe to the deep significance of the Platonic tradition. His letters to eminent correspondents all over the continent contributed directly to this awakening. They included Colet (Dean of St. Paul's Cathedral and founder of St. Paul's School) in England. He wrote to de Ganay, Chancellor of the Parlement in France; to the humanist Reuchlin in Germany (about the meaning of the Orphic hymns). King Matthias of Hungary invited him to his court to give personal instruction in Platonic philosophy; an appointment which he declined but a function which he filled through his follower, Francesco Bandini, who resided with the King for several years. Towards the end of his life, he was able to write, even if partly humorously, that by his correspondence he 'held all Europe in amatorial servitude'. (31)
31: Opera Omnia, p. 891.

Ficino was not the first to revive the study of Plato and his followers. This had developed with the rediscovery of antiquity, which had begun at the time of Dante, or earlier, and had increased in scope and depth with the growing knowledge of Greek and the accumulation of new classical manuscripts. He was not the first to show that Judaic religion and Greek philosophy had a single source, stretching back as he saw it to Moses, Zoroaster and Hermes Trismegistus, the sage of Ancient Egypt. (32) But more than anyone else he established the equal authority of these two strands of European tradition; he convinced his contemporaries that 'lawful philosophy is no different from true religion; and lawful religion no different from true philosophy'.(33) The most eloquent monument to his influence is the mosaic of Hermes Trismegistus in Siena Cathedral.
32: See the Argumentum to Ficino's translation of the Pimander, Opera Omnia, p. 1836.

33: Letter 123.

It was Ficino more than anyone who took from Plato, Plotinus and the Hermetic writings the concept that part of the individual soul was immortal and divine, a concept that was all-important to the Renaissance.(34) For, from this, it followed that the soul had power 'to become all things' and that Man could 'create the heavens and what is in them himself, if he could obtain the tools and the heavenly material'.(35)
34: See P. O. Kristeller, Renaissance Concepts of Man, ch. 2.

35: Letter 123.

In a sense this became the philosophy of the age, for in the century or so following Ficino's birth, more progress was made in the arts and sciences than in the previous millennium, while the voyages of discovery to America, to Southern Africa and the East mirrored the inward achievements in art and literature. Already Europe was on the threshold of the scientific age of which the inventions of Leonardo and the discoveries of Galileo (36) and later Kepler, were early fruits.
36: For a comparison between the thought of Ficino and Galileo, Pico and Kepler, see P. O. Kristeller, Renaissance Concepts of Man, p. 20.

Ficino's 'discovery' of the immortality of the soul was particularly important in the revival of religion during the next century. In the Middle Ages it was a doctrine that had been rather neglected by Christian theologians. Through Ficino it again became central to Christian thought.(37) He carried the greater conviction because he gave every sign of having experienced in contemplation what he described in his writing. A study of contemporary documents will show what a frequent subject for reflection the immortality of the soul became, and by decree of the Lateran Council in 1512 it was made for the first time part of the dogma of the Catholic Church. This emphasis on the individual soul led easily to the devotional step of a 'personal relationship' with God which became so characteristic of the reformers both within and outside the Catholic Church.
37: Ibid., ch. 2, p. 30 seq

For Ficino the immortality and divinity of the soul was the basis of 'the dignity of Man', which the artists and writers of the Renaissance sought to express in countless ways. In time the expression of this ideal touched every aspect of life. Throughout Europe elegance became the object of riches. As the nobility moved out of their castles, they moved into houses that began to express the grace, proportion and light of the Renaissance. (38) The forbidding towers and narrow streets which dominated many mediaeval Italian towns gave way to spaciousness and order. Today the harmony of a Georgian farmhouse as well as the stately homes of Europe still recall to us the 'birth of beauty' in the 15th century.
38: See letter 47.

The dignity of Man was not only reflected in architecture and art but had to be expressed in every field of human activity. A new ideal for Man was set, the first and best model for which was Ficino's pupil, Lorenzo de' Medici. Noble, magnanimous, courageous, com-pletely trustworthy, he could turn from war and affairs of state to philosophy, scholarship, poetry, music or art, and excel in each. Equally at ease with his peers or his people, his authority sprang from his nature and not from his position.

The 'courtier' who was successful without effort and impressive without ostentation, both in the arts and the traditional pursuits of war and hunting, was a marked contrast to the more limited noble of an earlier age. The change in character required is well illus-trated by the 16th century Castiglione in The Courtier.(39) He describes a man whom a lady 'had honoured by asking him to dance, and who not only refused, but would not listen to music or take part in the many other entertainments offered, protesting an the while that such frivolities were not his business. And when at length the lady asked what his business was, he answered with a scowl: "Fighting." "Well then," the lady retorted, "I should think that since you aren't at war at the moment and you are not engaged in fighting, it would be a good thing if you were to have yourself well greased and stowed away in a cupboard with all your fighting equipment, so that you avoid getting rustier than you are already."'
39: B. Castiglione, The Courtier, ed. Penguin Classics, p. 58. This work was also the first of many in European literature to portray Ficino's notion of a purely spiritual love between friends (as described in letter 51) as extending between members of the opposite sex.

The new 'courtier' became a model that was not confined to the noble class. This was the character that, for centuries, the English public schools endeavoured to build and it became almost the definition of a gentleman all over Europe. It required a more generous education than the somewhat restricted view of the seven liberal arts current in the Middle Ages. A knowledge of ancient literature and history became the unquestioned basis of education (40) in the West and remained so until very recently.
40: For Ficino's views on the revival of education see, Opera Omnia, p. 944.

The original impulse of the Renaissance, that the glory of Man should be reflected in all his activities, became in time a movement of general refinement, which lasted for centuries, affecting the taste and manners of the entire population of Europe. The improvement in manners meant more than learning to use a fork or how to make polite conversation. It was the adoption of a code of conduct by which consideration for others became a custom of society. In origin it was the reflection of 'Man's dignity' in his social behaviour.

What is the significance of Ficino's letters today? For a society which seems to have lost its direction; which is largely dominated by indolence, greed, violence and corruption, they have a contemporary ring. It was to the same problems that Ficino addressed himself in the 15th century. The letters remind us that these vices are the product of foolishness and ignorance and that the fulfilment of Man lies in return to his source.
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