Ficino and the Florentine Academy
In the Florentine Academy or to give it its contemporary title, the Platonic Academy of Florence, we are confronted by a phenomenon that was of great importance for the subsequent literary and artistic history of Europe as a whole and of no small consequence for its religious life. Its own historical origin is interesting. Early in the 15th Century the then Greek Emperor and Patriarch travelled to Florence for a Council, which was aimed at re-uniting the Greek and Roman Churches. The project failed, but accompanying the deputies from Constantinople was a certain Gemistus Pletho, who was a learned and enthusiastic Platonist – ‘so steeped’, says the Introduction of the volume1 now before us, ‘in the philosophy of Plato that he seemed to contemporaries like another embodiment of the great philosopher’. Cosimo de’ Medici, the ruler of Florence, was so deeply influenced by his conversations with Pletho that he resolved to found a Platonic Academy in his own city, selecting Marsilio Ficino, the son of his doctor and the tutor of his own son Lorenzo, to run it. We may find this sequence not only interesting but also revealing. It is clear from the history of the Church that forces that led up to the Oecumenical Council of 869 had been working before and continued to do so after it. They resulted in the 11th Century in the separation of the two Churches and in a certain qualitative difference between Eastern and Western Christianity. The dogmatic exclusion of spirit from the constitution of earthly man, formulated by that Oecumenical Council in its 11th Canon, was never accepted by the Greek Church and many feel that Eastern Christianity (which of course includes the Church in Russia), by contrast with the West, has remained a Christianity of spirit as well as of soul and body. Contemplating it in this light, whatever political and strategic moves may have contributed to the convening of the ‘Council of Florence’ in 1439, it is difficult not to perceive the finger of destiny in that encounter between Pletho and Cosimo, not to hear, however faintly, the spirit itself knocking, as it were, at the door of the West for readmittance and, in a way that was not intended, partly achieving it.
Platonism – and the Neoplatonism which it had by then become – is essentially a cosmology, a religion and a psychology of the spirit. Its perspective is the descent of the human spirit from a purely spiritual world, followed by its exile or incarceration in the opacity of material existence, followed again by its reascent to a purely spiritual condition. The Delectable Mountains of its Pilgrim’s Progress are behind as well as in front of Christian; and in this respect it differs notably from the Christian thinking that became orthodox in the West. Nevertheless the subtle influence of that other perspective now began to penetrate the art and literature of Europe, in a new way and imprimis through the Florentine Academy. In England, for example, it was particularly evident in the circle around Sir Philip Sidney, which included Edmund Spenser, but it also fertilised the whole blossoming of the Elizabethan Age.
Its effect upon the art of Italy, and of Florence in particular, was both earlier and more direct. This is, however, not the place for attempting to draw out, as Edgar Wind for instance has drawn out in his Pagan Mysteries of the Renaissance, the intricate linkage between the philosophy and theosophy of Neoplatonism and the unearthly grace that hovers over the paintings of Botticelli, or the grim, even violent, conflict between the spiritual and the material which informs much of the sculpture and some of the paintings of Michelangelo,2 and which is made verbally explicit in his roughly powerful verse. For we are concerned here with a Collection of Letters.
Marsilio Ficino was the leading spirit of the Florentine Academy. Other names, such as Angelo Poliziano and Pico della Mirandola, are perhaps equally well known, but Ficino was at once its most learned scholar and its most prolific writer. Besides translating into Latin the whole of the Platonic Dialogues, the Hymns of Orpheus, the Sayings of Zoroaster, the writings of Dionysus the Areopagite, and parts of Iamblichus, Porphyry and Plotinus, he was the author of The Platonic Theology in eighteen books, The Christian Religion (he became a priest in 1473) and many treatises. In addition he valued his own letters to his friends highly enough to see to their collection in no less than twelve books, of which this is the first. A few of the 131 letters it contains are long and philosophical. More of them are brief and topical. Here is an extract from one of the former:
Therefore seek yourself beyond the world. To do so and to come to yourself you must fly beyond the world and look back on it. For you are beyond the world while you yourself comprehend it. But you believe yourself to be in the abyss of this world simply because you do not discern yourself flying above the heavens, but see your shadow, the body, in the abyss. It is as if a boy leaning over a well were to imagine himself at the bottom although it is only his shadow he sees reflected there, until he turns his gaze back to himself. Or it is as if a bird flying in the air and watching its shadow were to believe it flew on the earth.
And here is an example of the latter:
Marsilio Ficino to the magnanimous Lorenzo de’Medici: greetings.
You write that in future I should be more sparing in praising you. And you write in such a way that while you appear to bridle me, you spur me on to praise you more vigorously. But I will restrain myself for the present. I must go no further. In the letters which I have written to you, Lorenzo, I have hitherto always praised you so as to guide you, and at the same time to encourage you. I have always advised you recognize that you have all things from God, to give Him thanks, and to commit yourself whole-heartedly to Him. I have encouraged you to persevere, for a beginning arises from desire or chance, but perseverance springs from virtue.
I have indeed sometimes praised you rather freely in letters to Niccolo as though you were absent. You read these letters whether I like it or not; for you are so close to Niccolo that you consider that what is written to him is written to Lorenzo. Your love towards Niccolo therefore deceives you in judging me, much more than my love towards you deceives me in judging you.
I still love Lorenzo more than I praise him, and I formed my opinion of him before I loved him.
We are taken back to an age when the immemorial art of rhetoric had not yet come to be despised. Those careful antithesis are more at home in the Latin wherein they were couched than in any English translation, where they begin to sound like euphuism. The letters as a whole may well strike the average modern reader as rhetorical in manner and exalted, not to say high-flown, in tone. But once this is put right by a little historical imagination, he will feel himself highly privileged. For they are also intimate. The warm personal affection which, alongside their common philosophy, united the group of friends who constituted the Academy, shines very brightly through them; and we are left with the feeling of having participated, not so much intellectually as personally, in the life of an historic moment fraught with destiny. We have even been a little at home in it.
It remains only to add that the book is beautifully printed and attractively produced. The notes on the letters are usefully informative, and the separately arranged Notes on Ficino’s correspondents themselves particularly welcome. A word of praise too is called for, as well as of thanks, for the brief but well-considered Introduction (author not stated), to which the opening paragraphs of this notice are partially indebted.
2 Compare the article, Destiny Hewn in Stone; A study of the Life of Michelangelo,’ by Baruch Urieli in the Golden Blade (1976). Return.