In his biography of Marsilio Ficino
, Giovanni Corsi claims that up until the age of 42 Ficino had been a Pagan, but at that point he experienced a miraculous conversion to Christianity. “Ex Pagano, Christi miles”: “From a Pagan, a soldier of Christ.” Fortunately Corsi also shares with us a clear indication of what he means by “Pagan” when he tells us further that Ficino “intended” his philosophical writings on Platonism and Orphism to be “almost as a model of the Pagan religion.” However, as Ficino worked on his monumental Platonic Theology
(which runs to six volumes in the I Tatti edition
), according to Corsi, “a divine miracle directly hindered him” and eventually Ficino “came to fully realize that he was suffering these things through some divine influence because he had strayed too far from the Christian thinkers.”
What were the circumstances under which Ficino’s supposed conversion from Paganism to Christianity took place? By 1475 (the year he turned 42 – although Corsi probably has his dates wrong, for Ficino ordained as a priest in 1473) Ficino had already completed his translations of the Corpus Hermeticum and was fully engaged in translating all of Plato, as well as producing his own commentaries on Plato’s writings. In addition, since 1459 he had been the official scholarch for the Platonic Academy in Florence, under the auspices and patronage of the powerful de Medici family. The Academy was modeled on the last openly functioning Pagan institution of the ancient world (the Academy in Athens, founded by Plato in the early 4th century BC and ordered closed by the Christian Emperor Justinian in 529 AD), and Ficino publicly acknowledged George Gemistos Plethon as the inspiration for this new incarnation of that iconic symbol of stubborn Pagan resistance to Christianization.
On the one hand this time in history has been described as an age of “indirection, concealment and dissembling”, by Perez Zagorin in his biography of Francis Bacon (1561-1626), who took as one of his personal mottos: “I had rather know than be known”, and who had more than one reason for a life-long commitment to the practice of discretion. Zagorin is also the author of a book-length study focussing on the phenomenon of hiding one’s true religious identity: Ways of Lying: Dissimulation, Persecution and Conformity in Early Modern Europe published in 1990. And Jon R. Snyder has just published a new book on the same subject: Dissimulation and the Culture of Secrecy in Early Modern Europe, which is described in this way at the publishers site:
“Larvatus prodeo,” announced René Descartes at the beginning of the seventeenth century: “I come forward, masked.” Deliberately disguising or silencing their most intimate thoughts and emotions, many early modern Europeans besides Descartes-princes, courtiers, aristocrats and commoners alike-chose to practice the shadowy art of dissimulation. For men and women who could not risk revealing their inner lives to those around them, this art of incommunicativity was crucial, both personally and politically. Many writers and intellectuals sought to explain, expose, justify, or condemn the emergence of this new culture of secrecy, and from Naples to the Netherlands controversy swirled for two centuries around the powers and limits of dissimulation, whether in affairs of state or affairs of the heart. This beautifully written work crisscrosses Europe, with a special focus on Italy, to explore attitudes toward the art of dissimulation in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Discussing many canonical and lesser-known works, Jon R. Snyder examines the treatment of dissimulation in early modern treatises and writings on the court, civility, moral philosophy, political theory, and in the visual arts.
On the other hand, Ficino and the other Florentine Pagans seemed to be pushing the envelope in terms of openly challenging Christianity. In fact, the “culture of secrecy” that Zagorin and Snyder write about only comes into clear focus in the decades after Ficino’s miraculous conversion. In essence, Ficino was perhaps an early adopter of what became the commonplace phenomenon of crypto-religiosity as the Renaissance slouched toward the “Early Modern” period. In my opinion Ficino did not need to resort to his Astrological skills to see that a reactionary tide was gathering in response to the luxurient flowering of Paganism in Florence, and that he was among those who were most exposed to the coming danger.
1475 was also the year that Girolamo Savonarola took holy orders with the Dominicans. Savonarola was first dispatched to Florence from 1482-1487, but it was not until he returned in 1490 that he began to make a name for himself for his fire and brimstone preaching. The effect on the intellectual climate of Florence is described in this way by Max Horkheimer:
Under Savonarola a whole system of informants was organized in order to make all kinds of moral transgressions impossible… Savonarola even had ‘police children’ who helped him exercise moral discipline and carried the conflicts right into individual families.
[Between Philosophy and Social Social Science, p. 86]
Many were hypnotized by Savonarola’s savage charisma and violent, demented populism, while others joined his fundamentalist mob simply out of fear. We will never know precisely why the sensitive, impressionable Sandro Botticelli joined the reactionary horde, or how many of his paintings he threw into the flames with his own hands. Also burned in those infamous bonfires were the writings of Petrarch, Boccaccio, Plato, as well as musical instruments, make-up, cards and other games, etc. It seems likely that his “conversion” and his priestly garb served Ficino well during these dangerous times.
Personally I doubt very much that Ficino was ever a sincere Christian, except possibly as a child, if then. In my opinion Corsi was attempting to thread the precarious, indeed, deadly, needle of Renaissance religious identity. Like a character in some Daniel Defoe novel, Ficino is able to save his soul and his neck through timely repentance and conversion. In this way Corsi can openly state the truth in part, and broadly imply the rest, all the while preserving Ficino’s Christian reputation without denying his Paganism.
It is likely that Giovanni Corsi never actually met Marsilio Ficino. However, Corsi wrote his Life of Ficino at the behest of Francesco Cattani da Diacceto, who was “the most faithful disciple of Ficino and his successor in the teaching of Platonic doctrine” according to Eugenio Garin and Giorgio A. Pinton in their History of Italian Philosophy (p. 379). Garin and Pinton try to belittle the importance of Corsi’s biography by emphasizing supposed errors in it and they also make a point of saying that Corsi wrote the biography merely to “please” his teacher, Diacceto. But consider what this implies with respect to the reality of Platonic Paganism in the Renaissance. Six years after his death, the student of Ficino’s hand picked philosophical heir wishes to make a favorable impression … by writing that the great Marsilio Ficino had been a Pagan who had strayed far from Christian thinkers!
Diacceto wrote a Panegyric on Love in the form of a letter to Giovanni Corsi and another one of his students named Palla Rucellai. The letter opens with an exhortation to honor the Gods, and Love/Eros in particular: “It is a grave sin not to have a correct opinion of the Gods; it is an even graver sin to detract anything from their majesty. Therefore, my dearest friends, you must not find fault with Love ….” [p. 157 in CTRPT, see note below] Diacceto’s words closely echo those of Socrates in Plato’s dialogue on Beauty, the Phaedrus [242d-e]. The plural “Gods” occurs several other times in the Diacceto’s letter, including one reference to the “divine honours” that are due to “the statues of the immortal Gods.” [p. 162 in CTRPT] By itself, this overtly polytheistic language could be explained away as a classicizing affectation, which it obviously is to some extent. But is that all it is?
Such nonchalant and even approving references to “Gods” are not to be found, for example, in Cardinal Bessarion’s “defense” of Plato, Against the Slanderer of Plato, which was written in 1469 (the same year that Ficino wrote his hugely influential Commentary on Plato’s Symposium, and four years before Ficino’s miraculous “conversion”). Bessarion was writing in direct response to George of Trebizond’s ferocious attack on Plato which had first appeared in 1458 under the innocuous title Comparison of Plato and Aristotle. In fact, Bessarion feels the need to explicitly state that he does not “approve” of Plato’s belief in a “multiplicity of Gods” [p. 136 in CTRPT]. For some reason, and more than one explanation is possible, Diacceto, writing decades later (the two students being addressed by their teacher had not even been born when Bessarion wrote his “defense” of Plato), felt at ease not only not rejecting Plato’s polytheism, but actually emulating it, at least in words.
The last three paragraphs were added later. Quotes from Diacceto’s Panagyric on Love and Bessarion’s Against the Slanderers of Plato are taken from the translations found in Volume One of Cambridge Translations of Renaissance Philosophical Texts (“CTRPT“), edited by Jill Kraye. Kraye did the translation of Diacceto, while Luc Dietz and Jon Monfasani translated Bessarion.
1433 Marsilio Ficino born
1438-1439 Plethon in Florence
1452 Plethon dies, his explicitly Pagan writings discovered and then burned by George of Trebizond
1458 George of Trebizond writes his attack on Plato
1459 Platonic Academy established at Florence (Carregi) with Ficino as head
1469 Ficino writes his Commentary on Plato’s Symposium and Bessarion writes his reply to Trebizond
1473 Ficino supposedly converts to Christianity
1489 Ficino publishes his masterpiece of Astrological Magic, De Vita Libri Tres
1492 Ficino completes his Latin translation of Plotinus’ Enneads
1494 Charles VIII captures Florence, Savonarola emerges as de facto leader of the city
1497 – 1498 Savonarola excommunicated and then executed
1500 Ficino dies at age 67
1506 Corsi writes his Life of Ficino
1526 Diacetto’s Panegyric on Love written to Corsi (1472-1547) and Rucellai (1473-1543)