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  • Writer's pictureBrian Keeler

Pursuing the Soul in Renaissance Florence

Updated: Nov 28, 2020

Essential Ideas of the Renaissance-

An essay on the timeless Philosophy of Marsillio Ficino by Brian Keeler

This reflection on Reniassance philosophy comes from a book I just finished; “Meditations on the Soul- Selected Letters of Marsilio Ficino”- it is published by Inner Traditions International. I think this interest in the soul during the Renaissance must be a theme for my recent reading, as I recently finished another book on this same subject. That book, reviewed in a previous essay was by James Hankins titled, “Virtue Politics- Soul Craft and State Craft in Renaissance Italy.

Here we have a book of letters from one of the most important and influential thinkers of the 15th century in Italy. It is a gem of wisdom that goes beyond its time and locale- into the past and to our contemporary world and issues. The relevance, in other words, of Ficino’s writings is both personal and universal and his reflections will have appeal to many questers and students of the Renaissance. The unvarnished nature of personal letters to friends, colleagues and heads of state and church avails to us a direct avenue into the intimate concerns of a man of Florence during 1400's. In this respect we can compare Ficino's letters to the diaries of Julius Cesar, which were written while he was on campaign in Gaul. So both of their books are unadorned records with minimal pretense.

Ficino is not a household name today, as he is not nearly as well known as Leonardo, Machiavelli or Lorenzo De Medici and many others of the quattrocento in Italy. However, his seminal ideas have come to prominence recently, as he is given high praise by Thomas Moore, the author of “Care of the Soul,” which was a runaway bestseller. There is probably not another person of Ficino's era that was more in the center of life in Florence, which was a virtual melting pot of influential thinkers, statesmen, artists, religious figures, scientist and so much more.

For students of the Renaissance, there is a famous fresco painting by Domenico Ghirlandaio that will likely be recalled by many of us, as it is in the Tournabuoni Chapel in Santa Maria Novella in Florence. I have visited this marvelous cathedral on many visits to Florence as it is great repository of masterpieces. There is Massaccio's famous fresco of the Holy Trinity, Giotto's Crucifixion and so much more. That painting by Ghirlandaio includes a portrait of Ficino. His place as an important figure was recognized and recorded in that painting. Ficino was a medical doctor and a Catholic priest but also an astrologer and leader of the Neoplatonic philosophic school of the day.

The fresco of Ghirlandaio's in Florence- Ficino is in the bottom left with other philosphers. This fresco is part of cycle, or group of several other paintings. This work depicts a Biblical scene, "The Apparition of the Angel to Zehariah.

This book of Ficion's letters does not address any artistic issues head on but as Ficino was at the epicenter of intellectual and spiritual life during the renaissance in Florence his influence on all the arts and spiritual life is difficult to overstate. His discourses with many the prominent men of letters, arts, politics and religion of that era throughout Italy are documented here. Starting with Cosimo De Medici, the elder patriarch of the family and up past the death his grandson, Lorenzo the Magnificent near the end of 15th century, the intimacy reflected here is of great importance.

The thinking of Ficino is representative of the challenge of the era to meld and reconcile the wisdom of Plato along with Plotinus in regards to Christian spirituality. One could say this is the central issue of so many artists and philosophers of the Renaissance and before as well. We can recall Saint Augustine’s similar crisis with reconciling the wisdom of the ancients with Christian doctrine.

There is also the seeming dichotomy between astrology and Catholic dogma, which Ficino goes into in one chapter. The first letter in this chapter is titled; “Venus subdues Mars, and Jupiter Saturn” and some will recall the famous painting by Botticelli in the NGA in London of these two deities lounging in languid reverie titled “Venus and Mars.” We rightfully wonder if Botticelli’s conception was influenced by Ficino. We know that other visual concepts of Botticelli’s were directly influenced by literary sources such as the writings of Leon Batista Alberti.

This book could serve as primer of the era as the letters delve into many of the important aspects of philosophy and religion. For example, the Platonic idea of “The Good” is referred to throughout. These ethics of virtue and how to pursue this life of moral integrity is pondered over. More often than not however, Ficino is imploring and admonishing his fellows in just how to effect these Platonic ideals. Here is an excerpt;

“Moreover, as soon as something, nearest of all to the highest good, as is the flame of the good; and wherever the flame of the good burns most fiercely, there its light shines most clearly.”

Here is another quote that might come under the category of “Angelology” or the study of higher forms of being:

Does happiness then reside in the virtues of reflection such as the contemplation of truth? Certainly it does. But there is, so to speak, contemplation of different kinds: Subcelestial, and supercelestial.”

And he continues with Aristotle’s take on this:

“He thought happiness consisted in the highest activity of the highest power directed to the highest purpose. The soul trapped in a body is able to consider these things in one way, and the soul that is free in another. “

We can see many pertinent ideas and corollaries between other contemplative traditions here. Buddhism comes to mind many times while reading this book. And other philosophical traditions are seen as related as well, such as the writing of Paul Brunton. It is reassuring in many ways to see that wisdom was not held in thrall by fire and brimstone preachers like Savonarola and the Catholic Church in general. To think of a Catholic priest like Ficino giving lectures, holding classes in the Medici Villa and writing on a wide range of topics is worth regarding to widen our perspective of an oppressive monotheism that we may have thought was all controlling. A casual look at the paintings of the era, replete with images of Greco-Roman antiquity and from the ancient philosophers should also disabuse of these notions.

But, not to err on the side of a view of an overly tolerant church, we need to know that Ficino was accused of heresy for his interest in astrology and the ancient authors in 1489 by Pope Innocent the VIII. Still, we see Ficino touting the special confluence in his time as a summation of the apogee of the arts in the Renaissance, Ficino proclaimed in 1492;

"This century, like a golden age has restored to light the liberal arts, which were almost extinct: grammar, poetry, rhetoric, painting, sculpture, architecture, music ... this century appears to have perfected astrology"

I mention this quote in part to show how astrology was regarded as an art worthy of serious consideration at that time. In his letters, Ficino seeks to balance and pull astrology back from what we would today call determinancy. That is to say, he is an advocate for free will by suggesting we are "of" the stars and not so much "under" the stars.

In regards to corollaries to other philosophical and spiritual traditions, here is a quote from a letter from Ficino to his nephew that reveals an uncanny connection to the Buddhist idea of suffering;

We are not always strong enough to deliberate, fight, and put up resistance, but we are always able to suffer well. We always suffer and by suffering, are taught how to suffer. Certainly we can always do something when the power to it lies within the will itself. As soon as we have the will to suffer well, we do suffer well, since suffering well is nothing other that having the will to suffer.”

This book is an intimate record of the thinking of an important figure in the renaissance and we readers are offered wisdom and spiritual insights. Here is quote from the jacket, an endorsement by author Kathleen Raine;

“ Ficino was the greatest of Renaissance humanist. To many who are nauseated by the positivist atheism which in the mass media passes for “humanism” these letters will be water in the dessert.”

For the artist or layman wishing to plumb the essence of the Renaissance, you could not do better than to avail yourself of this compilation of letters.

Marsillio Ficino appears in this fresco by Domenico Ghirlandaio in the Tournabuoni Chapel in Santa Maria Novella in Flornence. Ficino is on the far left.

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