In a community where Paracelsus is well known, it is surprising how obscure Marsilio Ficino remains. He is, in many ways, the father of modern Hermeticism, and also a major figure in queer history. If you’ve ever used or heard the phrase “Platonic Love,” you’ve been impacted by his legacy. Because he was a keystone, to understand Ficino requires understanding the men and events which revolved around Florence of his day. Still, this in no way understates his own significance. He birthed Hermeticism into Western Culture and spurred the creation of a syncretic western tradition.
Ficino was born the son of a Physician in the patronage of Cosimo de’Medici and, as such, was raised in the Medici Court. Unlike much of Europe in the late 14th and early 15th century, Florence was not ruled by hereditary nobles but by various republican groups and councils, proud of its “Democratic” traditions. Through his wealth as a banker, Cosimo became “first among equals” – a leading statesman of Florence, but did not rule as an autocrat. When opponents forced Cosimo into exile in 1433, he moved to Venice and his business moved with him. The flight of capital threatened to collapse the Florentine economy, and Cosimo was allowed to return, establishing himself as the dominant influence in the City’s politics for the next thirty years. When Cosimo died in 1464, his grandson Lorenzo seems to have seamlessly accepted patronage of Ficino.
Ficino was born in the year of Cosimo’s return to Florence and would come of age in an era of relative stability under Cosimo’s leadership. He would become tutor to Cosimo’s grandson, Lorenzo – known to history as Lorenzo the Magnificent – architect of the Peace of Lodi which ended years of warfare between the Lombard City States and brought stability to northern Italy for nearly a half century.
Georgius Gemistus Pletho
During the years of Marsilio’s childhood, there were attempts to reconcile the Catholic and Orthodox churches. This high-profile effort led to a Council in Florence attended by the Byzantine Emperor John VIII Paleologus, and a delegation remained there for several years. Among the delegates who attended was a Greek Neoplatonist philosopher, scholar, and senator from Constantinople, Georgius Gemistus Pletho, who had written extensively on Plato and the Alexandrian mystics.
While Western Europe had some access to ancient Greek philosophy from documents maintained by the Catholic Church and from some Islamic translations, the Byzantine Empire contained a treasure trove of information that had been lost to the West for centuries. Western tradition at this time was almost entirely Aristotelean, through Aquinas and other sources. At the invitation of Cosimo and others he set up a series of lectures on the difference between Plato and Aristotle. Neoplatonism was the last great intellectual force of western Paganism before the rise of Christianity, and Plato became the single overwhelming influence on the Renaissance.
Before his death, Pletho devised a modern system of religion which rejected Christianity, returning to Neoplatonic ideals, but mixed with Zoroastrian mysticism, astrology, daemons, and the migration of the soul. He sought to invoke the classical gods such as Zeus – not literally, but as symbols of universal principles and the powers of the planet. He intended to call for a reform of the Byzantine Empire and the effective overthrow of the Orthodox Church. His final text, “Book of Laws,” survives only in the form of an outline written before it was burned, however it may represent the first coherent modern neopagan movement. While he had not yet committed this work to paper, it certainly informed the ideas he passed along in Florence.
The influence of Pletho paved the way for Cosimo’s establishment of the Platonic Academy of Florence, and planted the seeds that would mature into the Platonic movement in Renaissance Italy. Moreover it led directly to the residence of John Argyropoulos, who would be Ficino’s teacher and mentor in Platonic ideology.
Argyropoulous was also a member of the Byzantine Delegation to the Council of Florence. Converting to Catholicism, he studied at Padua and received a degree. After the fall of Constantinople in 1453, he fled Greece for Italy and took work as a teacher in Florence. There, in 1459, the 26 year old Ficino became his pupil. While Argyropoulous was less radical than Pletho, he was in a position to impart a picture of late pagan philosophy far more complete than Ficino could have gained through instruction in the West.
The Platonic Academy and The Hermetica
Around 1462, Cosimo decided to re-found Plato’s Academy in Florence. According to his Renaissance biographer, Giovanni Corsi, Ficino had financial difficulties and moved to Bologna about this time. However, on a trip to Florence to visit his father, he met Cosimo who decided to become his patron and provide for him, making him the Leader of his new Academy.
The Academy was never a formal school. It was more of an organized salon or discussion group. He selected Marsilio Ficino, then about 30, to lead it. The Academy was, over time. enormously influential. The Victorian critic and early queer advocate, John Addington Symonds, believed that Michaelangelo (Symonds, 1928, p. 30) spent time there. Whether that is the case or not, the ideals of the Academy definitely suffuse Michaelangelo’s work. Many other important thinkers came out of the Academy, most notably Pico della Mirandola – an important humanist who was the first to introduce the Kabbalah to the European mainstream outside of Jewish rabbinical and intellectual circles.
Ficino’s Translations and Written Work
Ficino’s primary work for Cosimo was the translation of manuscripts. Supplied with Greek copies of Plato’s work he began complete translations into Latin which were published in draft in 1468-69, and published in final in 1484. While that work was important, even more important to us was the moment Leonardo da Pistoia arrived in Florence with a collection of Greek Manuscripts from Macedonia, which we know today as the Corpus Hermeticum. Cosimo asked Ficino to stop his work on translating Plato to translate the Hermeticum. This specific act was the birth of modern Western Hermeticism.
Ficino also translated other Neoplatonist work, including Porphyry, Iamblichus, and Plotinus. These works, particularly Iamblichus, were critical to the development of a Gnostic countercurrent in Europe, and formed a considerable part of the foundation for the theology that led to Doinel’s re-establishment of a Western Gnostic Church and an active Western Gnostic Tradition. He translated a number of lesser works such as Psellus’ “On Daemons,” which greatly expanded the understanding of Western Spirit magic.
His own core work, “Platonic Theology,” a treatise on the immortality of the soul, was an attempt to rectify Platonism with Christianity which was not entirely compatible with either Plato or Christianity. His work was condemned by the Inquisition in articles published at the University of Pisa in 1490.
Ficino invented the term “Platonic Love” in championing love between men. He published his Platonic love letters to his lifelong friend, Giovanni Cavalcanti, which popularized the term and the concept. Neither Ficino nor his intellectual circle was ignorant of the fact that Plato discusses not only intellectual but sexual love between men. At that point in Western Europe, “sodomy” was simply a crime and a sin, more or less harshly punished depending on the time, the locale, and the views of the local priesthood. Ficino creates an intellectual framework of beauty and spiritual growth around the concept of love between same-sex partners, while avoiding direct mention of physical union.
This intellectual basis for homosexuality was the first glimmering of a gay rights movement in Europe, and would underlay Western gay counterculture through Wilde and Crowley. The concepts in Wilde’s “De Profundis” have root in Ficino’s earliest expressions. Ficino’s life, acquaintances, and writing suggest that he was primarily homosexual, though at a time when such activity could result in severe penalties, it was not acknowledged. Whatever his personal sexuality, he sparked a powerful current in the defense of homosexual and asexual relationships.
Ficino as Priest
Much has been made of Ficino’s determination to become a priest at the age of 42. The reason seems to have been rather practical. Lorenzo de’Medici arranged for his income and upkeep by gifting him with two parishes, but to enjoy their revenue he had to be a clergyman. This allowed his brothers to divide his father’s estate. This system of assuring a living by awarding a benefice was common throughout Europe, essentially allowing wealthy and powerful men to use the money of the church to pay private salaries.
Ficnio as Friend
Corsi says of Ficino, “his health was not at all settled, for he suffered very much from a weakness of the stomach, and although he always appeared cheerful and festive in company, yet it was thought that he sat long in solitude and became as if numb with melancholy.”(Ficino, 1975, pp. Vol. 3, p. 140) Corsi apparently did not know Ficino personally, but rather knew a number of his friends, but he makes much of his public demeanor. “He was as mild and gentle in discussion as in everything else, ever cheerful and an excellent conversationalist, second to none in refinement and wit. Many of his sayings survive, as they were uttered, in the Tuscan language. Every day these sayings, full of wit, jests and laughter, are commonly on the lips of his friends.” Of his medical skill, Corsi says, “It was wonderful to see the healing skill with which he cured some afflicted by black bile, restoring them to perfect health. “
Despite the relative peace of the last years of Lorenzo’s life, there was unquiet within Lombard and Italian Society. The Italian city-states were involved in a complex and ongoing game of politics between the Pope, the King of France, and the Holy Roman Emperor. In this atmosphere, a wave of puritan fanaticism swept Florence, led by the Domincan Clergyman, Savonarola.
It would be convenient to create a story of an intolerant church at war with enlightened Platonic secularists organized behind Lorenzo, but the reality is not that simple. Lorenzo was very much a strongman, and the forces of puritanism were also pro-democracy. Originally brought to Florence by Lorenzo Savonarola became dedicated to the destruction of the Medici house seeing them as corrupt and anti-democratic. Lorenzo died in 1492, and the peace he had forged collapsed in 1494, leading to an invasion by Charles VIII King of France. Lorenzo’s son and heir, Piero III, attempted to keep Florence neutral which infuriated Charles. When Charles moved against Florence, Savonarola undermined public support for the de’Medici, and during the struggles forced the family from the city. Those formerly patronized by the de’Medici were forced to prostrate themselves before a wave of puritan fanaticism from 1494-1498.
Savonarola was, at heart, a mystic, as much influenced by Neoplatonism as Ficino. The two were on good terms for some time, until Savonarola’s “ecstatic visions led him to asceticism and to war on the estheticism of Ficino”(Hobler, 1917, p. 46) Pasquale Villari accuses Ficino of forsaking and betraying Savonarola. However, it was Savonarola that turned against Ficino, declaring that the banquets of the Platonic Academy were “pernicious examples of renascent paganism.”(Hobler, 1917, p. 47)
Savonarola’s crusade against vice included new laws against sodomy, explicitly including both homosexual and lesbian relations, drunkenness, and other moral crimes. Gangs of boys were organized to patrol the streets. Immodest dress and clothing was repressed. The significant focus on sodomy can be seen as a direct reference to the Platonic Academy and its sympathizers, or at least the freedom which allowed it to prosper, and the Academy was dissolved c. 1492-94.
Savanarola’s Bonfire of the Vanities in 1497, in which the extremist Dominican priest burned works of art, cosmetics, and literature that were, to his way of thinking, “sinful,” was not carried out in the same vein as Nazi Book-Burnings. Instead, it reflected a spirit that would later be seen in the Amish, Quakers, and others who thought that “fancy” things led away from spirituality and charity. Much of the emphasis touches on causes we would recognize sympathetically today – resentment of the ultra-rich and conspicuous consumption while others suffered in poverty.
Savonarola’s success can best be viewed against an atmosphere of uncertainty. The Florentines rightly felt that the de’Medici had failed in maintaining their safety and were justly afraid of a return to chaos. Savonarola sapped the influence of the traditional clergy (including, by this point, Ficino) who petitioned the Pope for his removal. When he refused to lead Florence into Pope Alexander III’s Holy League, the Pope excommunicated Savonarola and interdicted Florence. In the end, he would be burned on the site of his bonfire on orders of the Pope. The church, in this case, was both persecutor and rescuer. Savonarola’s motives were neither entirely evil nor can we disapprove of them, though the painful link between human charity and the need for spiritual purity is a demonstrable ill of his reign.
Ficino was 61 by the time Savonarola seized power, and 65 by the time he was executed. Given the fate of Pico, we could anticipate that he would spend the Savonarola years quietly, living in his country benefice. That he had a hand in Savonarola’s eventual undoing seems likely. Far more than his student Pico, he was politically adroit, and it was the Florentine clergy that ultimately undermined Savonarola and brought him down.
Pico de Mirandola
The entire period of the late 15th century seems to have seen cultural backlash against intellectualism and humanism. In 1486, at the age of 26, Ficino’s student, Pico de Mirandola, very much under the influence of Ficino and Lorenzo, proposed to defend 900 theses on religion called the “Oration on the Dignity of Man” at a giant conference in Rome. Suffused with Humanism, Neoplatonist Paganism, and Kabbalah, they form the first great Western push towards a Syncretic religion, 400 years in advance of the Theosophical Society. The Pope quashed the proposed conference and declared the work heretical. This was the first time the Vatican had banned a printed book. Through the intercession of Lorenzo, Pico was able to return to Florence under his protection. Responsible for originally inviting Savonarola to Florence, Pico was swept up in his extremist movement. He died in 1494, probably poisoned for his support of Savonarola.
Writing in 1506, a few years after Ficino’s death in 1499, his biographer Giovanni Corsi outlines his paganism, while insisting on an essentially Christian life. “Marsilio intended at this time to develop fully the book of Platonic Theology almost as a model of the pagan religion, and also to publish the Orphic Hymns and Sacrifices; but a divine miracle directly hin-dered him more and more every day, so that he daily accomplished less, being distracted, as he said, by a certain bitterness of spirit.”(Ficino, 1975, pp. Vol 3, p. 139) Reading between the lines, Ficino encountered increasing resistance from the Church, and, unlike Mirandarola, saw the writing on the wall. He must have been concerned by the 1490 repudiation of even his tame attempts to reconcile Platonism and Chistianity, and the debacle of Mirandarola’s attempt to create a syncretic tradition certainly must have chilled him.
Ficino was the crux on which the birth of modern neopaganism turned. If he did not, on his own, develop its system, he definitely supplied the raw materials. He brought us the Corpus Hermeticum, which in turn led to the work of Paracelsus, Cornelius Agrippa, and many others who we consider the forebears of modern esoteric practice. In terms of religion, he furnished the core doctrines on which Pico del Mirandola and others after him would develop the syncretic Western tradition, which would give us at some remove various mystical Protestant groups, as well as Theosophy and the French Gnostic Church. As a Platonist and humanist, he was an acknowledged influence on Rabelais, who is the direct creator of Thelema. Plato’s ideas on sexuality pervade Western culture from Rabelais through the homosexual culture of Cambridge and represent a major element in the the cultural ferment that led to Crowley’s intellectual rebellion against Victorian culture. In numerous ways Ficino laid the foundations on which modern Gnosticism and Thelema rest.