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Ficino, Marsilio

Category: Philosopher

As the description on Wikipedia is very good and clear, the following is based on this description.


Marsilio Ficino (1433 –1499) was one of the most influential humanist philosophers of the early Italian Renaissance, an astrologer, a reviver of Neoplatonism who was in touch with every major academic thinker and writer of his day, and the first translator of Plato's complete extant works into Latin. Ficino was also a vegetarian and became a priest in 1473.

His Florentine Academy, an attempt to revive Plato's school, had enormous influence on the direction and tenor of the Italian Renaissance and the development of European philosophy.


Ficino’s interest in the arts of astrology, landed him in trouble with the Roman Catholic Church. In 1489 he was accused of magic before Pope Innocent VIII and needed strong defense to preserve him from the condemnation of heresy.  Writing in 1492 Ficino proclaimed:

 "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."


The Academy

Ficino was born at Figline Valdarno. His father was a physician under the patronage of Cosimo de' Medici, who took the young man into his household and became the lifelong patron of Marsilio, who was made tutor to his grandson, Lorenzo de' Medici. Giovanni Pico della Mirandola, the Italian humanist philosopher and scholar was another of his students.

During the sessions at Florence of the Council of Ferrara-Florence in 1438–1445, during the failed attempts to heal the schism of the Orthodox and Catholic churches, Cosimo de' Medici and his intellectual circle had made acquaintance with the Neoplatonic philosopher George Gemistos Plethon, whose discourses upon Plato and the Alexandrian mystics so fascinated the learned society of Florence that they named him the second Plato. In 1459 John Argyropoulos was lecturing on Greek language and literature at Florence, and Ficino became his pupil.

When Cosimo decided to refound Plato's Academy at Florence he chose Ficino as its head. 



 Ficino's involvement in the Academy led to a number of very influential translations.

Plato - Ficino made the classic translation of Plato from Greek to Latin (published in 1484).

Corpus Hermeticum - Ficino also translated a collection of key Hellenistic Greek documents found by Leonardo da Pistoia called Hermetica and later called the Hermetic Corpus – particularly the "Corpus Hermeticum" of Hermes Trismegistos.

Alchemy and Mysticism – Alexander Roob
ln the Renaissance, the translations by Marsilio Ficino of the Corpus Hermeticum revived the cult of the Sun based on the ancient Egyptian Mysteries. For Ficino the sun embodied, in descending order, God, divine Light, spiritual enlightenment and physical warmth.


Neoplatonists  - Ficino also translated the writings of many of the Neoplatonists, for example Porphyry, Iamblichus, Plotinus, et al.

Original works

Along with the translations Ficino also wrote a number of original works.


Theologia Platonica de immortalitate animae - Marsilio Ficino's main original work was his Platonic Theology.  It consist of eighteen books written between 1469 and 1474 and it was published in 1482.  While covering a number of topics related to God, the main concern of the work is to argue for the existence of an immortal human soul. Ficino employs a number of arguments to do so, including recasting those made by Plato for example in the Phaedo.

The Letters of Marsilio Ficino -  are available in a 9 volume  English translation with extensive notes.  The volumes cover the years 1474–1494.

De amore (1484) – on love.  Ficino introduced the term and concept of "platonic love". It first appeared in a letter to Alamanno Donati in 1476, but was later fully developed in all his own work, mainly in his famous De amore. He also practiced this love metaphysic with Giovanni Cavalcanti, whom he made the principal character in his commentary on the Convivio, and to whom he wrote ardent love letters in Latin that were published in his Epistulae in 1492.  “while praising love for the same sex, he also condemned sodomy in the Convivium”.


De vita libri tres (Three books on life.) - The De vita libri tres or Three Books on Life was written in the years 1480–1489. It was first circulated in manuscript form and then published on December 3, 1489. It was constantly in print through the middle of the seventeenth century.  It is largely about the existence of spirit and the Intelligences.

Marsilio Ficino, Three Books on Life, From the Apologia, (The internal quote is from Acts 17:28.)
There will be some men or other, superstitious and blind, who see life plain in even the lowest animals and the meanest plants, but do not see life in the heavens or the world ... Now if those little men grant life to the smallest particles of the world, what folly! what envy! neither to know that the Whole, in which 'we live and move and have our being,' is itself alive, nor to wish this to be so."

In the Book of Life, Marsilio describes the principles of cause and effect and also about the Great Work and Destiny


De vita is a curious amalgam of philosophy, medicine, "natural magic" and astrology, and is possibly the first book ever written about the health of the intellectual and its peculiar concerns. Alongside passages explaining the immortality and divine source and nature of the soul, there are astrological charts and remedies, speeches from various Greek gods arguing with one another, philosophical digressions, medieval prescriptions for various ills, attempts at reconciling the Neoplatonism of Plotinus with Christian scripture, and magical remedies and talismans.
Ficino was one of the major philosophical voices of the Italian Renaissance, but he was also a physician, and the son of a physician. De vita is an example of the medical thinking of the early Renaissance, steeped in Galen and Hippocrates and the theory of the four humors and their attendant Aristotelian qualities.

Disputed works

Ficino’s interest in astrology and ‘Platonic love’, which is love with visualisation, along with just hints that he may have understood the principles of alchemy have caused great interest in what involvement he had - if any - with spiritual alchemy.  There is no direct clear cut evidence he was an alchemist, but he had an undisputed influence on spiritual alchemy.  One way was in translating the works of the Corpus Hermeticum.

The next intriguing bit of evidence, however, is via a manuscript -  Marsilio Ficino on the alchemical art, Item 7 from Ms. Sloane 3638. Transcribed by Justin von Budjoss.  This text is a translation of a Latin text, Marsilius Ficinus, 'Liber de Arte Chemica', which was printed in the Theatrum Chemicum, Vol 2, Geneva, 1702, p172-183.  It says:

An unknown concerning the Chymicall Art.  But Lucerna Salis affirms him to be Marcilius  Ficinus, an Italian of the Dukedome of Florence  or Tuscany, in the year 1518.


So the dates are wrong, unless this is a publication only revealed after he died, but the content is still intriguing.

Ficino died at Careggi. His memory has been honored with a bust sculpted by Andrea Ferrucci in 1521, and located in the south side of the nave in the cathedral of Florence Santa Maria del Fiore.


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