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Magia, alchimia, scienza dal '400 al '700: L'influsso di Ermete Trismegisto/Magic, Alchemy and Science: The Influence of Hermes Trismegistus.

Carlos Gilly and Cis van Heertum, eds. Magia, alchimia, scienza dal '400 al '700: L'influsso di Ermete Trismegisto / Magic, Alchemy and Science: The Influence of Hermes Trismegistus.

Florence: Centro Di/Edifimi Srl., 2002. 588 pp. index. illus. tbls. bibl. n.p. ISBN: 88-7038-359-8.

The role of the hermetic corpus in Renaissance culture is a wide-ranging topic, and the debate about the hermetic influence on the origin of modern science is a controversial and many-faceted issue. Scholarly research has grown at an increasingly fast pace in the last decades, enlarging and deepening our knowledge of texts attributed to Hermes in Greek, Arabic, and Latin cultures. Thanks to recent research, the so-called "technical Hermetica," mostly of Arabic origin, have been added to the Greek writings introduced into the Renaissance milieu by Marsilio Ficino, and to those already diffused in the Middle Ages (the Asclepius, translated from Greek into Latin, and some Latin texts produced during the twelfth century). The technical Hermetica, concerned with the knowledge of the occult properties of nature (astrology, magic, herbalism, medicine, alchemy) and widespread in the Middle Ages, were not rebutted during the Renaissance. The philosophical assumptions underpinning them were akin to those of the Greek hermetic tradition: the correspondence between macrocosm and microcosm, the interaction between artificial and natural transformations, and the refining and perfection of matter as a means for and a way to spiritual achievements.

One especial feature of Hermeticism is its permanence, until contemporary times, in the form of learned circles of "adepts," among which the most prominent is probably that of the Rosicrucians. This "continuity of the Hermetic tradition" survived both the definitive scholarly demonstration that the writings attributed to Hermes were in fact not earlier than the Christian era, and the philosophical redefinition of the relationship between man and world that fostered the development of modern science. We cannot speak about this continuity in terms of popular beliefs as opposed to the intellectual achievements of modernity. Rather, it is to be viewed in terms of an epistemological divorce, that was eventually accomplished during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, but whose origin may be traced back to the confrontation with Scholasticism and the late-medieval emerging category of "occult sciences."

Until recently, scholarly and hermeticist approaches to Hermes and his heritage have been rigorously kept apart. This catalogue is the promising result of the effort of collaboration between the Biblioteca Nazionale Marciana of Venice, the scholarly library founded by Cardinal Bessarione, and the Bibliotheca Philosophica Hermetica of Amsterdam, this too a scholarly library, yet founded (and until recently funded) by a twentieth-century heir to the hermetic-Rosicrucian tradition, Joost R. Ritman. The successful mediation (a properly hermetic function!) between the two approaches is mainly due to the deeply committed scholarship of Carlos Gilly, already witnessed by the 1999 volume Marsilio Ficino e il ritorno di Ermete Trismegisto / Marsilio Ficino and the Return of Hermes Trismegistos, the catalogue of the exhibition promoted in Florence by the same Bibliotheca Philosophica Hermetica and the Biblioteca Medicea Laurenziana. Both catalogues, as their titles show, are thoroughly bilingual (Italian and English).

The 2002 Venice exhibition of the rich collections of hermetic manuscripts and books was an especial occasion for grafting traditional knowledge onto academic research about the so-called "occult sciences." The result are two detailed (and magnificently illustrated) volumes giving evidence of four centuries of practical and theoretical knowledge about the natural world; this is conceived of as the place where man's material and spiritual life is rooted and can be improved by means of artificial transformations. An important landmark is the name of the "novel Hermes"--Paracelsus, whose reformation of medicine was nourished by the hermetic sciences, and transformed them deeply. Yet the name of Hermes is the thread which leads throughout the rich array of texts and images, as the "Hermetic Chronology" at the beginning of the second volume clearly shows.

The two volumes are differently arranged: the first contains introductory essays on different features of Renaissance Hermeticism, written by Joost R. Ritman, Frans A. Janssen, Carlos Gilly, Cesare Vasoli, Antonio Rigo, Jean Letrouit, Marino Zorzi, and Federico Barbierato. These are followed by an impressive series of short studies on single authors and/or episodes of Hermeticism and Paracelsianism, mostly contributed by the same Gilly; other contributors to this section are Anna Laura Puliafito and Thomas Hofmaier. The second volume is the exhibition catalogue properly said, with descriptions of manuscripts and printed books exposed, and short factual and bibliographical accounts about authors and works, stressing their role in the hermetic tradition as well as in other intellectual currents inspired by it.


University of Siena, Italy
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Title Annotation:Reviews
Author:Pereira, Michela
Publication:Renaissance Quarterly
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Mar 22, 2004
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