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Marsilio Ficino: His Theology, His Philosophy, His Legacy.

Michael J. B. Allen and Valery Rees, eds., with Martin Davies. Marsilio Ficino: His Theology, His Philosophy, His Legacy.

Leiden and Boston: Brill Academic Publishers, 2002. xxii + 493 pp. index. illus. bibl. $125. ISBN: 90-04-11855-1.

No philosopher of the Renaissance has attracted scholarly attention over the last half-century to the degree that Marsilio Ficino has, and it is clear that there are numerous reasons for this. His central role as translator of and commentator on the works of Plato and Plotinus as well as other major Neoplatonic and hermetic sources provided many of the materials which would create profound changes in the philosophical climate of early modern Europe. His own philosophical writings incorporating these sources and attempting a workable synthesis between Platonism and Christianity would encourage renewed efforts to establish an alternative to the Scholastic-Aristotelian models so prevalent in most contemporary theological, philosophical, and scientific settings. The range of his interests--theological, medical, philosophical, magical, artistic, and literary--as well as the popularity of his written works and his extensive correspondence assured that his audience would be a wide one and his influence profound.

It is most fitting, therefore, to see this wonderful anthology usher Ficino studies into the new century, for it brings together some of the leading figures who contributed to our understanding of this complex figure over the last few decades with a body of works by younger scholars who will doubtless add to our understanding in the years ahead. Many of the articles contained herein represent revisions of papers delivered at a conference held in London in June, 1999, under the auspices of the Society for Renaissance Studies, commemorating the five-hundredth anniversary of Ficino's death. Additional contributions combine to provide a total of twenty-one studies divided into three sections, corresponding generally to the aspects of Ficino's life and work delineated in the volume's title. The present review cannot provide a detailed analysis of each of these works, but will rather focus on giving an indication of the range of issues dealt with and the major themes that emerge.

Michael J. B. Allen's eloquent introduction to the volume provides a concise and learned overview of Ficino's intellectual interests, sources, and accomplishments, which serves as an excellent framework for the works to follow. In part 1 the focus is chiefly on Ficino's theological concerns. Peter Serracino-Inglott gives an analysis of his role as priest, linking it very neatly with Ficino's conception of the priest as a spiritual equivalent to the physician, providing a "logotherapy" consistent with his views on medicine. Dennis F. Lachner focuses on his ties with the Camaldolese Academy, emphasizing the role of Ambrogio Traversari and the community centered at S. Maria degli Angeli. He raises the possibility that Ficino saw his "Platonic Academy" as embodying a similar combination of Christian Platonism with a monastic ideal, pointing to Paolo Orlandini as a case instance of such a linkage. Another important study of the theological implications of Ficino's Platonism is Jorg Lauster's analysis of his views on sin, Christology, the ascent to God, and eschatology. He makes a strong case for Ficino's having sought out a position consistent with both Christian and Platonic positions on these issues, while employing Thomas Aquinas when needed to minimize potential conflicts on issues he did not choose to address directly. Christopher Celenza offers a detailed study of the "post-Plotinian" Ficino--the influence of later Hellenistic sources on his thought. Rather than accepting the unadulterated Plotinus of the Enneads, Celenza argues, Ficino viewed both his works and those of his student Porphyry through "Iamblichan eyes" (93), as providing a justification for theurgy and spiritual magic.

Several works focus on Ficino's dependence on non-Christian theological texts. Anthony Levi stresses the extent to which he incorporated the prisca theologia into an Augustinian context, enabling an expansion of sources for Christian thinkers to incorporate in developing an alternative to Scholastic models. Egyptian beliefs and practices as presented in the Corpus Hermeticum are the subject of Clement Salaman's study of Ficino's employment of those texts in his own works and his interpretation of other authors. Moshe Idel provides a careful analysis of Ficino's dependence on the ancient theology and compares his interpretation with several Jewish thinkers, particularly those associated with the flourishing kabbalistic movement in Italy at the time. And Michael Allen's captivating essay, "Life as a Dead Platonist," examines how Ficino's interpretation of the often paradoxical visions of the relationship between time and eternity, becoming and being in the Platonic works enabled him to move beyond Augustine's linear reading of Platonism from a Plotinian perspective to a more radical cyclical view of time that would serve as a catalyst in due course for thinkers such as Bruno and Campanella.

The second set of works emphasizes Ficino's philosophical contributions. John Monfasani gives a detailed and careful analysis of his position in the great Plato-Aristotle controversy, a philosophical genre with roots in Middle Platonism that flourished anew in the Renaissance following the heated exchanges among Pletho, George of Trebizond, and Bessarion. Monfasani rightly underscores Ficino's reluctance to enter into the fray while at the same time stressing elements of concord between the "old" Aristotelians and Platonism (as opposed to the Averroist reading of the Stagirite that was eliciting such debate in contemporary circles). In four appendices Monfasani provides a listing of Ficino's references to Pletho and transcriptions of manuscript notes relevant to the controversy preserved in Florence, Paris, and Milan. Tamara Albertini traces Ficino's ongoing analysis of the relationship between intellect and will over the course of thirty years he reflected on this issue, so central to his overall theory of mind. Several works focus on the magical aspects of Ficino's thought and practice. Angela Voss discusses his Orphic side in her analysis of his musical magic, while Donald Beecher connects the employment of the ancient pharmaceutical theriaca with the astral medicine advocated in the Libri de vita, seeing it as a talismanic source of celestial influences. Hiroshi Hirai looks to the same works, among others, in his careful study of Ficino's stress on the concept of seeds and seminal powers in his theory of nature. Sergius Kordera focuses on Ficino's use of the metaphor of the mirror and reflection in his explanation of the nature of matter, and Stephane Toussaint provides a thought-provoking study of Ficino's interest in zodiacal clocks as tools for explicating the mechanics of the cosmos. He includes an edition and translation of an important letter of Angelo Poliziano to Francesco della Casa describing the device constructed by Lorenzo della Volpaia which was a source of wonder in Florence.

The third and final section is devoted to Ficino's legacy. Francis Ames-Lewis discusses the influence of Neoplatonism on the visual arts, concentrating on artists and patrons of Ficino's day. Valery Rees provides a thoroughgoing account of Ficino's advice to princes, drawing upon his extensive correspondence and dedicatory pieces. Arthur Field's essay represents a major contribution to the ongoing debate as to the status of a "Platonic Academy" in Florence. While admitting that there was no formal learned body around Ficino akin to the literary and scientific academies that would emerge in the sixteenth century, he questions James Hankins's characterization of the academy as a "myth," grounded on references to Ficino's students as academici and metaphorical allusion to the works of Plato. Field makes a case for the Platonic nature of Ficino's lectures and instructional concerns that would justify the use of the term "academy" to refer to his circle and influence.

Jill Kraye devotes her attention to Ficino's critics, not only contemporaries who saw his ventures into spiritual medicine, astrology, and Platonic love as cause for concern, but philosophers in the sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries who would call into question his interpretation of Platonic doctrines on textual and historical grounds. Particularly valuable is her discussion of such later critics as Paolo Beni of Gubbio and Giovan Battista Crispo. In an important study of the possible influence of Ficino and his works on Copernicus's adoption of a heliocentric cosmology, Dilwyn Knox makes a strong case for the negative. While Copernicus made use of Ficino's translations of Plato--and quite probably, therefore, the commentaries--Knox argues that his work shows little interest in the metaphysical and cosmological issues of concern to Ficino, and makes no use of the latter's own treatise De sole. In a fitting finale to the volume, Stephen Clucas provides a wonderful illustration of Ficino's literary legacy in a masterful study of his influence on the poetry of George Chapman.

In sum, then, one can hardly imagine a more fitting illustration of the current state of Ficino scholarship than this cross-section of essays provides. It is particularly poignant that the conference in which many of the pieces were first presented took place the month in which Paul Oskar Kristeller passed away. It is a shame he did not live to savor this work. He would have been so pleased.


Queens College and The Graduate Center, City University of New York
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Title Annotation:Reviews
Author:Purnell, Frederick, Jr.
Publication:Renaissance Quarterly
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Mar 22, 2004
Previous Article:De sermone.
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