Francesco Petrarca, in his invective On His Own Ignorance and that of Many
Aristotle and Plato, relying heavily on Cicero's De natura deorum. At one
point, he declares:
[Cicero] labored to compose things that I believe should never have been
understanding such trifles about the gods awaken our love for true divinity and
the one God, and that, as we read, our contempt for foreign superstition awakes
reverence for our religion in our minds.
What appears well in accord with his Augustinian Christian piety throughout
sary by his own endeavor to propagate ancient wisdom. Befriending antiquity
exposes the reader to pagan theologies and calls for a firm belief in Christian-
ity. Little more than one hundred years later, the revival of ancient and non-
Christian wisdom has brought humanists to a crisis, of which the controversy
between Marsilio Ficino and Giovanni Pico, his complatonicus, is paramount.
This crisis still deserves interpretation because it determines both our view on
Renaissance Platonism and its impact on modern philosophy. Here, I want to
present the Florentine quarrel about Platonic Love from Pico's perspective.
The year 1486 saw Giovanni Pico particularly busy. He had recently re-
theses in Rome; so he was writing his Oratio that would become his most fa-
mous work, and he was, of course, collecting the material for his 900 theses.
For this purpose, he met for further briefings with his teacher of Averroist
Aristotelianism, Elia del Medigo. On his way to Rome in early May 1486, he
found time and energy to kidnap Margherita, the wife of Giuliano Mariotto dei
Medici. However, after the fight and his humiliating arrest that ensued, he re-
membered his allegiance to the saintly Savonarola and concentrated all his
vigor on studies of Hebrew, the Qur'an, and other reading.
In addition to all
something Platonic, in vernacular language, in which one finds much to clarify
the olden theology (priscorum Theologiam), i.e. much of the abstruse opin-
ions of the sages strewn in enigmas and riddles (scirpis
). Perhaps - leisure
permitting - I will try and translate this into Latin, in order that such a man's
egregious teaching may not become available to some vulgar people."
he appreciates its purpose to set some of the pagan theology in order; on the
other hand, he still deems it inappropriate for the masses and therefore regrets
that it was composed in Italian.
Girolamo Benivieni, himself the author of the Canzona on which Pico
death. The reasons he pondered were certainly the same that irritated the
nephew, mainly the problem, whether Pico's text was compatible with Chris-
tian doctrine. Such concern is plausible, for Girolamo Benivieni, his brother
Domenico, and Giovanni Pico were all in some way involved with the Floren-
tine religious reformer Girolamo Savonarola.
Girolamo Benivieni's version of
Benivieni had "read with pleas-
Marsilio Ficino and thus felt invited to "condense in a few stanzas what Ficino
had explained on many pages and in most elegant style". Readers interested in
intertextuality will observe how Benivieni, by means of modesty, reduces his
responsibility for the contents of his own poem. This Canzona inspired Pico to
add his "learned and elegant as well as rich" commentary (non manco dotta et
doctrine). But doubts arose. Actually, both Pico and Benivieni reconsidered
the poem, and they both believed that Pico jotted down his commentary not in
the way the matter deserves but rather out of "tender and particular affection"
(tenera et singular affetione) to the poet and that both - once "the spirit and
fervor" in which they had written subsided - doubted it appropriate to treat
heavenly love in the Platonic mood rather than as Christians. Consequently,
Cf. Aulus Gellius, Noct. Att. 12, 6.
Giovanni Pico della Mirandola, De ente et uno, in De hominis dignitate, Heptaplus, De ente
1942]. Quoted from Gianfrancesco Pico's biography of Giovanni in Giovanni Pico della
Mirandola, Opera omnia, Basel: Henricpetri, 1572, reprinted Turin: Bottega d'Erasmo, 1971,
fol. *4r [cited as Pico, Opera]. Unless cited otherwise, translations are mine.
5. Lorenzo Poliziotto, "Domenico Benivieni and the Radicalization of the Savonarolan Move-
ment", in Conal Condren and Roslyn Pesman Cooper (ed.s), Alto polo - a volume of Italian
Renaissance studies, Sydney: University of Sydney, 1982, pp. 99-117, 100 f.. Cf. Gian Carlo
Garfagnini, "Domenico Benivieni: Filosofia e spiritualità", in Paolo Viti (ed.), Il capitolo di
tega d'Erasmo, 1971, p. 733.
they refrained from publishing the twin writings unless they could "reform" it
from a Platonic into a Christian text.
commentary to Domenico Benivieni with a letter, dated November 10, 1486,
assuring that Girolamo was right in caring for Pico's health but not in praising
that Commentary: it was "nothing to get excited about. I wrote it when I was
bored [ociosi] and had nothing else to do, as a way of relaxing my mind, not
of exciting it." However, Pico continues this apparent gesture of modesty by
announcing: "It is only a prologue to the Commentary on Plato's Symposium
which I am planning to write."
Two biographical facts should be taken into
dedication of Pico's 1491 treatise De ente et uno, as one who had (probably)
attended discussions about the compatibility of Plato and Aristotle, together
with Lorenzo de'Medici and Angelo Poliziano - a debate that took Ficino's
Platonism to task; second, Girolamo had attended discussions on the same
subject at San Marco in Florence in the presence of Savonarola.
Ficino - and this not only after the disaster of the failed disputation in Rome in
early 1487, or at the time of De ente et uno, but already in 1486.
Benivieni's narrative justifies the publication of the comment with public
now relying upon the discretion and the sound Christianity of the readers.
Benivieni explains his deliberations in a very long and convoluted sentence, in
which he invokes Thomas Aquinas, whose authority should be able to restrain
the errors of the Nobleman - "if one can speak of errors". Also, he adds as a
disclaimer that the title of the commentary expressly indicates that "Canzona
et commento" are written not according to the Catholic truth but rather in the
mind and meaning of the Platonists. Finally, this text gives an important
insight into the core of this great philosopher, as Benivieni promises, and with
that he defers responsibility onto his late friend.
From these two accounts on Pico's Commento by the nephew and the
Florentine environment, it was evidently more scandalous to write in Italian
than in Latin when it came to the wisdom of the ancients. It was, generally,
Ibid.: "... nacque nelli animi notri qualche ombra [d]i dubitatione se era conveniente a uomo
professore della legge di Christo, volendo lui trattar[e] di Amore massime celeste, et divino,
tratarne come Platonico, et non come Christiano pensamo che fussi bene sospendere la publi-
catione di tale opera, almeno sino ad tanto che noi vedessimo se lei per qualche reformatione
potessi di Platonica diventare Christiana."
dola, Commentary on a Canzone of Benivieni, tranls. by Sears Jayne, New York: Lang, 1984,
1981, p. 146: Savonarola is said to have disdained both ancients.
Pico, Opera, p. 733.
philosophy. Nevertheless, Pico's achievement in doing so was outstanding
both as an elaboration of his thought and for the correct interpretation of the
pagan mysteries. It is noteworthy that Gianfrancesco Pico continues his report
with praising his uncle's merits in his "general method of commenting",
mainly the Holy Scriptures.
On a biographical note, we learn that Pico not
gherita, he also was inspired by an erotic bond with Benivieni, a bond not
much different from what Marsilio Ficino advocated in his commentary on the
Symposium, which, incidentally, was to be reinterpreted in Pico's commen-
tary. However, in the first place Benivieni cautions the reader that such a Pla-
tonic treatment of divine love might be harmful to the Christian feelings of the
readership, even more, that it elaborates on the contrast between these two ap-
proaches, which becomes evident in the text. My contention is that in reality
this is the main thrust of the Commento as a whole. This interpretation would
mean that the year 1486, with the publication of the Oratio and the 900 The-
ses, probably marked Pico's endeavor to correct, bend, or divert Florentine
Platonism in a way that Christian truth would not suffer harm from ancient,
pre-Christian, and unchristian philosophizing. Phrased otherwise, when
Benivieni trusts that the readers will discern the spirit that drives Pico's expo-
sition, he invites us to take a critical look at the Platonic interpretation of love
and to judge to what extent it may be compatible with Christian theology,
mainly of Thomistic branding.
What Benivieni does not say is that he himself had already "reformed" the
throughout the text.
Now, Ficino's De amore had been the work that had
Platonic Academy? Given the fact that he emphasized his condensing and
shortening Ficino's theory and Pico's new elaboration of the poem, he cuts his
own ties that once bound him to Ficino and endorses Pico's interpretation.
Thus, we are about to discover another riddle in addition to the many ques-
ning commentaries on Platonic love in vernacular and his competing with
Ficino were part of the hazardous project to challenge all intellectuals of his
time in Rome and to set up a new style of philosophizing and a new approach
to Christian and non-Christian sources. Not only the Oratio and the 900 The-
ses are involved, but also De ente et uno, because this short text was the most
blatant attack on Ficinian Platonism, and also Heptaplus, because here many
of the motives of the Oratio and of the Commento are repeated and developed
further. Since the Commento has survived in rather sketchy prints and manu-
scripts and since the style of writing sometimes sounds clumsy due to occa-
Pico, Opera, fol. *4v.
Pico, Scritti, 1942, pp. 13-15.
sional scholastic formulas and interspersed Latinisms, it has remained
relatively neglected in Pico studies, but it might turn out to be a key to inter-
preting the major intentions of the author.
Since Pico's teacher, Elia del Medigo, was also involved in his various
issues that troubled Pico at that time. After acknowledging having received
from Pico scabies, but also a horse, Elia del Medigo discloses for the first
time, as he says, his personal view on Cabala. Cabala, as we well know, was
to be the major news in the Oratio and in the 900 Theses. Pico not only in-
cluded it in his broad survey of global wisdom, he also seems to have put all
his spiritual hope in this ancient mysticism because it claimed to be the true
tradition of the Word of God into mankind, and it fostered an understanding of
the human soul within the cosmos that most precisely expressed Pico's view
of the dignity of man.
tell you that in my Hebrew commentary on [Averroes'] De substantia orbis I
spoke about the spiritual power (de virtute spirituali). And what I have to say is
unknown to all who deal with it. (...) [The cabalists] believe that in this world
there are beings of a lower degree (gradus) than the degree of the glorious God,
who is called the Infinite, and these flow - that is: they are not made nor pro-
duced (sunt fluxa, non dico facta vel producta ab illo) - from Him, who is,
named the Infinite. These have various degrees. The higher grade of these is
above the movers of the heavens and the visible bodies in heaven. The order in
which the produced beings are produced and maintained within the order is this,
namely by the Sephiroth, i.e. numberings. Thus they call these 'flowed from the
Infinite'. For they believe that in the Infinite there is no thinking or apprehension,
and also no terminus or determination, since it is an intellectual disposition. One
cannot speak about will, intention or thinking in it and generally of no disposi-
tion. So it is impossible that [thinking] is a thing that comes or flows (proveniens
seu fluxa) out of it, i.e., the Infinite. The first that flowed from it (the Infinite) are
the beings mentioned, according to the degrees which one calls Sephiroth, as I
said, and these are agents by virtue of God, whom they call Infinite, and by the
flux that they obtain from Him, and they are identical by His virtue, because
they, the Sephiroth, depend on Him and have flown from Him, that is the Infi-
nite. According to them, the order we find in the world is that of the Sephiroth.
The First, however, that is called the Infinite, of this one can assert no disposi-
tion or positive property; they even refrain from calling it intellect, as also
Averroes observes in his Destructio destructionum 4, namely that Plato and the
Platonists do not want to call God an intellect or maintain that He is an intellect.
This is a very interesting letter, first because its awkward wording conveys
See Paul Richard Blum, "Pico, Theology, and the Church", in Michael V.Dougherty (ed.),
Elia's letter to Pico in Pico, Scritti, 1942, pp. 68-71; the spelling is Elia's.
expression into Latin, thus the repetitive insistence on 'the Infinite' as the
name of God. If I am right, by "Infinite" he refers to the En Soph. But for any-
one accustomed to humanist elegance, as Pico was, the insistence on the Infi-
nite as a name must sound like an invitation to translate this epithet into
whatever terminology one prefers, lest the ineffability be safeguarded.
Second, Elia intends to clarify, for the first time, what people dealing with
balist, he cannot possibly have had his fellow Jews in mind, but he must mean
to correct outsiders who, like Pico, try to come to grips with it. He gives a
summary of the relation between the En Soph, the Sephiroth, and the visible
World and concludes with an issue that Latin philosophers might know well
enough, namely Averroes' take on Platonism in defining God. Thus Elia af-
fords Pico with a fine hermeneutics of the Infinite and the World. The struc-
ture of the World as such, expressed in the Sephiroth, and easily convertible
into Pythagorean numbers, is not a product of the Divine Mind - as Christian
Platonists tend to assume - but rather an efflux of God, who for want of
differentiation (disposition) is by no means a mind.
Such is the interpretation available to a sound Christian familiar with Pla-
tial, undivided, independent - is the same in Averroes, Plato, and the Cabala.
Whether this is a correct rendering of the Cabala, I cannot assess, but what is
striking is that this very view is the main message in Pico and that this
message is at odds with Ficino.
Let us remember, this letter came during Pico's preparation for the great
commenting on Benivieni's rendering of Ficinian love. It may, then, help
reading Pico's polemics against Ficino in his Commentary on Benivieni.
One interesting example for Pico's disagreement is the interpretation of
According to Pico, Saturnus's castrating Caelus
fall into the water thus giving birth to Venus, i.e. fertilizing the world. In one
remark against Ficino only recently discovered, Pico argues that it is incoher-
ent to understand such emasculation as a diminishing of perfection: First, that
is not the meaning of castration; then, not Caelus but his influence would have
been castrated; and third, one would have to say that also Jupiter castrates
derstood as a gradual decay of power and dignity. Keeping in mind Elia's ren-
dering of the Sephiroth as those that guarantee the integrity of God and still
Commento II 20, in Pico, Scritti, 1942, p. 511 f.; transl. Jayne: II 21, pp. 115-117.
derive their being and the being of the material world from God without ad-
mitting the thought of decay, it is obvious that Pico follows the same strategy:
creation does not exhaust the creator. Pico even warns that the misunder-
standing by "a certain Platonist" is equivalent to Manicheism.
He renders the
, i.e., the influx of the plenitude of ideas:
plenitude of the Ideas, which descends from God into the Angelic Mind, is
represented by the testicles of Uranus."
nation and Elia's critique of misrepresented cabalism as proof that Pico was
essentially an Averroist (provided that Elia was a faithful commentator on
Averroes) - but that's not the point. The thrust of both arguments is directed
against downsizing the mystery of creation.
Elia's critique implies yet another assumption that bears on the meaning of
roth-World, so has the Platonic world to consist of at least three levels, parallel
to Caelus-Saturn-Giove: God creates one and only one creature, which is
merely intellectual or spiritual and that creates all other finite beings. The rea-
soning behind this model seems to be clear: Only if the finite world is created,
or structured, by something eternal, which contains the structure (ideas) of this
world, only then God is not affected by the finiteness of His creature, and -
even more importantly - only then the world is not pervaded by God. This in-
termediate level - name it Sephiroth, Angelic Mind, First Created - keeps
world and God apart and together. It is the ultimate theism without pantheism.
The trouble is that this doctrine is not in all respects compatible with Christian
theology. The Ptolemaic cosmos that depicted a Primum Mobile as the first
sphere below the coelum empireum (also defined as habitaculum Dei) was
well consistent with this thought. But Christian psychology insisted that the
human soul is not the offspring of a universal intellect but, rather, every indi-
vidual soul is immediately created by God.
Pico notes this contradiction by referring from the Saturn-Caelus debate
stance. There he blamed Ficino of having erroneously ascribed the true Chris-
tian doctrine to Plato.
As Pico sees it, Plotinus, Aristotle, and his Arab
perfect intellectual being: the first Mind, from which, then, may stem other
e' Manichei ..."; transl. Jayne, p. 116.
Bacchelli, p. 118.
l'anima nostra essere immediatamente da Dio produtta; il che non meno alla setta di Proclo
che a quella di Porfirio repugna."
The implication is, that according to the ancient schools God does not
create, without intermediate creation, the human soul directly, which contra-
dicts the Christian doctrine of the individual soul. With this assertion Pico
opens the question of how far one can go in Christianizing Plato, as Ficino
does. The strategy Pico follows seems to be: First, he claims to expose only
the true interpretation of Platonic philosophy, which - of course - entitles him
to criticize some who claim to be Platonists but lack consistency. Then, he
shows that the most important tenets of Platonism, correctly interpreted, are
incompatible with Christian theology - or, rather, that it takes an additional
hermeneutic effort to interpret Platonism in a Christian way.
From this perspective, the first chapter of the Commento acquires meaning
struction as quoted before, Pico opens his treatise by reminding that, in Pla-
tonic terms, "God is not Himself being but the cause of all being," so that it is
tenable to say that God is not intellect but, rather "the source and cause of all
intellect." This, he says with a wink, "can give a modem Platonist a good deal
Ficino's trouble must have been that his entire strategy of Christi-
ual soul, depended on the philosophical theology of God as supreme
whereas Pico already here attacks this kind of Platonism by under-
long chapter 5 of De ente et uno he came back to this fundamental difference.
On the second of four levels of approaching the 'darkness' of God, he states
that "God is neither life, nor intellect, nor intelligible, but better and more ex-
cellent than that."
In order to make his statement plausible, Pico marshals
His philosophical aim is to show that Platonism is not conducive to ration-
terpretation of Platonism and the foundations of faith. Pico's famous Oration
which knowledge of all sorts of wisdom contributes if properly applied. It
should also be read as part of Pico's larger project to keep paganism in check,
of which the Commento and De ente et uno were parts. A Neoplatonic phi-
intellettuale ... E però oltra lei niente altro produsse ... secondo e' Platonici da Dio immedia-
omnium entium. Similmente che Iddio non è intelletto, ma che lui è fonte e principio d'ogni
intelletto; e' quali detti, per non essere inteso il fondamento loro, a' moderni Platonici danno
gran noia." Transl. Jayne, p. 77.
Cf. Jayne, p. 180, note 10.
De ente et uno 5, Pico, Scritti, 1942, p. 416: "Deum scilicet nee esse vitam nec intellectum
neque intelligibile, sed melius aliquid atque praestantius omnibus his." For futher references
see note 66 in Giovanni Pico della Mirandola, Über das Seiende und das Eine, ed. Paul
Richard Blum, Gregor Damschen et al., Hamburg: Meiner, 2006, p. 87.
losophy in which human intellect is contiguous with the divine mind is frivo-
lous in the eyes of Pico and his friends. Perhaps it was the Italian language
that was perceived as dangerous, for Ficino's commentary on the Symposium,
Benivieni's poetic condensation of it, and Pico's expansion of it circulated in
the vernacular. More dangerous was probably the fact that ancient philosophy
and mythology was interpreted there according to their internal logic. Pet-
rarch's hope that the study of ancient mythology might enhance reverence for
Christian truth was shared both by Ficino and Pico. Yet, Pico's sense of
Christianity had changed towards some kind of piety.
Hence, although the
izing pagan Platonism, Girolamo Benivieni and Gianfrancesco Pico already
deemed it politically incorrect to serve the market with philosophical trifles.
This did not spare Pico suspicion of heresy, but that is another facet of his work.