FICINO, MARSILIO (1433-1499), Italian philosopher and writer, was born at Figline, in the upper Arno valley, in the year 1433. His father, a physician of some eminence, settled in Florence, and attached himself to the person of Cosimo de' Medici. Here the young Marsilio received his elementary education in grammar and Latin literature at the high school or studio pubblico. While still a boy, he showed promise of rare literary gifts, and distinguished himself by his facility in the acquisition of knowledge. Not only literature, but the physical sciences, as then taught, had a charm for him; and he is said to have made considerable progress in medicine under the tuition of his father. He was of a tranquil temperament, sensitive to music and poetry, and debarred by weak health from joining in the more active pleasures of his fellow-students. When he had attained the age of eighteen or nineteen years, Cosimo received him into his household, and determined to make use of his rare disposition for scholarship in the development of a long-cherished project. During the session of the council for the union of the Greek and Latin churches at Florence in 1439, Cosimo had made acquaintance with Gemistos Plethon, the Neo-Platonic sage of Mistra, whose discourses upon Plato and the Alexandrian mystics so fascinated the learned society of Florence that they named him the second Plato. It had been the dream of this man's whole life to supersede both forms of Christianity by a semi-pagan theosophy deduced from the writings of the later Pythagoreans and Platonists. When, therefore, he perceived the impression he had made upon the first citizen of Florence, Gemistos suggested that the capital of modern culture would be a fit place for the resuscitation of the once so famous Academy of Athens. Cosimo took this hint. The second half of the 15th century was destined to be the age of academies in Italy, and the regnant passion for antiquity satisfied itself with any imitation, however grotesque, of Greek or Roman institutions. In order to found his new academy upon a firm basis Cosimo resolved not only to assemble men of letters for the purpose of Platonic disputation at certain regular intervals, but also to appoint a hierophant and official expositor of Platonic doctrine. He hoped by these means to give a certain stability to his projected institution, and to avoid the superficiality of mere enthusiasm. The plan was good; and with the rare instinct for character which distinguished him, he made choice of the right man for his purpose in the young Marsilio.
Before he had begun to learn Greek, Marsilio entered upon the task of studying and elucidating Plato. It is known that at this early period of his life, while he was yet a novice, he wrote voluminous treatises on the great philosopher, which he afterwards, however, gave to the flames. In the year 1459 John Argyropoulos was lecturing on the Greek language and literature at Florence, and Marsilio became his pupil. He was then about twenty-three years of age. Seven years later he felt himself a sufficiently ripe Greek scholar to begin the translation of Plato, by which his name is famous in the history of scholarship, and which is still the best translation of that author Italy can boast. The MSS. on which he worked were supplied by this patron Cosimo de' Medici and by Amerigo Benci. While the translation was still in progress Ficino from time to time submitted its pages to the scholars, Angelo Poliziano, Cristoforo Landino, Demetrios Chalchondylas and others; and since these men were all members of the Platonic Academy, there can be no doubt that the discussions raised upon the text and Latin version greatly served to promote the purpose of Cosimo's foundation. At last the book appeared in 1482, the expenses of the press being defrayed by the noble Florentine, Filippo Valori. About the same time Marsilio completed and published his treatise on the Platonic doctrine of immortality (Theologia Platonica de immortalitate animae), the work by which his claims to take rank as a philosopher must be estimated. This was shortly followed by the translation of Plotinus into Latin, and by a voluminous commentary, the former finished in 1486, the latter in 1491, and both published at the cost of Lorenzo de' Medici just one month after his death. As a supplement to these labours in the field of Platonic and Alexandrian philosophy, Marsilio next devoted his energies to the translation of Dionysius the Areopagite, whose work on the celestial hierarchy, though recognized as spurious by the Neapolitan humanist, Lorenzo Valla, had supreme attraction for the mystic and uncritical intellect of Ficino.
It is not easy to value the services of Marsilio Ficino at their proper worth. As a philosopher, he can advance no claim to originality, his laborious treatise on Platonic theology being little better than a mass of ill-digested erudition. As a scholar, he failed to recognize the distinctions between different periods of antiquity and various schools of thought. As an exponent of Plato he suffered from the fatal error of confounding Plato with the later Platonists. It is true that in this respect he did not differ widely from the mass of his contemporaries. Lorenzo Valla and Angelo Poliziano, almost alone among the scholars of that age, showed a true critical perception. For the rest, it was enough that an author should be ancient to secure their admiration. The whole of antiquity seemed precious in the eyes of its discoverers; and even a thinker so acute as Pico di Mirandola dreamed of the possibility of extracting the essence of philosophical truth by indiscriminate collation of the most divergent doctrines. Ficino was, moreover, a firm believer in planetary influences. He could not separate his philosophical from his astrological studies, and caught eagerly at any fragment of antiquity which seemed to support his cherished delusions. It may here be incidentally mentioned that this superstition brought him into trouble with the Roman Church. In 1489 he was accused of magic before Pope Innocent VIII., and had to secure the good offices of Francesco Soderini, Ermolao Barbaro, and the archbishop Rinaldo Orsini, in order to purge himself of a most perilous imputation. What Ficino achieved of really solid, was his translation. The value of that work cannot be denied; the impulse which it gave to Platonic studies in Italy, and through them to the formation of the new philosophy in Europe, is indisputable. Ficino differed from the majority of his contemporaries in this that, while he felt the influence of antiquity no less strongly than they did, he never lost his faith in Christianity, or contaminated his morals by contact with paganism. For him, as for Petrarch, St Augustine was the model of a Christian student. The cardinal point of his doctrine was the identity of religion and philosophy. He held that philosophy consists in the study of truth and wisdom, and that God alone is truth and wisdom, - so that philosophy is but religion, and true religion is genuine philosophy. Religion, indeed, is common to all men, but its pure form is that revealed through Christ; and the teaching of Christ is sufficient to a man in all circumstances of life. Yet it cannot be expected that every man should accept the faith without reasoning; and here Ficino found a place for Platonism. He maintained that the Platonic doctrine was providentially made to harmonize with Christianity, in order that by its means speculative intellects might be led to Christ. The transition from this point of view to an almost superstitious adoration of Plato was natural; and Ficino, we know, joined in the hymns and celebrations with which the Florentine Academy honoured their great master on the day of his birth and death. Those famous festivals in which Lorenzo de' Medici delighted had indeed a pagan tone appropriate to the sentiment of the Renaissance; nor were all the worshippers of the Athenian sage so true to Christianity as his devoted student.
Of Ficino's personal life there is but little to be said. In order that he might have leisure for uninterrupted study, Cosimo de' Medici gave him a house near S. Maria Nuova in Florence, and a little farm at Montevecchio, not far from the villa of Careggi. Ficino, like nearly all the scholars of that age in Italy, delighted in country life. At Montevecchio he lived contentedly among his books, in the neighbourhood of his two friends, Pico at Querceto, and Poliziano at Fiesole, cheering his solitude by playing on the lute, and corresponding with the most illustrious men of Italy. His letters, extending over the years 1474-1494, have been published, both separately and in his collected works. From these it may be gathered that nearly every living scholar of note was included in the list of his friends, and that the subjects which interested him were by no means confined to his Platonic studies. As instances of his close intimacy with illustrious Florentine families, it may be mentioned that he held the young Francesco Guicciardini at the font, and that he helped to cast the horoscope of the Casa Strozzi in the Via Tornabuoni.
At the age of forty Ficino took orders, and was honoured with a canonry of S. Lorenzo. He was henceforth assiduous in the performance of his duties, preaching in his cure of Novoli, and also in the cathedral and the church of the Angeli at Florence. He used to say that no man was better than a good priest, and none worse than a bad one. His life corresponded in all points to his principles. It was the life of a sincere Christian and a real sage, - of one who found the best fruits of philosophy in the practice of the Christian virtues. A more amiable and a more harmless man never lived; and this was much in that age of discordant passions and lawless licence. In spite of his weak health, he was indefatigably industrious. His tastes were of the simplest; and while scholars like Filelfo were intent on extracting money from their patrons by flattery and threats, he remained so poor that he owed the publication of all his many works to private munificence. For his old patrons of the house of Medici Ficino always cherished sentiments of the liveliest gratitude. Cosimo he called his second father, saying that Ficino had given him life, but Cosimo new birth, - the one had devoted him to Galen, the other to the divine Plato, - the one was physician of the body, the other of the soul. With Lorenzo he lived on terms of familiar, affectionate, almost parental intimacy. He had seen the young prince grow up in the palace of the Via Larga, and had helped in the development of his rare intellect. In later years he did not shrink from uttering a word of warning and advice, when he thought that the master of the Florentine republic was too much inclined to yield to pleasure. A characteristic proof of his attachment to the house of Medici was furnished by a yearly custom which he practised at his farm at Montevecchio. He used to invite the contadini who had served Cosimo to a banquet on the day of Saints Cosimo and Damiano (the patron saints of the Medici), and entertained them with music and singing. This affection was amply returned. Cosimo employed almost the last hours of his life in listening to Ficino's reading of a treatise on the highest good; while Lorenzo, in a poem on true happiness, described him as the mirror of the world, the nursling of sacred muses, the harmonizer of wisdom and beauty in complete accord. Ficino died at Florence in 1499.
Besides the works already noticed, Ficino composed a treatise on the Christian religion, which was first given to the world in 1476, a translation into Italian of Dante's De monarchia, a life of Plato, and numerous essays on ethical and semi-philosophical subjects. Vigour of reasoning and originality of view were not his characteristics as a writer; nor will the student who has raked these dust-heaps of miscellaneous learning and old-fashioned mysticism discover more than a few sentences of genuine enthusiasm and simple-hearted aspiration to repay his trouble and reward his patience. Only in familiar letters, prolegomena, and prefaces do we find the man Ficino, and learn to know his thoughts and sentiments unclouded by a mist of citations; these minor compositions have therefore a certain permanent value, and will continually be studied for the light they throw upon the learned circle gathered round Lorenzo in the golden age of humanism.
The student may be referred for further information to the following works: - Marsilii Ficini opera (Basileae, 1576); Marsilii Ficini vita, auctore Corsio (ed. Bandini, Pisa, 1771); Roscoe's Life of Lorenzo de' Medici; Pasquale Villari, La Storia di Girolamo Savonarola (Firenze, Le Monnier, 1859); Von Reumont, Lorenzo de' Medici (Leipzig, 1874).
(J. A. S.)
Note - this article incorporates content from Encyclopaedia Britannica, Eleventh Edition, (1910-1911)