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The Origins of the Platonic Academy of Florence

The Origins of the Platonic Academy of Florence

by Arthur M. Field

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Founded by Cosimo de' Medici in the early 1460s, the Platonic Academy shaped the literary and artistic culture of Florence in the later Renaissance and influenced science, religion, art, and literature throughout Europe in the early modern period. This major study of the Academy's beginnings presents a fresh view of the intellectual and cultural life of Florence


Founded by Cosimo de' Medici in the early 1460s, the Platonic Academy shaped the literary and artistic culture of Florence in the later Renaissance and influenced science, religion, art, and literature throughout Europe in the early modern period. This major study of the Academy's beginnings presents a fresh view of the intellectual and cultural life of Florence from the Peace of Lodi of 1454 to the death of Cosimo a decade later. Challenging commonly held assumptions about the period, Arthur Field insists that the Academy was not a hothouse plant, grown and kept alive by the Medici in the splendid isolation of their villas and courts. Rather, Florentine intellectuals seized on the Platonic truths and propagated them in the heart of Florence, creating for the Medici and other Florentines a new ideology.

Based largely on new or neglected manuscript sources, this book includes discussions of the earliest works by the head of the Academy, Marsilio Ficino, and the first public, Platonizing lectures of the humanist and poet Cristoforo Landino. The author also examines the contributions both of religious orders and of the Byzantines to the Neoplatonic revival.

Originally published in 1988.

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The Origins of the Platonic Academy of Florence

By Arthur M. Field


Copyright © 1988 Princeton University Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-691-05533-6



In 1462 or 1463 the aged Cosimo de' Medici (1389–1464)gave to Marsilio Ficino, the son of his physician, both the annual profits from a farm near the Medici villa at Careggi and a Greek text of Plato. Ficino was supposed to translate the Platonic dialogues and thereby make them available for the first time to a Latin audience. Ficino immediately began to draft translations, and in his lectures, commentaries, treatises, and letters, he explained Plato to the Florentine public. A circle of acquaintances interested in these studies called itself the Academy.

According to Ficino, late in life Cosimo began to question commonly accepted worldly values, those that had helped make him the wealthiest and most powerful figure in contemporary Florence. Spiritually troubled and in poor health, he looked to Ficino's words and music for comfort. Come to me quickly, he wrote Ficino, and explain to me Plato's On the Highest Good (that is, the Philebus) — and do not forget to bring your Orphic lyre. Ficino was delayed in coming and so outlined, in writing, the substance of Plato's dialogue: great possessions and great virtues are useless, they can even be harmful, if they are not accompanied by wisdom. Later that year, as Cosimo lay dying, Ficino explained another Platonic work, the Axiochus, or On Death. Through this work, Ficino wrote just after Cosimo's death, "Cosimo began to deplore the misery of this life, and he so inveighed against the errors of mortals that he called death a gain, and, since he aspired already to celestial beatitude, he said acutely and elegantly many things in contempt of life."

Aristotle as well as Plato stimulated the aged Cosimo. Through Cosimo's efforts and especially those of his son, Piero, the Byzantine philosopher John Argyropoulos had been hired in the mid–1450s to teach Aristotle at the University of Florence. Cosimo provided Argyropoulos with a house near his own in Florence and met now and then with the Byzantine and his circle. One of Argyropoulos's students, Donato Acciaiuoli, took his careful notes from lectures on the Nicomachean Ethies, made some substantive changes, gave them literary polish, and turned them into his own commentary. As he finished each fascicle, in 1463 or 1464, he sent a copy to Cosimo, at the latter's request, who was said to have listened eagerly as his secretary, Bartolomeo Scala, read the sections to him.

Cosimo was only one among a great number of businessmen, politicians, humanists, poets, lawyers, students, and dilettantes who turned, rather abruptly, to Platonic and other philosophical studies in the first decade after the Peace of Lodi of 1454. The precepts of classical moral philosophy, to be sure, had always enjoyed wide currency in Renaissance Florence, and the humanists had incorporated some Aristotle, Cicero, and Seneca into their program of studies. In the first half of the Quattrocento, moreover, Leonardo Bruni and others translated some Plato. But after the Peace of Lodi philosophical studies intensified, and, within nonprofessional circles, their focus shifted from an earlier eclectic use and an emphasis on ethics toward an attempt to comprehend systematically moral, natural, and metaphysical philosophy. Contemporaries noted the suddenness of the shift. Alamanno Rinuccini would write that before his generation (that is, before the 1450s), no one seeking a general education would do more than take a "little sip" from the vessel of philosophy: all thought they had done more than enough if they knew some ethics. Doctors and theologians alone, he argued, took up natural philosophy and metaphysics. Also, in a short treatise on education written for his son, Rinuccini explained that to be an educated Florentine one now had to move beyond ethics to natural and speculative philosophy. Rinuccini's friend Donato Acciaiuoli gives similar testimony. At the time of the Peace of Lodi, Acciaiuoli complained that learning in even the liberal arts seemed to be dead in Florence. Just one decade later he would write that the study of letters "never before so flourished in Florence" and that "many are so trained in the Aristotelian and Platonic teachings that they seem to have been brought up in the Academy."

That a dramatic expansion in Florentine humanist culture took place after the Peace of Lodi cannot be doubted, and any endeavor at trotting out examples of an earlier interest in speculative philosophy will not cancel this fact. As is apparent even from the citations above, the humanists themselves were aware that major intellectual changes were taking place.

In this study my object is to describe, as carefully as possible, this birth of a philosophical culture in Renaissance Florence; more ambitiously, I intend to offer hypotheses concerning the causes and origins of the Neoplatonic movement. I shall be analyzing in particular what may be called a new ideology. To begin, and to provide an outline of sorts for the rest of this study, I will take up one after another some currently held hypotheses about the beginnings of Florentine Platonism.

Textbooks, especially, account for the revival of Plato with the fall of Constantinople. When the Turks took Constantinople in 1453, many Greek scholars fled to the Latin West, and they took their manuscripts and ideas with them. Ficino would write that the "spirit of Plato," dead in the Latin West since antiquity, had dwelt in Byzantium until his own time, when it "flew to Italy." For the "Byzantine hypothesis" the role of John Argyropoulos is crucial. He came to Florence in the summer of 1454, was offered a job at the University of Florence teaching Greek language, literature, and philosophy in 1455, and finally accepted a university appointment in early 1457. Eugenio Garin has argued that Argyropoulos was a thorough Platonist: he wove Platonic doctrines into his lectures on Aristotle, lectured on Platonic texts privately, and would have lectured on Plato publicly had university rules permitted it." According to Garin, Argyropoulos was the real founder of Florentine Neoplatonism, and Marsilio Ficino and his followers in bad faith attempted to claim for themselves the credit for a movement that was already well underway when they began their philosophizing. As they overemphasized their own roles, so too they sought to praise their patrons, the Medici, as the true founders of the Academy.

Garin's hypotheses have a paradoxical, or, perhaps we should say, an ambiguous edge, for although he gives great credit to Argyropoulos as the founder of Florentine Platonism, he yet attempts to divorce Argyropoulos and his followers from the speculative and metaphysical interests of the Ficino group. In fact, for Garin, Argyropoulos and those of his circle are anti-Medicean civic humanists: they are committed to the study of moral philosophy and the "active" study of rhetoric, and they disdain the metaphysical speculation characteristic of Ficino and his Academy.

Many of those who became part of the Platonic Academy or were influenced by it got their first introduction to speculative philosophy through the lectures of John Argyropoulos. The Byzantine's role is important, though I shall argue that Garin exaggerates its importance and misunderstands the force of Argyropoulos's teaching. But since Garin's theses are both complex and widely accepted, I shall attempt, in later chapters, to take them up in some detail.

A safer explanation for the philosophical revival, which appears now and then in the secondary literature, is simply that humanist culture itself had become ripe for Platonic influence, that Platonism, in other words, was "due." By the mid-Quattrocento, humanists were learning Greek earlier and better, a large number of classical and Christian Greek works had been translated, and earlier favorites among Latin texts had now been mastered. Rhetorical and other prose texts, for instance, continued to be studied, but they no longer proved a challenge to the humanist teacher's genius — more difficult texts in Latin poetry were now preferred by the humanist lecturer. Much of the humanist movement seems to have had an inner momentum, and fashions changed as familiar texts were assimilated and new ones approached. The revival of Greek studies in the Latin West was an Italian-wide phenomenon, and we can be reasonably certain that if Florence had gone into a deep sleep after the Peace of Lodi, other cities and other cultures would have had their Platonic translations and commentaries. Since late antiquity, moreover, many educated Christians believed that Platonism was the ancient philosophy most in harmony with their revealed religion. In its form developed by Marsilio Ficino, Neoplatonism permitted Florentines and others to study and enjoy pagan philosophy without religious fears. That Platonism was "due" is correct, and the observation has proved useful in refuting strained theorems of causality. But even those who have presented this hypothesis, as valid as it is, have for the most part recognized that the new texts of Plato contributed little to the substance of the new ideas. Platonism through Ficino had been thriving some twenty-five to thirty years before the first complete Latin translation of Plato's dialogues saw the light of day (the translation was published in 1482 and printed in 1484). The form of the Platonic revival, especially in the earlier period, depended far less on individual scholarly critiques of the Platonic texts than on the types of scholastic Platonizing carried out both in the university and in monastic circles, cultures in which Ficino himself was nurtured.

While usually not neglecting the Byzantine influence, a theory that is chronologically ideal, and while sometimes acknowledging that Platonism was "due," historians have tended to seize on one central hypothesis to explain the revival of Plato. The Medici took the humanists outside the city and placed them in villas, where these intellectuals could reflect on the eternal verities with a closed circle of special associates. With the transformation of Florence from a republic to a princely state, the thesis goes, humanism underwent a transformation from a civic-humanist or worldly culture to a Platonic or courtly one.

Rightly or wrongly, the historical portrayal of the Medici role in the transformation of Florentine culture is largely a reflection of a Platonic world realized in the golden age of Lorenzo the Magnificent (first citizen of Florence from 1469 to 1492). During the early Lorenzo period Ficino's major philosophical works were being published, including his first commentaries on Plato (1469) and the Theolojjia Platonica (1474). Here too Cristoforo Landino, in his Disputationes Camaldulenses of the early 1470s, described a philosophical discussion at the convent of Camaldoli, where Leon Battista Alberti donned a Platonic robe and expounded on the virtues of the contemplative life, the Platonic theory of the highest good, and the allegorical journeys of Aeneas toward wisdom. And here also the young ruler of Florence, Lorenzo de' Medici, wrote Platonic poetry and fulfilled each of Plato's alternative recipes for a happy republic — one where philosophers rule or rulers philosophize.

But if we wish to examine the Medici as agents of the intellectual changes, we shall need to look at the period some ten to fifteen years before Lorenzo came to power. With new discoveries and a new appreciation of Ficino's early works, and new evidence relating to Landino's early career, we now know that at the founding of the Platonic Academy by Cosimo in 1462 or 1463 many of Marsilio Ficino's central ideas were already well developed, and we can be reasonably certain also that Cristoforo Landino had for several years been giving philosophical, Platonizing lectures on both Latin poets and Dante.

Since Platonism as a movement really began to take off during the last decade of the life of Cosimo de' Medici (d. 1464), new questions must necessarily arise regarding the Medici role. It is far easier to speculate on a Medicean philosophical "court" during the 1470s and 1480s, where we can picture Lorenzo de' Medici reciting his Platonic verse to his courtiers and proteges. It is much more difficult to imagine a Cosimo intellectually suited to shape a philosophical movement or politically able or willing to do the same. What must be explored also is whether the ideology itself of Neoplatonism called for political passivity under princely rule, for the literal withdrawal of intellectuals and others from the active political and social life to a world of contemplative and speculative isolation.

But let us set aside, for now, this question of Platonic ideology, as we confront one startling fact regarding the timing of the rebirth of speculative philosophical studies in Florence. In the 1450s Florence and the Medici were in no position whatsoever to create any sort of villa-centered culture of isolated intellectuals enjoying the Pax Medicea. Rather, the first great burst in philosophical studies took place at a time of Medici party collapse, when Florence seemed to be characterized not by the Medici peace but by the tumultus popularis. This striking phenomenon, almost universally overlooked in intellectual histories of the period, forces us both to reexamine the entire question of the relation of the intellectuals to the Medici party and to reconsider the social function and meaning of the Neoplatonic movement itself.



In the Age of Lorenzo one may happily and readily find the philosophical expressions and intellectual settings that invite hypotheses about a new speculative culture. Set now in the villa, now in the court, this fashionable Neoplatonism honored its new Florentine prince. Whether such a depiction of the Golden Age of Lorenzo is true or false is not our subject here. In this chapter, instead, we shall look at the intellectuals and the Medici rather more broadly; at the same time we shall focus on that period when Florentine Neoplatonism first flourished, the decade from the Peace of Lodi (1454) to the death of Cosimo de' Medici (1464). We shall begin with Cosimo, the founder and first patron of the Academy, and look first at some of the limits of his personal ability to shape the philosophical renaissance. We shall then turn to Cosimo's party.

While Lorenzo de' Medici was a humanistic and philosophical poet, Cosimo's learning came from the book of life. He did, of course, initially endow the Academy and hence had a major role in the philosophical renaissance. But it is doubtful that Cosimo could have recognized subtle intellectual changes beyond their dimmest outlines, and he certainly could not have determined formally in any thinker their particular direction. He may have had something of a humanist education under Roberto de' Rossi, but this is not certain, and such training left no clear mark. He wrote little or nothing in Latin (nor, indeed, anything of literary or philosophical note even in Italian). His hand is found in the margin of no classical text, and the letters he himself composed, probably all in Italian, are bare of classical references. Cosimo evidently claimed that he had read all "thirty-seven" books of Gregory the Great's Moralia in "only" six months, and Vespasiano da Bisticci recorded this as a illustration of Cosimo's great learning. The work is not short, and it would have taken a good scholar more than a week, I suppose, to get through it. Cosimo had a copy of it in his study: whether he was plodding through the original or an Italian translation is not known. His private library also contained much Italian popular and devotional literature. The classical authors represented are for the most part trophies of his book hunting or, perhaps, relics from his earlier studies under Rossi. Cosimo was an exceptionally intelligent businessman and political craftsman. He was clever and had a remarkably shrewd sense of timing. Humanists called him wise, but they really meant he was astute — and that he supported the humanities. Had there been one Platonic idea in Cosimo's brain we can be sure the humanists would have seized on it.

But Cosimo learned from the humanists how to be decorously unlearned. He used to call Franco Sacchetti the "kidney," since Sacchetti had no learning but liked to have intellectuals around him, the kidney being a lean organ surrounded by fat. Then and now, Cosimo's wisdom appears attractive. He spoke with aphorisms and disjunctive statements, and he won fame as a careful spectator of the human condition. Not long after the Medici palace on the Via Larga was finished, his most promising son, Giovanni, died, and Cosimo remarked, "This is too big a house for so small a family." We can imagine an analogous but lighthearted statement from Cosimo when the priest Lorenzo Pisano wanted to dedicate to Cosimo his commentary on the Song of Songs. With the commentary still unfinished after eighteen books, Lorenzo seems to have approached Cosimo as a patron. "This is too long a commentary for so short a work!" — what else could have evoked Ficino's jocular letter to Cosimo?


Excerpted from The Origins of the Platonic Academy of Florence by Arthur M. Field. Copyright © 1988 Princeton University Press. Excerpted by permission of PRINCETON UNIVERSITY PRESS.
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