(October 19, 1433 - October 1, 1499) Italy
Philosopher, humanist and priest
A scholar, philologist, physician, and Neoplatonist, born at Figline in the Val d'Arno, Florence, son of the physician of Cosmo de' Medici, and intending to pursue the same career as his father, he studied medicine at the University of Florence. He served the Medicis for three generations and received from them a villa at Monte Vecchio in nearby Correggio. He studied at Florence and at Bologna; and was specially protected in his early work by Cosmo de' Medici, who chose him to translate the works of Plato into Latin.
The Council of Florence (1439) and the fall of Byzantium (1453) brought to the city a number of Greek scholars, and this fact, combined with the founding of the Platonic Academy, of which Ficino was elected president, gave an impetus to the study of Greek and especially to that of Plato. Ficino became an ardent admirer of Plato and a propagator of Platonism, or rather neo-Platonism. He taught Plato in the Academy of Florence, and it is said he kept a light burning before a bust of Plato in his room.
Central to his thought was the concept of platonic love, the true union of one man with another, in which an appreciation of earthly beauty leads to an understanding of the beauty of God. He was ordained priest in 1477 and became a canon of the cathedral of Florence. As a philologist his worth was recognized and Renchlin sent him pupils from Germany.
As a translator his work was painstaking and faithful, though his acquaintance with Greek and Latin was by no means perfect. His translation of Plato appeared before the Greek text of Plato was published. He respects Aristotle and calls St. Thomas the "glory of theology"; yet for him Plato is "the" philosopher. Christianity, he says, must rest on philosophic grounds; in Plato alone do we find the arguments to support its claims, hence he considers the revival of Plato an intervention of Providence.
In his Correggio villa, Ficino led the Platonic Academy of Florence, a circle of literary men and artists eager to learn from the man they nicknamed "alter Plato." His large "Platonica familia" included his student Lorenzo de' Medici, philosopher Pico della Mirandola, and poets Angelo Poliziano and Giovanni Cavalcanti, Ficino's dear friend. Throughout his life Ficino also corresponded with numerous prominent men of Europe, political and religious leaders as well as scholars.
Ficino's commentaries and treatises placed him in the first rank of philosophers of his age. Among his most influential works were Theologia platonica (1482), Commentarius in Platonis Convivium (1469), and his commentary on love as presented in Plato's Phaedrus and Symposium, entitled De Amore (1484) and dedicated to Cavalcanti.
Ficino introduced the phrase "platonic love," by which he meant a relationship that included both the physical and the spiritual. According to Ficino, love is the desire for beauty, which is the image of the divine. Inspired to love, two people - specifically two men, for Ficino did not consider women capable of such sublime love - each freely abandoned and "died to" himself to be reborn and live in the mind and soul of the other. Through this process the lovers are able to see the image of the beauty of God.
Ficino's view of platonic love, a deep spiritual as well as physical bond between men with a shared thirst for beauty and knowledge, is complex. He saw human beings as inherently both sexual and spiritual. He stated that sexual attraction was natural "whenever we judge any body to be beautiful." For a man the object of this affection could well be another man, in whom he saw his own beauty mirrored. The relationship could, moreover, be an example of "Socratic love" between a mature man and a younger one.
Although Ficino regarded sexual attraction as intrinsic to human beings, he saw it as a potential impediment in the course to the knowledge of God. Only if the lovers progressed to an appreciation and exchange of each other's souls could they comprehend the beauty of God. Since he felt that men were more capable of this than women, he advanced male friendship as the purest form of love.
Ficino encouraged his followers at the Platonic Academy to write love letters stressing the union of souls who have lost themselves in each other. Ficino's voluminous correspondence, which was published in 1495, contains many examples of such letters, including some to Giovanni Cavalcanti.
Cavalcanti (1444-1509), a handsome Florentine nobleman, lived for many years with Ficino at his villa and was an important member of the Platonic Academy. During a brief separation in 1473-1474 Ficino wrote letters to "Giovanni amico mio perfettisimo" ("Giovanni my most perfect friend") in which he declared his love and compared their union to those of illustrious male companions of classical times.
After a productive and rewarding scholarly life, Ficino died at his Correggio Villa, aged 66.
Ficino's formulation of platonic love exercised an important influence on artists in his own time and beyond, including Michelangelo and Leonardo da Vinci. His influence can also be seen in the homoeroticism in Michelangelo's and Shakespeare's sonnets as well as in the works of Edmund Spenser, Pierre Ronsard, and Maurice Scève.
With time Ficino's concept of "platonic love", clearly a relationship between men, was heterosexualized and transformed into courtly love, a reading more acceptable to society at large. It was also subsequently desexualized entirely and came to mean a non-physical love, a notion that distorts Ficino's philosophy.
Ficino's life and most important relationships were certainly homosocial. Today he would most probably be considered a gay man, but the contemporary categories of sexual orientation to which people are assigned did not exist in his time.