Ficino in Spain by Susan Byrne (review)
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Reviewed by
Susan Byrne. Ficino in Spain. University of Toronto Press. xiv, 370. $70.00

Byrne's monograph is the first systematic study of the influence in Spain of Marsilio Ficino (1433–99), the fifteenth-century Florentine humanist and reputed translator of Plato. Byrne succeeds in the daunting task of thoroughly mining early modern Spanish texts for traces of his influence. She identifies numerous passages inspired by his commented translations of Plato's dialogues, as well as by his translations of Plato's economic-political writing, of Hermes Trismegistus' esoteric texts, as well as by Ficino's own work on medicine. Her findings of numerous mentions, quotes – often unattributed – and reminiscences of Ficino in texts ranging from the sixteenth to the nineteenth century prove that his impact in [End Page 203] Spain was considerable, recursive, and multifaceted. Such a conclusion goes against the prejudiced rejection of this figure by the influential Spanish scholar Marcelino Menéndez Pelayo, who, in the early twentieth century, as part of a program of refuting the importance of foreign influences in the development of an autochthonous Spanish literature, denied Ficino's role in favour of the Portuguese Jewish intellectual León Hebreo. Byrne's conclusion also refutes the hypothesis often sustained by critics that, beginning with the Counter-Reformation, the Platonic and Neo-Platonic ideas popularized by Ficino were censored by the Spanish Inquisition to protect scholasticism as the only intellectual current. Quite to the contrary, Ficino's concept of pia philosophia, or the use of pagan philosophy to sustain Christian dogma, was an important ingredient of the Spanish concept of buenas letras, or morally beneficial and orthodox readings. Byrne also proves that an important legacy of Ficino results from the accommodation and elaboration of his original ideas and images by different authors to their texts. For instance, Byrne shows how his treatment of free will reappears in different disguises in Spanish authors across the centuries.

Byrne's book is the result of an impressive amount of archival and textual research. Thus, chapter one is a thorough analysis of the extant copies of Ficino's books in Spanish libraries. Especially interesting are the commentaries and annotation handwritten on the copies, which prove that they were perused over the centuries. Some annotations and pages crossed out by censoring hands are reproduced among the twenty illustrations included in the book. Chapter two examines the numerous mentions of Ficino as an authority by Spanish authors of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries and beyond; some were so familiar with Ficino's writings that they quoted him by his first name, Marsilio. Among the texts studied in this chapter is Ficino's own De triplici vita, a peculiar treaty about the life regime for scholars who want to keep their health. The rest of the monograph traces the influence in Spain of Ficino's translations of the Hermetic corpus, the Neo-Platonic tradition, and Plato's works. A chapter is dedicated to images of this tradition, such as the sun as a symbol of knowledge and power, or the controversial representation of the resurrection of the flesh at doomsday, and how authors such as Aldana and Fray Luis de León reutilize them for different purposes. A separate chapter examines the study of the prevalent influence in Spain of Plato's economic-political theories as translated and interpreted by Ficino. In all the chapters, passages from authors such as Cervantes, Lope de Vega, Fray Luis de León, and Antonio de Guevara, are closely read to show their debt, explicit or not, to Ficino. Byrne's detailed analyses of these passages amount often to truly innovative interpretations of Garcilaso's poems and Cervantes' Colloquy of the Dogs and Don Quixote, to mention a few important cases. A complete and detailed index contains [End Page 204] the names of the many authors and works that the author mines for traces of Ficino's ideas, be they Platonic, Neo-Platonic, Hermetic, or purely "Ficinian." The result is an encyclopedic monograph that will become the definitive book on the undeniable influence of Ficino in Spain, as well as providing myriad new insights into early modern Spanish texts and an argosy of...


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