- The Letters of Marsilio Ficino
Ficino divided his letters into twelve books. The translators (hereafter SES) decided to defer book 2 because its contents are better described as freestanding treatises than as letters: they represent rough drafts whose finished versions are published elsewhere. Therefore Letters 2 contains book 3, and so on; SES has excised nothing else. Their edition, omitting Ficino's second book but otherwise retaining his book divisions, will eventually comprise eleven volumes, of which book four (books 9–12) are still to come. Renaissance scholars eagerly await them.
SES has provided not just a translation with a lightly edited text but a whole scholarly workstation. While the Basel Opera omnia of 1576 has an Index sententiarum which remains valuable, SES gives us an index to the letters, volume by volume. (Their indices of individual volumes could usefully be combined into a cumulative index in the forthcoming last volume.) Dorothea Gall et al. (2003) have given us an exhaustive Index nominum of the entire Opera omnia and of Kristeller's Supplementum to it. SES includes capsule biographies of all contemporaries addressed or mentioned, a helpful map of Italy at the time, diagrams, portraits, and other illustrations, Corsi's Life of Marsilio Ficino (composed 1508, appended to Letters 3), and a relevant sermon, "De stella magorum." Letters 5–7 provide a facsimile of the corresponding part of the Latin editio princeps of the letters (Venice, 1495). One is grateful for the biographical notes on correspondents throughout; they are excerpted mostly from Arnaldo della Torre's Storia dell'Accademia Platonica di Firenze (1902) and from Kristeller's Supplementum Ficinianum, but with updates from more recent research: for instance, that on Pico della Mirandola. Despite the occasional errors in both della Torre and Corsi (such as Ficino's supposed sojourn in Bologna and "crisis of conscience"), which are duly noted, these excerpts represent useful places to start one's biographical research. The dust jackets are beautiful, reproducing the illuminated first page of a relevant manuscript.
Some recurring topics are music; letters about acquaintances, accusing, defending, or praising them either to their face or behind their back; patronage, both social and professional; books lent and borrowed; many letters of moral exhortation; expositions of Neoplatonic doctrines, most interestingly, daemons and the four Platonic frenzies: those of the lover, the creative artist, the priest, and the prophet; fortune, fate, Providence, and astrology; and Ficino's lifelong project, the harmonization of Christianity and the Platonic tradition. From this list it can be seen that the Letters will interest intellectual and cultural historians, musicologists, students of philosophy, religion, medicine, and literature. Practicing philosophers [End Page 828] of today will find few well-formed arguments in the Letters: while Ficino usually speaks as a philosopher, his method is not demonstrative but rhetorical.
To treat briefly one of the above topics, acquaintances: aside from the intensity of Ficino's friendship with his young pupil Giovanni Cavalcanti, I find no evidence in his letters of the homosexuality of which some contemporaries and some scholars over the last fifty years have suspected him (see, for example, Letters 1.45, 47). Ficino's friendship with Pico was multifaceted. SES in Letters 7 analyzes it in depth, not only under their usual rubrics — the notes to the relevant letters and "Biographical Notes" — but also in their introduction and their "Historical Note on Pico." Pico demanded that his friends lend him books — that is, manuscripts — and once he had them he was most reluctant to return them. Ficino refused to let Pico see his recently composed Platonic Theology until he returned Ficino's copy of "Mahomet": that is, the Qur'an (see 7.31 and Pico's letters in Appendices A–C). The letters "between Pico della Mirandola and himself seem to reveal most about Ficino's nature" (7.xviii).
Most of Ficino's letters are stuffed with what strike us as pious platitudes. They are mostly in the celebratory mode characteristic of the early...