- A Humanist Confronts the Plague:Ficino's Consilio contro la Pestilentia
In this paper I intend to discuss a text by Marsilio Ficino that is still little known and make a contribution to the study of its sources. The text in question is the Consilio contro la Pestilentia, composed in the Florentine tongue between 1478 and 1479.1 The plague had been endemic in Europe from the middle of the fourteenth century and in the late 1470s, Florence was suffering from a new outbreak. The work was subsequently published in that same city in 1481 and is directed, as the author himself indicates, to both the more and the less learned as an instrument useful for understanding, curing and preventing the plague.2 The result is a complex work in which traditional medical theories and practices are put to the test and, alternatively, confirmed, confuted or modified by the author in light of his own hypotheses and experiences. Ficino demonstrates for the first time—and before [End Page 72] the De Vita Libri Tres—a deep acquaintance with the Western and Arab medical traditions that had already produced a number of texts on the subject of the plague. It cannot be said that Ficino limits himself in the Consilio to simply giving practical instructions, for he takes it upon himself to present a coherent treatment of the contagion's nature, its genesis and its modes of diffusion. Indeed, the title of the work is liable to misrepresent to the reader the Consilio's true import: if one compares Ficino's work with previous consilia against the plague, it is clear that what we have here, generically speaking, is a treatise more than a counsel.3 In fact, the Latin translation of the text, by Girolamo Ricci and published in Augsburg in 1518, is titled Tractatus Singularis Doctissimi Viri M. Ficini de Epidemiae Morbo.4
One of the notable aspects of the work—which makes it an interesting case not only for the history of medicine but also for the history of philosophy—is its distinctive use of both Platonic and Aristotelian thought. Both traditions are employed for the purpose of understanding the nature of the disease and its operation. Ficino, who had been a pupil of the philosopher and physician Niccolò Tignosi, was educated in the 1450s, first in the Aristotelian, and then in the Platonic texts that were then available in Latin translation. We know that in this period Ficino saw substantial agreement between Plato and Aristotle on matters regarding physics. This position is evident in the youthful writings that are gathered together in manuscript Palagi 199 of the Biblioteca Moreniana di Firenze and which were published in 1956 with an introductory study by P. O. Kristeller.5 In these writings, questions of physics are treated on the basis of an authority as much Platonic as Aristotelian. Ficino will decisively reaffirm this syncretism in his Oratio de Laudibus Medicinae, which appears in the fourth book [End Page 73] of the Epistolae. Kristeller is of the opinion that the Oratio is a youthful composition of uncertain date.6 Ficino refers in the Oratio to a passage from Plato's Charmides and we know that the Charmides was contained in a manuscript given to Ficino by Cosimo de' Medici in 1462.7 This would suggest that the Oratio was composed in or after 1462, but it cannot be ruled out that Ficino was able to find the passage in some other author and thus cite it without direct knowledge of the original. Whatever the case may be, Ficino does in the Oratio name the major Hebrew, Arab, Egyptian, Persian, Greek and Roman authorities—some of which recur in the Consilio—in a substantial list arranged to set out from its divine origins to the modern day a veritable prisca medicina. Among those cited are Plato and Aristotle, both considered "extraordinary" and "most powerful" philosophers who also wrote on medical matters.8 Medicine and philosophy appear closely connected and a chief point of intersection is the domain of physics, which constitutes the theoretical foundation on which medical praxis is based.
This syncretism is in certain respects a novelty in...