- Ficino in Spain by Susan Byrne
In this rich, well-researched, and thought-provoking volume, Susan Byrne rightly holds that the influence of Marsilio Ficino’s thought on Spanish culture has not received the critical attention it deserves. It is true, as she explains in the introduction, that “from the fifteenth through the seventeenth-century Marsilio Ficino was the fulcrum, the main filter through whom ancient Platonic and Neoplatonic thinkers” became known to Western culture (4–5). Byrne shows a remarkable knowledge of Ficino’s Latin treatises. Since Ficino was at once the translator of fundamental Platonic and Neoplatonic treatises, including the so-called Pimander attributed to Hermes Trismegistus, and their main interpreter, it is at times difficult to distinguish between a strictly Ficinian influence and a more generic Platonic one. Both in Italy and Spain, Ficino’s extremely complex thought was often simplified and reduced to a set of clear statements about the nature of love, for example, or the structure of the universe. After a detailed examination of the Ficinian volumes held in Spanish libraries (chapter one), Byrne offers an exhaustive analysis of the Italian philosopher’s presence in early-modern Spanish culture.
In my view, chapters two and four are the best and most convincing sections of Byrne’s book, because they show concrete borrowings from Ficino’s texts through close readings in which Ficinian echoes are clearly detectable. The initial sub-sections of chapter two tackle central issues such as Ficino’s view of medicine, astrology, melancholy, and mathematics, and how important Spanish thinkers and writers, Cervantes included, appropriate and reinterpret them. With great acumen, Byrne addresses the thorny topic of Ficinian love philosophy and shows how pervasive Ficino’s De amore was in sixteenth-century Spanish culture. As we said, it is often hard, however, to draw a clear-cut distinction between what is directly from Ficino’s love treatise and what is instead a concept that originated from Ficino but soon became part of the vaguely philosophical idiom of Renaissance love treatises. [End Page 535] For instance, as far as La Galatea is concerned, Cervantes’s three-part division of love is in fact a tenet of the contemporary love philosophy and may not be a direct borrowing from Ficino (87). It would have been also important to consider that at the end of the sixteenth century Ficino’s treatises were read in ways that significantly differed from their original reception at the beginning of the century. Byrne hints at this crucial point when she speaks of the disappearance of Ficino’s “daemons, or mediating spirits” from Cervantes’s work (89). In a like manner, when addressing the problem of sexual love in Ficino’s philosophy, Byrne rightly mentions Cervantes’s praise of marital love (“blessed yoke of matrimony”), which could sound like a rebuttal of Ficino’s position, but could also derive from Leone Hebreo, who explicitly celebrates marital love as something sacred and noble, and not just a social necessity (97). Given the crucial presence of Leone Hebreo in Cervantes’s masterpiece, it is reasonable to think that Cervantes was in reality inspired by Leone Hebreo, and was not attacking Ficino. Byrne offers an interesting analysis of Ficino’s view of law, which is usually overlooked by Ficino scholars. However, by reading Byrne’s detailed examination, we can’t help but infer that Ficino was often nothing more than a prestigious name frequently mentioned along with a quotation from his summary of Plato’s Minos about the origins of law (99, 102).
After chapter three on Ficino’s rendition of the Corpus Hermeticum (“Ficino as Hermes Trismegistus”) and the presence of his adaptation in Spanish libraries, chapter four (“Persistence and Adaptation of Hermetic-Neoplatonic Imagery”) offers passages of great critical insight in its analyses of poets such as Fray Luís de León, Lope, and Francisco de Aldana. In this fascinating chapter, the author highlights the pervasive presence of the Neoplatonic and Hermetic idiom in Spanish poetry, in particular if read in the light of Ficino’s De sole and De lumine, but also...