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Reviewed by:
  • Ficino in Spain by Susan Byrne
  • Michael J. B. Allen (bio)
Susan Byrne. Ficino in Spain. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2015, 364 pp. ISBN 978-1-4426-5056-5.

This excellent study, richly annotated and carefully argued, is the fruit of many hours of library research and archival digging. Professor Byrne demonstrates conclusively that Ficino's translations of Plato, Plotinus, and others were already circulating in Spain by the late fifteenth century (and we recall Ficino himself died in 1499). Particularly striking are the references to Ficino, and to Ficino's Plato, in the earliest surviving catalogue (of 1523) of the library holdings at the University of Alcalá de Henares, a university founded to promote humanist endeavors in Spain. Even more important than her concrete findings, however, is her demonstration of the far-reaching implications of Ficino's presence in the cultural and intellectual worlds of Spain where he quickly became and long continued to be an authoritative and central figure, albeit one that hitherto has been underappreciated, if not unappreciated.

Spanish intellectuals, lay and clergy alike, eagerly embraced and intermittently contested Ficino's writings as we can see in the many glosses found in the Ficino volumes they owned or had access to. And whether he was embraced or contested, Ficino was an authority for a "broad swathe" of Spanish writers and thinkers extending from Garcilaso de la Vega, the Inca Garcilaso, and Bartolomé de las Casas to Cervantes, Juan de Pineda, and Lope de Vega and beyond. These and many other authors were not just indebted in a general way to Platonism, but addressed specific points made by Ficino. They included figures whose work incorporated Ficinian themes and images in a variety of ways even as they acknowledged his authority as a Platonic philosopher and the force and integrity of his work as a prolific scholar. A telling instance is sixteenth century Spanish mysticism which, Byrne argues, "is awash in Hermetic imagery," the age's Hermeticism being part and parcel of the Ficinian legacy, given Ficino's championship of the Corpus Hermeticum and what he interpreted as its unequivocal and seminal Platonism. [End Page 203]

More problematic perhaps is the adoption of the Ficinian account of Plato's myth of Atlantis in the Timaeus and its sequel the Critias by Spaniards such as Las Casas and Cervantes de Salazar who wanted to engage the discovery of the New World and to speak to its legendary ties with the Old. They were intrigued by Plato's claim that the story was authentic history, even as Ficino taught them to allegorize parts of his account of the battle 9,000 years ago between the ancestral Athenians and the invaders pouring into the Mediterranean from their huge, fertile island, indeed archipelago of islands, beyond the Pillars of Hercules. This great conflict had ended with both a cataclysmic earthquake and a flood, the very disasters associated ironically with Poseidon, the patron deity of the Atlantians. The disappearance of Atlantis from history, or at least from Athenian memory, was offset by the fact that the ever careful Egyptian archivists still preserved its memory as if it were the biblical story, so Ficino intimated, of Noah's great flood.

Of signal interest is the impact of Ficino's interpretation of Plato's Republic both on Ignatius de Loyola, who founded his order on the model of the ideal republic, and on what Byrne defines as Cervantes' "fictionalized treatment and perceptive adaptation of the dialogue's concepts of justice and equity." She reminds us that, for Spaniards generally, Ficino, Plato and Hermes Trismegistus were "completely orthodox, and would remain so for centuries." This means that the liberal dimensions of Ficino's work, though venturing at times into the realms of magic, demonology, and the occult, were also accepted either as orthodox or as legitimate accounts of ancient thought. Ficino never had to face an Inquisition, even though some conservative prelates did, briefly and ineffectively, call his work on magic and magical therapy in the De vita into question. Hence we have to abandon the all too familiar notion that Renaissance Spain became tout court the bastion only of a conservative orthodoxy, and...


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