- Plato's Persona: Marsilio Ficino, Renaissance Humanism, and Platonic Traditions by Denis J.-J. Robichaud
in plato's persona, denis robichaud studies Italian Renaissance philosopher Marsilio Ficino's writings with the keen eye and skills of a multilingual classical philologist, yet also through the broad perspective of an intellectual historian. Noting that Ficino is usually read for his scholarly contributions rather than his rhetorical skills, Robichaud aptly employs that additional lens to highlight the Italian philosopher's importance for both intellectual and creative letters. The result is an impressive study that elucidates the surprisingly poetic aspects of Ficino's thought and practices. Of particular interest for readers of this journal will be Robichaud's exploration of the Italian philosopher's staging of rhetorical personae: dialogue and epistolary forms served as vehicles for Ficino to enact, in "synesthetic mixings of oral and visual performances" (63), personae that serve "as the reader's interlocutors" (55).
In his introduction, Robichaud fully contextualizes Ficino, who "gave voice to Plato" (3) and became his "Latin spokesperson in the Renaissance" (16). Describing the Italian philosopher's writing as playful, Robichaud offers intriguing detail on how his use of imagery, irony, puns, metaphor, and simile creates multiple layers of meaning that combine to communicate "serious matters (studium) in play (ludus)" (16). The Italian's role as ancient-to-modern liaison included deliberate study of Plato's artistry in creating the dialogues' interlocutors so as to then fabricate and present his own "vivid personae" (17) in his letters, translations of, and commentaries on those works. As he performed this academic and creative revivification, Ficino carefully deliberated on Plato's "polyphony or symphony of voices" (19) while also untangling the threads of earlier interpretations of the Platonic corpus. In turn, Robichaud explains that impressive weave for his own reader, along with its multiple correlations to Pythagorean, Middle Platonic, Neoplatonic, Augustinian, and early modern thought. [End Page 329]
Robichaud begins chapter 1, "Prosopon/Persona: Philosophy and Rhetoric," with details on the dual meaning of the Greek term prosopon, used for both mask and face. He notes that the term's translation into the Latin persona led to a fundamental change in concept: for the early Greeks, there was "no duplicity" in prosopon, which meant both "present and embody" (28), that is, mask as display of self. For the Romans and modern readers, to the contrary, a persona (mask) conceals. I was intrigued enough by this detail to consult early modern Castilian dictionaries: writing in 1490, Alfonso de Palencia also notes that the Greek prosopa meant "to show oneself," and he highlights the contrast in translation: "in Greek it is person; in Latin it almost means face" (Universal vocabulario, Biblioteca Virtual Miguel de Cervantes, www.cervantesvirtual.com/nd/ark:/59851/bmc416v3; mytranslation). Over one hundred years later, with his definition of "mask" as a duplicitous cover that hides, Sebastián de Covarrubias adds, intriguingly, that "the courtesans call it face" (Tesoro de le lengua castellana o española [Madrid, Luis Sánchez, 1611]; my translation.).
Topics in chapter 1 include the concept of dialogue as creative theater, along with debates on its use for purposes of internal thought versus external rationalization. Moving handily between ancients and early moderns, Robichaud analyzes writing styles and rhetorical critiques throughout the various periods, with specific comment on the masks of actor versus author, on dialectic versus sophistry, and on creation as well as staging of personae in various dialogical models through varying rhetorical techniques. This is a fine study of literature in its broad intellectual dimensions, for both its philosophy and its poetics. One particularly fascinating piece is Ficino's use of tropes related to his letters, which he personifies in terms of reflective shadows: a letter is itself, its writer, its recipient, and its courier. Here, Robichaud's study of both form and content teases out extra layers of meaning in fifteenth-century discursive processes and literary practices.
In chapter 2, "Ficino and the Platonic Corpus," Robichaud delves further into Ficino's use of "prosopopeia and enargeia" to show...