Feb 242019

Today is the birthday (1463) of Giovanni Pico della Mirandola, an Italian Renaissance nobleman and philosopher. Not a common household name these days, although his influence was (and is) wide ranging. Those with some historical knowledge remember him for the events of 1486, when, at the age of 23, he proposed to defend 900 theses on religion, philosophy, natural philosophy, and magic against all comers, for which he wrote the Oration on the Dignity of Man, which some have called the “Manifesto of the Renaissance” because it lays out the details of Renaissance humanism and of what has been called the “Hermetic Reformation”. He was the founder of the tradition of Christian Kabbalah, a key component of early modern Western esotericism. He is often called Mirandola which is more of a geographic designation (like da Vinci) than a family name, although his family owned the estate of Mirandola. His actual family name is Pico.

Pico had an exceptional memory as a child and was schooled in Latin and Greek at a very early age. He was intended for the Church by his mother and was named a papal protonotary (probably honorary) at the age of ten and in 1477 he went to Bologna to study canon law. At the sudden death of his mother three years later, Pico renounced canon law and began to study philosophy at the University of Ferrara. During a brief trip to Florence, he met Angelo Poliziano, the courtly poet Girolamo Benivieni, and probably the young Dominican friar Girolamo Savonarola. For the rest of his life he remained very close friends with all three. From 1480 to 1482, he continued his studies at the University of Padua, a major center of Aristotelianism in Italy. He studied Hebrew and Arabic in Padua with Elia del Medigo, a Jewish Averroist, and read Aramaic manuscripts with him as well. Del Medigo also translated Judaic manuscripts from Hebrew into Latin for Pico, as he would continue to do for a number of years. Pico also wrote sonnets in Latin and Italian which, because of the influence of Savonarola, he destroyed at the end of his life.

He spent the next four years either at home or visiting humanist centers elsewhere in Italy. In 1485, he traveled to the University of Paris, the most important centre in Europe for scholastic philosophy and theology, and a hotbed of secular Averroism. It was probably in Paris that Pico began his 900 Theses and conceived the idea of defending them in public debate. During this time two life-changing events occurred. The first was his return to Florence in November 1484 where he met Lorenzo de’ Medici and Marsilio Ficino and charmed both men. Lorenzo would support and protect Pico until his death in 1492. Without Lorenzo’s support, it is doubtful that Pico would have survived the Inquisition coming after him.

Soon after this stay in Florence, Pico was traveling on his way to Rome where he intended to publish his 900 Theses and prepare for a “congress” of scholars from all over Europe to debate them. Stopping in Arezzo he became embroiled in a love affair with the wife of one of Lorenzo de’ Medici’s cousins. It almost cost him his life. Giovanni attempted to run off with the woman, but he was caught, wounded and thrown into prison by her husband. He was released only upon the intervention of Lorenzo himself. The incident is representative of Pico’s audacious (perhaps reckless) temperament and of the loyalty and affection he nevertheless could inspire.

Pico spent several months in Perugia and nearby Fratta, recovering from his injuries. It was there, as he wrote to Ficino, that “divine Providence … caused certain books to fall into my hands. They are Chaldean books … of Esdras, of Zoroaster and of Melchior, oracles of the magi, which contain a brief and dry interpretation of Chaldean philosophy, but full of mystery.” It was also in Perugia that Pico was introduced to the mystical Hebrew Kabbalah, which fascinated him, as did the late classical Hermetic writers, such as Hermes Trismegistus. The Kabbalah and Hermetica were thought in Pico’s time to be as ancient as the Hebrew Testament. The most original of his 900 theses concerned the Kaballah. As a result, he became the founder of the tradition known as Christian Kabbalah, which went on to be a central part of early modern Western esotericism. Pico’s approach to different philosophies was one of extreme syncretism, placing them in parallel rather than attempting to describe a developmental history.

Pico based his ideas chiefly on Plato, as did his teacher, Marsilio Ficino, but retained a deep respect for Aristotle. Although he was a product of the studia humanitatis, Pico was constitutionally an eclectic, and in some respects he represented a reaction against the exaggerations of pure humanism, defending what he believed to be the best of the medieval and Islamic commentators, such as Averroes and Avicenna, on Aristotle in a famous long letter to Ermolao Barbaro in 1485. It was always Pico’s aim to reconcile the schools of Plato and Aristotle since he believed they used different words to express the same concepts. It was perhaps, for this reason, his friends called him “Princeps Concordiae”, or “Prince of Harmony” (a pun on Prince of Concordia, one of his family’s holdings). Similarly, Pico believed that an educated person should also study the Hebrew and Talmudic sources, and the Hermetics, because he thought they represented the same concept of God that is seen in Hebrew scripture, but in different words.

He finished his Oration on the Dignity of Man to accompany his 900 Theses and traveled to Rome to continue his plan to defend them. He had them published together in December 1486 as Conclusiones philosophicae, cabalasticae et theologicae, and offered to pay the expenses of any scholars who came to Rome to debate them publicly. He wanted the debate to begin on 6th January (the Christian feast of Epiphany celebrating the introduction of the Christ child to the pagan world). After emerging victorious at the culmination of the debate, Pico imagined some kind of new (perhaps apocalyptic) epiphany when all the world would be convinced of the correctness of his conclusions.

In February 1487, Pope Innocent VIII halted the proposed debate, and established a commission to review the orthodoxy of the 900 Theses. Although Pico answered the charges against them, 13 of them were condemned. Pico agreed in writing to retract them, but he did not change his mind about their validity. Eventually all 900 theses were condemned. He proceeded to write an apologia defending them, Apologia J. Pici Mirandolani, Concordiae comitis, published in 1489, which he dedicated to his patron, Lorenzo. When the pope was apprised of the circulation of this manuscript, he set up an inquisitorial tribunal, forcing Pico to renounce the Apologia, in addition to his condemned theses, which he agreed to do. The pope condemned 900 Theses as:

In part heretical, in part the flower of heresy; several are scandalous and offensive to pious ears; most do nothing but reproduce the errors of pagan philosophers… others are capable of inflaming the impertinence of the Jews; a number of them, finally, under the pretext of ‘natural philosophy’, favor arts [i.e., magic] that are enemies to the Catholic faith and to the human race.

This was the first time that a printed book had been banned by the Church, and nearly all copies were burned. Pico fled to France in 1488, where he was arrested by Philip II, duke of Savoy, at the demand of the papal nuncios, and imprisoned at Vincennes. Through the intercession of several Italian princes – all instigated by Lorenzo de’ Medici – king Charles VIII had him released, and the pope was persuaded to allow Pico to move to Florence and to live under Lorenzo’s protection. But he was not cleared of the papal censures and restrictions until 1493, after the accession of Alexander VI (Rodrigo Borgia) to the papacy.

The experience deeply shook Pico. He reconciled with Savonarola, who remained a very close friend. It was at Pico’s persuasion that Lorenzo invited Savonarola to Florence. But Pico never renounced his syncretist convictions. He settled in a villa near Fiesole prepared for him by Lorenzo, where he wrote and published the Heptaplus id est de Dei creatoris opere (1489) and De Ente et Uno (Of Being and Unity), (1491). It was here that he also wrote his other most celebrated work, the Disputationes adversus astrologiam divinicatrium (Treatise Against Predictive Astrology), which was not published until after his death. In it, Pico acidly condemned the deterministic practices of the astrologers of his day.

After the death of Lorenzo de’ Medici, in 1492, Pico moved to Ferrara, although he continued to visit Florence. In Florence, political instability gave rise to the increasing influence of Savonarola, whose reactionary opposition to Renaissance expansion and style had already brought about conflict with the Medici family (they eventually were expelled from Florence) and would lead to the wholesale destruction of books and paintings. Nevertheless, Pico became a follower of Savonarola. Determined to become a monk, he dismissed his former interest in Egyptian and Chaldean texts, destroyed his own poetry and gave away his fortune.

In 1494, at the age of 31, Pico was poisoned under mysterious circumstances along with his friend Angelo Poliziano. It was rumored that his own secretary had poisoned him because Pico had become too close to Savonarola. He was interred together with Girolamo Benivieni at the church of San Marco in Florence, and Savonarola delivered the funeral oration. In 2007, the bodies of Poliziano and Pico were exhumed. Scientists under the supervision of Giorgio Gruppioni, a professor of anthropology from Bologna, attempted to determine the cause of the two men’s deaths using modern forensic technology. In February 2008 they announced their results, which showed that both Poliziano and Pico had died of arsenic poisoning, probably at the order of Lorenzo’s successor, Piero de’ Medici.

The aspect of Pico’s humanism that surely pissed off the powers-that-be in the Church, was his endlessly repeated mantra that humans can be whatever they choose to be – with or without God. That’s the quintessence of free will. I don’t know that peasants working on his family estate would exactly have agreed with him, but I don’t imagine that he was talking about them. Perhaps we can give him the benefit of the doubt and argue that he believed that with adequate training anyone could do anything, and the reason that peasants were stuck in old ways is that they had no opportunity for education.

I’ve given many 15th century recipes from Libro de arte coquinaria by Maestro Martino de Como. Here’s a simple one for fried slices of vegetable marrow (zucca in modern Italian), that is not so very different from contemporary recipes, except for the fennel and liquamen sauce.

Zucche Fritte

Togli de la zucche e nettale bene. Et dapoi tagliale per traverso in fette sottili come la costa d’un coltello. Et dapoi gli fa’trare solamente un boglio in acqua, et cacciale fore; et dapoi le poni a sciuttare. Et poneli de sopra un pocho pocho di sale et involtale in farina bella, et frigile in olio. Dapoi caciale fore et togli un pocho di fiore de finocchio, un pocho d’aglio et di mmollicha di pane; et pistali bene et distempera con agresto in modo che resti ben raro, et passa per la stamegnia, et getta questo tal sapore sopra le ditte zucche. Le quali etamdio son bone ponendogli solamente di sopra agresto, et fior di finocchio. Et se voi che’l ditto sapore sia giallo metevi un pocho di zafrano.

Fried Vegetable Marrow

Take marrows and clean them well. Slice them crosswise in slices as thin as the blade of a knife. Give them a quick boil in water, remove them, and let them to drain. Sprinkle them with a very small amount of salt, toss them in flour, and fry them in oil. Then remove them. Take a little fennel seed, a little garlic and the inside of a slice of bread; grind these together, mixed with a very little verjuice. Pass this through a sieve and sprinkle this sauce on the marrow. They are also good seasoned only with verjuice and fennel seed. If you prefer the sauce to be yellow add a little saffron.