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.

Feb 072018

On this date in 1497 supporters of the Dominican friar Girolamo Savonarola conducted a monumental bonfire of the vanities, and, although not the first of its kind, has since been taken as the iconic event of its type (as well as being the last for some time thereafter).  A bonfire of the vanities (falò delle vanità) was the burning of objects such as cosmetics, art, and books condemned by authorities as exemplifications of, or provocations towards, sin. At Carnival in Florence in 1497, Savonarola’s followers collected and publicly burned thousands of such objects. Bonfires of the vanities were not invented by Savonarola, but had been a common accompaniment to the outdoor sermons of San Bernardino di Siena in the first half of the 15th century. The focus of this destruction was nominally on objects that might tempt one to sin, including overt items of vanity such as mirrors, cosmetics, and fine dresses, but also included playing cards, musical instruments, books that were deemed to be immoral, such as works by Boccaccio, and manuscripts of secular songs, as well as artworks, including paintings and sculpture.

Fra Girolamo Savonarola was a Dominican friar who was assigned to work in Florence in 1490, largely thanks to the request of Lorenzo de’ Medici – an irony, considering that within a few years Savonarola became one of the foremost enemies of the house of Medici and helped to bring about their downfall in 1494. Savonarola campaigned against what he considered to be the artistic and social excesses of Renaissance Italy, preaching with vigor against any sort of luxury. His power and influence expanded mightily, so that in time he became the effective ruler of Florence, and even had soldiers for his protection following him around everywhere.

Beginning in February 1495, during Carnival, Savonarola began to host his regular “bonfire of the vanities.” He collected various objects that he considered to be objectionable: irreplaceable manuscripts, ancient sculptures, antique and contemporary paintings, priceless tapestries, and many other valuable works of art, as well as mirrors, musical instruments, books of divination, astrology, and magic. He destroyed the works of Ovid, Propertius, Dante, and Boccaccio. So great was his influence that he even managed to obtain the cooperation of major contemporary artists such as Sandro Botticelli and Lorenzo di Credi, who reluctantly consigned some of their own works to his bonfires. Anyone who tried to object found their hands being forced by teams of ardent Savonarola supporters. These supporters called themselves Piagnoni (Weepers) after a public nickname that was originally intended as an insult.

Savonarola’s influence did not go unnoticed by the higher church officials, however, and his excesses earned him the disdain of Pope Alexander VI. He was eventually excommunicated on May 13th, 1497, and executed on May 23, 1498 by being hung on a cross and burned to death. Ironically, the papal authorities would take a leaf out of Savonarola’s book on censorship, because the day after his execution they gave word that anyone in possession of the Friar’s writings had four days to turn them over to a papal agent to be destroyed. Anyone who failed to do so faced excommunication.

Although it is widely reported that the Florentine artist Sandro Botticelli burned several of his paintings based on classical mythology in the great Florentine bonfire of 1497, the historical record on this is not clear. According to the art historian Giorgio Vasari, Botticelli was a partisan of Savonarola: “He was so ardent a partisan that he was thereby induced to desert his painting, and, having no income to live on, fell into very great distress.” Writing several centuries later, Orestes Brownson, an apologist for Savonarola, mentions artwork only by Fra Bartolomeo, Lorenzo di Credi, and “many other painters,” along with “several antique statues.”

Art historian Rab Hatfield argues that one of Botticelli’s paintings, The Mystical Nativity, is based on the sermon Savonarola delivered on Christmas Eve, 1493.

The event has been represented or mentioned in varying degrees of detail in a number of works of historical fiction, including George Eliot’s Romola (1863), E. R. Eddison’s A Fish Dinner in Memison (1941), Irving Stone’s The Agony and the Ecstasy (1961), Chelsea Quinn Yarbro’s The Palace (1978), Michael Ondaatje’s The English Patient – part two 1992, Roger Zelazny and Robert Sheckley’s If at Faust You Don’t Succeed (1993), Timothy Findley’s Pilgrim (1999), Ian Caldwell and Dustin Thomason’s Rule of Four (2004), the novel I, Mona Lisa by Jeanne Kalogridis (2006), the Showtime series The Borgias, The Sky (Italy) and Netflix (North America) series Borgia, and The Botticelli Affair by Traci L. Slatton (2013). As a metaphor, Tom Wolfe used the event and ritual as the title for his 1987 novel The Bonfire of the Vanities with a film adaptation of the same name. Margaret Atwood’s works allude to the Bonfire, as in her dystopian novels The Handmaid’s Tale (1985), and Oryx and Crake (2003). It is also depicted in the video game Assassin’s Creed II, in which Savonarola is one of the antagonists. Jordan Tannahill’s 2016 play Botticelli in the Fire is a fictional retelling of the events leading up to the Bonfire of the Vanities.

I will turn to Maestro Martino author of Libro de Arte Coquinaria (Book on the Art of Cooking) (c. 1465), for today’s recipe. Martino de Rossi was a culinary expert who was considered unequalled at the time and is considered by some (anachronistically) the Western world’s first celebrity chef. He was probably born in northern Italy (in or near Milan) and made his career across Italy. He was the chef at the Roman palazzo of the papal chamberlain (camerlengo), the Patriarch of Aquileia. Martino was applauded by his peers, earning him the epitaph of the prince of cooks. His book is considered a milestone in Italian gastronomic literature, and he a transitional figure from Medieval to Renaissance cuisine. The whole book is available in English translation, of average quality, and you could choose recipes that graced the palates of the vainest of Renaissance Italians. Here is his recipe for an herb frittata, called “frictata” in the 15th century, that I would call modest. The recipe has no measurements, but is fairly straightforward. You can make a plain frittata, one using the poaching water of some herbs, or another using the herbs themselves. My translation is fairly literal.


Battirai l’ova molto bene, et inseme un poca de acqua, et un poco di lacte per farla un poco più morbida, item un poco di bon caso grattato, et cocirala in bon botiro perché sia più grassa. Et nota che per farla bona non vole esser voltata né molto cotta. Et volendola fare verde, prendirai slmilmente le cose sopra ditte giognendoli del suco de queste herbe, cioè vieta, petrosillo in bona quantità, borragine, menta, maiorana, salvia in minore quantità, passando il ditto suco; poi cavarai piste le herbe molto bene per la stamegna. Et per fare in un altro modo frittata con herbe, prendirai le sopra ditte herbe et tagliate menute le frigerai un poco in un bon botiro o oglio, mescolandole con l’ova et l’altre cose sopra ditte farai la frittata et cocirala diligentemente che sia bene staionata et non troppo cotta.

Beat eggs very well with a little water and a little milk to make it [the frittata] softer; also a little good cheese, grated, and cook it in good butter because it will be fattier. Note that, for it to be good, it should not be stirred nor cooked too much. If you wish to make it green, do the same as above and add the cooking water from the following herbs: chard, a generous amount of parsley, borage, mint, marjoram, and a lesser amount of sage, passing them through a sieve to obtain their water; then remove the herbs that will have been crushed in the sieve. And to make a frittata another way with herbs is to take the above herbs, finely chop them and fry them in a little good butter or oil, mixing with eggs and the other ingredients mentioned above you make the frittata and cook it carefully, well seasoned, and not cooked too much.