Marsilio Ficino (1433-1499) was a Florentine scholar, translator (Greek into Latin), mystical theologian, astrologer, occult medical philosopher, musician, and epistolean. He became a priest at age 40, and later a canon of Florence Cathedral. His life’s work was one of the central streams in the multiplicity of Renaissance thought. His cultural predecessors included Petrarch in the previous century, and Traversari in the previous generation.
Francesco Petrarca (1304-1374) (anglicized as Petrarch) was an Italian scholar, poet laureate, and the first major Christian voice to reject scholasticism and the medieval ideal of asceticism. He “…sought to revive the moral values to be found in pagan antiquity, which were nearer to those of the Sermon on the Mount and more liberal than many of those governing medieval ideas of virtue and justice. He thereby inaugurated the upheaval in social and personal values which developed into what we have come to call the Renaissance” (Levi 2002: 103-104).
Ambrogio Traversari (1386-1439) was a Camaldolese monk in the Florentine monastery of Santa Maria degli Angeli, where Ficino would later lecture, give sermons (e.g., Ficino 2003: Letters 53, 54), and play his Orphic lyre in harmony with the monastic hymns of the white-robed brethren. (At the Angeli the Psalms were apparently sung throughout the day.) Lackner (2002) summarizes this portion of Renaissance history for us. The daily lives of the brethren of the Camaldolese order were inspired by the Platonic spiritual tradition and the ascetic practices of the early Greek Christians known to us as the Egyptian Desert Fathers (3rd Century CE). A central theme in the Christian Platonism of the Camaldolese was the scala perfectionis, the theology of the mystical ascent. Transfiguring the desires of nature into the desire for God, salvation was sought by gradual divinization, ascending hierarchies of being to the cosmic harmony illuminated by celestial love (Camaldolese tradition includes the vision of a ladder ascending into heaven). Traversari was a scholar of the Greek Christian Fathers, a translator (Greek into Latin), and a theologian. In 1433, under the persuasion and patronage of the banker and meacenas Cosimo de’ Medici, Traversari made the first Latin translation of Diogenes Laertius’ (ca. 3rd Century CE) Vitae Philosophorum, the lives and opinions of immanent classic (i.e., Hellenic) Greek philosophers. This voluminous pagan work contained a comprehensive summary of platonic philosophy, the first available in the Latin West in a millennium. Lackner (2002:19) notes that Traversari “…marveled at examples from classical antiquity of souls who seemed to approach perfection and true life before its revelation in Christ, and who proclaimed doctrines in accordance with the true faith…[i.e.] ‘largely in agreement with Christian truth’…”. Traversari’s larger program was the revival of primitive Christianity, and included translation of platonically inspired Greek patristic works, and those of Pseudo-Dionysius (5th-6th Centuries CE) including his Celestial Hierarchies.fn The revival of Pseudo-Dionysius helped to assign scholastic discursive theological reasoning to a subsidiary plane. In contrast we are elevated to a mystical Christian theology, which as Pseudo-Dionysius put it, “…does not demonstrate the truth, but it exposes it nakedly, in symbols, so that the soul, charged by holiness and light, penetrates without reason into it” (Sherrard 1998:116; Lackner 2002:22). In Renaissance neoPlatonism we see a renewed emphasis on the use of mystical symbolism to invoke the divine. In addition to his work as a translator, Traversari devoted himself to the intellectual and religious reconciliation of the long standing schism between the Greek Eastern Church and the Latin West, what had become a cultural divide between the mystical theology of Byzantium and the scholastic-bound (Aristotelian) theology of Rome (Sherrard 1998). In the 1420s and 1430s, prior to the fall of Constantinople to the Islamic Ottoman Empire in 1453, there were ongoing theological negotiations between these two churches of Christendom. The convocation of the Council of Florence (1438-1445) exemplified these aspirations. It was promoted by Pope Eugenius IV, funded and organized by Cosimo de’ Medici. The visiting Greeks (some 700 in number) included scholars, and the Byzantine Emperior John VIII Palaiologos, in whose suite Traversari discovered in 1438 a “beautifully written” manuscript of the complete works of Plato (Lackner 2002: 24). Under the developing Ottoman threat, copies of numerous classic Greek manuscripts had already been transported from Constantinople to Venice, and later to Florence.
In this Florentine theological and intellectual environment Ficino began his career as a translator in his mid-twenties (ca. 1458). In 1462 his first assignment under the patronage of Cosimo de’ Medici was to translate the Poimandres (or Pymander), known now as the Corpus Hermeticum.fn This was a precondition for his receiving for translation the complete works of Plato, a copy of which was in the possession of de’ Medici. Until the late sixteenth century Christian scholars believed that the original author of the Greco-Egyptian Corpus Hermeticum, the legendary Egyptian sage Hermes Trismegistus, was a contemporary of Moses. Although there is now general agreement that the surviving Greek texts of the Corpus Hermeticum date from the first to third centuries CE and are Alexandrian, they appear to show little neoPlatonic or Christian influence (Salaman 2002). The Corpus Hermeticum was Ficino’s first in depth experience of Plethon’s concept of an “ancient theology,” inspiring Ficino to develop the doctrine of prisca theologia. Georgios Gemistos Plethon (c. 1356-1452) was a celebrated Byzantine Greek philosopher, reformer, and revivalist who had lectured to the Council of Florence on Plato in 1439 (Ficino 1981:131; also see Kristeller 1972:97-100, and Sherrard 1998:116-118, 127-128). Ficino thought of Plethon as alter Plato (the second Plato). The underlying Renaissance belief, shared by many intellectuals at this time, was that the key to true knowledge, or wisdom, lay in the traditions of the ancient past. For Ficino this was expressed in the belief that a common basis for true philosophy and religion lay in the prisca theologia. With the exception of Ficino’s mid-career priestly treatise On the Christian Religion, his view of prisca theologia was multilinear. Apparently influenced by Plethon, this notion was that there were two ancient sources of valid religious knowledge, each with its corresponding line of transmission, the one acquired by ancient pagan sages, the other the Mosiac tradition from Adam and Abraham through Moses and later Hebrew prophets ultimately finding fulfillment in Christ (Idel 2002.).fn As Salaman re-expresses it, knowledge of that common ancient theology was thought to be the best hope humankind had for reconciling the various branches of religion and philosophy (in Ficino 2009: xii). Initially, for Ficino the pagan tradition of great philosophers who had realized and passed on the transcendent truth began with Hermes Trismegistus in Egypt, and continued in a line of succession including Orpheus and Pythagoras, ending in Plato.fn From his translation of Corpus Hermeticum texts, Ficino drew a number of core concepts that he came to associate with the Ancient Theology (Salaman’s summary, in Ficino 2003: xxi): the unreality of the sensory world fn; the single reality of the One; the capacity of the human soul to consciously merge with that One; the immortal and god-like nature of the human soul, and the sleepy, ‘drunk’ and ignorant condition in which it customarily lives. Ficino also found these ideas in his interpretations of Plato
Next, over a twenty year period (1464-1484) Ficino worked on and completed for publication his translations of Plato, along with his commentaries and interpretations (see the chronology of his works in Ficino 2009: 95-96). He was most concerned that his translation and interpretations of Plato should be accepted in papal circles of influence, and by Pope Innocent VIII, because Ficino passionately felt that Plato’s teaching could lead to a renaissance of the human soul (Salaman, in Ficino 2003). In the medieval tradition, Ficino was an arch-syncretist. He believed that the truths expressed in Christianity and Platonism were fundamentally the same. Most of his life’s work was aimed at reintroducing Plato as a revealed authority that the Church could accept. More than anyone else he re-established the authority of philosophy in matters divine. As a Platonist he developed in his later years the idea that the intellect and the will act together as the soul’s highest cognitive powers, to form a complementary co-creative epistemic opposition indispensable to the acquisition of knowledge and the ascent of the soul to the heights of divinity (Albertini 2002). Subsequent generations build on his revitalization of the theological environment (Decartes, the Deists, and those, for example, who study comparative religion). As a Christian-Platonist, Ficino also revived the conceptualization that the individual soul by the nature of its creation is both immortal and divine (Ficino 1975:23).fn Emphasis on the divine aspect led to the notion of unlimited human potential (e.g., Ficino 1988: end of Letter 6, p. 10), contributing to the post medieval “glorification of man” (Kristellar 1972: 4-11); and the focus on the individual's soul led to the devotional belief of an individual ‘personal relationship’ with God (Ficino 1975: 23).
Ficino also translated (mostly in the 1480s), and incorporated into Renaissance theology, the neoPlatonists of late antiquity. Plotinus (203-262 CE) was the founder of the neoPlatonic school. The significance of his writings for Ficino was that Plotinus made the One the ultimate principle of the universe, and he describes the ability of the soul to temporarily, repeatedly, ascend in this lifetime to merge with the One, “…acquiring identity with the divine…” (Ficino 2003: 208-210).fn The means by which this noetic ascension was possible involved intellectual rigor, self-discipline, and the choice to cultivate the virtue present in one’s soul (Celenza 2002: 76-77).
Ficino’s paraphrased translation of the later neoPlatonist Iamblichus’ On the Mysteries of the Egyptians and Chaldaeans followed that of his work on Plotinus (Ficino 2009: Letter 8, pp. 14-15, 66-67). Iamblichus the Syrian (ca. 250-325 CE) was a student of Porphyry, who was a student of Plotinus. Iamblichus broke with the previous Platonist tradition by emphasizing the religious potential of Plato’s philosophy, and by uniting that with god-work, i.e., the practice of sacred ritual in theurgy, including extended prayer which “…kindles the divine element in the soul…,” and “…brings to perfection good hope and faith concerning the light…” (Iamblichus cited in Ficino 2009: footnote 5 to Letter 8, p. 67; biographical notes, pp. 140-141). Beyond mere theology or discourse about the gods, the term theourgia referred to ‘doing divine work’ or ‘working the divine,’ via the deifying power of rituals given to us by the gods as aids in harnessing divinity (Celenza 2002: 80; Shaw 1995: 5). It was Iamblichus who provided a philosophic rationale for theurgy: it was the antidote for the rationalistic hubris that had both separated the human soul from the sanctity of the world and had elevated the human mind beyond natural limits (Shaw 1995: 4-5). Iamblichus explained theurgy as an embodiment and enactment of divine principles, ritual practice beyond theological or philosophical contemplation, restoring contact with the divine order and the natural powers of the animate cosmos (Ibid.). Thus Iamblichus re-conceived the ideal philosopher from what was for Plotinus an autonomous intellectual agent in pursuit of the good, truth, and perfection, to that of an operative dependent on the help of supernatural forces to attain salvation (Celenza 2002). For Iamblichus, theurological practices (invocative rituals, sacrifices, and sacraments) purify the soul, liberating the soul from fate as a prerequisite toward union with the divine (Ibid.: 80). As Idel (2002: 151) puts it, “Participation in the truth is not the result of a revelation but of the ascent of the theurgist’s soul to the source of the truth.” In his syncretism, Iamblichus had, in large part, adopted this ‘Chaldean’ doctrine of theurgy (Lewy 1978; Shaw 1995: 41).
Toussaint (2002: 322) points to the writings of Iamblichus, Porphyry (also see Lewy 1978: 501), and Synesius of Cyrene as neoPlatonic sources for Ficino’s doctrines that “…the inspiration for mechanical sciences and technical inventions are breathed into men by good daemons and that the same daemons [as celestial intermediaries] have revealed the signs (characteres) and the planetary seals present in the world soul.”fn The astronomical clock is arguably the most important Renaissance example of the realization or embodiment of these concepts. For Ficino, Lorenzo della Volpaia’s ‘Clock of the Planets’ is apparently a case in point (Ficino 1989: 347, and 451 footnote 6).
Figure DV. The Figure above is the reconstruction of the face of Lorenzo della Volpaia's clock that accompanies Toussaint's (2002) essay.
Della Volpaia (1446-1512) was a well-known Florentine clockmaker, as well as a scientific instrument maker, e.g., astrolabes and armillary spheres (Toussaint 2002). His Clock of the Planets is described in some detail in a 1484 letter by Angelo Poliziano (Ibid., Appendix). It had seven central disks, mirroring the motions of the wandering stars (the planets), the phases of the moon, and eclipses of the sun and moon. The astrological functions of della Volpaia’s celestial automaton included zodiacal computation of ascendants, grand conjunctions and individual horoscopes. This machine was primarily an astrological instrument (Ibid.: 308).
Toussaint’s (2002) analysis of the ideational significance for Ficino of della Volpaia’s ‘Clock of the Planets’ highlights the idea of the fecund power of the human soul expressing its divinity in the creation of a celestial instrument reflecting the divine order of the animated sky.fn Toussaint attributes to Ficino a mechanical mysticism in which mental reflection upon the divine order of the universe (the machina mundi), with the aid of the astrological clock as a talismanic model, could attain benefits from the heavens via the celestials, provided (as Ficino stipulated) the adherent had rendered themselves very orderly and temperate in thought, emotion, and mode of life (Ficino 1989: 347). As Kaske notes (in Ficino 1989: 42), Ficino’s conceptualization of Christianity emphasized creation more than atonement, and he embraced the Platonic notion of astronomy as a redemptive science.
Of Ficino’s works, only Da Vita Libri Tres was immensely popular, and controversial at the same time (Ficino 1989: 3, 12, 55). This work “On Life”, published in 1489, is a medical treatise for the learned, written in part to repay Ficino’s father (a physician held in high esteem by Cosimo de’ Medici) who had wanted his son to become a physician. In the Galenic tradition, the young Marsilio studied medicine and Aristotelian philosophy (at the University of Florence), but there is no evidence that he took a medical degree, although he sometimes practiced medicine (Ibid.: 18).
Da Vita is comprised of three main parts, referred to as ‘Books.” Book One, Da Vita Sans, is “On Caring for the Health of Learned People,” especially scholars and intellectuals. In his introduction to Book One, Ficino notes the importance of bodily health, but especially health of the mind, for the attainment of wisdom. Book One treats the melancholy, and maladies such as sleeplessness, associated with the intellectual life. Ficino both treats melancholy as a problem and praises the melancholic (citing ancient authorities for his own opinions) as exceptionally intelligent, possessing creative madness (Book One Chapters IV and V). Kaske sees Ficino’s emphasis on the “paradoxically positive value of melancholy” and “announcement that it sometimes helps to be a little crazy” (Kaske’s phrasing), as part of the Renaissance manifesto of liberation, most notably continued in English literature (through the Romantics) expressed as the contribution of the subrational to heroic genius and artistic sensibility (in Ficino 1989: 23-24).
Book Two, Da Vita Longa, is on how to live a long healthy life. Ficino begins Book Two by pointing out that to perfect your knowledge you need a long life, and that one way to procure this is by your own efforts. This and Book One of Da Vita present a combination of theoretical Galenic medicine (the four humors), common wisdoms and a rich Salernitan pharmacopoeia of medicinal-spice-compounds via recipes for cordials, syrups, pills, electuaries, and herbal confections laced with gold and accompanied with wine. Ficino also opines that theriac never takes second place to any other remedy (e.g., Book One, Chapter XII, p. 139).fn Examples of common wisdoms include a good diet (with fresh fruit and green vegetables), rustic (as opposed to urban) activities such as “…pleasant walks along rivers and through lovely meadows…” (Book One, Chapter X, p. 135), and for the elderly, resumption of some of the games and customs of youth “…for indeed it is very difficult, so to speak, to rejuvenate the body if you do not first become young again in spirit” (Book Two, Chapter VIII, p. 189). Also, one should never neglect music, song and dance, and the company of agreeable people.
Book Three, Da Vita Coelitus Comparanda, is “On Obtaining Life from the Heavens.” It occupies one half of Da Vita, and it became famous and influential as an account of astral magic applied to the practice of medicine (Beecher 2002:251). Kaske partially summarizes the contents of Book Three. There Ficino elaborates a conceptualization of the celestial causes of health related conditions and astral magic
into an astrology extending to talismans and quasi-religious singing, dancing, and suffumigations, whereby he promises to put both the Magus and his patient in touch with their personal stars and the Anima Mundi. …Ficino eloquently defends the naturalness of his magic by appeal to his cherished belief that the heavenly bodies are animated with an impersonal [cosmic] spirit which in turn pervades all men. He thus steers around the heresies of determination and idolatry. (Kaske, in Ficino 1989: 4)
Ficino’s mundus is the cosmos depicted in our Figure M. Much of his approach is traditional in method. It was the combination of astral magic and paganism of Book Three that would ultimately bring that work under the censure of the Church.
Figure M. Medieval Cosmos: A High Medieval Period synthesis of the Platonic world view with the placement of the Sun not second but fourth as in the Ptolemaic order of the spheres, and the addition of Aristotle’s ‘Prime Mover’ as the outermost sphere. Based on Edson and Savage-Smith (2004), and Lewis (1964).
In Book Three of Da Vita it is through the informal technique of compounded multilayered analogies and neoPlatonic/Arabic syncretism, and following the general Medieval method of accepting all texts at face value, that Ficino constructs a conceptualization of ‘natural magic’ for the practice of medicine (Book Three, Chapters I, II). Medicinals are formulated from materials with properties engraphed in them by the rays emanating from particular celestial bodies. For example, one obtains gifts from Venus through, among other things, sapphires and multicolored flowers. Medicinal compounds made of such appropriate materials allure, capture, and hold celestial influences that when ingested introduce beneficial celestial forces into our human spirit (and thereby our body and soul), provided we have properly prepared ourselves spiritually (Book Three, Chapters XIII – XVI, XXII). Ficino relates that
Iamblichus confirms that in materials which are naturally akin to the things above and have been collected from their various places and compounded at the right time and in the proper manner you can receive forces and effects which are not only celestial, but even daemonic and divine. (Book Three, Chapter XIII, p. 307)
Within a few months after Da Vita was published, Ficino’s letters indicate that accusations of offence against religion were being made to the Roman Curia (Ficino 2012). The specific charges are not stated, and are not now known. But passages in Da Vita reveal Ficino was anticipating criticism, including questioning of his priestly and Christian character. Manuscript collations show that when Da Vita’s three books were prepared for publication as one treatise, Ficino added an introductory dedicatory preface to Lorenzo de’ Medici, a second preface to Book Three, and two apologiae to the end of Book Three (Clark, in Ficino 1989: 7). The preface to Book Three (the Ad Lectorem) is titled “The Words of Marsilio Ficino to the Reader of the Following Book.” Here he anticipates disapproval by some readers of his treatment of astronomical images invented for the health of mortals: “…dismiss them…by my advice,” he says, since “…I do not so much approve of as report” them (p. 239). He thereby appears to be blunting possible accusations of idolatry. In his Apologia, the first of the two apologiae at the end of Book Three, Ficino emphasizes that he does not affirm in Da Vita “a single word about profane magic which depends on the worship of daemons” (p. 397), and a reading of the chapters confirms that daemons play no definitive role as mediators in Ficino’s natural magic.The form of magic that he is presenting, as he states it there, “…by natural means, seeks to obtain the services of the celestials for the prosperous health of our bodies” (p 397) by joining medicine with astrology (p. 399). As he notes in the Ad Lectorem preface of Book Three, by his long and repeated experience, medicines “…strengthened by some sort of heavenly aid…..are as different from other medicines made without astrological election as wine is from water” (p. 241).fn As Kaske (p. 52) acknowledges, Ficino legitimizes natural magic by making it daemon-free white magic, by converting daemonic (or angelic, possibly demonic) mediation into mediation by impersonal celestial spiritus, including the spiritus mundanus (cosmic spirit). Also, in the Apologia Ficino asks Piero Guicciardini (a distinguished official in the Florentine government and the son of one of Lorenzo de’ Medici’s most trusted advisors) to “…reply to intellectual busybodies that Marsilio is not approving magic and images but recounting them in the course of an interpretation of Plotinus,” which he says his writings make quite clear “… if they are read impartially” (p. 397). Adding to this and more, in his second (concluding) apologia, on “Freedom from Care,” Ficino opens with greetings to three of “…his most beloved brothers in the hunt for truth,” and beseeches them with “…I pray you, defend my three children/books who are still young and are I fear, just about to go forth among wolves” (p. 403).
Ficino closes his Ad Lectorem to Book Three with the following sentence set off from the proceeding text (p 241).
"In all things which I discuss here or elsewhere, I intend to assert only so much as is approved by the Church."
Salaman refers to Ficino’s mobilizing support from prominent citizens of Florence, and his asking them to obtain help from other influential individuals, as a campaign (Ficino 2009: xiii – xv). Ficino sent copies of Da Vita to several people, and this campaign extended well beyond Florence, including individuals well established in the ecclesiastical hierarchy and prominent physicians (Ficino 2012: Introduction and letters passim). Among those whom Ficino enlisted was his friend Ermolao Barbaro, the Venetian ambassador to Rome, and one of the most outstanding scholars of his time. Barbaro wrote to Ficino on 1 August 1490 from Rome that he, as asked, had commended Ficino to Pope Innocent VIII. Barbaro wrote: “…rest assured that I have not only done that but have done it from my heart, with great care and quite frequently.” The letter continues, “And so that you may understand that this is absolutely true, he [the Pope] replied that it was on account of Lorenzo [de’ Medici] that he did not summon you here” (Ficino 2012: Letter 25, pp. 26-27). Thus Ficino, because of his good works, connections, and the conciliatory political nature of Pope Innocent VIII, succeeded in forestalling the condemnation of Da Vita by the Curia.
One hundred years later, in the late 1500s, Ficino’s work was severely criticized by a number of Protestant and Catholic scholars, and Book Three of Da Vita appeared on the Curia’s Index of Prohibited Books (printed in Parma in 1580, Kraye 2002). This is a time of both the Counter-Reformation and the Inquisition. The central criticism was that of mixing together (syncretizing) Christianity and neoPlatonism: Ficino tainted the sacred with the profane; he was soft on paganism and he promiscuously blended together pagan and Christian sources. Kaske notes that in spite of the protestations of orthodoxy and disclaimers of heresy Ficino added to Book Three at the time of the first printed edition of Da Vita (1489), Ficino never fully exculpated himself from the possible charge of derogating from the worship of the one true God (Ficino 1989: 59, 62).
Ficino’s conceptual transformation of theurgy into natural magic can be thought of as an extension of human free will. As Ficino saw it, man elects by his free will to practice natural magic, but the stars respond not by an act of will, but naturally, spontaneously (Ficino 1989: Book Three, Chapter XII, p. 305; Chapter XXI, p. 357 and footnote 11 p. 454). This Renaissance principle of extending human free will to channel or control the natural properties and forces of the cosmos does not appear to have been considered heretical, so long it did not engage the sacred mysteries of Christian dogma (see Celenza 2002 for precedents in Iamblichus). We observe in Ficino that Renaissance combination of reliance upon experience, detailed observations, and imaginal traditions of the supernatural, rolled into a derived concept of natural magic as a practical science. Ficino’s natural magic, with its impersonal forces is also an inadvertent move toward the eventual death of the cosmos, and the duality of a personal God in a non-living universe. At the same time we see the aggrandizement of man reborn in the revitalized Hermetic tradition (Garin 1969). Under the aegis of Hermes Trismegistus, humans are self-consciously miraculous beings, capable of transforming all things, dominating the world through their works. In the Renaissance search for true magic, true astrology, and true alchemy, there is the sense “…that here was a new way which might allow man to gain a full mastery over nature” (Ibid.:149). The older Medieval Model of an order in which humanity was just a small part is broken. “The distance between the middle ages and the new age is the distance between a closed universe, an unchanging static world which has no history and an infinite universe which is open to all possibilities" (Ibid.:153, also see p.164). Beginning in the sixteenth century, techno-science gradually takes the place of the older disciplines, listening to the language of nature (to borrow Garin’s words, p.148) in order to dominate her, transforming her into a servant.
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