Count Giovanni Pico della Mirandola
1463 – November 17, 1494) was an Italian Renaissance philosopher
. He is famed for the events of 1486,
when at the age of 23, he proposed to defend 900 theses on religion
against all comers, for which he
wrote the famous Oration on the Dignity of Man
been called the "Manifesto of the Renaissance", and a key text of
was born at Mirandola, near Modena, the
youngest son of Francesco I, Lord of the Mirandola and Count of Concordia
(1415–1467), by his wife Giulia, daughter of Feltrino Boiardo, Count di Scandiano. The family had long dwelt in the Castle of
Mirandola (Duchy of Modena), which had become independent in the
fourteenth century and had received in 1414 from the Emperor
Sigismund the fief of Concordia.The Mirandola was a small province
in the region of Emilia-Romagna near
Ferrara, but the Pico dynasty ruled
it as independent sovereigns rather than
as noble vassals, gradually aggrandizing power in northern
Italy. The Pico della Mirandola were closely related
to the Sforza, Gonzaga and Este
dynasties, and Giovanni's siblings wed the scion of the hereditary rulers of Corsica, Ferrara,
Bologna and Forlì.
Born twenty-three years into his parents' marriage, Giovanni had
two much older brothers, both of whom outlived him: Count Galeotto
I (1442–1499) continued the dynasty, while Antonio (1444–1501)
became a general in the Imperial
army. The Pico family would reign
until Mirandola, an ally of Louis XIV of France
, was conquered by
his rival, Joseph I, Holy
, in 1708 and annexed
Modena by Duke Rinaldo d'Este
exiled male line
becoming extinct in
Giovanni's maternal family was singularly distinguished in the arts
and scholarship of the Italian
. His cousin and contemporary was the poet Matteo Maria Boiardo
, who grew up under
the influence of his own uncle, the Florentine patron of the arts
and scholar-poet, Tito Vespasiano Strozzi
child with an amazing
, Giovanni was schooled in Latin
, and possibly Greek
, at a very early age. Intended for the
Church by his mother, he was
named a papal protonotary at the age of
ten and in 1477 he went to Bologna to study
sudden death of his mother three years later, Pico renounced canon
law and began to study philosophy at the University of Ferrara.
During a brieftrip to Florence, he met Angelo Poliziano
, the courtly
, and probably the young Dominican monk Girolamo Savonarola
. For the rest of his
life he remained very close friends with all three, including the
ascetic and violently anti-humanist
Pico della Mirandola.
From 1480 to 1482, he continued his studies at the University of Padua
, a major center of
proficient in Latin and Greek, he studied Hebrew and Arabic in Padua with
Elia del Medigo, a Jewish Averroist, and read Aramaic manuscripts with him as well.
also translated Judaic
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 due to the
influence of Savonarola, he destroyed at the end of his life.
He spent the next four years either at home, or visiting humanist
centres elsewhere in Italy. In 1485 he travelled
to the University of
Paris, the most important centre in the whole of Europe
for Scholastic philosophy and
theology, and a hotbed of secular Averroism.
It was probably in Paris that
Giovanni 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 when his
returned to settle for a time in Florence in November 1484 and met Lorenzo de' Medici and Marsilio Ficino, on the astrologically auspicious day Ficino had chosen to
publish his translations of the works of Plato
from Greek into Latin under Lorenzo’s enthusiastic patronage.
Giovanni appears to have charmed both men immensely, with Ficino
endeared, despite continuing philosophical differences, convinced
of their Saturnine
affinity and the divine
provenance of his arrival. Until his death in 1492 Lorenzo
supported and protected Giovanni. Without Lorenzo's support it is
doubtful that Pico would have survived even the 10 more years that
Soon after this stay in Florence, Pico was travelling on his way to
Rome where he intentioned to publish his 900 Theses and prepare for
a “Congress” of scholars from all over Europe to debate them.
in Arezzo he became
embroiled in a love affair with the wife of one of Lorenzo de’
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 wholly
representative of Pico's often audacious temperament and of the
loyalty and affection he nevertheless could inspire.
spent several months in Perugia and nearby Fratta, recovering from his
It was there, as he wrote to Ficino, that "divine
Providence […] caused certain books to fall into my hands. They are
books […] of Esdras
, of Zoroaster
, 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
fascinated him, as did the late
writers, such as
and the Hermetica
were thought in Pico's time to be as
ancient as the Old Testament, and for that reason, he accorded them
an almost scriptural status. It was always Pico's intention to walk
completely around a topic and look at it from many possible angles,
in order to derive the truest possible vision of the thing itself.
, for Pico, was seeing the same
absolute from many different points of view, a Scholastic approach
with a strong modern resonance.
Pico based his ideas chiefly on Plato
, as did
his teacher, Marsilio Ficino
Pico retained a deep respect for Aristotle
. Although he was a product of the
, 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
commentators (see Averroes
in a famous long letter to
in 1485. It was
always Pico’s aim to reconcile the schools of Plato
, since he
believed they both 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
an educated person should also study the Hebrew and Talmudic
sources, and the Hermetics
, because he believed they represented
the same view seen in the Old
, in different words, of God.
He finished his Oration on the Dignity of
to accompany his 900 Theses and traveled to Rome to
continue his plan to defend them. He had them published in December
1486 (Conclusiones philosophicae, cabalasticae et
, Rome, 1486) and offered to pay the expenses of
any scholars who came to Rome to debate them publicly.
In February 1487, Pope Innocent
halted the proposed debate, and established a commission
to review the orthodoxy of the Theses.
answered the charges against them, thirteen of the Theses
were condemned. Pico agreed in writing to retract them, but he did
not change his mind about their validity, and proceeded to write an
("Apologia J. Pici Mirandolani, Concordiae
comitis" published in 1489) defending them, dedicated to Lorenzo.
When the Pope was apprised of the circulation of this manuscript,
he set up an inquisitorial tribunal, forcing Pico to renounce the
as well which he also agreed to do.
Nevertheless, the Pope declared his Theses unorthodox
calling them "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
; a number of them, finally, under the
of "natural philosophy
," favor arts that are
enemies to the Catholic
faith and to the
human race." One of Pico’s detractors maintained that "Kabbala" was
the name of an impious writer against Jesus
Pico fled to France in 1488, where he was arrested by Philip II of Savoy
, at the demand
of the papal nuncios
, and imprisoned at
. Through the intercession
of several Italian princes—all
instigated by Lorenzo de'
—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
Borgia) to the papacy.
Pico was deeply shaken by the experience. He reconciled with
, who remained a very close
friend. It was at Pico’s persuasion that Lorenzo invited Savonarola
to Florence. But Pico never renounced his syncretist
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,
It was here that he also wrote his other most
celebrated work, the Disputationes adversus astrologiam
(Treatise Against Astrology), which was not
published until after his death. In it, Pico acidly condemned the
practices of the astrologers
of his day,
and shredded the intellectual basis of astrology
itself. Pico was interested in high
magic that enhanced man's dignity
strengthened his will. There was no room in such a concept for the
of the stars.
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
Pico died under very mysterious circumstances in 1494. It was
rumored that his own secretary had poisoned
him, because Pico had become too close to Savonarola. He was interred at
Marco and Savonarola delivered the funeral oration. Ficino
wrote: “Our dear Pico left us on the
same day that Charles VIII was entering Florence, and the tears of
men of letters compensated for the joy of the people. Without the
light brought by the king of France, Florence might perhaps have
never seen a more somber day than that which extinguished
In 2007, the bodies of Poliziano
della Mirandola were exhumed from St. Mark's Basilica in Florence.
Scientists under the supervision of Giorgio
Gruppioni, a professor of anthropology
from Bologna, will use
current testing techniques to study the men's lives and establish
the causes of their deaths.
A TV documentary is being made
of this research,and it was recently announced that these forensic
tests showed that both Poliziano and Pico likely died of arsenic
poisoning, probably at the order of Lorenzo's successor, Piero de'
In the "De hominis dignitate" (Oration on the Dignity of Man,
, Pico justified the importance of the human quest for
knowledge within a neo-Platonic framework.
Savonarola by Fra Bartolomeo, c.
also served as an introduction to Pico's 900
theses, which he believed to provide a complete and sufficient
basis for the discovery of all knowledge, and hence a model for
mankind's ascent of the chain of being. The 900 Theses are a good
example of humanist syncretism
Pico combined Platonism
. They also included 72 theses describing
what Pico believed to be a complete system of physics.
Pico appears to have believed in universal reconciliation
. One of
his 900 theses was "A mortal sin of finite duration is not
deserving of eternal but only of temporal punishment;" it was among
the theses pronounced heretical by Pope Innocent VIII in his bull
of Aug. 4, 1487. In the Oration
he writes that "human
vocation is a mystical vocation that has to be realized following a
three stage way, which comprehends necessarily moral
transformation, intellectual research and final perfection in the
identity with the absolute reality. This paradigm is universal,
because it can be retraced in every tradition."
A portion of his Disputationes adversus astrologiam
was published in Bologna after his death. In this
book Pico presents arguments against the practice of astrology
that have had enormous resonance for
centuries, up to our own time. Disputationes
by the arguments against astrology espoused by one of his
intellectual heroes, St.
Augustine of Hippo
, and also by ideas held by his teacher,
, who may have
encouraged him to write it. Pico’s antagonism to astrology seems to
derive mainly from the conflict of astrology with Christian notions
of free will. But Pico’s arguments moved beyond the objections of
Ficino (who was himself an astrologer). The manuscript was edited
for publication after Pico’s death by his nephew, an ardent
follower of Savonarola
, and may possibly
have been amended to be more forcefully critical. This might
possibly explain the fact that Ficino championed the manuscript and
enthusiastically endorsed it before its publication.
, a mystico-allegorical exposition of the
creation according to the seven Biblical senses, elaborates on his
idea that different religions and traditions describe the same God.
De ente et uno
, has explanations of several passages in
, Plato and Aristotle.
He wrote in Italian an imitation of Plato's Symposium
letters (Aureae ad familiares epistolae
, Paris, 1499) are
important for the history of contemporary thought. The many
editions of his entire works in the sixteenth century sufficiently
prove his influence.
In James Joyce
, Stephen Dedalus (a partially
autobiographical character, who, like Joyce, was a precocious
youth) recalls with disdain his boyhood ambitions, and apparently
associates them with the career of Mirandola: "Remember your
epiphanies written on green oval leaves, deeply deep...copies to be
sent if you died to all the great libraries of the world...Pico
della Mirandola like."
Of minor interest is a passing reference to Mirandola by H. P.
, in the story The Case of Charles Dexter
(1927). Mirandola is given as the source of the
fearsome incantation used by unknown evil entities as some sort of
evocation. However, this "spell" was first depicted (as the key to
a rather simple form of divination, not a great and terrible
summoning) by, and in all likelihood created by, Heinrich Cornelius
Agrippa von Nettesheim
in his De occulta philosophia libri
. This was written several decades after Mirandola's
death and was the first written example of that "spell", so it is
almost impossible for Mirandola to have been the source of those
"magic words". One has to wonder what error of research, or perhaps
deliberate misquote, led to this attribution by Lovecraft.
Psychologist, Otto Rank
, a rebellious
disciple of Sigmund Freud
, chose a
substantial excerpt from Mirandola's Oration on the Dignity of
as the motto for his book Art and Artist: Creative
Urge and Personality Development
, including: "...I created
thee as a being neither celestial nor earthly... so that thou
shouldst be thy own free moulder and overcomer...".
In Umberto Eco
's novel Foucault's Pendulum
Casaubon claims that the idea that the Jews were privy to the
enigma of the Templars was "a mistake of Pico Della Mirandola"
caused by a spelling mistake he made between "Israelites" and
Philosopher of social science René
mentions Mirandola passingly in his book Things Hidden
Since the Foundation of the World
. Girard writes in a
disparaging tone, "People will accuse us of playing at being Pico
della Mirandola-the renaissance man-certainly a temptation to be
resisted today, if we wish to be seen in a favourable light."
(p. 141, 1987)
In Roberto Bolaño
, the philosophy professor Oscar
Amalfitano begins his three-columned list of philosophers with Pico
della Mirandola. Adjacent to Mirandola, Amalfitano writes Hobbes
, while beneath him he writes Husserl
(p. 207, 2008).
References and further reading
- Borchardt, Frank L. "The Magus as Renaissance Man."
Sixteenth Century Journal (1990): 57-76.
- Busi, G., "'Who does not wonder at this Chameleon?' The
Kabbalistic Library of Giovanni Pico della Mirandola", in "Hebrew
to Latin, Latin to Hebrew. The Mirroring of Two Cultures in the Age
of Humanism. Colloquium held at the Warburg Institute. London,
October 18-19, 2004", Edited by G. Busi, Berlin-Torino: Nino Aragno
Editore, 2006: 167-196.
- Busi, G. with S. M. Bondoni and S. Campanini (eds.), The
Great Parchment: Flavius Mithridates’ Latin Translation, the Hebrew
Text, and an English Version, The Kabbalistic Library of Giovanni
Pico della Mirandola - 1. Torino: Nino Aragno Editore,
- Campanini, S. The Book of Bahir. Flavius
Mithridates' Latin Translation, the Hebrew Text, and an English
Version, with a Foreword by G. Busi, The Kabbalistic
Library of Giovanni Pico della Mirandola - 2. Torino: Nino
Aragno Editore, 2005.
- Campanini, Saverio. "Talmud, Philosophy, Kabbalah: A Passage
from Pico della Mirandola’s Apologia and its Source." In The
Words of a Wise Man’s Mouth are Gracious. Festschrift for
Günter Stemberger on the Occasion of His 65th Birthday, edited
by M. Perani, 429-447. Berlin & New York: W. De Gruyter Verlag,
- Cassirer, Ernst, Paul Oskar Kristeller, and John Herman
Randall, Jr. The Renaissance Philosophy of Man. Chicago:
The University of Chicago Press, 1948.
- Corazzol, Giacomo (ed.), Menahem Recanati, Commentary on
the Daily Prayers. The Kabbalistic Library of Giovanni
Pico della Mirandola - 3. 2 volumes. Torino: Nino Aragno
- Dougherty, M. V., ed. Pico della Mirandola. New
Essays. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008.
- Farmer, S. A. Syncretism in the West: Pico's 900 Theses
(1486): The Evolution of Traditional Religious and Philosophical
Systems. Temple, AZ: Medieval & Renaissance Texts &
Studies, 1998. (Contains the Latin text of the 900 theses, an
English translation, and detailed commentary. For a full book
description, see Farmer's website.)
- Gilbhard, Thomas. "Paralipomena pichiana: a propos einer
Pico–Bibliographie". In Accademia. Revue de la Société
Marsile Ficin VII (2005): 81–94.
- Kristeller, Paul Oskar. Eight Philosophers of the Italian
Renaissance. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press,
- Pater, Walter. " Pico
Della Mirandola." In The Renaissance: Studies in Art and
Poetry, 24-40. New York: The Modern Library, 1871.
- Quaquarelli, Leonardo, and Zita Zanardi. Pichiana.
Bibliografia delle edizioni e degli studi. Firenze:
Olschki, 2005 (Studi pichiani 10).
- Robb, Nesca A., Neoplatonism of the Italian
Renaissance, New York: Octogon Books, Inc., 1968.
- Linda Proud, Pallas and the Centaur (Godstow Press,
2004), the second volume of The Botticelli Trilogy, deals
with the aftermath of the Pazzi Conspiracy and Lorenzo de' Medici's
strained relations with his wife and with Poliziano. Includes
Pico's first visit to Florence.
- Linda Proud, The Rebirth of Venus (Godstow Press,
2008), the final volume of The Botticelli Trilogy, covers
the 1480s and 1490s, Pico's aborted debate, his arrest in France
and his death.