Flee the loathsome shadow: Marsilio Ficino (1433-99) and the Medici in Florence
History in the Making: Vol.2:1 (2013)
This article examines the changing political landscape of Medicean Florence, from Cosimo de’ Medici (1389-1464) to his grandson Lorenzo the Magnificent (1449-1492), through the letters of the celebrated neo-Platonist philosopher Marsilio Ficino (1433-99). Ficino’s philosophical, theological and astronomical works have been extensively studied, but little work has been done on how his epistolary relationship with the Medici reflected the rise and fall of the philosopher’s fortunes. Lorenzo did not follow Cosimo’s virtuous example in politics and strayed from Cosimo’s path to a powerful Florence. Ficino counselled both Cosimo and Lorenzo through his letters and his praise of the ‘wise and prudent’ Cosimo and his frustration with the ‘impure and ignorant’ prince Lorenzo reflects the precarious status of the Florentine intellectual. Ficino did not totally support Laurentian rule and as a result, he was stripped of his status in the inner sanctum of Florentine politics and was forced to seek alternative means to sustain his philosophical work. This article will argue that examining Ficino’s letters to the Medici reveals wider political changes in Renaissance Florence and the need for clients to balance personal satisfaction with a need to survive.
A man’s reputation in Renaissance Florence was determined by few things: the venerability of his family and its connections, his political record and, perhaps most importantly, his fortune. Yet a relatively new merchant family, the Medici, exercised control over Florence for the better part of the fifteenth century. Cosimo de’ Medici (1389-1464) was the founder of the Medici dynasty and responsible for initiating a period of relative peace and prosperity in Florence. His successors were Piero di Cosimo de’ Medici (1416-1470) and Lorenzo the Magnificent (1449-1492), the latter of whom inaugurated a political and artistic golden age in Florence through his skill and patronage. Lorenzo’s death marked the end of this golden age and the Medici’s republican reign, although the family would later rule as dukes of Florence beginning in 1531 and lasting until 1737. Their ascendancy coincided with the rise of humanism, a philosophy that evolved from a new educational program called the studia humanitatis or liberal arts.