The Platonic Academy of Florence has been the subject of many more or less far-fetched interpretations that has created around it an atmosphere of esoteric mystery. The aim of this entry is to give an accurate evaluation of what modern research has succeeded to ascertain about this cultural institution which is frequently invoked by renaissance arts scholars as well as historians of philosophy and religious beliefs (Robb 1969; Field 1988).
Heritage and Rupture with the Tradition
Before we try to describe what the current historiography has named the “Platonic Academy” of late Quattrocento Florence, we need to make a preliminary remark.
One must distinguish the fore mentioned structure (to the extent, as we shall see, that it did really have a material existence) from informal gatherings like those who existed in Florence at the end of the fourteenth and first decades of the fifteenth century and gathered around a personality seen at the same time as a cultural, moral, and theological authority.
This was the case, for example, of the cenacle of young humanists that met in the convent of Santo Spirito (of the Holy Spirit) around the Augustan monk Luigi Marsigli* and the humanist chancellor of the Republic Coluccio Salutati*. Both men have been admirers of Petrarch considered as the father founder of the whole humanist movement.
Some years later, some similar erudite companies are known to have been active in the Roman curia during the pontificates of Martin the Fifth* or around the itinerant court of pope Eugenius the Fourth*.
The Camaldolese convent of Saint Mary of the Angels in Florence which had hosted the famous religious painter Lorenzo Monaco* (Lawrence the Monk), a disciple of Giotto*, was also a place where scholars met around the personality of the general prior of the Camaldolese order, Ambrogio Traversari*, one of the first and most eminent Italian Hellenists of the times who translated into Latin the Greek Fathers and Diogenes Laertius’ Lives of the Ancient Philosophers.
None of these institutions were technically speaking “academies” for they had neither explicit scope nor program and we have very few and vague testimonies of their actual discussions or productions (Field 1988).
On the other hand, the Academies of the second half of the sixteenth century like the famous literary Academy of the Humidi (of the wet ones), then Accademia fiorentina*, or the Academy of La Crusca* (of the bran) in defense of the Italian language were well-structured entities with a determinate and articulated leadership, precise statutes, regular meetings, and accurately calibrated productions.
One could say that the Platonic Academy was a transitional form between those two alternative manifestations of this intellectual and functional manifestations of cultural life.
Innovative and Original Aspects
The starting event that gave the philosopher Marsilio Ficino* the idea to become the animator of such a revival of the environment propitious to philosophical collective and discursive investigation, as it is described by Plato himself in the introduction of his famous and venerated dialogues, was no doubt the council of Florence that took place in 1439 in which the byzantine theologians and philosophers played a prominent role.
One of them Georgius Gemistus Pletho or Plethon* somehow impressed his Florentine auditors and in particular Cosimo de’ Medici who, according to Ficino had therefore the idea of founding and funding an institution to spread the neo-platonic philosophy in Florence.
In 1439, Ficino was only a 6-year-old boy and subsequently it was only several years after, in 1462 that Cosimo gave Ficino, now a grown man, a villa in the suburbs of Florence in Careggi, that is reputed to have hosted several banquets “à la platonicienne,” in particular to celebrate the supposed date of Plato’s death on the 7th of November of each single year.
It was in particular in this villa that was held the famous banquet of 1468 in which the hosts were in turn summoned to comment on Plato’s Symposium, a fundamental philosophical dialogue on the Nature of love, who as then published simultaneously in a Latin and a vernacular edition, becoming one of the most important document of the European Renaissance philosophy and esthetic that exerted an enormous influence on literature and the arts until the age of Romanticism.
Always according to Ficino, the villa was decorated with allegorical paintings and mottos that evoked philosophical notions and symbols.
The correspondence of Ficino which is now almost published in English (see the References section below) allows to cast some light on the identity of the writers, thinkers, artists, political rulers that were Ficino’s partners and surely attended one or more of the Careggi occasions.
It must be added that quite recently the great American scholar and specialist of Renaissance Platonism, Professor James Hankins has written several articles in which he expresses his doubts about the very existence of the Platonic Academy and goes as far as to “consign” it “to the dustbin of cultural myths,” arguing that the only information we have about it comes from Ficino himself who was very keen to forge such beautiful fantasies about his own personal intellectual itinerary, probably in an auto-apologetic intent to exonerate himself from any suspect of heretical deviation (Hankins 1991; Bredekamp 2005).
In this operation of demystification, Hankins has been recently joined by the German scholar and art historian Horst Bredekamp who defends in an essay (see References below) that “neo-platonism never existed except perhaps in the spirit of posterity.”
Although such deconstructionist views may have had the merit to revamp the traditional and naïve image that had been given by the historians of the two past centuries and are still alimented by some esoteric and masonic adepts nowadays, the opinion of the author of the present entry is that the ideological and political aspects of the platonic infatuation of the intellectual elites of the time cannot be neglected if we want to have a correct view of the role played by Ficino and what he called his “Platonic Academy” (La Brasca 1997).
- Diogenes, Laertius, 1475. Vitae et sententiae philosophorum, Diogene Laertie auctore, opus editum a Benedicto Brognolo, Ambrosio Camaldulensi interprrete, Venetiis, per N. Jenson.Google Scholar
- Ficino, Marsilio, 1975–2015. The letters of Marsilio Ficino, Translated from the Latin by membres of the Language Department,of the School of Economic Science. London: Shepheard-Walwyn (Publishers) Ltd.Google Scholar
- Ficin, Marsile, 2002. Commentaire sur le Banquet de Platon, Texte établi, présenté, traduit et annoté par Pierre Laurens, Paris, Les Belles Lettres (Collection: Les classiques de l'Humanisme), 2002.Google Scholar
- Bredekamp, Horst, 2005. Le déclin du néo-platonisme, traduit de l'allemand par Sylvie Brun-Fabry. St Pierre de Salerne, Gérard Montfort.Google Scholar
- Hankins, James. 1991. The myth of the Platonic Academy of Florence. Renaissance Quarterly XLIV: 429–475, now reprinted in Id., Humanism and Platonism in the Italian Renaissance. II. Platonism, Roma, Edizioni di Storia e Letteratura [Storia e letteratura. Raccolta di studi e testi: 220], 2004 (reprinted June 2005). pp. 219–272 and in the same volume, cf. the entire section III “The myth of the Platonic Academy”, pp. 185–395.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
- Frank La Brasca. 1997. Regia philosohiae potestas’: Du néo-platonisme florentin comme appareil idéologique d’état. In Chronique Italiennes, UFR d’Italien de Paris III-La Sorbonne Nouvelle, n° 49, vol. 1, 35–67, now also available online at www.chroniquesitaliennes.univ-paris3.fr
- Robb, Nesca A. 1969. Neoplatonism in the Italian Renaissance. London: G. Allen & Unwin Ltd.Google Scholar