Centred in Florence, the Renaissance was a time of great achievement in art, music and architecture.
Intertwined with these world-changing achievements; and of equal or greater significance; the city was also the epicentre of one of the biggest leaps forward in Western magic.
Picture the scene.
It’s night time in Florence in 1461. A cloaked man canters his horse through the streets, surrounded by hired guards, on his way to the house of the Medici family (of corridor fame). in his packs is something mysterious, something priceless, something that frankly terrifies him.
It is a collection of books but it is so much more than that. It is the work of a mysterious, immortal Egyptian priest and magician. It is the Hermetica. And it is about to change the world. Again. The Medici agent is gratefully rid of it.
When Cosimo di Medici realises the significance of his latest acquisition, he orders the translations of Plato he is paying for be stopped immediately so work can begin on a Latin version of the Hermetica immediately.
“Hermes promised secret knowledge to his initiates and claimed to have spoken with the spirits and turned base metal into gold. His ideas propelled natural magic into the mainstream of Renaissance intellectual thought, as scholars and magi vied to understand the ancient secrets that would bring statues to life and call the angels down from heaven.” – Melvyn Bragg
And the man he gets to do it? Marsilio Ficino, tutor, adviser, friend and translator to the Medici clan. More deserving of the title The Wizard of Florence than any man before or since.
Ficino was a magician in every sense of the word. He was adviser to the rich and powerful, he studied and follow classical philosophy and he practiced astrology.
Actually he adored astrology:
“This century, like a golden age, has restored to light the liberal arts, which were almost extinct: grammar, poetry, rhetoric, painting, sculpture, architecture, music… this century appears to have perfected astrology.”
Ficino yearned for a return to the days of Plato’s Academy.
In fact, he got Cosimo to cough up for a Florentine discussion group which would convene to discuss Platonic and Hermetic ideas. It was named in honour of the Classical Academy.
“Most important, the Cosmos is itself an animal more unified than any other animal, the most perfect animal…”
You can see Plato’s influence in all of his writing.
But not just Plato.
Ficino had access to the greatest ever assemblage of European magical texts (until Dr Dee). You can see why he would have kept it quieter than the Hermetica, but he obviously got his hands on the Picatrix. Some of his planetary talismans are clearly based on the ones it describes.
He spent his life studying and espousing ancient Hermetic and Platonic philosophy, creating magical talismans and studying astrology. It turns out the best way to stop yourself attracting attention from the more flame-happy corners of the church is to have immensely powerful, truly wealthy friends. (Several Medicis have been Popes.)
Ficino came close however, because he publicly espoused the Platonic theory that humans possess immortal souls. This belief ultimately became church dogma a little while after his death but it was touch and go for a while.
Regardless, he was certainly more political about his magic than the awesome Mr Bruno (in my header). Ficino knew to keep some things secret (Picatrix) and make other things as public a possible (Hermetics).
Marsilio Ficino wasn’t alone in practicing magic. Far from it. He even had his own apprentice of sorts. Giovanni Pico exploded onto the Florentine magical scene like a rockstar when -at the age of 23- he combined Platonism, Kabbalah and Hermeticism into his 900 Theses, a complete model for the ascent of man.
Magical concepts were hugely important during the Renaissance and it was in Tuscany during this time that Hermes Trismegistus began his/their ascent back to where they belong.
There is a mosaic in the Siena Cathedral (near Florence) of Hermes Trismegistus. It describes him as being a contemporary of Moses.
This is significant. Moses received a direct message from God in written form. Putting Hermes Trismegistus at the same level as him indicates the Florentines considered the Hermetica to be an equally important transmission from God.
Renaissance magicians liked little tricks like this. Allegory was very popular. The Tarot was invented around this time a little to the North of Florence as an allegory for life in late medieval times. Florence developed its own Tarot which became extremely popular.
These notions of symbols or images containing occult powers, the ascendancy of the human soul, the primacy of personal search and learning… They all fed into the art created at the time and they remain the cornerstone notions of Western magic today.
A Unified Theory
At its heart, Renaissance magic is a quest for a unified theory. Pico, for example, searched the writings of Pagan thinkers for pre-Christian ‘proofs’ of the Christian message. He wanted to see how the beliefs of the Classical philosophers “proved” the divinity of Jesus. He wanted the Kabbalah to “fit” with the Immaculate Conception. And he wanted to make sure the whole thing fit with astrology, as well.
Whilst there may have been the first inklings of an impulse earlier, no one had access to the vast wealth and resources required to attempt to prove it all hung together before Renaissance Florence… Thanks to the limitless riches of the powerful Medici family.
It was in Florence that we Western magicians first discovered and were able to indulge our near-unstoppable impulse to squish all the jigsaw pieces into the one picture -whether or not they happen to fit.
So when you can’t sleep because you’re mentally working out how to plug your herbal magic results in with astral travel and quantum entanglement and the rest of it… You can shake your first at the ceiling in a very Italian way and shout “Ficino!”
When we look back at classical magic we don’t do so in a direct line.
The line was broken. Empires fell and languages fell into complete disuse. People didn’t go anywhere. Before the Renaissance the Parthenon was a pile of old, haunted rocks. It was during the Renaissance (hence its name) that the wisdom of the classical age was assembled, translated and disseminated to all corners of Europe.
The old, haunted rocks can talk to us again because the Renaissance magicians poured their lives intro translating and studying them.
Rather than a direct line to Antiquity, The Renaissance is the hub by which we connect from the present to the Classical Age, like a phone call connecting you through an exchange to your target. And Marsilio Ficino is the operator.
Grazie mille, Signore.
If you hadn’t guessed, Gordon is in Florence all week. Not that this means you can rob his house while he is gone. He has several trained attack flatmates so the place is still totes occupied. Also he has taken his laptop with him which is probably the only valuable thing he owns so the joke would be on you anyway.