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Narrative Design in Marsilio Ficino’s Letter Collection, Book I

Simon Smets

Ludwig Boltzmann Institute for Neo-Latin Studies

This paper discusses the first of twelve books that constitute the letter collection of Marsilio Ficino, who was a fifteenth-century philosopher from Florence and a major figure in the development of Neo-Platonism. I argue for the first time that Ficino deliberately structured his letters into an autonomous narrative that transcends historical accuracy and self-promotion. Instead, Ficino designed his collection as a manual for shaping one’s life according to philosophical principles. 

My analysis disagrees with Ursula Tröger, who examined Ficino’s self-fashioning in single letters and rejected the possibility of an overarching structure for the collection. However, recent scholarship has demonstrated that certain ancient, medieval and humanist letter collections have clear authorial designs. Examples are the studies by Ilaria Marchesi on Pliny, by Wim Verbaal on St Bernard of Clairvaux, and by Albert Russell Ascoli on Francis Petrarch.

For the Early Modern period, Jozef IJsewijn has shown how the French humanist Antonius Moretus crafted his letter collection into a specific narrative. Scholars have suggested various motivations behind the humanists’ creation of letter collections. For example, Denis Robichaud pointed out that Ficino’s letters encourage their public to reflect both on the author’s and their own life. They might indeed represent an idealized life model for the reader.

In my paper, I first demonstrate how Ficino gradually developed the first book of his letter collection. I illustrate this with a short presentation of various manuscripts that were authorized by Ficino and which record different stages of the work’s genesis. It becomes immediately clear that certain clusters of letters are inseparable, and that Ficino deliberately connected them to build his narrative. The cohesion of the letter book is, moreover, emphasized by the symmetrical arrangement of paratextual features such as dates and addressees.

I then point out the verbal and thematic pairing of letters. This elucidates the meaning behind the structure. It becomes clear that after an introductory set of letters, three large sections follow. These three sections correspond to the three stages that are characteristic of platonic pedagogy: love between the teacher and the pupil, introduction of the pupil in the larger society, and philosophical contemplation. 

I finally connect the internal structure of Ficino’s letter book with its references to other literature, and more specifically Vergil’s Aeneid. Recurrent allusions to this specific author at significant moments in the book emphasize its structure and charge it with added meaning. I argue that the quotations from Vergil serve as an allegorical subtext for the protreptic program behind the first book of Ficino’s letter collection. Ficino’s contemporaries, such as Cristoforo Landino, indeed read the Aeneid as an allegory of a soul ascending from sensual pleasures to contemplation of divine knowledge.

The structure I discovered in the letter book corresponds to recent findings by Robichaud about the order in which Ficino assembled the first ten dialogues of Plato which he translated for Cosimo de’Medici. The order of this series of dialogues also betrays a protreptic program that tries to convert the reader to a philosophical way of life, in the fashion of Iamblichos’ De Secta Pythagorica. Moreover, Adam Foley has compared the order of these dialogues to the fifteenth-century allegorization of the Aeneid by Landino.

The results of my paper are twofold. First, it shows that Ficino’s letter collection is an artistic composition of which the whole is more than the sum of the parts. Secondly, my paper puts Ficino’s letter collection within the wider context of philosophical and literary production in the fifteenth-century. It thus firmly places the humanist epistolary collection among the large literary genres.

Session/Panel Title

The World of Neo-Latin: Epistolography

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