By Jack Castle.
Count Giovanni Pico della Mirandola lent his name to a Florentine saying: “You have the mind of Pico della Mirandola”. This means “you are very bright”. We would probably say someone was as clever as Einstein. Maybe soon Stephen Hawking will give his name as a compliment.
These three shared a grand mission: to further humanity’s knowledge of what it cannot touch or see, beyond what their time acknowledged as its limit. Their work is different in nature, but similar in kind. They share a spirit, and it is the creation of this spirit that Pico is best remembered for.
Pico was born, in body, on the 24th February 1463 in Mirandola, Province of Modena, the youngest of the Lord of Mirandola’s three sons. He was a born scholar with a prodigious memory, and was sent to Bologna at the tender age of 14 to study canon law in preparation for the priesthood.
This did not entirely suit Pico, and he moved to the University of Ferrera to study philosophy, then continued on to Padua. He picked up Latin, Greek, Aramaic, Hebrew and Arabic. Somehow he found his way to Paris, considered somewhat risqué for entertaining secularised Arabic/Islamic learning, but was anyway the centre of philosophy and theology at that time.
In November 1484 Pico decided to settle in Florence. He met Lorenzo de Medici and influential philosopher and astrologer Marcilio Ficino, on the same day Ficino published his translations of Plato from Greek into Latin. Ficino was convinced of the divine providence of Pico’s arrival, and all was settled: Ficino would tutor him, Lorenzo would get him out of scrapes. The stars lined up for our Pico.
The scrapes were soon to come, thick and fast. 23 year old Pico’s incredible memory, wide reading, and knowledge of the ancient languages opened many avenues of thought to him. He studied all that was available: Christian, Muslim, Jewish, pagan, mystical; in an attempt to reconcile them all into a single system and thus, with this system realised, to enable man to approach God through reason and argument. This would lead to man’s being able to receive and comprehend the completeness and totality of God’s revelation, perhaps even sight. The knowledge of man would coincide with the knowledge of God. And, crucially to the Renaissance, this is man’s dignity: his inherent right. He needn’t necessarily be second fiddle to the angels.
To announce this, his own brand of Syncretism, he created 900 theses drawing on various traditions and prepared a preamble, known now as Oration on the Dignity of Man- for many the “Manifesto of the Renaissance”. In 1486 he headed to Rome to deliver this oration and defend his 900 theses against all comers.
He got as far as Arezzo, where he met the wife of one of Lorenzo de’ Medici’s cousins and attempted to elope with her. Wounded in the failed elopement, thrown in gaol, and released after pressure from Lorenzo himself, Pico recuperated in Perugia and made yet more arcane discoveries. He, like Madonna after him, began studying Kabbalah (see note). It is said that he paid a very large sum of money for ancient Kabbalistic manuscripts which, sadly for all concerned, turned out to be forgeries. Pico, like Madonna, was willing to pay any price for knowledge.
After all these diversions (in what may be seen today as a life of diversions) he arrived in Rome; Oration on the Dignity of Man and the 900 theses prepared and printed. He offered to pay the travel costs of those who would come to dispute with him publicly.
Pico never gave his great Oration. The mixture of Kabbalah and Greek and Egyptian and Christian wisdom was too much too heretical for Pope Innocent VIII, who called a stop to the debate in February 1487, and ordered a review of the theses. 13 of them were condemned. Pico retracted them, but refused to accept their invalidity and wrote a defence. The defence too was condemned. Then the Pope decided to repudiate all 900 theses as a gesture of some sort.
With his ideas said to “favour arts that are enemies to the Catholic faith and to the human race”, Pico fled to Paris but was arrested on the Pope’s orders. Again, Lorenzo de’ Medici got him released, on the condition that Pico would live under his watchful eye in Fiesole.
Condemned, Pico turned back to the orthodox Catholic church. He became friends with firebrand preacher Savonarola, and dedicated himself to defending Christianity against Judaism, Islam, and astrology. After Lorenzo’s death in 1492, and Florence’s domination by Savonarola, Pico set his heart on becoming a monk. He dismissed all his old interests, gave away his part of the Mirandola family’s fortune, and destroyed his own vain poetry. Pope Alexander VI pardoned him in 1493, and on November 17th 1494 Pico died suddenly of fever, perhaps too suddenly, on the same day Charles VIII’s French troops entered the city. With him died the golden age of Florence, all the more golden for Pico’s work.
This is Pico’s life, all 31 years of it. He left a legacy of dabbling in magic and occult knowledge, obscure tracts on Egyptian mystics, and a portrait in the Uffizi. But beyond these failures lie something crucially important: a spirit, a passion, for investigating all that can be laid hands on from all angles. The Truth, as still searched for by Hawking and Einstein, cannot be found by a linear route. We must examine all things thoroughly, from many viewpoints (and one of these viewpoints may well be religion). His legacy is not his work, but the spirit of his work. Kabbalah failed Pico -Madonna may yet succeed- but we kept looking, always sailing after knowledge.
It is in this spirit that in July 2007 Pico was exhumed by a team of Italian scientists. Ever since November 17th 1494 their were rumours that Pico’s death was no accident. His friendship with Savonarola had brought him many enemies. On 6th February 2008, the team from the Universities of Bologna, Lecce and Pisa (Another of Pico’s Almea Matres) announced that they had found lethal doses of arsenic in Pico’s remains, as well as in the remains of his old friend Poliziano, rumoured to be his lover. The inquisitive spirit he gave us earned him an exhumation, in the name of knowledge. But who killed him? Lorenzo’s son, Piero? His secretary? Was Poliziano his lover? What were the motives for it? The solid truth of these things are lost to the ages. Just as Pico attempted those final steps towards God that never came and never could be taken, even now we must own that some things will always be beyond human ken.
Note on Kabbalah: Kabbalah is a form of Jewish mysticism, more properly a school of thought, discipline, or set of techniques, than a sect. It centres on ways to think about the relationship between an unknowable, immortal God, and mortal humans/our earth. Its wisdom is said to have been handed down orally from the biblical patriarchs Abrahim and Moses. It teaches that from God “emanate” certain principles, and these are what humans can grasp. The main book, the Zohar, centres on ways to read the Torah that draw out its coded, esoteric, metaphysical level of meaning. Kabbalah is very complicated, and only for the brightest and most prepared Jewish scholars, and only after age 40. Madonna is 52.