Platonic Love

The Gay Love Letters of Marsilio Ficino

Excerpts from My Dear Boy: Gay Love Letters through the Centuries (1998), Edited by Rictor Norton

Copyright © 1997, 1998 by Rictor Norton. All rights reserved. Reproduction for sale or profit prohibited.


Marsilio Ficino (1433–99) was the most powerful intellectual inspiration of the Renaissance, and his reconciliation of Classical with Christian ideals transformed philosophy, literature, and even painting for the following centuries. His teachings at the Platonic Academy had a wide-ranging influence upon artists such as Michelangelo and Raphael (in fact he directed the painting of Botticelli’s Primavera), while his translation of the complete works of Plato established the humanist basis of modern philosophy. This philosopher, scholar, doctor, musician and priest was not a dour "academic"; he was a vegetarian but enjoyed fine wine; he dressed modestly but enjoyed the visual arts; he preached but also played the lyre and sang Orphic hymns. Ficino’s letters were published in Latin in 1492, and in an Italian translation, probably by Ficino himself, in 1495. Those addressed to the young and handsome Giovanni Cavalcanti (1444–1509) are nothing less than ardent love letters. Whether or not the mantle of philosophy ever covered both men in bed is impossible to determine. After Ficino's death there were many rumours to that effect among his contemporaries, and his follower Benedetto Varchi was openly accused of being a sodomite. Ficino in one letter acknowledged that one can have "too great a love for the body, [but] that is not strange either, since the body is the companion and child of the soul. . . . the best hope is to remember that God understands how difficult and dangerous is the province which he has given us to live in and govern." Cavalcanti was the son of a Florentine nobleman, who went on to become a statesman and diplomat. Ficino loved his pupil from a very early age, and they lived together for many years at the villa at Careggio, given to Ficino by Cosimo de’ Medici, where he supervised his Platonic Academy. Most of Ficino’s works were written with Giovanni at his side, solacing him during periods of black melancholy, and his most important work De Amore is dedicated to his protégé. This is a commentary on Plato’s Symposium within a framework in which members of Ficino’s Academy read aloud and analyze the speeches of Plato’s characters; Cavalcanti took the speeches of Phaedrus, the archetypal beloved in the canon of amor Socraticus, while the adolescent poet of the Academy, Carlo Marsuppini, played the part of the effeminate homosexual apologist Agathon. Ficino’s translation (the first complete translation in any language) of Plato’s Phaedrus (which was discovered in a Byzantine manuscript in 1423) was responsible for creating "platonic love", a term which Ficino coined, which became a turning point in the history of love in the modern western world. He combined Neoplatonic and Christian ideals with images and phrases from Provençal and Tuscan love lyrics, which reestablished that amor was both source and goal of amicitia. Through the power of the god of love (Jupiter as well as the Christian God, for Ficino was also a student of Hermetic mysticism and astrology), lover and beloved are transformed into one another: he who gives himself unreservedly to his beloved ceases to be himself and becomes his beloved. In order to foster a loving community of friends, Ficino deliberately elaborated the genre of the love letter as the manifest sign of love, and encouraged members of the Academy to exchange "epistola amatoria" with one another. Within a generation after his death platonic love – originally exclusive to male-to-male relations encouraged by Ficino’s cult of friendship – was appropriated by the heterosexual hegemony under the name of "courtly love". Various conventional formulae were developed, which can be seen in the love letters Ficino received from his one-time pupil Lorenzo de’ Medici, but no one has ever disputed that the letters to Cavalcanti – whom Ficino addressed as "Giovanni amico mio perfettissimo" – reveal genuine personal sentiment (seen as a "ridiculous attachment" by most classical linguists and historians). Most of the letters cannot be dated, for they were published in a "philosophical" rather than chronological order, but most of those to Cavalcanti were written during 1473–4 when they were separated for a short period.


MARSILIO FICINO TO GIOVANNI CAVALCANTI

May 5, 1473

Unique Friend,
          The hand could not guide the pen, if it were not moved by the soul; similarly Marsilio could not write to a heroic and divine man if he had not first received an invitation from him. But the thing that troubles me most, is that you write to me as a result of your promise, so I cannot attribute your letter to love but to a bargain, whereas I wish for letters of love, and not done for payment. Or perhaps you really are obligated to me by contract? Since I am bound to you by love, I wish you to be mine, but not by just a contract.
          Farewell
                    M. Ficino

Unique Friend,
          Yesterday at Novola we celebrated the holy day of St James and St Christopher – I would have called it a feast rather than just holy if you had been there: but without you there was no feast for me. See how dear you are to your Marsilio, who cares not (if one dare say so) even for heavenly things without you. That is appropriate, for he who has joined together St James and St Christopher in a single solemn festival has similarly united Marsilio and Giovanni in life. And the same spirit, or a similar genius, guides us both. I believe that God has ordained that we share one will and the same habits here upon earth, and that in heaven we shall live under the same rule, and with the same marks of happiness.
          Farewell, O true companion of my voyage, the sweet reward [dolce condimento, literally "sweet sauce"] upon arrival at our destination.
                    M. Ficino

Unique Friend,
          The Platonic philosophers, my dearest Giovanni, define true friendship as the stable union of the lives of two men. But I think that this united life is possible only for those men who work together and follow the same path towards a common goal. Basically I think that their friendship will be stable and firm only when the aim they have set for themselves is stable and firm.
          Now the business of man is this, to strive for goodness. There are three kinds of goodness for mortal man: virtue, bodily pleasure and wealth [beni d'animo, beni di corpo, e beni esterni]. Only virtue is sure and everlasting; the pleasures of the body are mortal, and abundance of riches is transitory. Therefore that perfect union of two lives – which is true friendship – can be achieved only by those who seek not to accumulate wealth or to satisfy sensual pleasures, but those who . . . strive for virtue with equal zeal and who help one another to cultivate their souls. . . .
          It is said that the ancient theologians, whose memory we revere, entered into sacred bonds of love and friendship with one another. Among the Persians it is said that Zoroaster, under the divine mystery of religious philosophy, chose Arimaspis as his companion. Hermes Trismegistus among the Egyptians similarly chose Aesculapius. In Thrace Orpheus chose Museus as his companion, and for such a union Pythagorus chose Aglaophemus as his companion. Plato in Athens first chose Dion of Syracuse, and after his death Xenocrates was dearest to him. Thus wise men have always felt it necessary to have God as their guide, with a man as their companion on their journey. Although I am not confident that I can follow in the footsteps of such men in their heavenly journey, there is nevertheless one thing I have acquired in full measure from the study of sacred philosophy, virtue and truth: the joyful company of the man most dear to me. For I think that the friendship of Giovan Cavalcanti and Marsilio Ficino as worthy of being numbered among those I have just named, and I do not doubt but that, with the guidance of God, who has so happily established and quickened our bond, this friendship will provide everything necessary to us for a life of tranquillity and our investigation of the divine.
                    Marsilio Ficino


SOURCE: Della Divine Lettere del Gran Marsilio Ficino, tradotte per M. Felice, 2 vols (Venice: Gabriel Giolito de' Ferrari, 1563), English translation by Rictor Norton.


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