On Pico and Ficino’s Translation of Plotinus

In passing, my study discusses a number of heated conflicts between Pico and his older contemporary, the Florentine Neo-Platonist Marsilio Ficino. One such conflict, from the last half of 1486, revolved around Pico’s criticism of Ficino’s work as translator and interpreter of Plotinus’s Enneads. Ironically, at least according to Ficino, Pico himself had first urged Ficino to undertake his work on Plotinus (in 1484).

    In the Commento, which was written after Ficino completed the first draft of his translation – and while he began composing his commentary – Pico ridicules Ficino’s readings of Plotinus, as first noted by Garin in the 1940s; Pico’s attacks begin, in fact, in the opening chapter of his text. The Oration, which was written in the same period, contains an even ruder remark about problems the “sweating Platonists” (sudantes Platonici) had understanding Plotinus’s obscure language.  Since the remark was again made in the midst of Ficino’s work on Plotinus, it seems clear that Ficino (or Ficino and his circle) was once more Pico’s target. Finally, again in the same period, we find Ficino’s exegeses of Platonic texts attacked in the 900 theses, although in this case Ficino is not mentioned by name. Some of these attacks involved minute points of Platonic exegesis, demonstrating that Pico planned at Rome to challenge Ficino’s grasp of his own tradition (see, e.g., thesis and note 5>31, on p. 437 of my edition of the 900 theses).

    One point that I make in my book in respect to the 1486 Pico-Ficino conflict needs to be corrected. In my commentary (pp. 296-97), I claimed that while Pico composed his theses he had not yet had access to Ficino’s translation of Plotinus, which (along with its commentary) was not completed until 1490. Here I overlooked the first draft of Ficino’s translation that is found (without commentary) in Conv. Soppr. E.1.2562 at the Biblioteca Nazionale Centrale in Florence. This early draft, which was apparently completed in January 1486 has been described by Albert M. Wolters (1986) and Sebastiano Gentile (1994) (for references, see below). Gentile’s study only came to my hands after my edition was already in press.

    The fact that this manuscript contains Ficino’s translation of Plotinus was noted by Kristeller and Marcel, but they did not recognize that the manuscript contained an early draft and not the version that Ficino later published.

    What makes this draft interesting is that it differs substantially from the final version that Ficino completed in 1490 (printed in 1492). Just as importantly, the manuscript contains annotations that Sebastiano Gentile argues came from Pico’s hand. Gentile conjectures that the first draft was presented to Pico by Ficino in April 1486, when Pico stopped briefly in Florence after a long stay at the University of Paris.  All of the annotations that Gentile ascribes to Pico pertain to Ennead III, 5, “Love,” and Ennead V, 8, “On Intellectual Beauty.” Pico makes much of the first of these in both the Commento and 900 theses, as Ficino had earlier done in his commentary on the Symposium. A number of Pico’s criticisms of Ficino in the Commento and 900 theses revolve around the issues discussed in that treatise, which Pico promised to develop in his own commentary on the Symposium written contra Ficinum.

    The question of when Pico first read Ficino’s translation is critical, given the nasty criticism that Pico hurled at Ficino’s readings of Plotinus in 1486. If we accept Gentile’s analysis, Pico possessed the first draft of Ficino’s translation when he composed the CommentoOration, and 900 theses. If that is true, there is little doubt that Pico had a low opinion of Ficino’s handiwork. How much of Pico’s critique of Ficino in 1486 applied to the older philosopher’s translation and how much to what Pico knew of Ficino’s commentary-in-progress remains uncertain. Since Ficino’s commentary was apparently first developed in public lectures, and since Ficino (in Florence) and Pico (in Perugia and Fratta) kept in touch in this period through intermediaries, there is no doubt that Pico would have known the content of those public lectures at least at second hand.

    What is evident, as Wolters shows, is that the final version of Ficino’s translation significantly improves on the Greek readings of the early draft that Ficino passed on to Pico. How many of Ficino’s revisions arose in response to Pico’s rude philosophical criticisms is not currently known. On this score, it is important to note a comment made by Wolters (1986: 324), who remarks that “…it is striking how few of the revisions made in the final version reflect a concern for a more elegant style or a purer Latinity…. Ficino seems to have been totally preoccupied with the philosophical content of his [revised] translation, and to have cared little for its literary or linguistic qualities.”

    Further on how Pico’s criticisms apparently affected Ficino’s later studies, including his abandonment of work on Plotinus from mid 1487 until well into 1489, see p. 12, note 35, in my book.


1. Albert M. Wolters, “The First Draft of Ficino’s Translation of Plotinus,” in Gian Carlo Garfagnini, ed., Marsilio Ficino e il ritorno di Platone: Studi e documenti (Florence, 1986), Vol. 1, pp. 305-29.

2. Sebastiano Gentile, “Pico e Ficino,” in Paolo Viti, ed., Pico, Poliziano e l’Umanesimo di fine Quattrocento: Biblioteca Medicea Laurenziana: 4 novembre – 31 dicembre 1994 (Florence, 1994), pp. 127-47.

Additional note added on May 26, 1999. Minor editing added in 2004.

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