Magic was as prevalent a subject of study in the Renaissance as science is today. In Florence, humanist scholars discussed the relationship between magic and classical theology, philosophy, and the natural sciences, and their treatises often served as practical guides to performing magic. The most prominent Italian scholar of magic was Marsilio Ficino (1433-1499), best known for completing the first complete translation of Plato into Latin as well as his Platonic Theology, which wove together Christianity, Platonism, Neoplatonism and Arabic philosophy into a coherent system which aimed to remedy much of the same institutional corruption, hypocrisy and doctrinal inconsistency which Martin Luther would take on a few decades later. Ficino, who called himself a “doctor of the soul,” also outlined cohesive hybrid system of magic, which would inspire a decades-long intellectual obsession with magic throughout Europe. Ficino and other Florentine scholars of magic, despite their high status in a city entranced by humanism and the ancient world, often came under public and official suspicion as practitioners of potentially dangerous arts. Magic itself was not forbidden—many kinds of magic were acceptable parts of daily life—but instead authorities sought to ensure that magic was not being used or taught in ways which might be dangerous, heretical, or impious, especially since Renaissance magic so often intersected with theology. Magic also intersected with natural philosophy, especially with cosmology and medicine, and innovations in theories of magic were often the arena in which the greatest scientific discoveries were made and disseminated in the centuries before the Baconian revolution.
Concordiaeque comitis, theologorum & philosophorum Giovanni Pico della Mirandola (1463-1494) Venetiis: Apud Franciscum, 1569
Rare Books Collection, From the Library of Richard McKeon
Despite magic’s association with astrology, many Renaissance magicians did not wish to call themselves astrologers. Giovanni Pico Della Mirandola composed the Disputationes adversus astrologiam divinatricem (1494), which criticized astrology fiercely for denying human free will by divining the future. The Disputationes may have been a critique of his teacher Ficino’s astrology and were certainly distancing divination from the proper practice of magic.
The Hanna Holborn Gray Special Collections Research Center