Gracious Laughter: Marsilio Ficino's Anthropology

By O'Rourke Boyle, Marjorie | Renaissance Quarterly, Autumn 1999 | Go to article overview

Gracious Laughter: Marsilio Ficino's Anthropology


O'Rourke Boyle, Marjorie, Renaissance Quarterly


A significant alteration in the canon of beauty distinguished the thought of Marsilio Ficino. Not only did it contradict Platonist philosophy but also it confronted Christian custom. That detail was gracious laughter. In a letter circa 1480 "to my friends" Ficino inserted into the rhetorical topic of personal description an anthropological mutation. "Picture a man endowed with the most vigorous and acute faculties, a strong body, good health, a handsome form, well-proportioned limbs and a noble stature. Picture this man moving with alacrity and skill, speaking elegantly, singing sweetly, laughing graciously (gratiose ridentem): you will love no one anywhere, you will admire no one, if you do not love and admire such a man as soon as you see him." That anomaly was a detail he emphasized by reserving its meaning for the climax of his explication of beautiful bodily parts as indicators of beautiful mental aspects. "Finally," he revealed, "gracious laughter (risus ille gratissimus) represents serene happiness in life and perfect joy, which Virtue herself showers upon us."(1)

Ficino's epistolary friends were Lorenzo de' Medici and Bernardo Bembo, so that the address in its political and social compass had definite import. It purposed a traditional exhortation to virtue by the skill of vivid description, a classical ideal (enargeia) in Renaissance revival.(2) Yet Ficino's portrait of the beautiful male dispensing gracious laughter seems freshly significant, since literary description standardized the fine masculine mouth as merely small. Although classical rhetoricians had prescribed the corporeal description of persons, the actual example of its progression to moral character occurred later, in Maximian's elegy. It praised a woman's "fiery red and slightly swelling lips, / which to my pleasure gave full kisses." The earliest formal example in prose appeared only in the fifth century A.D., in Sidonius's epistle on the Gothic king Theodorus. "His lips are delicately moulded and are not enlarged by any extension of the corners of the mouth."(3) The handsome man in medieval romance had a small mouth with moderately full red lips and small white teeth closely set. A large mouth with thick lips was detractable, especially if hairy. Ideally a woman's mouth was also small, with lips that were moderately full, soft, and a pleasant shade of red - clear, rosy, or ruby. It was the source of kisses and of laughs.(4) A model was the description of Helen's beauty in Matthew of Vendome's Ars versificatoria: "The glory of that countenance is her rosy lips / Sighing for a lover's kiss, delicate lips / That break into laughter as delicate as they. / Lest ever they protrude in an unpleasant manner, / Those honied lips redden in laughter most delicate."(5) Since the beautiful lady was thus permitted to laugh, Ficino's variant transferred to males a female quality of literary invention.

Exemplary good women had indeed laughed, ever since Penelope in her confident foreknowlege of fooling her suitors.(6) Her laughter conformed to its usual expression of social superiority, of haughty ridicule, which Plato had banished from his republic. Laughter on the lips of a woman was virtually always damning of character. In the medieval chansons de geste, however, there emerged a sonorous, intense laughter. Although laughter was still most frequent as the superior and proud gesture of a warrior, it newly developed in love scenes as a woman's reaction to a kiss.(7) Or it developed in anticipation of a kiss, as in the laughing bourdez of the deceitful, seductive chatelaine of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, whose mirthful society erupted in peals of laughter from the derisory to the benedictory.(8) In the apparently initial example in Spanish literature of scripted, audible laughter - "!Ha, ha, ha!" and "!Hy, hy, hy!" in Fernando de Rojas's La Celestina - the snickers and giggles of a mother and a bawd even conspired toward a daughter's seduction.

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