Academic journal article Renaissance Quarterly

Florence, 1492: The Reappearance of Plotinus

Academic journal article Renaissance Quarterly

Florence, 1492: The Reappearance of Plotinus

Article excerpt

In the western world, Plotinus was only a name until 1492.(1) None of his treatises had been translated during the Middle Ages, and the translations dating back to antiquity had been lost. He was not totally unknown, however, thanks to scholars like Firmicus Maternus, Saint Augustine, Macrobius, and to those parts of the works of Proclus translated in the thirteenth century by William of Moerbeke. But Plotinus's own writings remained completely unknown, and as Vespasiano da Bisticci observed in his Vite, "senza i libri non si poteva fare nulla" ("without the books, nothing can be done").(2) This fact was to change completely only with the publication by Marsilio Ficino of his Latin translation of the Enneads.

The colophon of Ficino's folio volume, which contains 442 folios, reads as follows: "Magnifico sumptu Laurentii Medicis Patriae Servatoris impressit ex archetypo Antonius Miscominus Florentiae anno 1492 Nonis Maii" ("Antonio Miscomini printed this book in Florence from the original on the seventh of May 1492 thanks to the lavish generosity of Lorenzo de' Medici, Saviour of the Country"). Unfortunately, Lorenzo had died a month earlier, on 8 April, and never could hold in his hands the wished-for volume. The book took two years to be printed, but is it mere coincidence that we find a portrait of Marsilio Ficino in the newly finished decoration of the Cappella Maggiore in Santa Maria Novella, completed just a couple of years earlier?(3) The frescoes of Domenico Ghirlandaio commissioned by Lorenzo de' Medici's uncle, Giovanni Tornabuoni, portrayed various scenes from the life of John the Baptist, scenes that Bernard Berenson called "tableaux vivants."(4) In one of them, among other humanists, stands Marsilio himself, who at the age of 57 had just finished translating Plotinus after translating Plato. An inscription dates the picture to 1490, "a year in which the city, embellished by its riches, its victories, its arts and its buildings, was flourishing in honor, plenty, health and peace" -- a splendid proclamation of the glory of Florence.(5)

It goes without saying that this first edition had been only possible through the arrival in the west of some documents from the east. Luckily, two manuscripts of Plotinus's Enneads first made their appearance in Florence at the beginning of the fifteenth century. Lovers of antiquity were then living along the Arno, and among them were the first two collectors of Greek manuscripts -- Giovanni Aurispa and Palla Strozzi. We know that in 1423, Aurispa had returned from Constantinople with a batch of 238 Greek books containing, among other things, a manuscript of Plotinus, now registered as Laurentianus 87,3. In 1431 Palla Strozzi also entered in the inventory of his books another manuscript of Plotinus, now registered as Parisinus graecus 1976.

Let us begin with the latter.(6) It is very likely that Palla Strozzi (1372-1462) was given this Plotinus manuscript by his Greek master, Manuel Chrysoloras, whom Coluccio Salutati had called to Florence in 1397 in order to appoint him as the first teacher of Greek. Leonardo Bruni, Pier Paolo Vergerio and Palla Strozzi immediately became his students. When Chrysoloras died in 1415, most of his books went into Strozzi's library. In 1434 Strozzi was banished from Florence by the Medici who had recently come into power, and he settled in Padua. Before he died in 1462, he bequeathed his books to the Benedictine monastery of St. Justina.(7) This collection of manuscripts was kept by the monks and forgotten until it entered the library of cardinal Nicolas Ridolfi, a nephew of Pope Leo X, in the first half of the sixteenth century. We know that the cardinal's books went to his relative Piero Strozzi and then, when the latter died during the siege of Thionville in 1558, to Catherine de Medicis, queen of France. This last episode accounts for the presence of the Plotinus manuscript in the collections of the Bibliotheque Nationale in Paris, which has held it since 1559, and where it is to be found under shelfmark Paris. …

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