The Limits of Influence: Pico, Louvain, and the Crisis of Renaissance Astrology

By Steven Vanden Broecke | Go to book overview

CHAPTER THREE
BETWEEN ASTROLOGICAL REFORM AND REJECTION:
GIOVANNI PICO’S DISPUTATIONS (1494)

l. The problem: Pico and the astrologers

At his death on 17 November 1494, Giovanni Pico della Mirandola (1463–1494), the Wunderkind of late Quattrocento Florence, left an unfinished manuscript that was twice the size of his previous works brought together. Published in 1496 under the supervision of Gianfrancesco Pico (c. 1470–1533) and Giovanni Mainardi (1462–1536), its twelve books of Disputations against divinatory astrology contained the most extensive and incisive attack on astrology that the world had yet seen.1 Pico composed a fourfold encyclopedia of contradictions within the astrological canon and of conflicts between this canon and Aristotelian physics, common experience, or Christian faith.

Giovanni Pico was an unlikely candidate for authoring this pinnacle of astrological criticism. After originating in antiquity, the genre had been dominated by philosophers with a bent for scepticism, churchmen with a knack for salvation, or combinations of these.2 The young count of Mirandola could not be further removed from being a stern sceptic or churchman. Moreover, astrology had been part and parcel of Pico’s previous work. In the notorious Conclusions (i486), banned by papal injunction and causing Pico’s flight to France, he was quite willing to subject both the human body and intellect to celestial virtues. In a set of eight theses derived from Porphyry’s views, as related in Proclus’ commentary on Plato’s Timaeus, Pico suggested that human skills (craftsmanship, medicine) inhere

1 The modern edition is Pico della Mirandola, Dispulationes, ed. Garin (hence-
forth referred to as “Dispulationes”), Important interpretations of the Dispulationes
are Vickers, “Critical reactions”; Weil, La Philosophie … Pic de la Mirandole; Zanier,
“Struttura e significato delle Dispulationes Pichiane.”

2 On the ancient traditions of astrological criticism, see Long, “Astrology: Argu-
ments Pro and Contra.”

-55-

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