February 2020:

Love and Beauty in the Eyes of a Neoplatonic Humanist

     An epic example of love of humanity in Quattrocento Italy was the celebrated Renaissance notion of reconciling Paganism with two other key universal spiritualities via a Neo-Platonic humanist education. The aim of this discussion is not merely to make an example out of a past era's attempt to unite the diverse cultures of Islam, Christianity, and Judaism politically, but to communicate that it is essential to take that goal one step further and permanently stamp out all existing socioeconomic barriers between people everywhere. For one to truly express a profound love for humanity is to feel no distinction between his or her own identity, and that of another's. Against a context of evil and corruption in the Renaissance, the Neoplatonic humanists offered society new ways to interpret and express love. 

     To understand the significance of this remote philosophical trend, earlier movements help clarify its intellectual impact on Italian culture. Although ancient philosophers such as Aristotle, Socrates, and Plato established this newer branch of humanism, the Medici Academy of Florence, 1462-1492, revived ancient humanist concepts by associating the study of Classical antiquity, between the 8th century BCE and the 6th century AD, with Mediterranean Greco-Roman culture, and emphasizing its subsequent influence over Asia and Africa, and the rest of Europe with its unique emphasis on academics. The first educational system that ever evolved did so with the founding of the Roman Empire in 753 BCE; this system heavily focused on the unspoken principles of a cultivated, literate society -- the mos maiorium -- which was carried down from Antiquity and incorporated into later developmental trends in education.

     As all other Quattrocento Neoplatonists, Ficino's ultimate aim was to ameliorate the quality of both personal and civic life, and elevate the individual status of all humanity through sensitive "humanist" education and expression: Classical scholasticism. Scholasticism included a critical study and analysis of grammar, logic, and rhetoric -- the trivium -- and natural sciences (math, geometry, astronomy) social sciences, and the arts (music, poetry, literature, painting, and sculpture). This latter branch was known as the quadrivium. In Western art, the Neoplatonic influence of such an education was the expression of Classical mythological characters and themes.

     Moreover, by the early part of the Trecento, Italian artists and poets such as Giotto and Dante first introduced a concept of individuality and rebirth in painting and sculpture via links to highly intellectual skills, as the motto di spirito, or beffa; some other celebrated humanists who emerged from Italy's major universities included Salutati, Petrarch, Bruni, Donatello, Brunelleschi, Masaccio, Machiavelli, Boccaccio, and Chrysoloras. Renaissance Neoplatonic philosophers further extended this intellectual connection to include architecture and other newly established scientific disciplines. The Neoplatonists particularly asserted abstract metaphysical philosophy -- cosmology, ontology, and epistemology. Although Neoplatonic humanism denoted a deeply spiritual trend, it leaned toward an Epicurean philosophy that apparently refuted Divine Intervention over scientific evolution and biology; the Catholic Church frowned upon these teachings. Nevertheless, the writings of Ficino and Pico Della Mirandola did heavily influence the final proceedings of the Fifth Lateran Council, and ultimately, the transformation of the Catholic Church.

     Marsilio Ficino, who led the Medici's Florentine Academy, 1462-1492, published The Platonic Theology, 1482, an eighteen-part work. Other prominent Academy members included Angelo Poliziano, Ghirlandaio, Botticelli, Isabella D'Este, Michelangelo, Cristoforo Landino, Pico Della Mirandola, and Gentile de' Becchi. In his literary masterpiece, Ficino introduces Italian society to the platonic friendship and immortality of a human soul, which is mid-positioned in a larger five-parted scheme that places God and angelic beings on one side; qualities and bodies, on the other. Ficino viewed Platonism as harmonious with Christianity, based on the third century Neoplatonic ideas of a Greek philosopher, Plotinus, and later 5th century theology. Italian Renaissance Neoplatonism emphasized a concept of innate goodness in "The One" entity -- which has two metaphysical states -- Divine Intellect, or Soul, and the Material. Ficino's ten forms of Intellect and seven categories of love are based on ideas expressed in the works of Plato and Aristotle.

     As Neoplatonism developed amidst a very troubled and conflicted spiritual period, the underlying moral difference between ancient scholasticism and Renaissance humanism was the developed emphasis on individuality, aptly expressed in the literature and poetry of humanist philosophers. Just as his colleague, Ficino, the Christian scholar, Pico Della Mirandola, (1463-1494) sought to enhance world peace by reconciling the three universal faiths, which essentially differ, but still retain some common principles of truth. Today, "universal" translates into a much broader spiritual context. For the launching of his work, Oration on the Dignity of Man, Pico mastered the mystical Jewish Kabbalah and developed a theory of syncretism. The mystical writings of Saint Augustine of Hippo heavily influenced Pico's views in 900 Theses; throughout these two texts, humanism is a deeply Christian rather than secular movement, with roots traceable to ancient wisdom. Through an emphasis on love, nature, and inner beauty, Pico asserts man as a free agent, in control of his free will, destiny, and Salvation. Furthermore, man may elevate his status to that of the angelic beings high up in the Great Chain by engaging in philosophical thought and discussion to become closer to God. Despite the burgeoning popularity of Pico's views, Innocent VIII and Savonarola accused Pico of heresy and condemned thirteen of Pico's nine hundred theses.

     Despite the Church’s reluctance to praise and promote all ideas set forth by Pico, these rediscovered humanist views intensely affected artists who frequented the Academy. The profound emotional and spiritual impact of Renaissance Neoplatonism on the works of poets and artists alike is evident. Primavera, 1482 -- Botticelli's tempera
on panel masterpiece -- expresses the ultimate Neoplatonic influence on Italian painting. The central female figure likens to Virgin Mary as well as the Greek and Roman pagan goddesses, Athena and Venus. Botticelli's humanistic theme expressed Alberti's stress on the grace of physical beauty; in this painting, Botticelli conveys physical beauty's close affinity to the Divine and Material realms. Botticelli's probable source of inspiration was Ficino's Neoplatonic syncretism of paganism with Christianity.

     On the other hand, the aesthetic notion of beauty and love underwent drastic transformations during Italy's Counter-Reformation period; many artists' ideals of aesthetic beauty no longer conformed to the traditional standards established by Alberti. Love was not always about physical, material beauty, but rather, about one's spiritual relationship with love and God. Michelangelo, a celebrated artist and poet, essentially explored the "platonic" realm of the human relationship in his poetry and letters, particularly in his affections for Vittoria Colonna, 1492-1547, and Tommaso dei Cavalieri, 1509-1587.

     The very form of Michelangelo's poetry echoes the eclectic Neoplatonic tastes of the Medici scholars. Michelangelo created thirty of his three hundred poems to Cavalieri in sonnet, madrigal, and quatrain form. The Italian madrigal is more of a spiritual song whose lines contain seven or eleven syllables, two to three tercets, and a pair of rhyming couplets. Quatrain stanza poetry -- common to the ballad and hymn -- traces back to the Classical Mediterranean and Asian cultures. The elegiac stanza is comprised of iambic pentameter and a rhyming couplet following the scheme ABAB or AABB. Finally, the Petrarchan Sonnet is comprised of one octave and sestet; the latter contains a rhyming couplet.

     Contrary to Alberti's ideal that artistic form should express graceful beauty and harmonious flow, Michelangelo's aesthetic tension expresses a mystical, sometimes tortuous Counter-Reform quest for deeper bonds with Divinity and humanity through the aesthetic and contemplative experience; Michelangelo's marble sculptures encouraged contemplation about true purpose in art and life. Just as Ficino's Neoplatonic theory of beauty, [Marsilio Ficino, Commentary on Plato’s Symposium on Love, trans. Sears Jayne (Woodstock, CT: Spring Publications, 1985), 108-109] Michelangelo thought that a work of art expressed beauty as a process rather than an aesthetic end; poetry added a new and intense dimension to the perception of beauty; Michelangelo's human form indicated a closeness to God, yet often lacked the elegant grace of Botticelli's or Raphael's figures, for example. To Michelangelo, all humanity was beautiful; the strength of the bond between a human soul and God was much stronger than superficial love based merely on physical beauty.

     Just as the pagan themed mythological allegories of Botticelli or del Pollaiuolo convey essential Christian values, Michelangelo's portrayal of a material human body with an immaterial soul in his works demonstrates an intention to take Neoplatonic humanism and transform it into a realistic, workable artistic trend -- a style remote from the mathematical precision of da Vinci and Alberti. And just as the Neoplatonists inferred that intellectual pursuits brought one closer to Divinity, Michelangelo’s many poems and sculptures do convey that the power of spiritual love is much stronger than physical love.

     This message is one that many of us rarely contemplate or even try to comprehend; in such a troubled age, the ongoing push for world peace should be much more powerful than it ever was, or at least, much stronger than it was in Counter-Reformation Italy. As for a peaceful world, artists and politicians alike have been working at this inevitable, but very possible goal for centuries.

     Like Michelangelo’s Neoplatonic concept of beauty, peace and acceptance should not be merely an end, but part of a bigger, more important process in our lifetime. In this diverse, yet obstacle filled world, we need more efficient administrative systems that completely remove fallible patterns that obstruct and prevent a realization of peace and acceptance from our daily scenarios. Are we any closer to achieving this  goal than the Florentine Neoplatonists were?

     Although it might be impractical today to simply pursue the intellectual activities that humanists practiced at the Medici Academy in a bid to establish world peace, it does make good sense to seriously evaluate the outdated customs still operating from within our key establishments, and firmly stamp out the discriminatory and corrupt abuses of power that forever imprison various members of society that are based on hatred. If a genuine love of humanity has no bias, and the unconditional love of all mankind may establish world peace, our institutions need to assert this message in all our daily transactions.