17 November 2016

Giovanni Pico della Mirandola – philosopher

Writer of the 'Manifesto of the Renaissance' met an early death

Giovanni Pico della Mirandola: this portrait by Cristofano dell'Altissimo hangs in the Uffizi
Giovanni Pico della Mirandola: this portrait by
Cristofano dell'Altissimo hangs in the Uffizi
Renaissance nobleman and philosopher, Giovanni Pico della Mirandola died on this day in 1494 in Florence, sparking a murder mystery still not solved more than 500 years later and that led to the exhumation of his body in 2007.

Pico became famous for writing the Oration on the Dignity of Man, which was later dubbed the Manifesto of the Renaissance.

At its heart, the Oration proposed that man is the only species of being to which God assigned no specific place in the chain of being and that man could ascend the chain through the exercise of his intellectual capacity, and for that reason it stresses the importance of the human quest for knowledge.

Renowned for his memory as well as his intellect, he could recite Dante’s Divine Comedy line-by-line backwards and by the time he was 20 he has mastered six languages.

But he made enemies and it his thought that his death at the age of just 31 was the result of poisoning because of concerns that he had become too close to hellfire preacher Girolamo Savonarola, an enemy of Florence's ruling Medici family.

It was Savonarola himself who delivered the funeral oration when Pico was buried at the Convent of San Marco in Florence where he was the Prior.

The philosopher was born into a noble family at Mirandola, near Modena, in 1463. He was the youngest son of Gianfrancesco della Mirandola, Count of Concordia, who lived in the Castle of Mirandola and was closely related to the Sforza, Gonzaga and Este dynasties.

Pico studied at the University of Padua, where he wrote sonnets in Latin and Italian, which because of the influence of Savonarola, who encouraged his followers to burn possessions that might tempt them into sin, he destroyed towards the end of his life.

Portrait of Lorenzo de' Medici by the Flemish Baroque painter Peter Paul Rubens
Portrait of Lorenzo de' Medici by the Flemish
Baroque painter Peter Paul Rubens
He travelled to Paris, the most important centre in Europe for Philosophy and Theology and it is thought while he was there he began writing his celebrated 900 Theses on religion, philosophy and magic, and came up with the idea of defending them in a public debate.

When he returned to Florence in 1484 he met for the first time Lorenzo de' Medici, also known as Lorenzo the Magnificent, who seems to have been charmed by him and wished to help him.

On his way to Rome, where he intended to publish his 900 Theses and debate them with other scholars, Pico stopped off in Arezzo, where he had a love affair with the wife of one of Lorenzo de' Medici’s cousins. He attempted to run away with her but was caught, wounded and imprisoned. He was released only after the intervention of Lorenzo himself.

While recovering from his wounds he became interested in Hebrew writings, which he believed educated people should study. He travelled to Rome to publish his 900 Theses and offered to pay the expenses of any scholars who came to Rome to debate them publicly.

But Pope Innocent VIII halted the proposed debate and condemned part of his 900 Theses as heretical.

Pico fled to France where he was arrested and imprisoned but at the instigation of Lorenzo de Medici he was released and allowed to move back to Florence. He settled in a villa near Fiesole provided by Lorenzo and carried on writing.

After the death of Lorenzo, Savonarola became increasingly influential. This led to a wholesale destruction of books and paintings in Florence.

Pico was determined to become a monk and destroyed his own poetry and gave away his fortune.

When he fell ill in 1494, the King of France, Charles VIII, whose armies would take control of Florence on the day of Pico's death, driving the Medici into exile, sent his own physicians to tend to him but after two weeks of suffering he passed away.

The Castello dei Pico in an image from a 1940s postcard
The Castello dei Pico in an image from a 1940s postcard
It was rumoured that Pico was poisoned by his own secretary, who is said to have made a confession to that effect two years later after being arrested by Savonarola, who by then had taken control of Florence from the French.  Some historians believe it was Piero de' Medici, the son of Lorenzo, who ordered his killing.

Another theory was that Pico had died of syphilis but when his body was exhumed in 2007, as part of a project led by Giorgio Gruppioni, a professor of anthropology from Bologna, tests showed toxic levels of arsenic in his remains.

Travel tip:

The small city of Mirandola, which is about 30km north-east of Modena in Emilia-Romagna, developed as a fortress city in Renaissance times and was once an independent principality.  The Palazzo Communale and the Castello dei Pico can both be found in Piazza della Costituente.  The castle was forced to close its door to the public because of damage sustained in an earthquake in 2012.

Hotels in Mirandola from Hotels.com

Fra Angelico's stunning Last Judgment
Fra Angelico's stunning fresco The Last Judgment
Travel tip:

The Convent of San Marco in Florence, which holds the major collection of the works of Giovanni of Fiesole, known as Fra Angelico, stands on the site of a 12th century monastery. It was rebuilt in 1437 by Cosimo il Vecchio de’ Medici, who entrusted the work to Michelozzo, with the decoration of the walls carried out by Fra Angelico and his assistants, who included Benozzo Gozzoli.   His masterworks are considered to be the The Last Judgment and the The Crucifixion.

Hotels in Florence from venere.com

More reading:

Girolamo Savonarola and the 'Bonfire of the Vanities'

Cosimo de' Medici - banker who founded the dynasty

Why Cosimo II de' Medici was the patron of Galileo

Also on this day: 

1878: Umberto I survives assassination attempt


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