Conte Giovanni Pico della Mirandola

The Italian philosopher and humanist Conte Giovanni Pico della Mirandola (1463-1494) was a brilliant exemplar of the Renaissance ideal of man.

The youngest son of a princely Lombard house, Giovanni Pico della Mirandola received a Church benefice when he was 10 years old. However, Pico quickly surpassed the routine expectation of a career in Church or state. At the University of Padua from 1480 to 1482, when the city and its university enjoyed the liberal patronage of Venice, welcomed Eastern scholars, and offered one of Europe's richest civic cultures, he studied Aristotelianism and Hebrew and Arabic religion, philosophy, and science. By 1487 his travels and education, broadened to include Florence and Paris, had steeped Pico in a unique variety of languages and traditions. Committed to no exclusive source of wisdom and disappointed by the philosophic weakness of the Italian humanists' study of classical culture, he sought a core of truth common to this vast knowledge.

The young man's first and most famous venture was a challenge to Europe's scholars for public disputation at Rome in 1487. Pico prepared to defend 900 conclusiones—402 drawn from other philosophers (most heavily from scholastic, Platonic, and Arabic thinkers) and 498 his own. However, a papal commission, suspicious of such diversity, condemned 13 of Pico's theses. The assembly was canceled, and he fled to Paris, suffering brief imprisonment before settling in Florence late in 1487. His writings for the disputation were banned until 1493.

At Florence, Pico joined Lorenzo de' Medici's Platonic Academy in its effort to formulate a doctrine of the soul that would reconcile Platonic and Christian beliefs. Pico's ambition, which many critics attribute to youthful confusion, can be measured by his plan to harmonize Plato and Aristotle and to link their philosophies with revelations proclaimed by the major religions. Preparatory treatises included the Heptaplus of 1489, a commentary on Genesis stressing its correspondence with sacred Jewish texts, and the work De ente et uno of 1492, on the nature of God and creation.

Pico gradually renounced Medicean splendor, embraced the piety of the reforming friar Girolamo Savonarola, and began writing in defense of the Church. Pico's philanthropy kept pace with his purchase of manuscripts, as he built one of Europe's great private scholarly collections. He died of fever on Nov. 17, 1494, as French soldiers occupied Florence.

Described as being "of feature and shape seemly and beauteous, " Pico combined physique, intellect, and spirituality in a way that captivated both the lovers of virtù and Christian reformers. In his De hominis dignitate, written to introduce his abortive Roman congress, Pico had God endow Adam with "what abode, what form, and what functions thou thyself shalt desire … so that with freedom of choice and with honor, thou mayest fashion thyself." This early tract asserted the philosophy that Pico's later and more complex works stressed: the active intellect can discern right from wrong, truth from illusion, and is free to guide the soul, indeed to bind all men, to union with a common creator. Pico's late work Disputationes in astrologiam, an unfinished attack on astrology, rejected occult thought which subordinated human will to deterministic forces.

Further Reading on Conte Giovanni Pico della Mirandola

Many works are collected and translated by Paul Miller and others in Pico's On the Dignity of Man; On Being and the One; Heptaplus (1965). For samples of the extensive scholarly disputes about Pico see Avery Dulles, Princeps Concordiae: Pico della Mirandola and the Scholastic Tradition (1941), which has a critical bibliography; Eugenio Garin, Italian Humanism: Philosophy and Civic Life in the Renaissance (1952; trans. 1965); Ernst Cassirer, The Individual and the Cosmos in Renaissance Philosophy (1963); and Paul Oskar Kresteller's three works: Renaissance Thought: The Classic, Scholastic and Humanistic Strains (1955; rev. ed. 1961), Eight Philosophers of the Italian Renaissance (1964), and his edition of Renaissance Essays (1968), which contains an essay by Cassirer on Pico.