Pico della Mirandola
Giovanni Pico della Mirandola (1463-1494) - pronounced djo-VAN-ni PEE-ko DEL-la mi-RAN-do-la IPA: /dzovanni ˈpiːko ˌdɛlla miˈrandola/ - was an Italian Renaissance philosopher, whose best known work is the Oratio de hominis dignitate (1486) (Oration on the Dignity of Man).
Count Giovanni Pico della Mirandola was born into the ruling family of the small independent state of Mirandola (near Modena in the region of Emilia-Romagna) but, despite his family's position there, spent almost all his adult life away from Mirandola, most of it in other parts of Northern Italy. As a young man he studied at the universities of Bologna, Ferrara, and Padua, and in 1480 made the first of many visits to Florence, where he met, and won the friendship of, a number of eminent individuals, who became in different ways significant figures in his life: the philosopher Marsilio Ficino (1433-1499); Lorenzo de' Medici (1449-1492), the de facto ruler of the city; and the ascetic Dominican friar Savonarola (1452-1498).
Pico became one of Marsilio Ficino's pupils and a member of the so-called Florentine Academy. Their philosophical sympathies were broadly similar, both men placing themselves firmly within the tradition of Plato and the Neoplatonists, though Pico was the more eclectic in his approach. Ficino greatly admired Pico, with whom he believed he had a special affinity.
In the course of his short but eventful life Pico twice found himself in prison, and on both occasions Lorenzo de' Medici interceded to secure his release: first in 1485, when Pico was imprisoned in Arezzo after attemping to elope with the wife of one of Lorenzo's cousins; and then, four years later, when after the publication of his Nine Hundred Theses - see further below - he was accused of heresy by Pope Innocent VIII and, fleeing to France, was imprisoned on the Pope's insistence by Philip II of Savoy.
On the latter occasion it was a condition of Pico's release that he live in Florence under Lorenzo's protection, and so he was installed in one of the Medici's villas near Fiesole. He remained there until Lorenzo's death in 1492, when he moved to Ferrara..
In his final years, under the influence of Savonarola, Pico had a change of heart: embracing Savonarola's austere, puritanical morality, he repudiated certain of his former intellectual interests and decided to become a priest. In 1494, however, before he could put this decision into effect, he died in suspicious circumstances, and it is possible that he was poisoned by his secretary because of his close association with Savonarola.
Pico's best-known work, the Oration on the Dignity of Man, is widely regarded as an expression of the quintessential spirit of the Renaissance. Drawing on the thought of Plato, Aristotle, the Neoplatonists, and ancient Hermetic texts, it celebrates human achievements, the extent of human capacities, and their potentiality for further development. It emphasises, in particular, the pre-eminent value of the human quest for knowledge and, against the background of a Neoplatonic picture of the universe as a hierarchy of beings with God at its apex, argues for the unique position of humanity within this hierarchy and the possibility that, through the acquisition of knowledge, human beings may enter into closer communion with God.
Pico wrote the Oration on the Dignity of Man as an introduction to his Nine Hundred Theses (Conclusiones philosophicae, cabalisticae, et theologicae (1486)), which was intended to establish secure foundations for all future human knowledge. Pico undertook to defend his nine hundred theses in public against any philosopher who might wish to challenge them, but Pope Innocent VIII, suspecting the orthodoxy of some of the theses, intervened, forcing Pico to retract thirteen of them and later to flee to France.