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Artists and philosopher-Magicians in renaissance period

Maurizio Elettrico (Istituto Italiano di Studi Filosofici)


Botticelli, The Primavera




Renaissance produced a complicated plot of communication between art and magical-astrological thought. In this period, the artist is really able to live and to expound the culture of his time even under this specifical side. Actually, he can assimilate the astrological principles and use them for his own intellectual revenge over Christianism (for this research it is very important to analyze texts, or as for Leonardo, of fragments of texts arrived to us, that seem moving along this way). Renaissance culture points out astrology – even if amidst many arguments and opposition – as an instrument of knowledge and also of transformation of human destiny. Astrology is a science deeply involved in the dispute between Neoplatonism and Aristhotelism, that is between an idea of human freedom and a strict conception of cosmic necessity.

 If Cossa was forced to complain about his condition of inferiority, compared with Pellegrino Prisciani, the astrologer supervisor of Schifanoia’s pictorial cycle in Ferrara, who had treated him “as the last apprentice in Ferrara”; if Francesco Zorzi could impose his programma to Jacopo Sansovino for San Pietro della Vigna, this lack of preparation in the field of hermetics does not concern artists like Parmigianino or Pontormo. Even Cellini was no stranger to this kind of interest, as we can argue from the report in his Vita, where he asks, and obtains, from a necromancer to evoke spirits in Colosseum.

 So we can underline the increasing interest of artists towards esoterism, interest due also to the reconsideration of art as a kind of philosophy. Now Art seems intellectualized by philosophy’s magical aspects. This process is certaily temporary, but not secondary: sometimes esoterical sciences are in a central position in the philosophical debate of the period. Italian art magnificently develops itself, trying to become a philosophy of images, that is thought of all thoughts, a Gods’ philosophy. Gods and stars are finally comined together in compact identities; astrology and neopaganism are two sides of the same coin. Art, coming nearer to astrological aspects of philosophy, includes in itself the new sensibility of a revived neopaganism. Through art, Man can participate of thought of Gods.stars, creators of our destiny and, through them, of God’s unity, origin of any destiny and aim of any end.

Giovan Paolo Lomazzo, writer and painter, in his Idea del Tempio reveals the importance of astrology in the artist’s moulding, pointing out along with other basic matters of study like anatomy: “But above all, as a general and particular exercise, artist needs to be a good mathematician, that is doctrinable or disciplinable, so that, by astrology, he can obtain knowledge of skies, signs, rising faces and their ‘meanings’”. Elsewhere, Lomazzo seems to repeat the comparison, by Abraham Giudeo, between artist and astrologers, due to a symmetrical Mercury’s position. For Lomazzo, artist becomes becomes the preferential link between macrocosm and microcosm, between Nature and stars and, moreover, between these and universal culture’s protagonists. Sometimes it seems to imply an odd artist-magician duality. Before Lomazzo, writing at the end of the XVIth century, we can see lots of examples. It is enough to think to Michelangelo’s Giudizio as to a wheel of sky and destiny, to Leonardo’s Diluvio, probably inspired by an astrologer, or to Vasari’s astrological influences: he presents any Vite’s characters through an evidently oroscopal impostation. 

Astrology and the idea, proposed by Lomazzo, of the artist as both a magician and astrologer, helps to the ultimate transformation of art from techne to episteme, that is from a tecnique to a science, moreover because this destiny’s change, provoked by the use of talismanic, magic-operative application of astrology, obtains real works of art. Renaissance art seems to follow the idea by which a wiseman is he who knows and, thanks to that, he knows how to overlook stars.

Ferrara, Palazzo Schifanoia, Salone dei Mesi (Giugno)



 But where this thought does come from?
The world of the Renaissance philosopher-magician strangely anticipates a psychological, not physical, idea of research: facts are not interesting for what they are, but for what they mean. This principle evolves from Pico to Giordano Bruno; both of them stress the importance of the symbolic pregnancy of the real object and of its psychological and spiritual substratum, constituting its true essence, and the analogical net between one symbolic object and the others.
So we can look for a relationship between the most remote events in order to be able to reveal their internal nature tied to a specific aim.

 Everything becomes symbolic, just like the mental representation of the dream, always referring to other meanings, to other significant beings, producing a pansymbolism full of congnitive implications. Thus, we create a strict tie between imagination and image, between image and reality, following the idea that image and imagination can change world reality or, at least, revela its mysteries. At least till Pico, the corrispondence between significant things is founded over the biunivocal connection between overlunar and earthly world, ad he asserts in Heptaplus's preface, but, in Bruno, this journey reaches extreme consequences. Anything can become an image of something else, because anything is connected to the originary unity, because, as Bruno says in De umbris idearum, anything is in everything: "Unde in omnibus et per omnia quaelibet posse figurari manifestum est". Any image refers to any reality and any reality may be an image of any existing thing; moreover, any image can influence, transform or reveal any existing thing. And the artist's work is included in this continous sendback, from which Bruno starts for the cabalistic and astrological application: in the use, made by art, of the symbolic image and its evocative talent. The great work of art becomes a moment of infiniteness, thanks to this associative and combinatory valence of its symbols-images, but it is also a shape able to modify reality, acting first of all on our mind like a sort of astrological talisman.

In this cognitive universe, there is no gap between mental and real: synthesis is just figurative art, which becomes, in its higher expression, a form of thought able to unify human and divine imagination, a form of quest for knowledge. Art seems to be an earthly manifestation of divine thought, coming true through images, overcoming duality between thinking and thought, as we can read in Plotinus' Enneades, the reference book for Ficino's circle. This could explain the quality, ascribed by Ficino to images, to intercept prioritarly cosmic influences. A painting or a statue can be powerful vessels of heavenly powers. Figures in art absorb and send back astral energies. They can be employed as meditation moments, oddly similar to the Oriental tradition mandalas. His pupil Francesco Diaccetto pushes forward in describing, following the ancient Syrian astrological cult, rites for obtaining planetary Gods' favours; they consist in preparing the astral God in front of it. This scheme is conceived not only as a mere cult representation, but for its talismanic value in bridling star energies. Art and astrological neopaganism finally find a perfect mixture in the not only philosophical utopy of a natural religion. They rebuilt an immaterial technology, already formulated by the ancients, a possibility of knowledge and transformation totally relied upon the image evocation. Ethymologically, ideas belongs to the world of vision; the idea-image has not only the power of revealing truth, of which real things are symbols and, consequently, images, but also of acting on these symbols through other symbols. This the utopy of man who wants to change the world not with the power of his hands, anyhow exhalted by Bruno on Anaxagoras' traces, but also, like the Gods, with the only power of mind.

Moreover, the polymethodology of magic-astrologic knowledge, as it grows in Renaissance, that is using different functions or methods for reaching knowledge, clearly resembles to artistic creation process. It starts from analytical use of mathematics (in the Pythagorical and astrological sense of interpreting geometrically-mathematically physical phenomena, which in art will be identified with complex prospectical studies), and through the use of analogical proceedings (using symbolical association, which strongly relates astrology to some artistic proceedings), and, through the importance of intuition as expression of the creative mind, arrives to individuate in events' synchronicity a relation not less important than the causal one.

Philological scientificity is compromised by association with cabalistic astrology, creating infinite combinations in its search for the essence of beauty, as in a distilling process aiming to transform it in a pictorial architecture, as Giulio Camillo did with its scattered mnemonic theatres.

Still in astrological science the hierarchy of laws of reality interpretation can't stifle the significance of the extraordinary (and it is remarkable the search for miraculum in art).

Exceptions do not impotently confirm rules, but constitute laws, rules and forma by themselves.

A new science, the thaumastic, studies astrology in its various forms, from unusual catastrophes to the birth of monstrous babies or prophets and Antichrists. Astrology and art, in this sense, are just a search and an explication of the marvellous, that is what, being tremendum, defies human rules.

The method anarchy of magic philosophy shows the correspondence between art and time when art transforms itself in science, using severral systema to pursuit the truth.

And the transformation of the artist from technicist to scientist seems to be related to that form of knowledge able to overlook stars.

Astrology recognizes also in itself art and poetry meanings; almost inspired by the idea that the language of religion is similar to the poetical one according to Averroes' Poetica. Astrology as expression of a magic religiousness, of a renewed paganism, during the Renaissance cannot avoid a poetical transfiguration. Agrippa, in his Declamatio de incertitudine et vanitate scientiarum atque artium had recognized, even if in a pessimistic vision, poeticism present in divination. And also Zodiacus vitae, published in 1534-37, a work about Zodiac by Marcello Palingenio Stellato, transfigurates astrology in poetry. Poet-astrologer Lorenzo Buonincontri, and Gioviano Pontano in his Urania, had anticipated that idea.

In conclusion, we can say that, during Renaissance, ermetical sciences, nourished by Neoplatonical and Pythagorical philosophy, contribuited to redeem artist's figure, offering him a philosophically privileged status (and we must underline that this process will last for many centuries), with ups and downs, till some key avantgarde figures. Art represents a Nature improving, perpetuating the realization process through the creative layer of a contact between humanity and divinity, between stars ruling the natural laws and Man.

We refer to Vitruvius' concept of an art able to produce perfect things, incomplete in Nature, but we also to Plato, always exhalting art's function, when it can symbolically and synthetically express a higher human knowledge, or when, becoming prophetical, it wonderfully blends human and divine, producing a strict link between divination and supernatural.

The same concept of harmony is influenced by astrological and hermetical values.

We find very interesting Giulio Camillo's idea about the living statues made by ancient Egyptians, as described in Asclepius. It was possible to instill star influences in the statues' bodies in perfect proportions; to create a statue according to rules based on cosmical harmony was a manner to obtain a miracolous unity between microcosm and macrocosm, between the world of stars and the human one. This theme becomes clear in Michelangelo's gesture, urging his statue to live.

But the vane dreams of astrology and the various artistical suggestions were crushed between rigidity of Counter-reform and the practical Galileian methodoloy, events strictly related by a shared vocation for dogmatic exclusivism.
Man does not represent his own symbols anymore, but tries to give an univocal interpretation of reality, he definitely separes the psychological world from the noumenic one, subjectivity from objectivity, provoking the success and the crisis of modern civilization.


Ferrara, Palazzo Schifanoia, Salone dei Mesi (August)






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