Founding of the Platonic Academy

Marsilio Ficino became the leader of an informal group of scholars, artists, and intellectuals known as the Platonic Academy. Through his writings and lectures, Platonic philosophy spread throughout and influenced Florentine society at a time when Florence was the center of Italian Renaissance art and culture.

Summary of Event

For Renaissance philosophy, as for most major periods in Western philosophy, Greek philosopher Plato (c. 427-347 b.c.e.) was a seminal figure. Plato’s works were read and discussed by several major Renaissance thinkers, who also wrote important commentaries on them. The most conspicuous center of Renaissance Platonism was the Platonic Academy in Florence, which was active under the patronage of the Medici from 1462 until 1494. Its leader was Marsilio Ficino. Ficino, Marsilio
Medici, Cosimo de’
Medici, Lorenzo de’
Gemistus Plethon, George
Pico della Mirandola, Giovanni
Botticelli, Sandro
Ficino, Marsilio
Medici, Cosimo de’
Botticelli, Sandro
Pico della Mirandola, Giovanni

The academy was founded in an informal manner. In 1462, Cosimo de’ Medici gave to Marsilio Ficino a small villa near the town of Careggi and several manuscripts of Plato to translate. The informal group that gathered around Ficino became known as the Platonic Academy, since Ficino had dedicated himself to a lifelong study of Plato and his commentators.

The academy, though an important indication that interest in Plato was increasing in Renaissance Italy, did not mark the sudden reappearance of Platonism in the West after a long absence. Plato’s student and philosophical rival, Aristotle (384-322 b.c.e.), had eclipsed his teacher in importance during the Middle Ages, but Plato’s thought was never entirely effaced by the Aristoteleans. Philosophy;Italy

Indeed, the medieval Platonic tradition, which anticipated Renaissance Platonism Platonism, Renaissance in many ways, was persistent, inspired as it was by certain writings of Plato then available, by the thought of Augustine, and by other Christian and non-Christian Neoplatonists. Even when Aristotelianism became the dominant philosophical current in the thirteenth century, Augustinianism remained a viable secondary current, especially in the Franciscan Order. Moreover, even such confirmed Aristotelians as Albert the Great and Thomas Aquinas had easily identifiable strands of Platonism through Augustinianism.

In addition to medieval interest in Plato, another important current that contributed to Renaissance Platonism originated in the Renaissance itself. This was Humanism Humanism , which started as a literary scholarly movement deeply concerned with the study and imitation of classical antiquity. The interests of the Humanists in Plato’s works were purely literary and eclectic. They made no attempt to rethink the basic metaphysical views of Plato or otherwise to contribute to the discipline of philosophy as such. Nonetheless, because of their admiration for antiquity, they promoted the study of Plato in fifteenth century Italy.

The third important current that facilitated Renaissance Platonism came from the Byzantine East, where throughout the Middle Ages Plato had been carefully studied. One of the most important Eastern Platonic scholars was Gemistus Plethon, who had come to Italy in 1438. He made a strong impression on all he met, especially upon Cosimo de’ Medici. Twenty-four years later, Cosimo was to establish the Platonic Academy.

It is clear, therefore, that Ficino was not solely responsible for a Renaissance Platonic revival. Ficino’s personal influence and prestige did, however, increase the currency of Plato’s ideas in Florence and assure them the widest possible audience. Platonic philosophy spread rapidly throughout the educated levels of society, especially among poets such as Cosimo’s grandson Lorenzo de’ Medici, who was both a member of the Platonic Academy and ruler of Florence. The visual arts also felt the impact of Ficino’s Platonism: Many artists encountered Platonic ideas and attempted to incorporate them in their painting. Foremost among these men in Florence was the great painter Sandro Botticelli. In the realm of philosophy, Giovanni Pico della Mirandola, a younger friend of Ficino, helped spread many of the basic ideas of the founder of the academy.

The name “Academy” implies a more formal organization than in fact ever existed at Careggi. Ficino did no regular teaching, nor were any formal courses offered or students enrolled. Ficino did, however, give lectures to large audiences in Florence and hold intimate dinner parties for his guests at Careggi at which Platonic philosophy was discussed.

When one studies Ficino’s literary activities as leader of the academy, it becomes apparent that he was a prolific author. Inspired by the thought of Plato as the culmination of the pagan tradition of wisdom, Ficino devoted his first endeavors to translating ancient sources. He next translated the Platonic dialogues, completing the work in 1468. He thereupon elaborated his own philosophy in two important works: the Theologia Platonica (1482; Platonic Theology
Platonic Theology (Ficino) , 2001ff.) and Liber de Christiana religione
Liber de Christiana religione (Ficino) (1474; book on the Christian religion). Finally, he resumed his translating activities by translating into Latin both Christian and non-Christian Neoplatonic philosophers.


The Platonic Academy gathered together under the direction and inspiration of Ficino the various strands of Plato’s philosophy that had been woven into the intellectual life of the Middle Ages and early Renaissance. For these strands, the academy was a semi-institutional yet highly personalized focal point, and through the work and prestige of its leader, it served as the fountain by which Plato’s thought flowed first throughout Renaissance Italy and later to the remainder of Europe.

Further Reading

  • Allen, Michael J. B., Valery Rees, and Martin Davies, eds. Marsilio Ficino: His Theology, His Philosophy, His Legacy. Boston: Brill, 2002. Collection of twenty-one essays on Ficino; includes discussions of the Platonic Academy and of the importance of Renaissance Platonism generally. Includes photographic plates, illustrations, bibliographic references, and index.
  • Celenza, Christopher S. The Lost Italian Renaissance: Humanists, Historians, and Latin’s Legacy. Baltimore, Md.: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2004. Study of texts of the Italian Renaissance that were neglected by their contemporaries because they were written in Latin rather than vernacular Italian. Includes a chapter on Marsilio Ficino and his importance to intellectual history. With bibliographic references and index.
  • Ficino, Marsilio. Platonic Theology. 4 vols. to date. Translated by Michael J. B. Allen. Edited by James Hankins with William Bowen. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2001-2004. The first four volumes of a projected six-volume set, this is the first translation into English of one of Ficino’s most important works. Includes bibliographic references and index.
  • Field, Arthur. The Origins of the Platonic Academy of Florence. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1988. The only book-length study of the Platonic Academy’s founding in English. Includes bibliography and indexes.
  • Kristeller, Paul Oscar. The Philosophy of Marsilio Ficino. New York: Columbia University Press, 1943. Reprint. Gloucester, Mass.: Peter Smith, 1964. Detailed study of the thought and aims of Marsilio Ficino. Traces both his debt to his precursors and his influence on later thinkers.
  • Kristeller, Paul Oscar. Studies in Renaissance Thought and Letters. Rome, Italy: Edizioni di storia e letteratura, 1956. Excellent collection of studies of Ficino and other Renaissance thinkers.
  • Robb, Nesca Adeline. Neoplatonism of the Italian Renaissance. London: George Allen & Unwin, 1935. Reprint. New York: Octagon Books, 1968. An older account that remains useful.
  • Shepherd, Michael, ed. Friend to Mankind: Marsilio Ficino, 1433-1499. London: Shepheard-Walwyn, 1999. Anthology of essays reevaluating Ficino’s influence upon the Florentine Renaissance in the light of new translations of his writings into English. Includes bibliographic references.
  • Walker, D. P. Spiritual and Demonic Magic from Ficino to Campanella. London: Warburg and Courtauld Institute, 1958. Reprint. University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 2000. Without refuting or denying any of Kristeller’s assertions concerning Ficino’s philosophical and theological speculations, Walker traces the magical side of Ficino’s career and thus adds a new dimension to this man of many interests.
  • Yates, Frances Amelia. Giordano Bruno and the Hermetic Tradition. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1964. Contains a detailed account of Ficino’s magical beliefs and practices.

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c. 1500: Revival of Classical Themes in Art