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Giovanni Pico della Mirandola
Italian philosopher and scholar, born 24 February, 1463; died 17 November, 1494. He belonged to a family that had long dwelt in the Castle of Mirandola (Duchy of Modena), which had become independent in the fourteenth century and had received in 1414 from the Emperor Sigismund the fief of Concordia. To devote himself wholly to study, he left his share of the ancestral principality to his two brothers, and in his fourteenth year went to Bologna to study canon law and fit himself for the ecclesiastical career. Repelled, however, by the purely positive science of law, he devoted himself to the study of philosophy and theology, and spent seven years wandering through the chief universities of Italy and France, studying also Greek, Latin, Hebrew, Syriac, and Arabic. An impostor sold him sixty Hebrew manuscripts, asserting positively that they were written by order of Esdras, and contained the secrets of nature and religion. For many years he believed in the Kabbala and interwove its fancies in his philosophical theories. His aim was to conciliate religion and philosophy. Like his teacher, Marsilius Ficinus, he based his views chiefly on Plato, in opposition to Aristotle the doctor of scholasticism at its decline. But Pico was constitutionally an eclectic, and in some respects he represented a reaction against the exaggerations of pure humanism. According to him, we should study the Hebrew and Talmudic sources, while the best products of scholasticism should be retained. His "Heptaplus", a mystico-allegorical exposition of the creation according to the seven Biblical senses, follows this idea (Florence, about 1480); to the same period belongs the "De ente et uno", with its explanations of several passages in Moses, Plato and Aristotle; also an oration on the Dignity of Man (published among the "Commentationes").
With bewildering attainments due to his brilliant and tenacious memory, he returned to Rome in 1486 and undertook to maintain 900 theses on all possible subjects ("Conclusiones philosophicae, cabalasticae et theologicae", Rome, 1486, in fol.). He offered to pay the expenses of those who came from a distance to engage with him in public discussion. Innocent VIII was made to believe that at least thirteen of these theses were heretical, though in reality they merely revealed the shallowness of the learning of that epoch. Even such a mind as Pico's showed too much credulity in nonsensical beliefs, and too great a liking for childish and unsolvable problems. The proposed disputation was prohibited and the book containing the theses was interdicted, notwithstanding the author's defence in "Apologia J. Pici Mirandolani, Concordiae comitis" (1489). One of his detractors had maintained that Kabbala was the name of an impious writer against Jesus Christ. Despite all efforts Pico was condemned, and he decided to travel, visiting France first, but he afterwards returned to Florence. He destroyed his poetical works, gave up profane science, and determined to devote his old age to a defence of Christianity against Jews, Mohammedans. and astrologers. A portion of this work was published after his death ("Disputationes adversus astrologiam divinatricem", Bologna, 1495). Because of this book and his controversy against astrology, Pico marks an era and a decisive progressive movement in ideas. He died two months after his intimate friend Politian, on the day Charles VIII of France entered Florence. He was interred at San Marco, and Savonarola delivered the funeral oration.
Besides the writings already mentioned, see his complete works (Bologna, 1496; Venice, 1498; Strasburg, 1504; Basle, 1557; 1573, 1601). He wrote in Italian an imitation of Plato's "Banquet". His letters ("Aureae ad familiares epistolae", Paris, 1499) are important for the history of contemporary thought. The many editions of his entire works in the sixteenth century sufficiently prove his influence.
NICERON, Memoires, XXXIV; TIRABOSCHI, Biblioteca Modenese, IV, 95; biography by his nephew, in complete works; Storia della letteratura italiana, VI, part I, 323; SANDYS, A History of Classical Scholarship, II (Cambridge, 1908), 82.