Marsilio Ficino’s Timaeus Commentary: Musical Speculations of a Renaissance Interpreter
Marsilio Ficino (1433-1499) was one of the Renaissance’s defining scholars. Among his most important works was his Timaeus commentary.
Despite the influence of Plato’s Timaeus in previous times, it was only with Ficino that the Latin West got its first complete translation. As one of the few Renaissance scholars to confront the challenges of Plato’s influential but also complex text, his commentary made Ficino the leading theoretician of the harmonics it propounds, but also an important interpreter of the ideas about music theory and practice it involves. In this paper, I address two questions central to Ficino’s interpretation of the Timaeus: why did he choose the theory of cosmic harmony from the dialogue as a matrix for his account of a physical world already undergoing radical change? And why did he want to revive Plato’s theory of the ethical power of listening? By investigating both Ficino’s interpretations of harmonics and of the physical and psychological mechanisms of perception and hearing, this paper argues that he used them above all to substantiate the biblical ideas that the world is a harmonic creation, that man is created with an immortal soul, and that the purpose of life is divine enlightenment. Furthermore, it demonstrates how Ficino revived Plato’s view of the delight taken in auditory perception to formulate a new music therapy in terms of a curious mixture of Neoplatonic and fifteenth-century scientific technical terms. Consequently, musical delight results from the correct perception of a sensory object as an imitation of divine harmonic order.
Jacomien Prins is a Global Research Fellow (GRF) at the Institute of Advanced Studies (IAS) and the Centre for the Study of the Renaissance (CSR) of Warwick University and an affiliated scholar at the University of Utrecht. She has worked extensively on the interaction between music theory and philosophy in the Renaissance. Her work includes Echoes of an Invisible World: Marsilio Ficino and Francesco Patrizi on Cosmic Order and Music Theory (Leiden: Brill, 2014), Sing Aloud Harmonious Spheres: Renaissance Conceptions of Cosmic Harmony (London: Routledge, 2017), and an edition and translation of Marsilio Ficino’s commentary on Plato’s Timaeus (Harvard University Press, the I Tatti Renaissance Library series (ITRL), forthcoming). She is currently working on a book project titled ‘A Well-tempered Life’: Music, Health and Happiness in Renaissance Learning.
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