Active artist of the Renaissance, illustrate this influence.
Active during the latter decades of the fifteenth century, a group of Florentine philosophers, or Neo-Platonists, drawn to the idealism of Plato led the way in the renewed explorations of truth and perfection. Among the most notable of these “Neo-Platonist” were Marsilio Ficino and Giovanni Mirandola, who through their writings and teachings strived to reconcile Platonic philosophy and the Christian religion. Because of this synthesis, Neoplatonic philosophy proved to have far reaching influence on both artists and intellectuals during the remainder of the European Renaissance.
For instance, the artistic works and poetries of Michelangelo, undeniably the greatest artist of the Renaissance, illustrate this influence. Overflowing with Neoplatonic ideas, Michelangelo’s poetry reveals his beliefs concerning beauty, love, and the struggle of the human soul. One important aspect of Neoplatonic thought during the Renaissance was the manifestation of God in all things beautiful. Reaching God was the ultimate goal for all Neoplatonic thinkers, thus the ability to perceive beauty was a gift from God.
For Michelangelo, he believed his function as an artist was to create beauty. “Even the best of artists can conceive no idea that a single block of marble will not contain in its excess, and such a goal is achieved only by the hand that obeys the intellect” (p. 377). In this Sonnet, it appears as though Michelangelo is likening himself to God. The sculpture, he writes, can only achieve perfect beauty only by one who obeys the intellect, or is in touch with the divine. Just as God creates beauty in matter, so too must the artist create beautiful art.
In addition to beauty, Platonic love is another widespread Neoplatonic idea found in Michelangelo’s poetry. The Neoplatonists of Michelangelo’s time believed that love was the active force binding everything together. Platonic love was the spiritual and intellectual bond formed between two individuals. Michelangelo expresses this form of love in one of his Sonnets he wrote for Tommaso Cavalieri. “With your lovely eyes I see a sweet light that I could never see with my blind ones; with your feet I bear a burden too heavy for my lame ones ever to bear.
I fly, featherless, with your wings; with your intellect I am thrust toward the sky… ” (p. 378). Clearly, Michelangelo writes about a connection with another on a much higher spiritual plane. Besides beauty and love, the Neoplatonic idea of the human soul confined in the bonds of human flesh is another concept prevalent throughout Michelangelo’s poetry. His poetic work, Madrigal, reveals this belief as Michelangelo likens carving a sculpture of stone to the struggle of the human soul for freedom.
Here he writes, “Just as by carving, my lady, we set into hard mountain rock a living figure which grows most where the stone is most removed… ” (Bondanella and Musa, p. 377). The Neoplatonic implication is the soul is still entombed in the body and can only be perfected into pure being by the hand of a higher creative power, namely God. The excess stone in this case is symbolic of one’s flesh, which according to Michelangelo has a “rough, crude, and crusty shell. ” The less of stone or flesh that remains; the more the body will grow towards perfection and truth.
Moreover, Neoplatonists believed that one should chisel away their connection to the material world in order to return to God. Equally important for Michelangelo and Neoplatonic thinkers is the belief in the immortality of the soul. They believed when the body dies, one’s soul is released from its mortal prison and either reunites with its true home in the spiritual realm with God or forever suffers eternal condemnation. Michelangelo refers to this “double death” in one of his numerous collections of Sonnets.
“What will become of my amorous thoughts, once so vain and gay, now that I draw near to my double death? Of one death I am certain, and the other threatens me” (p. 379). He knows his body will eventually die, but he his fearful for the fate of his soul. His reveals much about his Christian beliefs in eternal life with God when he writes, “The soul turned toward that divine love which on the cross opened to take us in Its arms” (p. 379). Obviously, he longs for eternal salvation, a characteristic common among Neoplatonic thinkers.
Certainly Michelangelo’s work illustrates a variety of Neoplatonic indebtedness. Operating within an obvious Christian context, many of his poems reflect his desire to find God and bring his soul to the spiritual realm of the universe, especially through beauty. Consistent with Neoplatonic thinking, Michelangelo clearly strived to reach that divine level of truth and perfect which both Ficino and Mirandola spoke, not only through his poetry but in all of his magnificent art as well.