De triplici vita (with) Apologia (and) Annotatio.

Basel, Johann Amerbach, not after 1498.


4to. 100 unnumbered leaves. (a-l8, m-n6). Roman letter with Gothic head-lines. Contemporary annotation to a few ll. including index hands. Light age yellowing, occasional oil splashes to the margins of a few leaves, a very crisp, clean and well-margined copy in contemporary ruled and blind-rolled half-pigskin over oak boards, ink stain to lower pigskin with small hole, slight tear to spine at tail, original brass clasp.

A handsome copy of the second Basel edition of Marsilio Ficino’s (1433-99) ‘Three Books on Life’, dedicated to his patron Cosimo de’Medici. For the famous translator of Plato, and of the hermetic philosophers from ancient Egypt, this was a slight departure from high scholarship into the realm of popular writing that blended folk remedies with the classics, or as the author himself writes, ‘Galen, physician of Bodies, and Plato, physician of souls.’ The first book ‘On Healthy Life’ considers black bile, the cause of madness and melancholy, but as Ficino argues, the only bodily substance that engenders profound thought, and thus the origin of genius. In this way Ficino’s book is not only a ‘Treatise on Healthy Living for the Learned’ as he calls it, but the first to defend the temperamental genius because “it sometimes helps to be a little crazy” (Kaske cit. infr.).

After arguing “Why Melancholics are Intelligent” Ficino’s final chapters of Book One provide remedies for rheum, phlegm, stomach aches, and headaches: the side-affects of melancholy. The second book ‘On Long Life’ continues in this vein with advice on diet, exercise, and daily habit (sometimes suspect: ‘we should avoid both continual thinking and sexual intercourse’) in order to leave a happy and healthy life. The final six chapters are addressed to the elderly, with one chapter dedicated to the uses of rose-honey, probably the earliest known superfood, and another on the significance of art and music to the well-lived life.

Book Three radically changes pace from treatments for the body to consultations with the stars, reading something like a New Age Self-Help Book, i.a. “How We Should Use the Planets in Medicines”, “Seven Ways in Which We Can Accommodate Ourselves to Celestial Things”, “Astronomical Precautions to Be Taken in Procreating Children, In Preparing Meals, in Buildings, and in One’s Dwelling Place and Clothing”. It is not only the longest of the three books, but the most controversial, as every chapter prescribes occult practices in the name of therapy, for instance instructing readers how to capture the spirits of the stars into silver or gold rings. It was this portion of De vita which put Ficino into direct conflict with the Church for the first time: although he claims he is merely interpreting Plotinus, the more blatant references to magic are not from Plotinus but from the hermetic philosophers Proclus, and especially Al-Kindi’s Picatrix.

From Ficino’s correspondence in 1490, we know Pope Innocent VIII found inklings of heresy in the work, and he successfully petitioned his friends in Rome for help in restoring his name to favour. The book concludes with an Apologia, another preventative measure to contain the dispute with Rome that broke out after the book’s publication. In it, Ficino emphasises his vocation as a priest and physician, interested in physical healing for the sake of spiritual healing, and repeats again and again that he does not approve of ‘profane magic’, but only ‘natural magic’, that of the Magi who first adored Christ at his birth. Rare in completely original condition, as here.

BMC III 759. Cantamessa I 2588. Goff F-160. Hain *7063. Osler 2584. Wellcome 2257. Kaske “Three Books on Life: A Critical Edition”. Thorndike IV Chap. 58.


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