In Infinite Fire Webinar IV, prof. dr. Wouter Hanegraaff explained that Gemistos Plethon and Marsilio Ficino are strong examples of a “Zoroastrian” interpretation of Platonic Orientalism, while Giovanni Pico della Mirandola is representative of a “Mosaic” interpretation. In this 5th Webinar he continues the narrative by discussing the “Hermetic” variant, according to which the true wisdom goes back to Hermes Trismegistus in Egypt.
To understand the nature of the Hermetic Tradition of the Renaissance, we must first know some things about the history of scholarship. Renaissance Hermetism was placed on the agenda of research by the great specialist Paul Oskar Kristeller, in a seminal article of 1938: “Marsilio Ficino e Lodovico Lazzarelli: Contributo alla Diffizione delle idee ermetiche nel Rinascimento” (“Marsilio Ficino and Lodovico Lazzarelli: A Contribution to the Diffusion of Hermetic Ideas in the Renaissance”). This was the first milestone in the scholarly rediscovery of the tradition, followed in 1955 by the second milestone: a collective volume entitled Testi umanistici su l’ermetismo that highlighted three authors: Lodovico Lazzarelli, Francesco Giorgio da Veneto, and Cornelius Agrippa. The third milestone came in 1964, with the publication of Frances A. Yates’ classic ‘Giordano Bruno and the Hermetic Tradition’.
The remarkable thing about Yates’ book is that it broke with the existing tradition of Italian scholarship by marginalizing Lazzarelli, who appears only in a few footnotes, while highlighting a series of new names instead: not only the first translator of the Corpus Hermeticum Marsilio Ficino, but also Giovanni Pico della Mirandola and, most innovatively, Giordano Bruno. Wouter explains that this change of direction had to do with Yates’ background agenda:
- she wanted to present Renaissance Hermetism as the origin of modernization and scientific progress
- she wanted to present it as “magic”
- she wanted to convince her readers of the importance of the Hermetic tradition, because she needed some big names.
However, Frances Yates’ “grand narrative” is extremely problematic in many respects, and her book of 1964 is no longer compatible with up-to-date scholarship on Renaissance Hermetism. The earlier Italian research tradition was closer to the truth of what the Hermetic Tradition is all about. Ficino certainly plays a central role, as argued by Kristeller, because of his seminal translation of the Corpus Hermeticum (published in 1471); however, if one takes a closer look at it, one is forced to admit that Ficino does not seem to have understood the Hermetic message very well, and we have seen that he gave priority to Zoroaster over Hermes. The second central figure of Renaissance Hermetism is Lodovico Lazzarelli, who was marginalized by Yates although he translated the final three treatises of the Corpus Hermeticum (C.H. XVI-XVIII, not included in Ficino’s translation) and wrote a seminal text of Christian Hermetism (see below), which demonstrates that he understood the original Hermetic message much better than the great Ficino. Finally, while Yates treated Cornelius Agrippa as a doubtful figure more congenial to the “old dirty magic” of the middle ages than the new and elegant Hermetic magic of the Renaissance, the Testi Umanistici volume of 1955 were quite correct in highlighting him as a key figure in thes story of Renaissance Hermetism. Wouter argues, moreover, that Agrippa stands entirely in the Lazzarellian tradition.
Lodovico Lazzarelli (1447-1500) therefore emerges as the forgotten key figure of the Hermetic Tradition in the 15th century. During his early life he was striving for fame and glory as a Humanist poet, inspired by the classical Greek and Roman literature, and he eventually ended up in Rome where he joined the Roman Academy. The turning point of his life came in 1481, when he met the strange apocalyptic preacher Giovanni da Correggio (ca. 1451?-after 1503) and became his devoted follower. Henceforth he rejected all profane authors, claiming that they made him “sick to his stomach”, and focused entirely on a spiritual quest inspired by only two textual traditions: the Bible and the Hermetic writings. In 1482 he offered Correggio a beautiful manuscript, containing the Latin versions of the Corpus Hermeticum and the Asclepius plus his own translation of C.H. XVI-XVIII (the so-called “Diffinitiones Asclepii”).
They were preceded by three Prefaces that show his deep devotion to Correggio and to the Hermetic message of salvation. Two years later, on Palm Sunday 1484, Lazzarelli was present when Correggio made a spectacular entrance in Rome, dressed like Jesus, carrying a crown of thorns, sitting on a donkey, and identified explicitly as Pimander and Christ united in one person. Finally, between 1492 and 1494, Lazzarelli wrote his masterpiece the Crater Hermetis: probably the purest example of Christian Hermetism of the entire Renaissance. It shows his deep understanding of the Hermetic writings, and contains some highly innovative ideas. Notably, Lazzarelli believed that the “mind of great sovereignty” Poimandres, who reveals himself to Hermes in C.H. I, was none other than Christ himself, identified as the Logos and Second Person of the Trinity. However, because Hermes was a pagan living before the Christian revelation, his understanding of Poimandres’ message was still not entirely flawless: this explains that he could lapse into idolatry, as shown by Asclepius 23-24/37-38 (criticized by St. Augustine in Bk. 8 of De Civitate Dei). The next stage in the process of revelation came when Poimandres incarnated as Jesus Christ. The final stage has now occurred in Lazzarelli’s own time with the return of Poimandres in the person of Giovanni “Mercurio” da Correggio: the Hermetic Christ. He brings the final and highest revelation, centered on a doctrine of spiritual (re)generation or rebirth through which man can reverse the effects of the Fall, attain perfect gnosis, become one with God himself, and participate in the very powers of divine creation that will even allow him to create souls.
Wouter continues by arguing that Cornelius Agrippa (1486-1535/36), the famous author of De occulta philosophia libri tres (Three Books of Occult Philosophy, 1533), stands entirely in the lineage of Lazzarellian Hermetism. Far from being just a compiler of traditional magical lore (let alone a “black magician”, as later generations would have it) he was an extremely pious Christian thinker deeply inspired by the Hermetic message. He read the Hermetica in Lefèvre d’Étaples’ 1505 edition, which also included the first printed edition (in abridged form) of the Crater Hermetis. It is from here that Agrippa picked up all the essential elements of Lazzarelli’s doctrine, as can be shown from close analysis of his surviving texts, including the final version of De occulta philosophia. For Agrippa as for Lazzarelli, spiritual rebirth would reverse the effects of the Fall, leading to supreme gnosis, perfect felicity, and participation in God’s own powers of creativity.
Wouter concludes by arguing that much of the real Hermetic tradition still needs to be recovered from the primary sources: next to key figures such as Lazzarelli and Agrippa, we must give attention to a whole range of further authors who did not figure prominently in Frances Yates’ narrative and are still not well enough known. The Bibliotheca Philosophica Hermetica has played a pioneering role in this ongoing process of recovering the Hermetic tradition by going ad fontes, but in order for that work to continue effectively, its unique collection of all the relevant materials should eventually be reunited in one building.
Check out the Infinite Fire Webinar V – The Real Hermetic Tradition on The Ritman Library YouTube channel: