In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Platonism, Neoplatonism, and the Hermetic Tradition

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews

Renaissance and Reformation Platonism, Neoplatonism, and the Hermetic Tradition
Francisco Bastitta Harriet
  • LAST MODIFIED: 27 October 2021
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195399301-0475


The trends of Platonism which proved to be the most influential throughout the Renaissance were born roughly around the same period as the Greek corpus attributed to the Egyptian sage Hermes Trismegistus. They resulted from the rich intermingling of Greek philosophy with other Near Eastern cultures since the time of Alexander the Great. It is not by chance, then, that their fortunes were bound together until the Early Modern period. Legend has it that Cosimo de’ Medici was highly impressed by the Platonic wisdom of the Greek émigrés visiting Florence in 1439, during the Council of Union between the Eastern and Western Churches, and particularly by the eminent philosopher George Gemistos Plethon. More than twenty years later, Cosimo entrusted a young Marsilio Ficino with the task of translating into Latin a Greek manuscript of Plato’s dialogues, possibly bequeathed by the Byzantine emperor, if not by Plethon himself. Before completing his rendering of the first series of ten dialogues, Ficino presented his elderly patron with the Pimander, a translation of fifteen Greek treatises on theology and occult lore by the “thrice greatest” Mercury or Hermes, believed to be the first in a venerable tradition of ancient sages which culminated in Plato. Certainly, these and similar newly recovered collections helped to shape and enrich the intellectual life of the emergent Renaissance. Their novelty and relevance, however, tended to be overstated in some historiographical perspectives. Fortunately, profound critical studies of the various sources from the Platonic, Neoplatonic, and Hermetic traditions have multiplied since the 19th century, gradually providing a clearer picture of the extent and nature of their influence on Renaissance and Early Modern scholars. Some of the most interesting topics discussed currently regard the lines of continuity between the medieval and Renaissance receptions of Platonism and Hermetism. Indeed, the Latin, Arabic, Hebrew, and Byzantine Middle Ages offer an immense repository of Platonic and Hermetic wisdom to Renaissance humanists and philosophers, which includes new theoretical and practical approaches, interpretative methods, translations, and commentaries. Only after elucidating these elements of continuity and change can one adequately ponder the distinctive character and originality of Renaissance Platonists and Hermeticists. Another hotly debated issue since Lynn Thorndike’s pioneering studies is the role of these ancient and medieval traditions in the development of experimental sciences and the emergence of the scientific revolution around the 16th and 17th centuries.

General Overviews

In this section one can find comprehensive, introductory, and collective studies on Renaissance Platonism, Neoplatonism, and Hermetism. Kristeller 1979 and Celenza 2007 comprise excellent summaries of Platonic and Neoplatonic influence on the period, as do Garin 1988 and Faivre 2016 regarding the Hermetic tradition. Hankins 2004 is a valuable compilation of articles on the late medieval and Renaissance reception of Plato. Gentile 2002 offers a leading philologist’s account of the first interactions of Petrarch and Ficino with Plato and Hermes. Some of the essays in the collective volumes Rotondi Secchi Tarugi 1998; Lucentini, et al. 2003; and Hedley and Hutton 2008 also present more general and some specific insights into the development of these traditions between the 14th and 17th centuries. Buffon and D’Amico 2016 has the advantage of showing the connections and mutual influences between Platonic and Hermetic sources.

  • Buffon, Valeria, and Claudia D’Amico, eds. Hermes Platonicus: Hermetismo y Platonismo en el medioevo y la modernidad temprana. Santa Fe, Argentina: Ediciones UNL, 2016.

    A collection of studies on the interaction of Hermetic and Platonic influences throughout the Middle Ages and the Early Modern period. It contains specific chapters on Nicholas of Cusa’s reading of the Asclepius and the Liber XXIV philosophorum, on the reception of the Hermetica in Florentine Platonists like Ficino and Pico della Mirandola, and on their impact on the 17th century and Ralph Cudworth.

  • Celenza, Christopher S. “The Revival of Platonic Philosophy.” In The Cambridge Companion to Renaissance Philosophy. Edited by James Hankins, 72–96. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2007.

    A brief history of early Renaissance Platonism as a process of interpretation. It features Petrarch’s admiration for Plato and the subsequent recovery and first translations of Plato’s works. A section is devoted to the controversy over the superiority of Plato or Aristotle. Finally, the author focuses on the figure of Marsilio Ficino and his followers.

  • Faivre, Antoine. “Renaissance Hermetism.” In The Cambridge Handbook of Western Mysticism and Esotericism. Edited by Glenn A. Magee, 133–142. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2016.

    DOI: 10.1017/CBO9781139027649.013

    The chapter offers a valuable overview of the translation, transmission, and influence of the Greek Hermetica first in Italy and then in the rest of Europe from middle Quattrocento to the early 17th century. It focuses on the esoteric circles that discussed these treatises. It mentions the controversy over the authenticity and antiquity of the corpus, as well as numerous references to sources and more specific studies on Italian, French, and German Hermeticists.

  • Garin, Eugenio. Ermetismo del Rinascimento. Rome: Editori Riuniti, 1988.

    This short book is based on an important lecture given by Garin at the University of Ferrara in 1986. It touches upon different stages of the historical impact of the Hermetic tradition on the Renaissance, focusing on the circulation of philosophical and practical texts, like the Greek corpus, the Latin Asclepius, and the Arabic Picatrix.

  • Gentile, Sebastiano. “Il ritorno di Platone, dei platonici e del ‘corpus’ ermetico: Filosofia, teologia e astrologia nell’opera di Marsilio Ficino.” In Le filosofie del Rinascimento. Edited by Cesare Vasoli, 193–228. Milan: Mondadori, 2002.

    In this chapter, Gentile summarizes Ficino’s scholarly career in Florence. He first looks back on the precursory role of other eminent Florentine humanists like Petrarch, but his main interest lies in introducing Ficino’s relentless task of reading, translating, commenting, and editing Plato, the Platonists, and the Hermetica.

  • Hankins, James. Humanism and Platonism in the Italian Renaissance. Vol. 2, Platonism. Rome: Edizioni di Storia e Letteratura, 2004.

    A wide-ranging collection of articles, divided into four sections. The first two interestingly deal with the relationship between medieval and Renaissance Platonism, underscoring some usually neglected elements of continuity and shared sources. Next, the author groups some of his celebrated essays on the so-called Platonic Academy of Florence and on other Renaissance figures like Cardinal Bessarion, Baldassarre Castiglione, and Michelangelo.

  • Hedley, Douglas, and Sarah Hutton, eds. Platonism at the Origins of Modernity: Studies on Platonism and Early Modern Philosophy. Dordrecht, The Netherlands: Springer, 2008.

    Comprises some valuable studies on the Platonism of Nicholas of Cusa, Marsilio Ficino, and Lord Herbert, among other Early Modern authors.

  • Kristeller, Paul Oskar. Renaissance Thought and Its Sources. Edited by Michael Mooney. New York: Columbia University Press, 1979.

    This book is a compilation of erudite and elegantly written essays by Kristeller, most of which were published before. Some of these papers deal with Renaissance Platonism, its relationship to Christianity, and the representatives of Byzantine Platonism. An excellent introduction to the intellectual history of the period.

  • Lucentini, Paolo, Ilaria Parri, and Vittoria Perrone Compagni, eds. Hermetism from Late Antiquity to Humanism. La tradizione ermetica dal mondo tardo antico all’umanesimo. Turnhout, Belgium: Brepols, 2003.

    A fascinating overview of the different aspects of Hermetic influence in the Middle Ages and the Renaissance. Particularly helpful are the two studies on Cusanus’s use of Hermetic sources, papers on the interaction of Hermetism and Jewish thought, and others on the presence of practical Hermetic lore in Ficino.

  • Rotondi Secchi Tarugi, Luisa, ed. L’Ermetismo nell’Antichità e nel Rinascimento. Milan: Nuovi Orizzonti, 1998.

    Various interesting studies (including Vasoli 1998, cited under Venice and Other Italian States, and Sozzi 1998, cited under France), on the reception of Hermetic themes in Renaissance poetry, philosophy, art, and religion, from Petrarch to the 16th century.

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