17 – TWO VENUSES – PART 2

Continued from part one

On the divine nature of love, Ficino did not content himself, in his commentary on the Symposium, with quoting Plato. He also mentions pseudo-Dionysius, a Christian author of the fifth century A.D. who was inspired by the writings of Plato and his commentators, but who, since the Middle Ages, had been identified with the Athenian converted by St. Paul at the Areopagus.[1] He is, for Ficino, an invaluable authority to support his thesis of a concordance between Platonism and Christianity. In his writings, inspired from both the Bible and Platonic philosophy, pseudo-Dionysius assimilates and merges Christian love and Platonic love. That is why Ficino describes him as someone for whom love is a divinity. In a passage from pseudo-Dionysius’ treatise On Divine Names, to which Ficino refers, pseudo-Dionysius affirms the similarity of amorous desire and charitable love, and quotes, in support of this idea, a verse from the Wisdom of Solomon: “I became enamored of her beauty.”[2] In this text, the biblical poet sings the praises of Wisdom as the ideal bride.

[Wisdom]
I loved her and sought her from my youth,
and I desired to take her for my bride,
and I became enamored of her beauty.[3]

The identification of Wisdom as the ideal bride is a theme we also find in the writings of Cristoforo Landino, Ficino’s faithful friend, whom we met in Episode 10. Landino makes a clear allusion to it in his glosses on Dante’s Paradise. Commenting on a passage in which some natural and artistic visions are qualified as “baits to take the eye so as to possess the mind,” he writes:

Many bodies natural or made by art, as they are sculpted or painted, by their beauty take the eyes of others and lure them with pleasure, in such a way that pleasure penetrates through the eyes into the soul. Hence what says […] Solomon: “The married woman catches the precious soul of the man.”[4]

One does not immediately see the reason why this citation from Solomon is quoted here. To understand it, it is necessary to refer to this passage from the Bible’s Book of Proverbs, from which it is derived:

Because the commandment is a lamp, and the law a light, and reproofs of instruction are the way of life:
That they may keep you from the evil woman, and from the flattering tongue of the stranger.
Do not let your heart covet her beauty, do not be caught with her winks:
For the price of a prostitute is only one loaf: but the married woman catches the precious soul of a man.[5]

As it appears, the deceptive power of a prostitute’s seduction opposes the married woman as a figure of Wisdom. Here, Landino highlights in the Bible the motif of a young man at the crossroads — on one side seduced by earthly pleasures, and on the other exhorted to follow divine wisdom. For Landino, in any case, love passes through the vision of beauty, but the contemplation of wisdom is incomparably more dazzling than that of all the other beauties together. That is the sense, as it appears, one takes away from Dante’s verses that evoke the vision of Beatrice, a figure of Wisdom:

Therefore, if all of the beautiful things on which the eyes feast, and who take the mind through the eyes, were gathered together, they would appear as nothing in comparison to the divine pleasure that dazzled me, that is, which shone in my eyes when I turned myself towards Beatrice’s smiling face.[6]

Sandro Botticelli illustrated these Dante verses in a drawing that powerfully expresses the divinely intense looks exchanged between the poet and Beatrice, the woman he loves with an ideal love.

Botticelli, Beatrice and Dante (Biblioteca Vaticana).

In the Lovers card, conversely, the looks are exchanged between the young man and the vulgar Venus, while the matrimonial link, revealed by the wedding garland, ties him to the heavenly Venus. How are we to solve this apparent contradiction? The Cupid hovering over the scene probably indicates the answer with his bow. Stirred up in the soul of the young man by the ray provoked by the vision of the vulgar Venus, the winged demon is just about to shoot his arrow, aiming precisely at the point where the heavenly Venus links arms with her husband. The image of the god of love armed with a bow and arrow comes from Ovid’s Metamorphosis. There, in the myth of Daphne, the poet writes that Cupid has two types of arrows: those of gold, which arouse love, and those of lead, which snuff it out.[7] We can, thus, reconstruct the story told by the card. The misleading appearance of the vulgar Venus, addressed to the senses, sparks off in the mind of the young man a desire in the form of a Cupid, whose arrow of lead is about to fall on the matrimonial link that unites the man to his wife, the heavenly Venus. Apparently undecided, the young man has not taken any action, leaving the moment suspended.

Nicolas Conver,  The Lovers, 1760

It should be clarified here that for Ficino, as for Plotinus, the vulgar Venus is not bad inherently. On the contrary, she is absolutely necessary for the ascent of the soul because she provokes the desire of union. However, she is destined to lead the souls, through the pleasure obtained by the vision of multiple manifestations of beauty, to the contemplation of the Beautiful in itself. Therefore, the vulgar Venus introduces souls to the heavenly Venus. In the Lovers card, conversely, the young man cannot go beyond the level of sensible beauty offered by the vulgar Venus, putting him at risk of depriving himself of access to the intelligible beauties offered by the heavenly Venus. Philebus strays from the path because he does not understand the hierarchy between the two Venuses.

 

[1] Ficino, The Philebus Commentary, cit., p. 288. Cf. Acts, 17 34.

[2] Pseudo-Dionysius, Divine Names, 709a-b, in Idem, Œuvres complètes, transl. Maurice de Gandillac, Paris, Aubier, 1943, p. 106.

[3] Wisdom, 8, 2.

[4] Landino, Comento, Paradiso, XXVII [79-96], 37-43, p. 1941.

[5] Proverbs, 6, 23-26.

[6] Landino, Comento, Paradiso, XXVII [79-96], 44-47, p. 1941.

[7] Ovid, Metamorphoses, 1.466-469.

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