Continued from part one.

One of Ficino’s first scholarly works, undertaken in 1457 when he was 24, was the commentary on a poem inspired by Epicurean philosophy, titled On the Nature of Things, by the Latin author Lucretius.[1] However, Ficino soon rejected Epicureanism and burned his  commentary; thus, its content remains unknown. Ficino refers to Lucretius in several writings, mostly to reject his theses. On the question of the immortality of the soul, Ficino, nevertheless, appears to be influenced by themes and motifs borrowed from Lucretius’ poem, as if he had been seduced — not by the author’s reasoning, but by the beauty and inventiveness of some of his images.[2] Furthermore, Ficino indisputably retains from Lucretius a rejection of a frightening afterlife.[3] In the third book of On the Nature of Things, Lucretius aims to refute the idea of the immortality of the soul, asserting that the soul does not remain whole when the body is divided, and thereby perishes with the physical body. To illustrate that proposition, he uses an example that brings together the image of the scythe and that of the dismembered bodies:

We hear how chariots of war, areek
With hurly slaughter, lop with flashing scythes
The limbs away so suddenly that there,
Fallen from the trunk, they quiver on the earth,
The while the mind and powers of the man
Can feel no pain, for swiftness of his hurt,
And sheer abandon in the zest of battle:
With the remainder of his frame he seeks
Anew the battle and the slaughter, nor marks
How the swift wheels and scythes of ravin have dragged
Off with the horses his left arm and shield;
Nor other how his right has dropped away,
Mounting again and on. A third attempts
With leg dismembered to arise and stand,
Whilst, on the ground hard by, the dying foot
Twitches its spreading toes. And even the head,
When from the warm and living trunk lopped off,
Keeps on the ground the vital countenance
And open eyes, until ‘t has rendered up
All remnants of the soul.[4]

This narrative has similarities with Arcana 13 of the Tarot of Marseille. Both the verses and the image clearly depict the scythe that chops off the limbs, the wide-open eyes of the fallen heads, the slashed foot and cut-off hands.


Nicolas Conver, Arcana 13, 1760 (detail of the body fragments on the ground)

Ficino knew this text very well, having commented on it in his youth. However, he did not share Lucretius’ conclusions . The immortality of the soul is a major axis of Ficino’s thought. Nevertheless, Lucretius’ image of a battlefield might have reminded Ficino of another vision, which he quotes in a passage in Book 13 of his treatise on the immortality of the soul. In that text, he brings up the alienation of the soul that happens when a pure intelligence submits to God. Ficino writes that Saint Augustine had told the story of a peasant who was capable, thanks to such an alienation of the soul, of separating himself from his own body. This testimony indisputably contradicts Lucretius’ thesis. Ficino then adds another scene that resembles the bloody panorama drawn by the Epicurean poet in his De rerum natura:

It was through this alienation […] that Ezekiel saw the field strewn with dead men’s bones and the bones presently rising up again.[5]

This passage expresses ideas that were radically opposed to those of Lucretius. The alienation of the soul, indeed, should be understood as its ability to separate from the body and distance itself from it, as Saint Augustine’s peasant did. For Ficino, this capacity for abstraction allowed Ezekiel to anticipate the vision of the bodies at the time of resurrection. Here, Ficino quotes only a few words from the biblical prophet, but it is worth noting that the text continues with an evocation of the bones coming together again, sinew and flesh growing on them, and skin covering them, before Yahweh puts His spirit into them.[6] Both images, of Ezekiel and Lucretius, are at the same time very similar in visual aspect, but opposed in meaning.

These texts, studied and quoted by Ficino, all contributing to the debate over the fate of the soul after its links with the body are severed, seem to be synthetically brought together in the scenery of Arcana 13, with the scythe, the severed heads (one of which bears a crown), the severed hands and foot, and the scattered bones. These observations allow for a reading of Arcana 13 that differs from a mere transposition of the illustrations from Petrarch’s Triumphs. Beyond the simple evocation of the universal power of Death over all humans – be they humble or mighty – one of the main themes of Ficino’s Platonism could be featured here, i.e., the nature of the link between body and soul. Could the study of the card’s second specificity – the plant-shaped dorsal structure of the skeleton – bolster that hypothesis?

To be continued in part three.

[1] See James Hankins, Ficino’s Critique of Lucretius, in Idem and Fabrizio Meroi, The Rebirth of Platonic Theology, Florence, Olschki, 2013, p. 137-147.

[2] See my When Souls Fall Asleep: Shadows of Lucretius and Avicenna in Ficino’s Conception of the Afterlife, forthcoming in a volume dedicated to Marsilio Ficino, edited by Valery Rees and James Snyder, for Brill.

[3] See Alison Brown, The Return of Lucretius to Renaissance Florence, Cambridge, Mass., Harvard University Press, 2010, p. 16-20.

[4] Lucretius, De rerum natura, III, 642-656 (translation by William Ellery Leonard).

[5] Ficino, Platonic Theology, XIII, 2, cit. (Allen), IV, p. 167.

[6] Ezekiel, 37 1-14.

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