Tuesday, 27 September 2016

Murder Most Philosophical

If there were ever two gay men who can be said to have created the world we live in today it could be the Italian philosophers Marsillo Ficino (1433-1499) and Giovanni Pico della Mirandola (1463-1494). If it wasn’t for them we’d probably be still be living medieval lives with medieval standards. Between them they produced the works and thoughts that turned a local interest in ancient Greek texts into a Europe-wide Renaissance on the 15th century. Feudalism gave way to capitalism, superstition gave way to science, and a new realism in art flourished.

Underpinning this Renaissance was a “manifesto” and Mirandola was the man who put it all into a book called “Oration of the Dignity of Man” which is acknowledged as the essence of the Renaissance. The Renaissance began before Mirandola was born, but he consolidated its ideas in his “Oration”. What made this possible was two things – Mirandola’s virtually photographic memory and analytical mind, and his patrons the Medici family of Florence.

Florence was a hot-bed of Renaissance thought and the Medici family gathered an amazing group of scholars and thinkers to their court. Mirandola arrived there in 1486 and charmed everyone. In particular he charmed Girolamo Benivieni and Angelo “Poliziano” Ambrosini who are believed to have been his lovers. Mirandola declared his love for Benivieni was chaste and non-sexual (a topic we’ll return to in my next article). In the new Renaissance thinking on love, influenced by the Ancient Greek ideas, male same-sex love was seen as more “perfect” than love for a woman. It wasn’t long before the Catholic Church was preaching the celibate love between men was acceptable.

Mirandola enjoyed the favour of Florence’s ruler, Lorenzo de Medici, but after Lorenzo’s death things changed. The new ruler, Lorenzo’s son Piero, had no time for Mirandola because of the latter’s support for the fanatical Savonarola, a Dominican friar who preached against Medici rule.

Mirandola and his lover Poliziano died two years after Lorenzo in 1494. For many years it was assumed that they both died from syphilis. There was certainly an outbreak of the disease at the time and it is known that Poliziano had caught the infection from a male prostitute. With Mirandola’s death a few months later it was assumed that he died of syphilis also. This immediately suggests that even though his relationship with Girolamo Benivieni was non-sexual the one he had with Poliziano wasn’t. Even Savonarola hinted at sexual activity when he preached a sermon after Mirandola’s death that his soul hadn’t gone straight to heaven but was in Purgatory being cleansed of certain sins. What those sins were Savonarola didn’t say.

However, there were rumours that Mirandola’s death may not have been caused by syphilis. After Savonarola deposed the Medici he began investigations into possible Medici spy rings. Among his interrogations he claimed to have got a confession from Mirandola’s secretary that he, the secretary, had poisoned the philosopher.

There’s no evidence to substantiate this claim, but in the past decade it has been shown that Mirandola’s remains, and those of Poliziano, contained lethal levels of arsenic. However, other documents from that time also reveal that Mirandola’s secretary had, in fact, only given him medicine during his final illness. Savonarola has exaggerated the confession.
The earliest known medical illustration of syphilis sufferers, dating from 1498.
Arsenic was actually used as a medicine as well as a poison. What is particularly significant is that is was used as a treatment for syphilis. Even if the medicine administered by his secretary contained arsenic, was it enough to kill Mirandola? If not, who administered the lethal dose? Was it an accident? It’s a real medieval murder mystery. Was it a Medici plot? Was it because of Mirandola’s support for the anti-Medici Savonarola, or because of his philosophical views? Were Mirandola and his partner Poliziano murdered? Perhaps we’ll never know.

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