Picus, John

, of Mirandula, considered as a prodigy of learning in his day, was the youngest child of John Francis Picus, prince of Mirandula and Concordia, by Julia, of the noble house of Boirado; and was born Feb. 24, 1463. His father dying early, his mother took great care of his education; and the progress he made in letters was so extremely rapid, that his friends are said to have seen with astonishment a mere boy become one of the first poets and orators of his age. What contributed to this progress, besides intense application, was great vigour of intellect, and a memory so tenacious, as to let nothing be lost which he had ever read or heard. At fourteen years of age, being designed for the church, he was sent to Bologna to study canon law; and though he was soon disgusted with a study so lirtle suited to his talents and fertile imagination, he acquired a knowledge of it sufficient to enable him to | compose an abbreviated digest, or manual, of the pontifical letters, termed Decretals, in a manner that would have done credit to the most accomplished professor. Having afforded this proof of early capacity, on a subject so ungenial, he left Bologna, and visiting successively all the most celebrated schools and colleges of Italy and France, he profited so well by what was taught there, or by what he learned in discussions with the eminent scholars and professors, that, before he had attained to manhood, he was universally recognized as a most consummate philosopher and divine.

During this early period he distinguished himself likewise as a poet, by his compositions both in the Latin and Italian languages, almost all which, however, as they were disapproved either by the nicety of his maturer judgment, or by the purity of his religious and moral feelings, at a later period, he was induced to destroy. Many also of his letters, which are still extant, were written whilst he was yet very young; and from them proofs might be selected, tending greatly to support the high juvenile reputation of their author. We have, indeed, few other documents to illustrate his literary career; and the little we know of his progress, during the seven years that he spent in visiting the universities, must be taken from them, as Mr. Gressvvell has done with great judgment. Among the academies where he passed the greater part of the above period, were those of Ferrara, Padua, Florence, and Perugia; and among the eminent scholars, with whom he entered into friendship and correspondence, were Guarinus, Marsilius Ficinus, Politian, and Nic. Leonicenus. When not engaged in any literary excursion, he spent his time at Fratta, a rural retreat in the neighbourhood of Mirandula. In 1482, he informs Leanicenns that he had erected this villa, and had written a poem in its, praise. With the commencement of 1484, the literary career of Picus became more distinct and conspicuous: he was now approaching the age of manhood; and went to Florence to perfect himself in the Greek. Within a few months after his arrival here, he composed his well-known panegyrical criticism on the Italian poems of Lorenzo de Medici. It is drawn up in the form of a letter, and addressed to Lorenzo himself. With many remarks in the true spirit of criticism, there is, perhaps, rather too much of a courtly partiality to the productions of Lorenzo. While at Florence, we find Picus employed in investigating the manuscripts of | ancient authors, both in Greek and Latin, of the value of which he was already enabled to form a just estimate. Indeed the mere discovery of them was a service of high importance at that time, when the invention of printing was forming a new oera in literature. He had now added to his correspondents Jerome Donatus, Hermolaus Barbarus, Philip Beroaldus, and Alexander Cortesius, the latter of whom seems to carry his admiration of Picus to the very borders of gross and extravagant flattery; which, however, a little moderated, was a distinguishing feature in the literary correspondence of that age.

Picus quitted Florence about the end of the year 1485, with a view to visit Perugia, and appears to have beea employed, for some time, in adding to his other stores a knowledge of the oriental languages; stimulated, as he says, by the acquisition of certain oriental works, which he deemed of inestimable value, and which were thrown in his way, he adds, by the peculiar kindness of Providence. In a letter, written in Oct. 1486, to Andreas Corneus, another of his learned correspondents, he says: “I have, by assiduous and intense application, attained to the knowledge of the Hebrew and Chaldaic languages, and am at present struggling with the difficulties of the Arabic. Such are the achievements which I have ever thought, and still think, worthy the ambition of a nobleman: though the expression may contain as much satire as truth.” In this letter he gives a hint of his intended visit to Rome, which constitutes one of the most singular occurrences in his life,

The love of fame (says his excellent biographer, whom we principally follow in this sketch,) and a too ardent thirst for praise, have perhaps justly been imputed to Picus, as constituting his ruling passion (notwithstanding the modesty and diffidence with which he frequently speaks of his own talents and productions), especially if the charge be restricted to that period of his life, when ma^turer experience and those religious impressions by which his latter years were more especially influenced, had not yet combined to rectify the errors of youth. Caressed, flattered, courted, extolled as a prodigy of erudition by the most distinguished scholars of his age, he was at the same time conscious of his own qualifications and powers, and began to think that they ought to be exhibited on the most extensive stage which the world then afforded. With this view he resolved on a journey to Rome; and immediately on his arrival, in November 1486, he published a | most remarkable challenge to the learned of Europe, under the title of- “Conclusiones,” consisting of 900 propositions, or subjects of discussion, in almost every science that could exercise the speculation or ingenuity of man; and which, extraordinary and superfluous as many of them appear to a reader of the present times, certainly furnish a more adequate idea of the boundless extent of his erudition and research, than any words can describe. These he promised publicly to maintain against all opponents whatsoever: and that time might be allowed for the circulation of his “Conclusiones” through the various universities of Italy, in- all of which he caused them to be published, notice was giv^n, that the public discussion of them was not intended to take place till after the feast of the Epiphany next ensuing. A further object of this delay was, to afford to all scholars, even from the remotest of those seats of learning, who were desirous to be present and to assist at his disputations, an opportunity of repairing to Rome for such a purpose. So desirous was Picus of attracting thither, on this occasion, all the united wit, ingenuity, and erudition, that Italy could boast, that he engaged to defray, out of his own purse, the charges of all scholars, from whatever part, who should undertake the journey to Rome, for the purpose of disputing publicly with him on the subjects proposed. He had previously obtained the express permission of pope Innocent VIII. and professed all possible deference to the authority of the church, in the support of his theses. The boldness of this challenge could not fail to astonish the learned in general; but astonishment soon gave place to envy: and the Roman scholars and divines in particular, whose credit was more immediately implicated, endeavoured to render his design abortive, first, by lampoons and witticisms; and, when these proved insufficient, by the more alarming expedient of presenting thirteen of Picus’s theses, as containing matter of an heretical tendency. This answered their purpose; and although Picus continued at Rome a whole year, in expectation of reaping the harvest of praise which his juvenile vanity had led him to desire, he at last found himself not only debarred from all opportunity of signalizing himself publicly, as a disputant, but involved in a charge of heterodoxy, and therefore thought it expedient to leave Rome, and seek a temporary asylum at Florence, in the friendship of Lorenzo de Medici. Here he immediately set about the composition of | his “Apologia,’ 1 a work which not only served to refute the calumnies of his enemies, but convinced the world that his pretensions to very extraordinary powers were not spurious or empirical. On its completion, he sent it to the pope, who, although he fully acquitted the author of all bad intention, thought proper to suppress the circulation of it; and Picus, on further reflection, not only acquiesced in this, but in his disappointment, acknowledging with thankfulness that divine Providence, which often educes good out of evil, had rendered the malevolence of his enemies a most salutary check to the career of vain glory, in which he had been led so far astray. But Picus had not yet seen all the disagreeable consequences of this affair: his enemies began to cavil at the” Apologia" itself, which appears to have had considerable weight with pope Innocent; and it was not until 1493 that he was acquitted from the charge, and from all prosecutions, pains, and penalties, by a bull of pope Alexander VI.

In the beginning of 1488, we find Picus in the possession of a peaceful asylum at Fiesole, in the vicinity of Florence, which had been given him by Lorenzo de Medici, who had a villa in the neighbourhood; and he and Politian spent many of their hours of literary leisure together. Here also he enjoyed the friendship of Robert Salviatus and the family of the Benivieni, four in number, and all men of learning and talents. Jerome Benivieni, or Benivenius, became more especially the intimate friend of Picus, the depositary of his religious and moral opinions, and all that congeniality of opinion and disposition can render one person to another. Picus wrote a commentary on one of Benivieni’s Canzone, which will be noticed hereafter* In 1489, Picus’s “Heptaplus” was published, and received with great encomiums by the learned of the age, as worthy of its author’s talents and pre-acquired celebrity It can scarcely, however, says his biographer, be productive of any valuable purpose, very minutely to inquire into the merit of a woik which the tacit consent of posterity has consigned to almost total oblivion. Picus intermixes much of Platonism in all his theological writings; and they are also tinctured with the fancied doctrines of the Jewish Cabala, which is particularly observable in the work in question. After this he appears to have been employed on a commentary on the Psalms of David, at the request of Lorenzo de Medici; but respecting | thecompletion of this, nothing satisfactory is upon record. About the beginning of 1490 he was employed on his favourite object of reconciling Plato and Aristotle. “To this work,” he says in a letter to Baptista Mantuanus, “I daily devote the whole of my morning hours; the afternoon I give to the society of friends, those relaxations which are requisite for the preservation of health, and occasionally to the poets and orators, and similar studies of a lighter kind; my nights are divided betwixt sleep and the perusal of the Holy Scriptures.” In 1491 he published his treatise “De Ente et Uno,” which, says his biographer, exhibits a chain of the most profound and abstract reasoning concerning the Deity, expressed in a language consistent with the sacred ness of the subject, much more free from the terms and phraseology peculiar to the schoolmen than might be expected, and which (in comparison with the mode then usual, of treating arguments so metaphysical and abstruse) may be denominated luminous and classical. This work afterwards gave occasion to a friendly controversy between Picus and Antonius Faventinus, or Cittadinus, the whole of which is included in the works of Picus, who, as a controversial writer, appears in a very amiable view.

The society and conveniencies of study which Florence afforded, had reconciled him to a lasting abode in that city, when, in 1492, he hadthe misfortune to lose his illustrious patron and associate, Lorenzo de Medici, who was carried off bya fever in the prime of life. He and Politian, of all the Florentine scholars, had possessed perhaps the very first place in Lorenzo’s esteem. Picus now resolved to leave Florence, at least for a time, where every object reminded him of the loss he had sustained; and went to Ferrara, where he endeavoured to divert his grief by again deeply engaging in his oriental studies. A short time previously to this period, being willing to exonerate himself from the weight of secular dignities and cares, he had, for a very inadequate consideration, transferred to his nephew (the subject of our next article), John Francis PicLi.s, all his territories and other rights and possessions in Mirandula and Goncordia, comprehending one-third part of the patrimonial inheritance. The sums arising from this transfer, he employed partly in the purchase of lands, to secure an annual revenue for the due support of his household, and partly in charitable donations; to the later purpose also the produce of a great part of his rich | furniture and plate was appropriated. Benevolence towards the poor seems to have been a distinguishing feature in his character; for, not content with performing acts of munificence and charity, the necessity and propriety of which suggested themselves to his own observation, he engaged his friend Jerome Benivenius to be constantly in search of such cases of indigence and di&tress amongst the poorer citizens of Florence as might happen to escape general observation; authorizing him to supply immediate relief as necessity required, and engaging lo refund from his own purse whatever sums he should disburse on these benevolent occasions. In his latter days, to which we are now approaching, we are told that pride, ambition, anger, and all the turbulent passions, had subsided; that vanity and self-conceit were extinguished, and that no events, whether prosperous or adverse, discomposed the constant and uniform serenity of his mind. These great qualities, however, were not wholly unmixed with some portion of the superstition incident to the age. He is represented as having, at particular seasons, added to the usual mortifications prescribed by the church, by voluntary penances and self-inflicted pains, which the erring judgment of those times considered as meritorious. Of many, however, of the abuses and corruptions of the papal hierarchy he appears to have been sensible, and on various points of doctrine his views have been pronounced much more rational than could be expected from the time.

He now devoted himself to theological studies. We have already mentioned his “Hexaplus,” or explanation of the six days gf the creation; and he appears at this time to have been making preparations for farther elucidating the Holy Scriptures, and for combating the errors of his time; but of these and other undertakings, scarce any now remain except his work “Contra Astrologiam Divinatricem” and a few “Opuscula*” Of the immense mass of manuscripts found after his decease, few could be decyphered or methodized* but his nephew, by great pains uiul labour, was enabled to transcribe that portion of his voluminous work which was levelled against judicial astrology, and which proved to be in a more finished state than the rest. It was afterwards published in various collections of his works, under the title of “De Astrologia Disputationum Libri duodecim,” and has entitled Picus to the praise of having been the first who boldly and successfully | exposed the fallacy of a species of superstition, which, notwithstanding his endeavours, continued long after this to hold its empire over the human mind.

At length, however, the labours of this illustrious scholar drew to a close. In 1494, while at Florence, he was seized with a fever which proved fatal on the thirteenth day, Nov. 17, in the thirty-third year of his age. His remains were interred in the church of St. Mark, near those of his friend Politian, whom he did not survive quite two months. The well-known epitaph inscribed on Picus’s tomb,

Joannes jacet hie Mirandula, caetera norunt

Et Tagus, et Ganges, forsan et Antipodes,

is attributed to the pen of Hercules Strozza. The regret excited amongst the learned in all parts of Europe, by the tidings of the decease of Picus, was proportionate to the high reputation of his talents and character.

In the religious opinions held by Picus, and inculcated in his works, he seems to have accorded chiefly with those of his own age and church, whom ecclesiastical writers have denominated by the general appellation of mystics; though, doubtless, if the minuter shades of difference be compared, he will, as a religious writer, be found to possess his wonted originality, and to reason and judge of many speculative points in a manner peculiar to himself. His devotional feelings were indeed subject to variation, and he once formed a resolution to dispose of all his property to the poor, and taking the crucifix in his hand, to travel barefooted from city to city as a preacher of the gospel; but this resolution he is said afterwards to have changed for that of joining the order of the Dominicans, at the instance of their general Savonarola; and his remains previous to interment (which was also the case with Politian’s) were invested with the habit of this order. Of the general character of Picus, with all the deductions which must be made from the reports of his contemporaries, Mr. Gresswell says, with great justice, that it still merits the admiration of those who contemplate with philosophical curiosity the powers and capabilities of the human rnind.

The works of Picus were printed together at Bologna, in 1496; at Venice, 1498; at Strasburg, 1504; at Basil, 1557, 1573, 1601, all in folio. The edition of 1601 contains the following works: 1. “Heptaplus, id est, de Dei | Creatoris opere sex dierum, libri septem,” which seems to have been written chiefly with a view to authorize and support those Platonic ideas, with which his warm imagination was not a little inebriated. 2. “Conclusiones 900, quas olim Roma? disputandas exhibuit.” But the editors have omitted the advertisement subjoined at their first pubJication, which runs thus: “Conclusiones non disputabuntur nisi post Epiphaniam, interim publicabuntur in omnibus Italiae gymnasiis & si quis philosophus aut theologus ab extrema Italia arguendi gratia Romam venire voluerit, ipse pollicetur dominus disputaturus, se viatici expensas illi soluturum de suo.” 3. “Apologia adversus eos, qni aliquot propositiones theologicas carpebant.” 4. “De ente & uno, opus in quo plurimi loci in Moise, in Platone & Aristotele explicantur.” 5. “De hominis dignitate oratio.” Mirandula discovers here many secrets of the Jewish Cabala, of the Chaldean and Persian philosophers. 6. “Regulse XII. partim excitantes, partim dirigentes hominem in pugna spiritual!.” 7. “In Psalmum XV. commentarius.” 8. “In orationem Dominicam expositio.” 9. “Aureae & familiares epistola?,” which are perhaps, at present, the most useful and entertaining part of his works: on which account the public is much obliged to the learned Christopher Cellarius, for giving a correct edition of them with notes, 1682, in 8vo. 10. “Disputationum in astrologiam libri XII.” the most solid and argumentative of all his works. 11. “Commento sopra una canzone de amore, composta da Girolamo Benivieni, secundo la mente & opinione de' Platonici” translated into English by Thomas Stanley, 1651, in 8vo. 12. “Elegia in laudem Hieronymi Benivieni;” in Latin and Italian.

His life, prefixed to his works, and afterwards inserted in Bates* “Vitae illustrium virorum,” was written by his nephew, John Francis Picus; but a more valuable, and certainly the most elaborate account yet given of this extraordinary man, is that for which we are indebted to the Rev. W. Parr Gresswell, published in 1805, with the Lives ofPolitian, &.c. and to which it is sufficient to refer, as including every species of authority. 1


Life as above.