Plato's Opera
Plato's Opera
Plato's Opera
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Plato's Opera
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Plato's Opera


Plato's Opera
Lorenzo de Alopa [but the nuns of San Jacopo di Ripoli], 1484-5.
PLATO (c.428-347). Opera. Translated by Marsilio Ficino (1433-99). Florence: [the nuns of San Jacopo di Ripoli (parts I-V) for] Laurentius (Francisci) de Alopa, [1484-85].

First edition of the complete works of Plato in any languagethe book which returned Plato to Western Europe. Having been lost to the European philosophical tradition for nearly a thousand years, Plato was re-introduced in the translation of Marsilio Ficino under the patronage of Cosimo de’ Medici. In the words of Ficino himself, “The Divine Plato now finds himself in the light of day.”

A.N. Whitehead famously wrote that all subsequent philosophical discourse essentially “consists of a series of footnotes to Plato," but for much of the Medieval period, only a partial translation of Plato’s Timaeus was accessible to Latin readers. During the Arabic translation movement, Meno, Phaedo, and parts of the Parmenides became available, but manuscripts of the complete works of Plato did not begin to circulate until the 14th century. Platonic ideas had nevertheless been percolating in Western Christendom for some time, by way of the influence of Augustine and other theologians influenced by the rich Greek philosophical tradition. But this reflected glow did not prepare the Renaissance Humanists for the reality of Plato’s dialogues: delightfully clever and stylish, ironic and sometimes biting, with a mix of ideas which seem to prefigure Christianity alongside those anathema to it—and worst of all, few clear conclusions on anything. The early Humanists engaged with Plato eagerly, but few of them truly understood what they were reading until Ficino brought the full force of his intellectual prowess to bear on a grand project of reconciling Platonism with Christianity for the enrichment of humankind. Rather than simply a model of eloquence or erudition, Ficino saw in Plato a “model of religion which would join wisdom and faith” (Hankins).

The influence of Plato’s works was felt deeply and widely across both the arts and the sciences in Renaissance Europe. While his dialogues are an obvious achievement in literature and philosophy, his scientific legacy has been sometimes overshadowed by his student, Aristotle. But from neo-platonist mathematician-preachers using arithmetic and geometry to expound on the nature of truth and Alberti’s Platonic architectural theory to Kepler’s magnificent Platonic vision of the universe in his Mysterium cosmographium, Plato’s ideas live on in the science that still informs our lives today, thanks to Ficino’s translation and dissemination of his works. Science has not moved past Plato, but continues to return to his generative imagery and his work's consideration of the nature of knowing itself. According to physicist Walter Heisenberg: “Modern physics has definitely decided in favor of Plato.”

The printing of this volume was funded by Filippo Valori, who contracted with Fra Domenico da Pistoia and Lorenzo de Alopa to produce 1025 copies of the Plato Redivivus. The dialogues are accompanied by argumenta which function as the embryonic form of Ficino’s later great commentaries on the dialogues. The work stands as a monument to Ficino’s “project to provide a complete and integrated frame of commentary and study aids for the Platonic corpus” (Hankins). While early (and practically unobtainable) editions of the Gorgias and The Apology printed prior to this edition are extant, largely in the sub-par translations of Aretinus, this was their first appearance as a unified corpus—a presentation which has shaped Plato’s reception ever since. “Ficino might very well be the first philosopher in the Latin West, at least since antiquity, to interpret Plato’s works as a coherent and singular corpus” (Robichaud). The works present in this edition, including some now with doubtful attribution, are: Hipparchus, De philosophia, Theages, Meno, Alcibiades I-II, Minos, Euthyphro, Parmenides, Philebus, Hippias maior, Lysis, Theaetetus, Ion, The Sophist, The Stateman, Protagoras, Euthydemus, Hippias minor, Charmides, Laches, Clitophon, Cratylus, Gorgias, The Symposium, Phaedrus, The Apology, Crito, Phaedo, Menexenus, The Republic, Timaeus, Critias, The Laws, Epinomis; and the Letters.

For the most part—uniquely among the early translators—Ficino renders the passages on homoeroticism, Socrates’s daimon, and the unusual social practices of the Republic accurately and with honesty to the original text. Ficino also shows the beginning of an understanding of what we now call the “Socratic problem”—the recognition that Socrates the character in the dialogues and Plato the author are not necessarily identical. He also emphasizes that Socrates did not just hand down doctrines, but engaged his students in a process of inquiry to discover the truth. Centuries of readers around the world would first meet Plato through Ficino’s translation; copies of his rendition are attested in the Harvard and Yale libraries in the 18th century, and one seems to have been present in a library in Beijing by 1623 (Kristeller).

Parts II-V of this edition were printed by the Dominican nuns of San Jacopo di Ripoli, the first women known to work as typesetters—Kristeller suggests that part I may have been printed by Lorenzo de Alopa (a partner of the press) alone, perhaps simultaneously. The Ripoli Press was the first press in Florence to operate for a significant period, its cloisters filled with the daughters of illustrious Florentine families producing a wide range of books. Their operations from 1476 are documented in the manuscript diario of the convent, written in the hand of Fra Domenico (whose death in 1484 seems to have ended printing activity at the house, making Ficino’s Plato their final work). The Plato was “by far the largest printing job the press had ever undertaken…the commission of such a significant edition—the first translation of all the works of Plato into any Western language—underwritten by friends of Ficino himself, suggesting the press had gained a very good reputation within the influential and monied humanist circle in Florence” (Conway). Yet, “printed on two presses, each using a different type, the Opera were completed and delivered to Valori in sections, thus explaining the fragmentary state of most copies" (Ford). The last complete copy of this work appeared at auction in 1959 (a mixed set). This copy has an early integrity, with mid 16th-century fore-edge decoration, depicting putti congregating around an altar (perhaps to the manes of Plato himself) and early marginalia.

HC 13062*; BMC VI 666; BSB-Ink P-568; Bod-inc P-345; CIBN P-446; Klebs 785.1; Ford, BPH 158 (pt 1 only); Goff P-771; ISTC ip00771000. See also James Hankins, Plato in the Italian Renaissance (1990); Paul Oskar Kristeller, “The First Printed Edition of Plato’s Works and the Date of its Publication (1494)” in Studies in Renaissance Thought and Letters vol 3, pt 178; Melissa Conway, The Diario of the Printing Press of San Jacopo di Ripoli (1999); and Denis Robichaud, Platos Persona (2018).

Five parts in one volume, chancery folio (277 x 210mm). 561 leaves (of 562, without blank [rum]6). Woodcut diagrams (some soiling and spotting, especially at ends, few tiny wormholes at ends; a number of small marginal paper repairs to corners and closed tears, larger marginal tear from dd2). Modern sienna morocco with c.1510-40 fore-edge decoration of putti on all three edges (fading and the resewing when bound obscure the fore-edge). Provenance: considerable marginalia in two humanistic cursive hands, as well as several mid- and late-16th century hands – Michele Cavaleri (1813-1890, Milanese lawyer and collector; Museo Cavaleri stamp, collection sold en bloc in 1873 to:) – Enrico Cernuschi (1821-1896, French banker and collector; dispersed after death) – acquired from Lathrop C. Harper Inc, New York, 1 November 1957.

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Eugenio Donadoni
Eugenio Donadoni Senior Specialist, Medieval & Renaissance Manuscripts

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