Who killed Giovanni Pico della Mirandola? How? And why? These questions have stumped investigators since the Renaissance philosopher’s death at the age of 31 in August 1494. Even in the 21st century, new, but not necessarily conclusive, light has been shed on the shadowy circumstances at the nexus of Medici power, papal authority, and fundamentalist religious hysteria.
But first, who was Giovanni Pico della Mirandola? Even by the high standards of the Renaissance, Pico was “off the charts” in the breadth and depth of his knowledge, philosophy and writings. By the age of 20, he had studied Latin, Greek, Hebrew, Arabic, Aramaic and Chaldean at the universities of Bologna and Ferrara. At age 23 he wrote 900 Theses on religion, philosophy and magic. Soon thereafter he wrote Oration on the Dignity of Man, which is also called the “Manifesto of the Renaissance.” He had a prodigious memory. He could recite Dante’s Divine Comedy backward, starting with the last line of Paradiso.
It was Pico’s theology and philosophy that set him apart then and seem so relevant today. To him walls did not separate Christianity, Judaism, Islam and pagan antiquity. Religions existed together, and each contributed unique thoughts. He was the founder of the tradition of Christian Kabbalah, which is the foundation of mystical religious interpretations within Judaism. In their 2014 book, “Giovanni Pico della Mirandola: Myth, Magic, Kabbalah,” scholars Giulio Busi and Raphael Ebgi focus on Pico’s intellectual and moral range, his challenge to the Church, his relationship with “the mad monk” Savonarola, and his interest in the theories of Plato and Kaballah.
Herein may lie the motive for his murder and the cast of characters under suspicion, which, in turn, bring us to the 21stcentury. In 2007, the remains of Pico, along with those of the man who may have been his lover, were disinterred from the Dominican Convent of San Marco, in Florence. Both contained toxic levels of arsenic. The results confirmed the suspicion of the doctors in 1494. This should not be surprising as poison was the murder weapon of choice in Renaissance Florence.
Then in 2013, the detective who headed the exhumation, Silvano Vinceti, called a press conference to announce that, in his opinion, Pico was assassinated on the orders of Piero de’ Medici, the son of Lorenzo the Magnificent. Vinceti claimed to possess a new witness chronicle, which was the diary of Marino Sanuto, a Venetian historian, begun in 1496. By that year, Piero de’ Medici (called “the Unfortunate”) and his family were in exile. Girolamo Savonarola had taken control of Florence. Fearful that the Medici would try to regain power, he arrested those with Medici connections. Dragged in for questioning was a man who confessed that two years earlier, in 1494, he had “hastened the death of his master by poisoning.” His master was Giovanni Pico della Mirandola. Vinceti was convinced that Piero de’ Medici despised Pico because he had sided with the enemy, Savonarola.
But not so fast. Scholars such as Giulio Busi (mentioned earlier) tend to dismiss Vinceti as neither a scientist nor an academic historian. They claim that the diary has long been in print and that the theory of revenge, Medici style, is at least a century old. In addition, Savonarola (and by extension, Pico) had other powerful enemies, including the Borgia Pope Alexander VI. There is also a belief that Pico’s enthusiasm of Kabbalah and magic left him susceptible to accusations of witchcraft.
Savonarola delivered “the eulogy” at Pico’s funeral. He declared that “the soul of Pico could not go to heaven at once. It was subject to a time in the flames of purgatory for certain sins.” These he failed to enumerate.
The mystery continues….