He was trained in medicine and began study of Greek around 1456; these years in Florence were marked by the appearance of Greek philosophers who fled the Ottoman advances and reintroduced Plato and Greek literature to Italy. Exposure to such intellectuals may have fostered in Ficino a desire to synthesize Christianity and Greek philosophy.
In 1463 Cosimo gave Ficino a villa, where he planned to translate Plato’s dialogues into Latin but also translated the Corpus Hermeticum (a mélange of texts attributed to the Egyptian magus Hermes Tresmegistus). In 1469 he completed a commentary on Plato’s Symposium which he called De amore, a text at the basis of most subsequent Renaissance theorizing on the theme of love. Ficino was ordained in 1473.
His most important work, the Theologia Platonica, pursues the goal of uniting Platonism with Christianity as heavily influenced by Plotinus, who Ficino felt was Plato’s most important interpreter. Ficino published his Plato edition in 1484 after Cosimo’s death; it relies on the version of Leonardo Bruni.
In 1487 Ficino was named a canon of Florence cathedral, but his orthodoxy was called into question by the 1489 publication of his De triplici vita, a treatise on the maintenance of human health rich in astrological and pseudomagical speculation. Threatened with investigation from the curia, he argued disingenuously but successfully that this work represented ancient views and not his own.
His ideas thus probably seem more heterodox from our perspective than they did in his own day, a period of intellectual foment in Christianity. He published a number of commentaries of Neoplatonism such as Iamblichus, Porphyry, Proclus, and Synesius. When he was drawn into the controversy around Savonarola, Ficino’s early support for the preacher later turned to bitter attacks on him.
Historians attribute Ficino’s influence to a number of factors: the exciting quality of his revival of Neoplatonism, an ecumenical quality to his thinking that may have attracted the more eclectic of Christian theologians, his willingness to sustain an elevated correspondence with hundreds of students and scholars at the highest level, and his willingness to use the printing press, which made him an early author of intellectual best sellers.
Although early scholarship suggested that Cosimo de’ Medici supported Ficino as a means of establishing Neoplatonism as a governing ideal in his contemporary Florence, recent scholarship has rejected Ficino’s Neoplatonism as too incoherent to serve as such an ideology.
Such scholarship also points out the largely informal character of the Florentine Academy. Interested readers without a background in Greek philosophy may turn to his letters as icons of the elegant Renaissance epistolary style.