Christopher Warnock, Esq.
from Eugenio Garin's Astrology in the Renaissance

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Picatrix from Eugenio Garin's Astrology in the Renaissance

Eugenio Garin was a well known Italian scholar of the Renaissance. His Astrology in the Renaissance is an important academic study of the history, philosophy and practice of Renaissance astrology and is particularly interesting in its treatment of Picatrix, the most important text of astrological magic. Garin sees Picatrix as a seminal work and key for the understanding of both Renaissance astrology and magic.


Astrology in the Renaissance

Pages 46-55

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The theory of the 'images', on which Ficino dwelt at such length in De vita, showing its importance also in the medical field, is justly considered decisive by Pico for the link between divinatory astrology and ritual magic - or the cult of astral divinities and propitiatory techniques. The celestial powers, in fact, come to be caught, and placated or used, by imprisoning them in fictitious material representations, talismans and amulets, capable of absorbing and concentrating astral forces. 'The sages' - one reads in the famous De pluviis by al-Kindi - 'have proved through frequent experiment that figures and characters inscribed by man's hand on various materials with a purpose and with due solemnity, observing the place, the time and other circumstances, have the power to move objects.' Such figures, corresponding to celestial 'figures', pick up and reverberate the active radiations of the heavens." So, this thesis, which is at the centre of the Renaissance debate, is consigned in an almost emblematic way to a work which, for its significance and implications, could be considered parallel to Albumasar's book on the conjunctions in the magical field.
That is to say the Picatrix, a text well known to Pico and to Ficino, and used by them, but which was also widely read in the fifteenth century in a Latin version, derived from the Arabic through a Spanish mediation. It is not a coincidence that the Picatrix is the same book which Ibn Khaldun analyses and discusses when he wants to refute ritual magic and talismans. He does not in fact hesitate to define the Picatrix under its title'The aim of the wise man' as'the most complete and best written treatise on magic'. Nor is it unimportant that such a cultured thinker as Ibn Khaldun, who died in 1406 and who lived between North Africa and Egypt, should give, at that particular time, such prominence to a work whose influence was only just beginning to be felt in the fifteenth century in the West, whilst in the preceding period the traces of it were scarce and uncertain."
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However, given the importance that the book had between the fifteenth and sixteenth century ('the reverend father in the devil Picatrix - said Rabelais -'rector of the diabolical faculty"); given the link with hermetic literature, the fashion for which was launched by Ficino with such success (Hermes Trismegistus is always present and is remembered with great veneration in the Picatrix); given the need to have it constantly to hand, not only as a real source, though obviously not declared as such, but also as a document illustrating a general position and way of thinking: for all these reasons it is fitting to pay it more attention than is usual. In reality the Latin version of the Picatrix is as indispensable as the Corpus Hermeticum or the writings of Albumasar for understanding a conspicuous part of the production of the Renaissance, including the figurative arts.
The original Arabic version, falsely attributed by the same Ibn Khaldun to Maslama al-Magriti, which is in reality a very mixed compilation, a summa, at times a kind of anthology, shows signs of being a book put together 'in the kingdom of Spain' around the middle of the eleventh century between 1047 and 1051. Hellmut Ritter, one of its first scholars, supposed that the Latin version of the Picatrix was a corruption of Hippocrates. But he later abandoned the hypothesis, which was nevertheless taken up by Corbin. It seems from the internal evidence that Biqratis (Buqratis)-Picatrix is the name of the compiler himself: Tiber, one reads in the Latin version, quern sapientissimus philosophus Picatris in nigromanticis artibus ex quampluribus libris composuit (the book on the necromantic arts which the most wise philosopher Picatrix compiled from many books). From the Latin manuscripts it turns out that King Alfonso had the work translated from Arabic into Spanish in 1256; and from this came the Latin version, which has never been published, and of which various manuscripts are known, but all written relatively late. In 1933 Ritter published a critical edition of the Arabic text which was then translated into German in 1962 in an accurate version produced by Ritter together with Martin Plessner.
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This has made possible a precise comparison with the Latin version, which is somewhat different, and not only, as is often said, because of cuts and abbreviations, but also because of some notable variations. This examination, so important for placing Ficino's hermeticism in the right perspective, and more generally, all the hermeticism of the Renaissance, was made using the Latin manuscript 10272 of the Bibliotheque Nationale de Paris, written in an elegant humanist hand of the fifteenth century, and a manuscript of the Biblioteca Nazionale in Florence, transcribed in 1536, it has been proved, correcting Thorndike, at Brisighella in Romagna, land of astrologers. Frances Yates, however, has used a late manuscript of the seventeenth century for her studies on Bruno.
Where does the exceptional importance of the Picatrix really lie? Precisely, perhaps, because it puts all the vast inheritance of ancient and medieval magic and astrology into, on the one hand, the theoretical neoplatonic picture, and on the other the hermeticist one. And this in terms which are surprisingly close to the work of the fifteenth-century Platonic movement, a closeness which is in fact so marked that it cannot be pure coincidence. In other words the interest of the Picatrix does not end with the iconological contributions already employed by the Warburg Institute: from the history of neoplatonic metaphysics to astrological discussions, from theories of the intellect to magical and alchemical questions, from 'pagan' liturgy to talismans and amulets. The end of the wise man of the pseudo-Magriti covers very wide areas of the history of culture. And they are all areas relevant to the scholar of the Renaissance. The work's point of departure is the unity of reality divided into symmetrical and corresponding degrees, planes or worlds: a reality stretched between two poles: the original One, God the source of all existence, and man, the microcosm, who, with his 'science' (scientia) brings the dispersion back to its origin, identifying and using their correspondences.
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Thus the second book of the Picatrix opens with an aphorism, the ninth of the Karpos, the Ptolemaic Centiloquium, one of the basic texts of the astrologers: 'All things in this world obey the celestial forms.' The Picatrix comments: 'All sages agree that the planets exercise influence and power over this world ... from this it follows that the roots of magic are the movements of the planets.' Previously the work had made it clear that the theoretical side of 'science' studies the position of the fixed stars and how they make up the figures and forms of the sky, and in what way their rays dart across the planets. However, whilst the description of celestial figures is certainly interesting, especially the parts concerning talismans and magical rituals, the effective fulcrum of the book is always man as the link between the various planes of reality. Thus the theme of macrocosm-microcosm ('the lesser world is like the greater') crops up time and again and becomes more embellished each time. The scale of being, in fact, is made up of symmetrical and corresponding planes. The exceptional condition of man is that he constitutes, more than a being among beings, a reality apart: a possibility open to all degrees of being, and a possibility which is actualised in the most noble science ('science is something exceedingly noble and elevated'): a science which is therefore based on magic and its work.
The picture of man given by the Picatrix is not without detail; a picture which is in some ways similar to the hermetic Asclepius, and in others similar to the Oratio of Pico dells Mirandola (who also had the Picatrix in his library) He is a lesser world similar to the greater world; he is a complete, animated and rational body with a rational spirit ... And rational means capable of knowledge ... He has a spherical head and the capacity to judge; he has science and writing; he discovers techniques ... he laughs and cries ... he has within him a divine power and possesses the knowledge of justice for governing cities ... he knows that which is useful and that which is harmful ... he discovers fine inventions, he performs miracles and makes marvellous images; the forms of the sciences are brought together within him, and he is separated from all other sensible animals, and God has made him the maker and inventor of all science and knowledge, able to explain all its qualities, to accept everything in the world, to understand the treasures within everything with a prophetic spirit ... Man understands all intelligent forms and everything in this world ... and they do not understand him; all creatures serve him, yet he is the servant of none; he mimics all other animals with his voice when it pleases him. With his hands he can make images which resemble them; with his words he numbers, narrates and explains their natures and actions ... With his natural voice man has the capacity to make the sounds of all other animals and he can change their form as he pleases ... The general form of man is the home of the form of the spirit in general.
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The discussion continues rich and forceful. Hermetic man, the 'great miracle' of the Asclepius, which made such an impression on the thinkers of the Renaissance, is here the magus, the sage, the master of Heaven and Earth: 'Dico quod homo mundus nominator, et hoc per comparationem ad maiorem, quasi dicat quod quicquid continetur in maiori mundo, continetur naturaliter in minori.' ('I tell you that man is called a world, and this is by comparison to the greater one, just as one says that whatever is contained in the greater world, is contained naturally in the lesser.') The instrument of human power is indeed science which is knowledge of the heavens and of its apparent and occult forms, on all planes of reality, and, also, mastery of the techniques - from formulae to talismans - with which to act on the forces of the world. The most striking aspect of Picatrix is perhaps this exaltation of science and of its progress, or of an increasingly deepening vision of hidden and divided forces and of their possible union.
The sage is he who discovers the correspondence and unity in the occult as well as the diversity: 'Ad altiora procedere, discurrendo quousque ad mathematicalem veniamus, in qua virtus completer hominis, et per scientias speculativas est perfectos. Et hoc est bonum quod quaerit homo ... Et ille qui ad ista attigerit, gaudium, laetitiam et durabilem sapientiam habebit in perpetuum et sine fine' ('to proceed to higher things, by hastening through until we come to mathematics, in which man's virtue is completed and perfected through the speculative sciences. And this is the good which man seeks ... And he who attains these will have joy, happiness and lasting wisdom for ever and without end'). Conversely, he who is not a scholar and a magus is only a man in name. ('He should not be called a man except in name, form and shape of a man.')
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On the other hand this science, which is both astrology and magic, had then to be put into practice through inventions and marvellous machines of every type. There is a singular passage in Picatrix where the Latin is faithful to the Arabic which makes one think not only of Roger Bacon but also of Leonardo da Vinci. Whoever possesses science makes magnalia magna (very great works) on the technical level, not only walks on the waters and transforms himself into every kind of living being, but he makes the rain stop and start, he causes enemy cities and ships to burn in distant places, ('civitates inimicorurn comburere, nec non et naves in loca remota'), and makes ships fly in the sky ('ascendere in aere'). This last marvellous invention is even more striking if one thinks that Fracastoro hints at it again in the dedication to Paul III in the Homocentricorum ... Tiber ('of that ship which he taught goes up and comes down continually in the middle of the ether'). It is worth mentioning another two 'hermetic' texts of Picatrix which were not unknown but whose similarity to the themes of the Renaissance thought seems hard to challenge. The first concerns the ideal city, al-Agmunain, built by Hermes in eastern Egypt, after he had built a temple of the Sun: the perfect city, structured according to precise astrological standards, after Trismegistus had regulated the course of the Nile in correspondence with the movements of the Moon by means of the appropriate 'images'. It is a quite remarkable text, and one which, in its description of the castle, makes one think of Filarete and Campanella:"
Inside (the city) stands a castle with four gates. On the eastern gate is placed the figure of an Eagle, on the western one that of a Bull, on the southern gate that of a Lion and on the northern one that of a Dog. He introduced the spirits which could speak into the images, and no one could enter the castle without their permission ... On the top of the castle he had built a tower which was twenty cubits high, on top of which he put a globe whose colour changed every day for seven days. And at the end of the week the first colour returned. So every day the city shone with a different colour.
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The other text takes us to the centre of the mystical inspiration of Picatrix where it clarifies the notion of 'perfect nature' or as the Latin version says 'complete' nature - 'the hidden secret, that is, which is hidden in the same philosophy'. Hermes said:

When I wanted to reveal the science of the mystery ('secrets opens mundi') and of the processes of creation, I found a dark cave, full of shadows and winds. I could not discern anything because of the darkness and I could not keep my lamp alight because of the force of the winds. Then a being appeared to me in my sleep whose aspect was one of great beauty. It said to me: take a light and put it in a glass lantern which will protect it from the winds, so that it will shine despite the strength of the wind. Thus it will penetrate into the subterranean room. We are obviously dealing with a commonplace, but one's thought flies to another text, with a different power, inspiration and meaning, although similar in its images, Leonardo's cave. Here too we find the wind ('the arctic North wind strikes again in its rage'); and then the dark cave and the search for the hidden truth:" Unable to resist my eager desire and wanting to see the great multitude of the various and strange shapes made by formative nature, and having wandered some distance among gloomy rocks, I came to the entrance of a great cavern, in front of which I stood some time, astonished and unaware of such a thing. Bending my back into an arch I rested my tired hand on my knee and held my right hand over my downcast and contracted eyebrows: often bending first one way and then the other, to see whether I could discover anything inside, and this being forbidden by the deep darkness within, and after having remained there some time, two contrary emotions arose in me, fear and desire - fear of the threatening dark cavern, desire to see whether there were any marvellous thing within it.

Doubtless we are on a different track with Leonardo, far from magicians and astrologers, even if for him man is still a microcosm, and so an integral part of the whole, symmetrical and linked to the whole by infinite and mysterious bonds. None the less the culture which surrounded him, which conditioned him and against which he fought a sometimes equivocal battle, was largely dominated by the inclusion of magic and astrology in the framework of a neoplatonic metaphysics, which characterise Picatrix. At one point Leonardo, in his crude polemic against necromancy and alchemy and magic, exclaims: '0 mathematicians, shed light on this error! The spirit has no voice, because where there is a voice there is a body.' Picatrix on the other hand, and the work of Ficino, are full of voices without bodies.
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In conclusion, the importance of Picatrix for bringing certain aspects of the fifteenth century into focus lies in the fact that it foreshadowed to some extent certain tendencies and solutions. Magic and astrology find their justification and foundation there within the speculative framework of neoplatonism. The One-All, the Intellect, the Soul of the World, the souls of the stars and spirits of every kind, theoretically 'found' the theory of influences, and the whole scheme of correspondences which link and unify the cosmos. The unity of a universal life, which flows everywhere and gives life to everything, speculatively justifies the universal sympathy, and the multiplicity of operations which man, an abbreviated image of the cosmos, comes to fulfil. So then the link between the totality, object of metaphysical intuition, and the multiplicity of things and events, in which magic operates, presents itself as something fantastic and arbitrary, the logical consequence of that metaphysical and theological vision.
The relationship between neoplatonic metaphysics and practical magic shows a precise symmetry: the magic of incantations is the 'scientific' moment suitable for platonic theology. As the former is in reality a 'poetic' vision of the cosmos, so the latter is a 'rhetorical' technique. If the whole is pervaded by'souls', those which move the planets are'spirits' ('It is possible to speak with the spirits of the planets') - as Picatrix says and as Ficino was to say. In an animated and consentient universe, connected and working together, in an all-understanding sympathy, one speaks with the stars, the plants, the stones: they pray, they command, they constrain, making more powerful spirits intervene through prayers and appropriate speeches. 'Science' comes to a magical formula, not a mathematical one; its methods and its instruments are incantations, talismans, amulets, not machines. The word, the verbum, the speech, of which Picatrix speaks so much, is the word which rises to the stars or to the stellar divinities or reaches the 'spirits' of things: quia verbum in se habet nigromantie virtutem (because the word contains in itself the power of necromancy). As the Arab text says, 'speech is the most beautiful kind of theoretical magic.'
If you wish to delve even deeper into this fascinating area I offer my Planetary Magic Mini-Course and Mansions of the Moon Mini-Course, which allow students to immediately start making talismans and elections and are a great introduction to my longer Electional Astrology Course, Horary Astrology Course and Astrological Magic Course.


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