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How Hermetic was Renaissance Hermetism?

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Based upon key publications by Paul Oskar Kristeller (1938) and especially Frances A. Yates (1964), it has been widely assumed that an important “Hermetic Tradition” emerged during the Renaissance and that Marsilio Ficino’s Latin translation of the Corpus Hermeticum (first ed. 1471) was at its origin. This article argues that these assumptions need to be revised. Close study of Ficino’s original translation (on the basis of Maurizio Campanelli’s recent reconstruction and critical edition, published in 2011) makes it questionable whether Ficino understood much of the Hermetic message at all; and the famous (unauthorized) first edition of the Pimander (1471) turns out to be corrupt in many crucial respects, leading to a long series of defective editions that obscured the actual contents of the Corpus Hermeticum for Renaissance readers. Hence we seem to be dealing with a Renaissance discourse about Hermes, but hardly with a Hermetic “tradition” in any meaningful sense of the word.

Affiliations: 1: University of Amsterdam


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