The Life of John Picus Earl of Mirandula (1525)

John Picus of Mirandula was born 24 February 1463; the son of John Francis Picus, Prince of Mirandula and Concordia. In his time, he was considered a prodigy for his learning, producing at an early age an excellent manual or digest to the Papal Decretals (letters and laws of the Papacy), producing poetry in Latin and Italian, and making a name for himself in composing a penegyrical criticism on the poems of Lorenzo de Medici.

In November 1486, Picus published a series of “Conclusions” which consisted of 900 propositions (subjects of discussion) about science, intended to challenge the learned of his day. To an extent his challenges worked – the learned took notice, but the text also resulted in claims of heresy regarding some of his propositions. Retreating to Florence, Picus started work on his Apologia, a work intended for the pope and meant as a means of proving his adherence to Roman Catholicism. Whilst Picus was eventually exonerated (in 1493), the Apologia itself was suppressed by the papacy. A year later, Picus was seized by fever and died at the age of 33.

Image from The Life of John Picus - Profile of Giovanni Pico della Mirandola (Johannes Picus Mirandulanus) (Wellcome/Wikipedia)
Profile of Giovanni Pico della Mirandola (John Picus) from the Wellcome Trust (Wikipedia)

The work here is a translation by the famed English humanist, Thomas More, including a life of John Picus translated by More in 1504 from the original written by Picus’ nephew, Giovanni Francesco Pico della Mirandola (1470-1533). The translation, as noted in 1956 by Stanford E. Lehmberg is ‘quite literal’ but does contain some omissions and additions that reflect More’s own thoughts at this time. The rest is a collected works, containing Picus’ letters, Commentary on Psalm 15, prayers, and theological treatises.

Bees and Honey

The sole reference to bees and honey occurs within the biography on John Picus. It is a reference to the fable of Ambrose in which a swarm of bees is said to have flown about the mouth of his cradle when he was a baby:

The grete saynt ambrose: a swarme of bees flewe aboute his mouth in his cradle & some entred in to his mouthe and after y t  yssuynge out agayne and fleynge vp on hyghe hydynge them selfe amonge the cloudes escaped bothe y syght of his father and of all them that were present

The story further refers to the Prognostication of Paulinus for the interpretation of the fable, explaining that it signified the celestial gift of god and was worthy of lifting the ‘mynde of men from erthe in to heven’. In other words, the writing is acclaimed by Paulinus as alike to ‘swete hony combes’ or is to be considered as the most ‘plesaunt wrytynge’.

In the context of the chapter, this reference is an attempt by Giovanni to credit John Picus with equal talent to that displayed in the fable of Ambrose. He begins the chapter by claiming that a fiery garland appeared over the chamber of John’s mother soon before his birth. This, we are told, was taken as a token the he would be born ‘in the perfection of understandynge’ and be a ‘perfyte fygure’ much like the perfect circle of the garland. Furthermore, his name would circle around the whole world (again symbolised by the garland) and his mind would fire aspiration in heavenly things (referring toe the fiery nature of the garland).

Further Reading

Chalmers’ Biography – John Picus (Italy; 1463-1494), vol. 24 (1812) p. 484. Website.

Stanford E. Lehmberg, ‘Sir Thomas More’s Life of Pico della Mirandola’, Studies in the Renaissance, 3 (1956), pp. 61-74.

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