Saturday, May 30, 2009

Warding off Old Age



The stated purpose of Marsilio Ficino's "The Book of Life," which he finished writing in 1489 and dedicated to his patron, Lorenzo de' Medici, was to help people live long and in good health. Ficino's father, who was a famous doctor in Renaissance Florence, introduced his son to Cosimo de' Medici, hoping to win support for his son. Having decided that Ficino was more a "doctor of souls" than of bodies, Cosimo bought a set of Plato's manuscripts in Greek for Ficino to translate, and gave him a villa in the hills at Careggi. Ficino thus became the first translator of Plato's "Complete Works" into Latin, and the villa, which was modeled on Plato's Academy, became the central meeting place for Renaissance philosophers, artists, and statesmen of the Medici era.

When "The Book of Life" was published in 1489, it got a bad rap, especially from the Roman Catholic Church, whose clerics viewed it as a work of demonic magic and necromancy, in part because of Ficino's interest in astrology and in part because of its continuous referencing of Greek gods. I found myself unexpectedly reading this book as a synchronistic spin-off from a recent discovery that Tibetan dzi beads (see my previous two blogs), if worn as a protective amulet, can actually increase human longevity. It turns out that Marsilio Ficino"s "The Book of Life" is really a therapeutic treatise, dating from the Renaissance, aimed not just at curing the black bile of melancholy, but also a kind of manual of practices for enlivening the body in order to maintain a long and happy life.

Book Two of "The Book of Life" is entitled "How to Prolong Your Life," so I launched into it with some zest, being in the appropriate age zone for caring about such things. I confess I found many of its pronouncements outlandish, ranging from the intriguing to the grotesque. Some of the occult herbal concoctions, poultices, and cordials for warding off old age were pretty off-the-wall, often demanding ingredients I've never seen in any health food store, like ground-up gold.

My favorite poultice of all times requires using the inside of a fresh warm bread, mixed with mallow wine and mint powder, and applied to the stomach. Generally highly recommended by Ficino for eating are fresh cheeses, figs, dates, eggs, capers, sweet apples, jujubes, hyssop, coral, and betony (whatever that is}. However nothing surpasses pistachios for nourishment--and pine nuts, the latter supposedly even more nutritious if kept in warm water for about twelve hours before eating. (I'll probably continue to go for the less nutritious version, myself.)

To a modern, Western sensibility, there is something frankly decadent about perishing bodies fallen into a state of besiegement drinking blood in order to become rejuvenated. However, Ficino enthusiastically recommends it. Drinking fresh blood, he maintains, is good for the health, especially when it is young blood drunk by an old person. Listen up here, because the formula involves finding a willing and happy adolescent with good blood. An old person who has no other hope should then suck an ounce or two from a vein barely opened on the adolescent's left arm, in the manner that leeches do.

"Afterwards," explains Ficino, "they should take an equal amount of sugar and wine, and they should do the sucking, while hungry and thirsty, and with the moon rising." Wow! Has Anne Rice heard about this, or the "Twilight" movie folks?

For those in ordinary or medium physical condition, an alternative to sucking blood is to suck wine; Ficino recommends not taking white wine but red, making sure it is styptic and bitterish, and tempering it with iron-water or mastic-gum. It is really necessary, he says, to accept Bacchus's gift twice a day. Not only should you let your mouth frequently suck in its odor to refresh your spirit, but he also advises washing your hands with a little sweet-smelling wine to which you have added some cooked camomile, myrrh, and roses. It is also good to put some in your nostrils and on your temples. I can't help wondering what modern medics might make of such sequinned hygiene for warding off the swine flu?

"Zero tolerance," my alligator muse and sidekick Virgil pipes up, to immediately settle the matter. "You human beings may be far more complex than asparagus, because you live a large part of your lives in the realm of the symbolic sublime. Even so, I can almost hear those docs saying, using the immortal words of Groucho Marx: 'Go, and never darken our towels again.' "

Virgil's probably right. Off he goes again, this time hoping to get squiffy at the Villa Gallici, his favorite four-star hotel in Aix-en-Provence, where a maid spritzes the flagstones and rugs in the lobby with essence of lavender each morning to insure the appropriate ambience. I think maybe he's hoping to have a secret encounter with the ghost of Marsilio Ficino. Now that would be truly synchronistic, don't you think?

The man peering over his shoulder in the painting above is Ficino. The painting, by Domenico Ghirlandaio, is called "Zacharia in the Temple," a fresco found in Santa Maria Novella in Florence.

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