The Art of Magic from Faustus to Agrippa
by Anthony Grafton
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Pub Date 05 Dec 2023 | Archive Date 05 Dec 2023
Harvard University Press, Belknap Press
A revelatory new account of the magus—the learned magician—and his place in the intellectual, social, and cultural world of Renaissance Europe.
In literary legend, Faustus is the quintessential occult personality of early modern Europe. The historical Faustus, however, was something quite different: a magus—a learned magician fully embedded in the scholarly currents and public life of the Renaissance. And he was hardly the only one. Anthony Grafton argues that the magus in sixteenth-century Europe was a distinctive intellectual type, both different from and indebted to medieval counterparts as well as contemporaries like the engineer, the artist, the Christian humanist, and the religious reformer. Alongside these better-known figures, the magus had a transformative impact on his social world.
Magus details the arts and experiences of learned magicians including Marsilio Ficino, Pico della Mirandola, Johannes Trithemius, and Heinrich Cornelius Agrippa. Grafton explores their methods, the knowledge they produced, the services they provided, and the overlapping political and social milieus to which they aspired—often, the circles of kings and princes. During the late fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries, these erudite men anchored debates about licit and illicit magic, the divine and the diabolical, and the nature of “good” and “bad” magicians. Over time, they turned magic into a complex art, which drew on contemporary engineering as well as classical astrology, probed the limits of what was acceptable in a changing society, and promised new ways to explore the self and exploit the cosmos.
Resituating the magus in the social, cultural, and intellectual order of Renaissance Europe, Grafton sheds new light on both the recesses of the learned magician’s mind and the many worlds he inhabited.
Anthony Grafton is the author of The Footnote, Defenders of the Text, Forgers and Critics, and Inky Fingers, among other books. The Henry Putnam University Professor of History and the Humanities at Princeton University, he writes regularly for the New York Review of Books.
“A brilliant reassessment of the magus and the role of magic in the philosophical and practical worlds of Renaissance Europe. Grafton’s eloquent study profoundly expands our understanding of the range and intellectual context of thinkers such as Marsilio Ficino, Johannes Trithemius, and Heinrich Cornelius Agrippa. In the process, it deepens our understanding of an entire era.”—Pamela O. Long, author of Engineering the Eternal City
“Magus is a thought-provoking study of ‘natural magic’ and its early modern practitioners, the wandering European scholars who were at once praised as divinely inspired and denounced as diabolical charlatans. Carefully presenting these complex, elusive personalities on their own terms, Anthony Grafton’s analysis of the magi is as closely woven as their schemes for calling down the powers that bind the universe.”—Ingrid D. Rowland, author of From Pompeii
“Grafton brings clarity and verve to the study of Renaissance magicians, placing them in the motley company not only of humanists and Kabbalists, astrologers and necromancers, but also of cryptographers, forgers, and ‘engineers.’ He surveys a world peopled by striking individuals whose magical adventures and speculations are inseparable from the personalities that animated them.”—Richard Kieckhefer, author of Magic in the Middle Ages
“A new understanding of the Renaissance—and a new understanding of magic—springs to life in this erudite, witty, and eminently readable book.”—Lauren Kassell, author of Medicine and Magic in Elizabethan London