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Saturn and melancholy; studies in the history of natural philosophy, religion, and art,

by Raymond Klibansky; Erwin Panofsky; Fritz Saxl

  Print book

Thorough study of Saturn and melancholy in literature   (2012-04-24)

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by vleighton

This volume is the revised and expanded version of an older, rarer volume (in German) by Panofsky and Saxl called "Melencolia I." Both are an investigation of the symbolic relationships among medieval Arab astrology, the ideas of Marsilio Ficino, and the later renaissance ideas of Albrecht Dürer. Though the information in it is important, this revision is long-winded and does not inspire in the same way as the origin 1923 volume.


I don't even remember the first 125 pages of this volume, and I did not take notes on them, because they did not pertain to my project with John Kennedy Toole. I just remember that this volume was thorough in a scholarly sense, but in that way became tiresome to read.


At page 125, one gets to Part II of the book, "Saturn, Star of Melancholy." Whereas the 1923 volume only briefly examined the astrological meanings of Abu Masar, this volume describes more thoroughly the medieval arab astrology texts of both Abu Masar and Alkabucius. Throughout the long history of planetary astrology, each planet accrued a variety of qualities that were supposed to be present in individuals influenced by those planets. Many of those qualities contradicted one another. By studying the history, one can make sense of how the diversity came about. The older volume took ten pages for this study, while this volume took fifty.


Saturn had been considered by many to be an ill-fated planet, in fact the major ill-fated planet. Saturnine individuals were supposed to suffer reversals of fortune and live in poverty. More fortunate qualities of Saturn include persistence, deliberation, judgment, wealth, and heritage or inheritance. Because Saturn is the slowest planet (the most distant of the visible planets), it often is associated with ponderousness. Saturn is associated with many diseases including nervousness, apoplexy, palsy, and cancer. Saturn is associated with hunger and thinness, and also gluttony. One quality that carries over from the ancient to the Renaissance is melancholy.


The book then does an indepth study of the Italian Renaissance physician, philosopher, and theologian Marsilio Ficino. When Ficino did his own horoscope, he found he was strongly under the influence of Saturn, but most of the qualities of such influence were misfortunes. But he considered himself obviously to be a divine genius, so the earlier astrology must be lacking. Ficino pulled together the astrological meanings of Saturn along with Plato's concept of divine madness and Aristotle's theory of melancholy in order to craft a theory of "the Genius as the melancholy child of Saturn." Ficino saw two types of Saturnine individual, one with the old negative qualities, such as ill-fortune and disease, and one that through inward contemplation rises toward a knowledge of God.


Because Ficino was arriving at his philosophical theories just as the printing press was coming into use, his theories had an inordinate influence on others. His theory of "love of beauty as a forerunner of divine love" was very influential with the early Renaissance Italian poets and courtiers, such as Castiglione, whose Book of the Courtier spread the ideas throughout Europe. His theory of the melancholy genius likewise influenced elite culture in Europe. Suddenly it was very fashionable to be melancholy, because that indicated that you were a genius. Ficino's influence, either direct or indirect, was felt on English poets from Spenser to Shelley.


As has been said, Klibansky is more thorough than Panofsky. Panofsky and Saxl focused their effort on the symbols that appear in Durer's engraving "Melencolia I." Klibansky broadens this to show the astrological influence on writers of the medieval era, such as Chaucer and Gower. Renaissance plays such as Shakespeare's "Hamlet" and "Every Man in his Humour" by Jonson show the influence. Later work such as Milton, Grey's "Elegy", and Sterne are discussed. The German Renaissance embraced melancholy. Shelley embraced the neo-Platonic vision of Ficino.



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