The Real Hermetic Tradition (Lodovico Lazzarelli and Giovanni da Correggio)

As the Corona virus was dominating the media and everybody’s daily lives, many of my friends on Facebook began launching “book challenges” to entertain themselves and the members of their networks. I accepted a challenge to list “10 books that changed your life,” and soon discovered that it was not just great fun to select ten titles and write about them, but that the exercise triggered a process of self-reflection. It made me conscious of some deep and long-term motivations and obsessions that have very much determined my personal life and my career as a scholar as well (or the other way around?). Here is nr. 5 on my list.

In 1997 I was living in Paris, working on a postdoc research project. One day I paid a visit to my friend Antoine Faivre in Meudon. He has a small collection of valuable antiquarian books in a glass case, and somehow my attention was caught by this small booklet. Two books of Mercurius Trismegistustranslated by Gabriel du Preau, including a text called “Le baßin d’Hermès” by Loys Lazarel. Amazingly, Antoine allowed me to borrow this very valuable volume. That same night, in my room in the Cité UniversitaireI tried to read it in bed. I vividly remember that evening. Sixteenth-century French... not easy! But somehow, something about this text by “Loys Lazarel” fascinated me. I cannot say that I understood very much of it at all – but I realized that it was complicated, somehow unusual, original, and seemed to have literary quality. So I got curious. Who was this Lazarel, and why had I never heard of him before?

A few weeks later I traveled to Amsterdam and paid a visit to the Bibliotheca Philosophica Hermetica. In a corner behind a desk sat a man I had never met before. Someone introduced me to him, and he turned out to be a neolatinist working on Dutch translations of Hermetic texts. His name was Ruud Bouthoorn. “What are you working on right now?” I asked him. “Oh, a 15th-century text, the Crater Hermetis by Lodovico Lazzarelli” he answered. LazzarelliLazarel! What a coincidence... Was the Thrice-Greatest himself trying to give us a hint? Ruud and I got along well, and so we ended up working together. From then on, most sunday afternoons he would come to my apartment. First he would show me the new books he had bought that week (he is a bibliophile with a very unusual collection full of titles that nobody else reads), and then we would sit down for hours of concentrated work, translating Lazzarelli line by line. We finally published a book together in 2005with new editions and English translations of all the Hermetic writings of Lodovico Lazzarelli and his spiritual master Giovanni “Mercurio” da Correggio. It is out of print now, and the plan is to bring out a new, revised and greatly expanded edition.

Lazzarelli and his muse

Lazzarelli (1447-1500) was a poet from San Severino who traveled to Rome in search of fame and glory. He wrote a large work of poetry modeled on Ovid (Fasti Christianae Religionis) and joined the Roman Academy. But then, one fateful day in 1481, he happened to be present when an apocalyptic preacher was addressing the crowd on the steps of the Papal palace. He fell completely under the spell of this strange charismatic personality, a certain Giovanni da Correggio who was traveling all over Italy while announcing the end of time. Lazzarelli tells us that he decided, then and there, to turn away from the fountains of Helicon and set his sight towards Mount Zion – that is to say, he left profane poetry behind and went in search of divine wisdom. Sometime during the following years, Lazzarelli somehow gained access to one of the Greek manuscripts of the Corpus Hermeticum that had arrived from Byzantium – not the incomplete copy that Marsilio Ficino had used for his famous translation published in 1471 but one that included the three final treatises (CH XVI-XVIII). Lazzarelli produced a beautiful manuscript of all the known Hermetica in Latin, including his own translation of these previously unknown “Hermetic Definitions,” with introductory prefaces by himself. He offered it to his master, as a sign of deep gratitude, because thanks to him he had been “reborn from spiritual seed.” Lazzarelli had in fact understood, better than any other reader of the Hermetica, that the process of “spiritual rebirth” described in CH XIII forms the true heart of the Hermetic mystery.

It appears that the pupil Lazzarelli, with his superior humanistic culture, had a great impact on his master Correggio as well. A few years later, on Palm Sunday 11 April 1481, the prophet made a spectacular appearance in Rome. He entered the city gate seated on a white donkey, dressed like Jesus Christ with a crown of thorns on his head, in clear imitation of Jesus’ entrance of Jerusalem! On a disk fixed above his head was a text that identified Correggio as the Hermetic Christ who in his own person reconciled the ancient Egyptian wisdom with Biblical Christianity. More precisely, the text said that he was no one less than Poimandres (known as Pimander in the wake of Ficino’s translation), the great Being of Light who appears to Hermes Trismegistus in the first treatise of the Corpus Hermeticum:


This is my Servant Pimander, whom I have chosen. This Pimander is my supreme and waxing child, in whom I am well pleased, to cast out demons and proclaim my judgment and truth to the heathen. Do not hinder him, but hear and obey him with all fear and veneration; thus speaks the Lord your God and Father of every talisman of all the world, Jesus of Nazareth.


And so the Hermetic Christ entered Rome, riding through the streets on his donkey, preaching at every street corner and followed by a fastly growing crowd of curious followers. Since it was Palm Sunday, many of them came straight out of church with palm leaves in their hands, only to see this figure dressed like Jesus passing by in broad daylight… It is not clear how it all ended, although Lazzarelli claims that Correggio was admitted into the St. Peter and was allowed to make it all the way up to the altar. More likely he was thrown into prison, but he did get out and continued his wanderings through Italy. Much later, in 1501, Correggio managed to be received by King Louis XII of France; and it is at this occasion that Lazzarelli’s valuable manuscript of Hermetic writings seems to have passed into the hands of French humanists who were present at the court. In 1507, Symphorien Champier published Lazzarelli’s translation of the Diffinitiones Asclepii, thus making CH XVI-XVIII available in Latin for the first time.

Lazzarelli and his muse presenting the Crater to Ferrante

Between 1492 and 1494 Lazzarelli was in Naples, trying unsuccesfully to be received at the court of the powerful monarch Ferdinand I of Aragon, king of Naples and Sicily, known as Ferrante. He wanted to give him the first copy of his Crater Hermes – the very treatise that I had encountered in that French translation by Gabriel du Preau. My initial impression had been right: this text is a true gem, both in terms of its contents and of its literary quality. Modeled very closely on the original Hermetic treatises (which he appears to have understood far more deeply than any of his contemporaries, Ficino not excluded), it casts Lazzarelli in the role of Hermes Trismegistus himself. He is teaching the way of wisdom and true felicity to two students, king Ferrante and his secretary of state, the important humanist poet and astrologer Giovanni Pontano. In doing so, he comes up with a complex and incredibly original interpretation of selected Biblical passages and the Hermetic treatises: he argues that Poimandres himself was no one else than the divine Logos, Christ the second person of the Trinity, appearing “incognito” to a pagan Egyptian sage far before he would be born as Jesus. The treatise ends with a cliffhanger, as Lazzarelli tells his eager pupils that the ultimate secret will be revealed to them at another occasion.  We can guess what it will be: they will be told that Poimandres alias the Logos has in fact returned to earth, in the person of Giovanni da Correggio: the Hermetic Christ. Only he will be able to finish the instruction, by acting as Ferrante and Pontano’s “spiritual father” and giving them rebirth.

Discovering and studying Lazzarelli has been very important to me. It made me realize that most of the standard assumptions about the Hermetic Tradition of the Renaissance were wrong. They came from Frances Yates (picture), whose brilliantly written and inspirational books had created a powerful and extremely influential grand narrative of “the Hermetic Tradition.” Yates’ heroes were Marsilio Ficino, Giovanni Pico della Mirandola and Giordano Bruno  but in actual fact, so I discovered, the Hermetica were rather marginal to the thinking of these famous figures. The true Renaissance Hermetists were this unknown figure, Lazzarelli, the “other translator” of the Hermetica next to Ficino, and his master Giovanni “Mercurio” da Correggio. Paul Oskar Kristeller still knew this, and emphasized it in a classic article from 1938 that gave Yates her cue. But as Lazzarelli and Correggio had no relevance to magic or early modern science, they simply did not fit the story that Frances Yates was so eager to tell. She couldn’t do anything useful with these figures, and so she pushed them to the margins and put Bruno at center stage. He became the hero of her grand story about “the Hermetic Tradition.”

But as I was reading Lazzarelli’s Crater Hermetisit dawned on me that he was the hero. I still cannot think of a more impressive example, anywhere in the Renaissance period, of a purely Hermetic-Christian text that (in spite of its obvious filtering through Christian theology) shows real and profound understanding of what the Hermetica were all about. 

The implications were far-reaching, for I also discovered that the Crater Hermetis provided a key – in fact I mean the key to Cornelius Agrippa’s famous compendium of magic, De occulta philosophia libri tres (1533). In spite of all appearances to the contrary, Agrippa’s work was ultimately not about “magic and science” either, but about the Lazzarellian message of spiritual rebirth and deification. Once again this has major implications, for Agrippa was the other chief character sidelined by Yates. In her eyes, he did not represent the beautiful, elegant new magic of Ficino and the Florentine Renaissance but was a somewhat embarrassing example of what she called “that old dirty magic” of the medieval grimoires. I discovered that this was wrong too. Agrippa was in fact the chief author who had sought to continue Lazzarelli’s new Christian-Hermetic spirituality. Of course he knew Ficino’s translation of the Corpus Hermeticum, but since that edition is far from helpful in understanding what the Hermetica were all about, he used the Crater Hermetis to make sense of the message.

My chance encounter with “Loys Lazarel” in 1997 therefore had a very strong impact on the development of my ideas and much of my scholarly work. My inauguration speech at the University of Amsterdam in 1999 was titled The End of the Hermetic Tradition, and what I actually meant was the end of Frances Yates’ grand narrative about that tradition. Ever since, I have been arguing that our entire picture of Renaissance Hermeticism must be revised and reconceptualized completely. At present I am pushing my project further back in time, as Im working on a book about the original Hermetic treatises from Roman Egypt. Again I encounter major distortions of the original materials caused by the preconceived notions, ideological prejudices and intellectual agendas of modern scholars. All of this comes ultimately from my discovery of Lazzarelli and what happened to his legacy. It made me realize how strongly our perception of ancient and early-modern texts is often determined by modern concerns that have little to do with what the original authors were trying to say. As brilliantly formulated by Rainer Maria Rilke, I keep discovering how many scholars have very precise knowledge of a past that never existed.


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