I have been arguing for a medieval and early modern paramaterial phantasy which paradoxically positioned the phantasy and its spirits somewhere between the material and the immaterial, and between the body and the soul. In this post, I want to explore Marsilio Ficino’s Neoplatonic construction of love in his De Amore (On Love) to further develop not only the seemingly materialist leanings of its explanatory system but also to expose some of the consequences of this paradoxical positioning of the Renaissance eye for theorizing not only the early modern paramaterial gaze but also the interactions of subjects and objects.1

Marsilio Ficino in detail of Angel Appearing to Zacharias by Domenico Ghirlandaio [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons2

While Ficino, like many of the theorists of the time, denies the transfer of material in the process of vision, we will see how Ficino grants the process some level of materiality while working out the details in other explanatory registers.3 It is this quasi-materiality that I am calling paramaterial, and this paramateriality slightly shifts the ground upon which theories of vision operate in the period when compared to our own. Rather than the profound gap we find between subjects and objects in modern theories of vision, we see, in the mirror of history, the mirage of a theory that allows for more reciprocity in the gaze. This reciprocity involves a quasi-material interchange between subjects and objects that break down the modern barriers erected between subjects and objects, between the world and the observer.

We tend to think of the modern gaze as a sadistic “male gaze.” At least since Laura Mulvey’s “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema,” we see that gaze as implicated in gendered mechanisms of power where the beholder maintains the power in a relationship steeped in sadism. As Mulvey has it,

In a world ordered by sexual imbalance, pleasure in looking has been split between active/male and passive/female. The determining male gaze projects its phantasy on to the female figure which is styled accordingly. In their traditional exhibitionist role women are simultaneously looked at and displayed, with their appearance coded for strong visual and erotic impact so that they can be said to connote to-be-looked-at-ness. (837).

While exaggerated in the case of the images projected upon the cinematic screen, many following Mulvey use her discussion of scopophilia in a more generalized sense, equating the sadistic male gaze with activity and the female with passivity.

In an article on John Milton, “Rethinking Voyeurism and Patriarchy: The Case of Paradise Lost,” Regina Schwartz challenges the sadism of the gaze asking, “What is gained by seeing specularity as sadistic? Why not understand the spectator as implicated in a mode of looking and in a series of looks that do not polarize power and that do not empower anyone sadistically?” (92). To prove this, Schwartz maps the networks of looks in Milton’s Paradise Lost, exposing the complicated nature of voyeurism in Milton’s epic.

Schwartz draws on the work of French theorist Jacques Lacan to challenge the notion of the sadistic male gaze. Lacan explains the reciprocity involved in the gaze, exposing the ways in which the beholder is always already the beholden. Such a system is best exemplified in his famous example of the sardine can in which challenges the one-directionality of the gaze. While out on a fishing expedition, a fisherman, Petit-Jean, sees a sardine can floating on the waves, joking, “You see that can? Do you see it? Well, it doesn’t see you!” Lacan is unamused by Petit-Jean’s joke since,

If what Petit-Jean said to me, namely, that the can did not see me, had any meaning, it was because in a sense, it was looking at me all the same. It was looking at me at the level of the point of light, the point at which everything that looks at me is situate—and I am not speaking metaphorically. (Lacan 95).

As Schwartz notes, Lacan stresses the reciprocity of the gaze. We will see how Ficino’s representation of love beams includes a culturally and historically contingent reciprocal gaze in its own right. I will explore the theories of vision and the physical eye to show the tendency in the late medieval and early modern periods to develop a notion of the reciprocal gaze.
Lacan argues against the connection of the physical eye and the gaze, but, to my knowledge, no one has really theorized how different conceptions of vision might alter the theories of both. While I will not address the differing theories of the mechanics of vision in this post, I will turn to Ficino’s representation of the visual process in developing feelings of love. 4 By explaining the greater level of theorized interaction between the looker and the looked at, the beholder and the beholden, and, in a different register, between the subject and the object within a historical framework that accounts for the cultural contingency of our theories of and on perception, we will expose the material ways in which the boundaries between self and other were more open and penetrable.

Coming from a position of cultural construction complicates any direct application of modern theories to earlier periods. We can and should, of course, apply modern theories to earlier periods, and such analyses often lead to wonderful insights, but I also think pausing to account for the differences between our own and earlier periods can also lead to new ways of looking at older texts and worlds. While there has always been a degree of separation between reality and perception, too quickly jumping to modern theories of vision and coming from modern presuppositions regarding the operation of optics eclipses some of the interesting ways in which medieval and early moderns situate an observer in her world and the ways in which reciprocity is found in the mechanisms of the gaze.

To trace this reciprocity and the material or paramaterial quality within Ficino’s treatment of sight and love, we must first turn to the hierarchy of loves that he pulls from Plato. Ficino follows Plato in dividing heavenly and vulgar loves, but Ficino claims that both originate with the sense of sight. As he says, “…every love begins with sight. But the love of the contemplative man ascends from sight to intellect. That of the voluptuous man descends from sight to touch” (Ficino 119).5 For Ficino, vulgar love descends from sight to touch, while heavenly love moves upwards from sight to contemplation. While Ficino emphatically denies the transmission of material in sight, he here places it between touch and contemplation. Sight is a path that descends or ascends depending upon the subject of love. As such, sight is granted a status that hovers between immaterial thought and material touch.6

Nestling sight between thought and touch grants it a special relationship to both. Sight either leads to materiality or to immaterial thought. As we will see, however, Ficino’s explanatory model additionally grants vision a status that takes part in both natures. In this positioning, Ficino reflect the paradoxical situation of sight in common late medieval and early modern theories of the senses that denied the materiality of vision while simultaneously affording it very material qualities and explanations.

By the late medieval and early modern period, most explanations of sight had abandoned the extramission theory of vision in favor of intramission. Ficino’s theory of vision differs, however, from many popular theories of the early modern period in that he maintains an extramissive theory of vision generally.

[Berger extravagant. English] The extravagant shepherd: or, The history of the shepherd Lysis7

Ficino, unlike many late medieval and early modern theorists, uses the extramission model (where rays and spirits are projected from the eye and into the world instead of moving from the world to the eye) for all types of vision.8 In describing the visual “spirits,” Ficino reveals that he believes vision operates by the eye sending out its visual rays and spirits from the eye to the objects of perception. Of the young, he says,

…the spirits at this age are thin and clear, warm and sweet. For since these are generated from the purer blood by the heart of the heart, they are always the same in us as the humor of the blood. But, just as this vapor of the spirits is produced from the blood, so also it itself sends out rays like itself through the eyes, which are like glass windows… Certainly the spirit, since it is very light, flies out most to the highest parts of the body, and its light shines out more copiously through the eyes since they themselves are transparent and the most shining of all the parts. (159).

While Ficino states that the extramissionist model operates for all types of vision, even those who held the more conventional intramissionist account similarly made exceptions for “love beams” and the “evil eye” where they claimed that the eye could make ejaculations.9

While his extramissionist account was not standard, some of the bases upon which his theory of vision depended are fairly typical. Such is the case with his theory of the visual spirits. This passage reveals the importance of the visual spirits and their relation to the somatic. Like the vital spirits in general, the visual spirits occupy a paradoxical position somewhere between body and soul since they had conference with each. Though generated from material by processes of refinement in the heart, they also became so thin and “light” that they became almost immaterial. It is this paradoxical quality that I am calling paramaterial, and, while placed in an impossible position, served as a lynchpin that helped hold together the otherwise radical gap between the body and the soul.

Not only is there a paramaterial transfer of something through vision in terms of the blood in love beams, but Ficino also says, “when the figure of some body meets the eye, and through the eyes penetrates into the spirit, if that figure, on account of the preparation of its matter, corresponds closely to the figure which the divine Mind contains the Idea of the thing, it immediately pleases the soul since it corresponds to those Reasons which both our intellect and our power of procreation preserve as copies of the thing itself, and which were originally received divinely.” (119).

For Ficino, these visual spirits continually emit from the eye towards the objects of their perception, and, given their paramaterial status, operate as both material and immaterial simultaneously. The objects which the eye acquire are similarly situated. Though, as I have said, Ficino and others explicitly maintain that the eye does not receive any “material” from the object, the objects themselves are thought to undergo a process of de-materialization that allows them to interact with the soul despite their paramaterial nature and origin.

In his theory of vulgar love, however, it is not simply the paramateriality of the objects of perception and thought that link the world to the observer, the beloved to the lover. Because of the quasi-material nature of the visual spirits, Ficino affords them another level of materiality in the production of love beams which has additional physiological consequences.
Ficino continues later,

The fact that a ray which is sent out by the eyes draws with it a spiritual vapor, and that this vapor draws with it blood, we observe from this, that bleary and red eyes, by the emission of their own ray, force the eyes of a beholder nearby to be afflicted with a similar disease. This shows that the ray extends as far as that person opposite, and that along with the ray emanates a vapor of corrupt blood, by the contagion of which the eye of the observer is infected. (160).

Ficino’s model of vision is always extromissionist, and, although he claims nothing “material” enters or leaves the eyes, the fact that this spirit is refined from the blood, and, since he discusses those with “corrupt” spirits and eyes, they take on a more material aspect due to the fact that the vapors are not as refined as they might otherwise be. Due to this corruption, the blood and spirits of the gazer can infect the “person opposite.”

Far from a simple equation of the gaze with the “sadistic male gaze,” we find, in this model, a reciprocal gaze. In order for this theory to work, both poles in this exchange of glances are looking at one another, the rays and spirits of both looker and looked at are exchanged and merge. It is not simply a case of a sadistic looker as subject with a passive object, the object of the look is also a subject of the look.

This reciprocal gaze becomes clearer when Ficino explains this operation further. He says,

…What wonder is it if the eye, wide open and fixed upon someone, shoots the darts of its own rays into the eyes of the bystander, and along with those darts, which are the vehicles of the spirits, aims that sanguine vapor which we call spirit? Hence the poisoned dart pierces through the eyes, and since it is shot from the heart of the shooter, it seeks again the heart of the man being shot, as its proper home; it wounds the heart, but in the heart’s hard back wall it is blunted and turns back into blood. This foreign blood, being somewhat foreign to the nature of the wounded man, infects his blood. The infected blood becomes sick. Hence follows a double bewitchment. (160).

The visual spirits, refined from the blood of the observer, enter into the eyes of the observed, and find their way through his eyes, into his heart, and into his blood. But the process is one of “double bewitchment” and one of a reciprocal or mutual gaze, since it is the meeting of eyes that allows for this. The meeting of eyes and their spirits provides for intersubjective penetration and, possibly, corruption. Strict binaries between observer and observed, looker and looked at, and subject and object break down and are reversed in this act of the mutual gaze.
The theory of vulgar love expressed in Ficino positions looking with its transfer of bodily material and fluids at the level of the sexual act. Looking, in the case of love-beams, becomes a reversal of the sexual process in which the looker is penetrated and, in a sense, impregnated by the look of the other.

We are not dealing with an image projected on a screen, whether that screen is the cinematic or the retinal screen. Instead, we have an image that has some autonomy which enters, along with the blood, into the body of the beholder.

The link between such love-beams and sexual activity is not solely metaphorical, as the processes involved in each resemble one another in ways that might not be immediately apparent. The mixing or mingling of blood and spirit at the level of the eye produces small images within the blood and spirit of the lover, impregnating him with the image of the beloved. He is filled with the image, infected with an outside substance that fills it and then becomes joined with it.

This model should give us pause when we too readily accept the tendency to see the male gaze as placed in the positions of sadist and subject. Here, we find a mutual gaze in which the gazes cross paths and interpenetrate. The positions of observer and observed, subject and object reverse and disappear. Both are locked in an exchange of looks in which power dynamics are continually in flux.

While Lacan may warn us about equating the eye with the gaze, looking at Ficino’s theories of vision and of love beams show us that examining earlier theories of vision can challenge our own cultural assumptions about the male gaze. It is important to remember that for Lacan, too, the gaze and the look was always already a mutual rather than a one sided affair. In his famous example of the “sardine can,” Lacan problematizes the question of subject and object, observer and observed. This mutuality and reciprocity found in Ficino’s theory of love-beams do the same, but on a slightly ground.

That said, Ficino’s explanation of the theory is not without the taint of misogyny. In order to “prove” his model of extramissive vision and the material component of that process, he refers, as was a commonplace, to the idea that women during menstruation could stain mirrors by looking at them. As Ficino has it,

Aristotle writes that women, when the menstrual blood flows down, often soil a mirror with bloody drops by their own gaze. This happens, I think, from this: that the spirit, which is a vapor of the blood, seems to be a kind of blood so thin that it escapes the sight of the eyes, but becoming thicker on the surface of a mirror, it is clearly observed. If this falls on some less dense material, such as cloth, or wood, it is not seen, for the reason that it does not remain on the surface of the thing but sinks into it. If it falls on something dense but rough, such as stones, bricks, and the like, because of the roughness of that body it is dissipated and broken up. But a mirror, on account of its hardness, stops the spirit on the surface; on account of its brightness it aids and increases the spirit’s own ray; on account of its cold, it forces its very fine mist into droplets. (160).

By drawing upon accounts of menstrual women spotting mirrors, Ficino falls back on a misogynistic anxiety over the “leaky” female body, but this explanation also reinforces the intersubjective power involved in the gaze that emerges from the “double bewitchment.” At the same time, such a model calls into question the too easy collapsing of the looker with a sadistic male gaze since the model itself depends upon mutuality and reciprocity.

We also see, from this example, how blurry the line between material and immaterial can become when medieval and early moderns explain not only the spirits, but also the process of vision, and, I would argue, the objects of perception. The visual and vital spirits lay somewhere between materiality and immateriality, a position I am calling the paramaterial. The blood is refined to the point of being an invisible vapor, but it is one that can condense back into blood. Such an explanation not only applies to menstruating women who might have corrupt blood and hence spirits, but to all forms of vision since even the purer visual or vital spirits occupy the same position in the system.

The visual spirits, like the vital spirits, occupy a paramaterial space, but they also link the observer and the observed in a cycle of interpenetration that might go unrecognized without fully exploring contemporary theories of the visual process. Interestingly, Ficino primarily uses mutual male looks to further explain the “double bewitchment” of the mutual exchange of the gaze, but also extends it to account for the misogynistic theories about the effects of menstruating women upon the eyes of a beholder. He continues,

The sight of a stinking old man or a woman suffering her period bewitches a boy. The sight of a young man bewitches an older man. But since the humor of an older man is cold and very slow, it hardly reaches the back of the heart in the boy, and ill-fitted for passing across, moves the heart entirely too little, unless on account of infancy it is very tender. Therefore this is a light bewitchment.
But that bewitchment is very heavy by which a young man transfixes the heart of an older man. It is this, distinguished friends, which the Platonist Apuleius, complains about:
For me, he says, you yourself are alone the whole cause and origin of my present pain, but also the cure itself and my only health. For those eyes of yours gliding down through my eyes into my inmost heart, are producing a furious fire in my marrow. Therefore have mercy on him who is dying because of you. (160-161).

While what Apuleius says might be taken as metaphor, Ficino experiences it as a physiological process, as a felt experience. It is important to remember that some of what we take today as metaphors for lived experience, for Ficino and other thinkers of a similar vein, were decidedly not metaphorical. In this case, the spirits and the images they contain flow from the object to the perceiver’s very heart. The heart serves, like the mirror, as the surface upon which the vapors collect and condense, proving potentially infectious.

It is also important to note that the somatic processes Ficino describes also accounts for why different subjects are affected differently by various objects. Although they are engaged in a mutual look and while there is some reciprocity there, the weaker spirits and sight of an older man, for example, do not penetrate very far into the heart of a young boy. Such a system accounts for the various ways in which an object will act upon a subject, ignoring the variant phantasies of the subject. Ficino does not here address the influence of the phantasy on perception, opting instead for a purely physiological explanation.

While the gazes might not be equal, they maintain a reciprocity in this system. It is a theory of the gaze that depends on the mutual gaze, rather than one that is lopsided in favor of the active “subject.” At the same time, the “object” of sight produces within the observer a physical change, and can “infect” as well as “bewitch” in ways that further complicate the boundaries between subject and object, inside and outside.

One again finds blurred boundaries in yet another extended example of the love between men. His example deserves to be quoted at length:

Put before your eyes, I beg of you, Phaedrus the Myrrhinusian, and that Theban who was seized by love of him, Lysias the orator. Lysias gapes at the face of Phaedrus. Phaedrus aims into the eyes of Lysias sparks of his own eyes, and along with those sparks transmits also a spirit. The ray of Phaedrus is easily joined to the ray of Lysias, and spirit easily joined to spirit. This vapor produced by the heart of Phaedrus immediately seeks the heart of Lysias, through the hardness of which it is condensed and turns back into the blood of Phaedrus as before, so that now the blood of Phaedrus, amazing though it seems, is in the heart of Lysias. Hence each immediately breaks out into shouting: Lysias to Phaedrus: “O, my heart, Phaedrus, dearest viscera.” Phaedrus to Lysias: “O, my spirit, my blood, Lysias.” Phaedrus pursues Lysias because his heart desires his humor back. Lysias pursues Phaedrus because the sanguine humor requests its proper vessel, demands its own seat. But Lysias pursues Phaedrus more ardently. For the heart can more easily do without a very small particle of its humor than the humor itself can do without its proper heart. The stream needs the spring more than the spring needs the stream. Therefore, just as iron having received the quality of the lodestone is certainly drawn toward this stone, but does not attract the lodestone, so Lysias pursues Phaedrus more than Phaedrus pursues Lysias. (161).

The exchange of looks, for Ficino, involves the exchange of paramaterial spirits. The rays, containing these spirits flow from the eyes into the eyes and spirits of the other, all the way to the other’s heart. The reciprocal exchange in this double bewitchment blurs the boundaries of inside and outside, self and other, precisely because of the conjunction and penetration of the spirits into the body of the other. The process works in both directions, but does so without an equal balance. Lysias is more taken with Phaedrus than vice versa, but the exchange is still as mutual as the gaze.

The “Fancie” from Thomas Jenner’s A Work for none but angels & men. STC Wing D410.

The attraction that develops depends upon Ficino’s claim that the blood of Lysias and Phaedrus enters the other’s heart by way of the penetrating spirits. It is important to note that Ficino attends at this point to the exchange and intermingling of spirits and blood rather than focusing on the images that enter one another’s eyes. For some medieval and early modern theorists, the penetration of the image through the spirit and into the heart produces similar results, but Ficino invests his scenario with even more of a thoroughly physiological and material explanation, underscoring the notion of love (or at least vulgar love) as a type of infection.10

When Ficino later returns to the pair, he mentions the images impressed on the spirits and blood as they relate to the powerful alterations such an infection and double bewitchment produces. Not only has the mutual exchange of looks crossed intersubjective boundaries, challenging the distinction between self and other, it also supposedly produces changes that make the infected resemble the other. The lover “thinks about [his desires and pleasures] … vehemently and … constantly” (165), and as with pregnant women who think about certain things, according to Ficino, “the vehement thought moves the internal spirits and paints on them an image of the thing being thought about” (164). Even theorists who did not espouse an extramissionist account of vision or that focus on the exchange of blood between lovers often promote a similar idea that “images” can impress themselves on the “spirits” of the body. These images, like the spirits themselves, are paramaterial in nature, paradoxically being both material and immaterial.

These images impressed upon the spirits and the infecting blood produce alterations in the body of the perceiver or lover. The intersubjective potential of such a system of paramaterial exchange is only exaggerated by Ficino’ more wholly physiological explanation. To elaborate on this point, Ficino returns to Lysias and Phaedrus, where he says,

What wonder if the features are so firmly implanted and embedded in the breast by mere thought that they are imprinted on the spirit, and by the spirit are immediately imprinted on the blood? Especially since the very soft blood of Phaedrus has already been generated in the veins of Lysias, so that the face of Phaedrus can very easily be reflected in its own blood. But since all parts of the body, as they dry out every day, so they revive every day, having taken moisture from food, it follows that from day to day the body of each man which has gradually dried out is little by little restored. But the parts are restored by the blood flowing from the channels of the veins. Therefore will you be surprised if blood imprinted with a certain likeness has impressed that likeness on the parts of the body, so that eventually Lysias will seem to have become like Phaedrus in come colors, or features, or feelings, or gestures? (165).

The infecting spirits and blood also contain the “features” or “likeness” of the beloved, which, even as the body returns to normal, continues to leave a trace behind, altering the lover by transforming him, or aspects of him, into the beloved. The mutual exchange of looks between men serves to engender a pregnancy of the spirit in each. Blood of each materially enters the body and blood of the other, producing within the observer the offspring of the original’s image. The penetrating gaze produces a miniature image within the heart of the other. In the case of love beams, this interpenetration works in both directions even if one side might receive a stronger “impression.”

Ficino underscores the infectious nature of this process when he again describes the way one ultimately overcomes the erotic troubles that it produces. He says,

…The disquiet of lovers necessarily lasts as long as that infection of the blood, injected into the viscera through bewitchment, lasts; it presses the heart with heavy care, feeds the wound through the veins, and burns the members with unseen flames. For its passage is made from the heart into the veins, and from the veins into the members. When this infection is finally purged away, the disquiet of the erotics (or rather erratics) ceases. (167).

Though the process starts with a mutual gaze, it is simultaneously threatening and subversive. Such is the case for “vulgar love” that tends toward the bodily.
In conventional Renaissance Neoplatonic terms, vulgar love descends from sight to touch while divine love leads the lover to contemplations of beauty and the divine. Drawing on Plato’s discussion of the chariot and the charioteer from the Phaedrus, Ficino says,

For true love is nothing other than a certain effort of flying up to divine beauty, aroused by the sight of corporeal beauty. But adulterous love is a falling down from sight to touch. (172).

While there is an important distinction to be made between sight and touch, it should also be noted that the sight, as Ficino envisions it, it a type of touching—and not only a type of touching but also a penetration. The beloved penetrates the lover with not only his spirits and blood but also his image, producing alterations in the lover that can make him resemble the beloved. This visual touch might not be quite the same as a material touch, but it does reach deeper and has internal effects—it is a touching of the heart. This touching of the heart, as we have seen, is not entirely metaphorical. At least in Ficino, it has a quasi-material or, as I call it, a paramaterial force.

Although I do not have time to address it here, even without Ficino’s intensely physical description of the process of love and even without his extramissionist account of the visual process, the relationship between sight and touch in the medieval and early modern periods are much more closely aligned than they could be today. This is an aspect of the early modern gaze that critics might overlook if they too quickly jump to modern theories of the senses without recognizing their cultural contingency. This is not to say that Mulvey or Lacan are not applicable to these earlier periods, just that there is a need to nuance those uses by attending to the ways in which medieval and early moderns theorized their own senses of sense.

This brings us back to Regina Schwartz’s criticism of Mulvey, where, despite the fact that she does not attend in that essay to medieval and early modern theories of vision and love, we find common ground. In the gaze as theorized by Ficino, we find a mutual gaze, a meeting and intermingling of eyes, spirits, and blood. We find, not the sadistic male gaze where there is a clearly defined subject and object, but a mutual gaze that interpenetrates and crisscrosses psychic and material boundaries.

We find not only this mutual gaze, but also a perceiver and self that is more porous and permeable than the modern solipsistic self. The body and mind, world and perceiver are linked through material and paramaterial chains that cross physical and psychic boundaries. Such profound and uncrossable boundaries between self and world, and between self and others came later with the modern development of the self proper.

It could be argued that with Ficino’s emphasis on the “infectious” quality of the other’s gaze, that the borders of the body were more radically fixed. I would offer that the requisite policing of the boundaries of the body that so many commentators in the medieval and early modern period encourage depend, in large part, on the fact that the medieval and early modern body was more vulnerable precisely because of the porosity and permeability of those bodies. It was because the body had open channels to the outside world that the objects which they looked at had so much power and ability to penetrate.

With the modern insular self, the borders between body and mind were more rigid and impermeable, but we find a more open space in medieval and early modern theories. The same holds true for medievals and early moderns who did not, like Ficino, depend upon an extramissive model of vision more generally. The intromissive model was the norm, even in popular culture in the early modern period, but most still maintained that the eye “ejaculated” something in the cases of love-beams and the evil eye.11 The potential for intersubjective penetration exists even in many of the intromissive models, especially in cases of love-beams and the evil eye.

Though he sets out a very material account of the process of love and a physiological explanation of love-beams, Ficino, along with many others, denies the materiality of vision, but, as we have seen in his explanation of the process itself, it is an exaggerated form of what I see elsewhere in the period as paramateriality. Ficino’s main reason for denying the materiality involved in vision is because he wants to distance his own theory from that of the epicureans like Lucretius who explain vision through reference to eidolon or “little films” that are given off by the surface of objects and find their way to the eye. The images in this paramaterial system differ in that they are not wholly material entities like the eidolon and are, instead, quasi-material in nature. These pre-modern theories of vision reveal a self whose boundaries are not fixed and stable, and are in continual flux. Such a relationship with the world extends beyond intersubjective experiences like the ones we find in Ficino’s theory of love-beams, but applies equally to a subject’s relationship with the world. The paramaterial nature of the sense allows for a genuine engagement with the world. In the medieval and early modern periods it is not simply at the point of light that something like a sardine can looks at a subject, something of its essence can actually penetrate and alter the perceiving subject as it enters through the eyes, through the phantasy, and might penetrate all the way to the heart.12


Ficino, Marsilio. Commentary on Plato’s Symposium on Love. Dallas, Tex: Spring Publications, 1994. Print.
Lacan, Jacques. The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psycho-Analysis. W. W. Norton & Company, 1998. Print
Mulvey, Laura. “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema.” Braudy, Leo and Marshall Cohen. Film Theory and Criticism. Introductory Readings. New York: Oxford UP, 1999. 833-844. Print.
Schwartz, Regina. “Rethinking Voyeurism and Patriarchy: The Case of Paradise Lost.” Representations, No. 34 (Spring, 1991): 85-103. Print.

  1. For this post, I will be using and citing from Sears Jayne’s excellent translation of De Amore, Commentary on Plato’s Symposium on Love.  (back)
  2. Find details https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Marsilio_Ficino_-_Angel_Appearing_to_Zacharias_(detail).jpg  (back)
  3. The case for the non-materiality of vision and love appears clear cut from Ficino’s own explicit theoretical apparatus. For him, as for many others at the time, Aristotelian and Neoplatonic, vision did not involve the transfer of material from the world’s objects to the eye, trafficking solely in light. As Ficino puts it,

    …The beauty of any person pleases the soul not insofar as it lies in external matter, but insofar as an image of it is comprehended or grasped by the soul through the sight. That image cannot be a body, either in the sight or in the soul, since both of these are incorporeal. For in what way could the small pupil of the eye take in the whole heaven, so to speak, if it received it in a corporeal way? In no way, obviously. But the spirit receives in a point the entire breadth of a body, in a spiritual way and in an incorporeal image. The soul likes only that beauty which it has taken in. Though this beauty may be an image of an external body, it is nonetheless incorporeal in the soul. (Ficino 87–88).

    Ficino states that the eye does not take in any matter, but his criticism is really directed towards epicureans like Lucretius who claim that objects in the world emit eidolon which are “little films” given off by the surface of objects. The epicurean stance allows for more of a corporeal transfer in the process of vision, but as Ficino and many other detractors note, the “little films” are difficult to maintain because the eye would need to be able to take in the objects of the whole world. Ficino’s argument here, then, is more about the hypermaterial explanatory system of the epicureans, but while he emphasizes the immateriality of the process in this passage, he later, as we will see, draws upon material explanations to describe immaterial processes.

    Although his primary targets here are the epicureans, Ficino reiterates that the process is immaterial and corporeal when he says that the eye only takes in light. He says,

    [The shapes and colors of bodies] do not come to the eyes with their matter. Nevertheless it seems to be necessary that they be in the eyes in order to be seen by the eyes. And so the one light of the sun, imprinted with the colors and shapes of all the bodies illuminated by it, presents itself to the eyes. The eyes, with the help of a certain ray of their own, perceive the light thus imprinted: they see both the perceived light itself and all the things which are imprinted in it. Therefore this whole order of the world which is seen is perceived, not in the manner in which it exists in the matter of bodies, but in which it exists in the light infused into the eyes. Since in this light it is separated from matter, it is necessarily devoid of body. (90-91).

    Against the epicureans who argue that the matter from the surfaces of objects enters the eye through “little films,” Ficino claims they come to the eyes without a body because they are infused in light. At the same time, however, he uses very material terms to discuss this process. The shapes and colors of bodies are “imprinted” on both the light and the eye. So even though these “images” are “incorporeal,” Ficino uses very material language to discuss their transmission. As we will see, however, when Ficino moves to the standard account of the origins of vulgar love, the waters get even murkier.   (back)

  4. Please see my earlier posts on medieval and early modern eyes. You can find part one here, and part two here.  (back)
  5. It should be noted that Ficino claims there are five types of love in man, the first two inspired by demons and the other three by the passions. He still, however, maintains the distinction between heavenly and vulgar love as found in Plato.  (back)
  6. Such an arrangement is typical of theories of vision in the period. See my previous post on the imagination in Petrarch here.  (back)
  7. From the Folger Library’s excellent Luna site, found here: https://luna.folger.edu/luna/servlet/detail/FOLGERCM1~6~6~865444~157201:-Berger-extravagant–English–The-e?sort=call_number%2Cmpsortorder1%2Ccd_title%2Cimprint&qvq=q:Shepherd;sort:call_number%2Cmpsortorder1%2Ccd_title%2Cimprint;lc:FOLGERCM1~6~6&mi=0&trs=211  (back)
  8. I intend to write a lengthy post on intramission and extramission models of vision in late medieval and early modern theories. In short, I believe many critics, drawing on explanations of love beams and envious eyes, overstate and over-generalize how prevalent extramissionist theories of vision were in the period. Though love beams and the evil eye were explained in such a way, the predominant model for vision remained intramissionist in general.  (back)
  9. Again, I will write about this again soon.  (back)
  10. For the importance of images impressed on the spirits please see my earlier post on Ambroise Paré and the generation of monsters. The relationship between the two posts will be made even clearer in what follows.  (back)
  11. Again, I will write further on this later.  (back)
  12. My thoughts here are a little more sketchy and as of yet not wholly worked out or substantiated. At the same time, I do believe the boundaries between the perceiver and his or her world is much more open in this period than with the modern insular self—extending not only to people but also to “objects.”  (back)
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