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Giovanni Pico and Humanists’ Skeptical Approach to Witchcraft :: History 229: The Age of the Witch Hunts

Giovanni Pico and Humanists’ Skeptical Approach to Witchcraft

Mirandola was the birthplace of Giovanni Pico. He was an Italian Renaissance thinker who spent most of his life traveling to Florence and Rome. He published many works, including “Oration on the Dignity of Man” (1486) in which he justified the importance of the human quest for knowledge within a Neoplatonic framework. He espoused the qualities of humanism, which are crucial in understanding the Italian response to witchcraft and the lack of mass-trials that occurred in Italy.

Humanism was the defining intellectual movement of the Renaissance. Based on the glorification of the individual as the center of the universe, Renaissance thinkers, such as Giovanni Pico, described humans as perfectly rational and capable of investigating and defining the laws of nature and of the physical world. Humanists believed individuals should question the ways of the universe and look inward for truths, rather than turning towards the Church.

Because of these intellectual innovations, thinkers like Giovanni Pico approached witchcraft in a highly skeptical way. Pico greatly expanded upon the Cannon Episcopi, an ancient source from the tenth century that denied the existence of witches. Pico elaborates on the argument that because of the delusory power of the Devil, those who confess to witchcraft are merely having dreams or visions caused by the Devil. Witchcraft, he argued, was not a real phenomenon, but instead imaginations of those with weak minds.

His work of the fifteenth century was extremely important and relied upon during the Roman Inquisition. Because Italian humanists approached witchcraft in such a skeptical way, the cumulative concept of witchcraft never completely took hold in Italy. During the Counter-Reformation, the Holy Office accepted the ideas of such skeptics, shown by through the cautious measures put into place during the prosecution of witches.


Duni, Matteo, Under the Devil’s Spell: Witches, Sorcerers, and the Inquisition in Renaissance Italy, Syracuse University Press, 2008.




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