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Byzantium and the Italian Renaissance

A. A. Vasiliev, History of the Byzantine Empire , vol. II.,
Wisconsin 1952, ed. University of Wisconsin, pp. 713- 722.

In considering what influence was exerted on the Italian Renaissance by the medieval Greek tradition in general and by the Byzantine Greeks in particular, it is important to remember that it was not interest in and acquaintance with classical antiquity that called forth the Renaissance in Italy. On the contrary, the conditions of Italian life which evoked and developed the Renaissance were the real cause of the rise of interest in antique culture.

In the middle of the nineteenth century some historians thought that the Italian Renaissance was called forth by the Greeks who fled from Byzantium to Italy before the Turkish danger, especially at the fall of Constantinople in 1453. For example, a Russian Slavophile of the first half of the nineteenth century, J. V. Kireyevsky, wrote: "When after the capture of Constantinople the fresh and pure air of Hellenic thought blew from the East to the West, and the thinking man in the West breathed more easily and freely, the whole structure of scholasticism collapsed at once" (2). Obviously, such a point of view is quite untenable if only for no other reason than elementary chronology: the Renaissance is known to have embraced the whole of Italy by the first half of the fifteenth century, and the chief leaders of the so-called Italian humanism, Petrarca and Boccaccio, lived in the fourteenth century.

There are, then, two problems: the influence of the medieval Greek tradition upon the Renaissance and the influence of the Byzantine Greeks upon the Renaissance. Considering the latter first, what sort of Greeks were those whose names are connected with the epoch of the earlier Renaissance, i.e. the fourteenth century and the very beginning of the fifteenth ?

Chronologically, the first to be named is a Greek of Calabria, in southern Italy, Barlaam, who died about the middle of the fourteenth century, who participated in the Hesychast quarrel. He put on the monastic habit in Calabria, changed his name from Bernardo to Barlaam, and spent some time in Thessalonica, on Mount Athos, and in Constantinople. The Emperor, Andronicus the Younger, sent him on an important mission to the West concerning the crusade against the Turks and the union of the churches. After a fruitless journey he returned to Byzantium, where he took part in the religious movement of the Hesychasts, and then went back to the West, where he ended his days. Barlaam is a personality of whom the first humanists often speak, and the scholars of the nineteenth century vary in their opinion of him. At Avignon Petrarca met Barlaam and began to learn Greek with him in order to be able to read Greek authors in the original. In one of his letters Petrarca spoke of Barlaam as follows: "There was another, my teacher, who, having aroused in me the most delightful hope, died and left me at the very beginning of my studies [in ipso studiorum lacte ]." In another letter Petrarca wrote: "He [i.e. Barlaam ] was most excellent in Greek eloquence, and very poor in Latin; rich in ideas and quick in mind, he was embarrassed in expressing his emotions in words." (3) In a third letter he said: "I always was very anxious to study all of Greek literature and if Fortune had not envied my beginnings and deprived me of an excellent teacher, now I might be something more than an elementary Hellenist." (4) Petrarca never succeeded in reading Greek literature in the original. Barlaam also had some influence on Boccaccio, who in his work The Genealogy of the Gods ( Genealogia deorum ) calls Barlaam a man "with a small body but enormous knowledge," and who puts entire confidence in him in all matters pertaining to Greek scholarship (4).

The theological and mathematical essays, notes, and orations of Barlaam which are accessible afford no sufficient reason to call him a humanist. In all probability, his writings were unknown to Petrarca; and Boccaccio distinctly says that he "has seen no single one of his works" (5). Neither is there enough data to testify to his wide education or exceptional knowledge of literature, in other words, no reason to believe that Barlaam possessed enough talent or cultural force to exert a great influence on his most talented and educated Italian contemporaries, the leading spirits of the epoch, such as Petrarca and Boccaccio. Therefore we cannot agree with the exaggerated estimation of Barlaam's influence upon the Renaissance which appears sometimes in excellent works. For example, a German scholar, G. Korting, observed: "When Barlaam, by his hasty departure from Avignon, had deprived Petrarca of the possibility of deeper knowledge of the Greek tongue and civilization, he destroyed thereby the proud structure of the future and decided for centuries the destiny of the European peoples. Small causes, great effects !" (6) A Russian scholar, Th. Uspensky, wrote on the same subject: "The vivid conception of the idea and importance of Hellenic studies with which the men of the Italian Renaissance were rilled, must be wholly attributed to the indirect and direct influence of Barlaam. Thus, great merit in the history of medieval culture belongs to him.... On the basis of real facts, we may strongly affirm that he combined the best qualities of the scholarship then existing" (7).

The role of Barlaam in the history of the Renaissance was in reality much more modest. He was nothing but a rather imperfect teacher of the Greek language, who could impart the elements of grammar and serve as a dictionary, "containing," said Korelin, "very inexact information" (8). The most correct estimation of Barlaam's significance was given by A. Veselovsky : "The role of Barlaam in the history of earlier Italian humanism is superficial and casual.... As a medieval scholastic and enemy of Platonic philosophy, he could share with his Western friends only the knowledge of the Greek language and some fragments of erudition; but he was magnified by virtue of the hopes and expectations in which the genuine evolution of humanism expressed itself and to which he was unable to respond" (9).

The second Greek who played a considerable role in the epoch of the earlier Renaissance was a pupil of Barlaam, Leontius Pilatus, who like his teacher came from Calabria and who died in the seventh decade of the fourteenth century. Moving from Italy to Greece and back again, passing in Italy for a Greek of Thessalonica and in Greece for an Italian and living nowhere without quarrels, he stayed for three years at Florence with Boccaccio, to whom he taught Greek and gave some information for his Genealogy of the Gods. Both Petrarca and Boccaccio spoke of Leontius in their writings, and depict in a similar way the refractory, harsh, and impertinent character and repulsive appearance of this "man of such bestial manners and strange customs" (10). In one of his letters to Boccaccio, Petrarca wrote that Leontius, who left him after many insolent remarks against Italy and the Italians, on his journey sent him a letter "longer and more disgusting than his beard and hair, in which he exalts to the skies hated Italy and vilifies and blames Greece and Byzantium, which he greatly exalted before; then he asks me to call him back to me and supplicates and beseeches more earnestly than the Apostle Peter besought Christ commanding the waters." In the same letter are the following interesting lines: "And now listen and laugh: among other things, he asks me to recommend him by letter to the Constantinopolitan Emperor, whom I know neither personally nor by name; but he wants this and therefore imagines that [that Emperor] is as benevolent and gracious to me as the Roman Emperor; as if the similarity of their title identified them, or because the Greeks call Constantinople the second Rome and dare to regard it not only as equal to the ancient, but even as surpassing it in population and wealth" (11). In his Genealogy of the Gods Boccaccio described Leontius as horribly ugly, always absorbed in his thoughts, rough and unfriendly, but the greatest living authority on Greek literature and an inexhaustible archive of Greek legends and fables (12). While he was with Boccaccio, Leontius made the first literary Latin translation of Homer. However, this translation was so unsatisfactory that later humanists judged it desirable to replace it by a new one. Taking into account the fact that Leontius, as Boccaccio stated, was indebted to his teacher Barlaam for much of his knowledge, Th. Uspensky said that "the importance of the latter must rise even higher in our eyes" (13). Fully recognizing the considerable influence of Leontius Pilatus on Boccacio in the study of Greek, nevertheless, in the general history of the Renaissance, the role of Pilatus is reduced to the spreading of the knowledge of the Greek language and literature in Italy by means of lessons and translations. Moreover, the immortality of Boccaccio does not rest upon the material afforded him by Greek literature, but upon an entirely different basis.

Thus, the role in the history of the early humanistic movement of these Greeks who were in origin not Byzantines, but south Italians ( Calabrians ), is reduced to the mere transmission of technical information on language and literature.

Stress has several times been laid on the fact that Barlaam and Leontius Pilatus came from Calabria, from southern Italy, where the Greek language and tradition continued to live all through the Middle Ages. Regardless of the ancient "Magna Graecia" in southern Italy, whose Hellenic elements had not been entirely absorbed by Rome, the conquests of Justinian in the sixth century had introduced to Italy in general and to southern Italy in particular not a few Greek elements. The Lombards, who shortly after Justinian conquered the greater part of Italy were themselves affected by Greek influence, became to some extent the champions of Hellenic civilization. It is important to examine the evolution of Hellenism in southern Italy and Sicily, the Greek population of which gradually increased. In the sixth and seventh centuries many Greeks were forced to leave their country for southern Italy and Sicily under pressure of Slavonic invasions into Greece (14). In the seventh century a huge Greek emigration to Sicily and southern Italy took place from the Byzantine regions conquered and devastated by the Persians and Arabs. In the eighth century a vast number of Greek monks came to Italy, escaping the persecution of the iconoclastic emperors. Finally, in the ninth and tenth centuries Greek refugees from Sicily, then being conquered by the Arabs, inundated southern Italy. This was probably the main source of the Hellenization of Byzantine southern Italy, because Byzantine culture there began to flourish only in the tenth century, "as if it were but the continuation and inheritance of the Greek culture of Sicily" (15). A. Veselovsky wrote: "Thus, in southern Italy there formed densely populated Greek ethnic islands as well as a people and society united by one language and religion and by a cultural tradition, which was represented by the monasteries. The bloom of that culture embraces the period from the second half of the ninth century to the second half of the tenth; but it also continues later, in the epoch of the Normans.... The founding of the most important Greek monasteries in southern Italy belongs to the twelfth century. Their history is the history of south Italian Hellenism.

They had had their heroic period, that of anchorites living in caves and preferring contemplation to reading and writing, as well as the period of well-organized cenobitic institutions with schools of copyists, libraries, and literary activity" (16). Greek medieval southern Italy produced a number of writers who devoted themselves to composing not only lives of the saints, but also religious poetry; they "were also preserving the traditions of learning" (17). In the second half of the thirteenth century Roger Bacon wrote the Pope concerning Italy, "in which, in many places, the clergy and people were purely Greek" (18). An old French chronicler stated of the same time that the peasants of Calabria spoke nothing but Greek (19). In the fourteenth century, in one of his letters, Petrarca spoke of a certain youth who, on his advice, is to go to Calabria: he wished to go directly to Constantinople, "but learning that Greece abounding once in great talents now lacks them, he believed my words...; hearing from me that in our time in Calabria there were some men thoroughly acquainted with Greek literature... he determined to go there." (20) Thus, the Italians of the fourteenth century did not need to appeal to Byzantium for elementary technical acquaintance with the Greek language and the beginnings of Greek literature; they had a nearer source, in southern Italy, the source which gave them Barlaam and Leontius Pilatus.

The real influence of Byzantium upon Italy begins at the end of the fourteenth century and continues during the fifteenth century, the time of the real Byzantine humanists, Manuel Chrysoloras, Gemistus Plethon, and Bessarion of Nicaea.

Born in Constantinople about the middle of the fourteenth century, Manuel Chrysoloras enjoyed in his native country the renown of an eminent teacher, rhetorician, and philosopher. A young Italian humanist, Guarino, went to Constantinople on purpose to hear Chrysoloras; the latter taught him Greek, and Guarino began to study Greek authors. Chrysoloras, by order of the Emperor, came on a special political mission to Italy, where his fame had already reached and where he was enthusiastically received. The Italian centers of humanism, in eager rivalry, showered the foreign scholar with invitations. For several years he taught at the University of Florence, where a great group of humanists attended his classes. At the request of Emperor Manuel II, who was at that time in Italy, he removed for a short time to Milan and later on became a professor at Pavia. After a short stay in Byzantium Chrysoloras returned to Italy, and then, in behalf of the Emperor, made a long journey to England, France, and, possibly, Spain, finally entering into close relation with the papal curia. Sent by the pope to Germany to negotiate about the coming council, he arrived at Constance, where the Council was held, and died there in 1415. Chrysoloras ' chief importance was apparently due to his teaching and to his ability to transmit to his auditors his vast knowledge of Greek literature. His writings in the form of theological treatises, Greek grammar, translations (for example, a literary translation of Plato), and letters, do not justify attributing to him a really great literary talent. But his influence on the humanists was enormous, and they showered upon the Byzantine professor the highest praise and most sincere enthusiasm. Guarino compared him with the sun illuminating Italy which had been sunk in deep darkness, and expressed a wish that thankful Italy should erect in his honor triumphal arches along his way (21). He is sometimes called "the prince of Greek eloquence and philosophy" (22). The most eminent men of the new movement were among his pupils. A French historian of the Renaissance, Monnier, recalling the judgments of the humanists on Barlaam and Pilatus, wrote: "Here is no dull intellect, no lousy beard, no coarse Calabrian ready to laugh bestially at the admirable flashes of wit of a Terence. Manuel Chrysoloras is a veritable Greek; he is from Byzantium; he is noble; he is erudite; besides Greek he knows Latin; he is grave, mild, religious, and prudent; he seems to be born for virtue and glory; he is familiar with the latest achievements of science and philosophy; he is a master. This is the first Greek professor who renewed the classical tradition by occupying a chair in Italy " (23).

But Italy of the fifteenth century was influenced much more deeply and widely by the famous leaders of the Byzantine Renaissance, Gemistus Plethon and Bessarion of Nicaea. The former was the initiator of the Platonic Academy at Florence and the regenerator of Platonic philosophy in the West, and Bessarion was a man of first importance in the cultural movement of the time.

Bessarion was born at the very beginning of the fifteenth century at Trebizond, where he received his elementary education. He was sent to Constantinople for further advance in knowledge, and then he began to study thoroughly the Greek poets, orators, and philosophers. A meeting with the Italian humanist, Filelfo, who was then attending lectures in Constantinople, made Bessarion acquainted with the humanistic movement in Italy, and with the deep interest in ancient literature and art which was then making its appearance there. After taking the monastic habit Bessarion continued his studies in the Peloponnesus, at Mistra, under the guidance of the famous Plethon himself. As the archbishop of Nicaea he accompanied the Emperor to the Council of Ferrara-Florence and greatly influenced the course of the negotiations toward union. Bessarion wrote during the council, "I do not judge it right to separate from the Latins in spite of all plausible reasons" (24).

During his stay in Italy, he plunged into the intense life of the Renaissance and, not inferior himself to the Italian humanists in talent and education, he came into close contact with them, and, thanks to his opinion on the problem of union, he had also an intimate connection with the papal curia. On his return to Constantinople, Bessarion soon realized that, because of the hostility of the great majority of the Greek population, the union could not be accomplished in the East. At this time he received news from Italy that he had been appointed a cardinal of the Roman church. Feeling the ambiguity of his position in his own country, he yielded to his desire to return to Italy, the center of humanism, and left Byzantium for Italy.

At Rome the house of Bessarion became a center of humanistic intercourse. The most eminent representatives of humanism, such as Poggio and Valla, were his friends. Valla in reference to Bessarion's excellent knowledge of both classical languages called him "the best Greek of the Latins and the best Latin of the Greeks" ( latinorum graecissimus, graecorum latinissimus ) (25). Purchasing books or ordering copies made, Bessarion collected an excellent library comprising the works of the Fathers of the Eastern and Western churches and works of theological thought in general, as well as humanistic literature. Towards the end of his life he bestowed his very rich library upon the city of Venice, where it became one of the chief foundations of the famous present day library of St. Mark (Bibliotheca Marciana ); at the entrance door the portrait of Bessarion may be still seen.

Another idea in which he was greatly interested was that of a crusade against the Turks. At the news of the fall of Constantinople, Bessarion wrote immediately to the Doge of Venice calling his attention to the danger threatening Europe from the Turks and for this reason appealing to him to take arms against them (26). At that time Europe was unable to understand any other reason. Bessarion died at Ravenna in 1472, whence his body was transported to Rome for a solemn burial.

Bessarion ' s literary activity was carried on in Italy. Besides numerous works of theological character concerning union, A Dogmatic Oration, the refutation of Marcus Eugenicus (Mark of Ephesus), and works of polemic and exegesis, Bessarion left translations of some classical authors, among them Demosthenes and Xenophon, and of the metaphysics of Aristotle, works much more characteristic of him as a humanist. An admirer of Plato, Bessarion in his work Against Plato's Calumniator (In calumniatorem Platonis ), succeeded in remaining more or less objective, which cannot be said of the other champions of Aristotelianism and Platonism. Only a short time ago was published Bessarion's long Encomium (Eulogy) of his native city, Trebizond, which is of great importance from the historical point of view (27).

Bessarion presents, as his French biographer said, better than anyone else among the eminent men of his time an example of the fusion of the Greek genius with the Latin genius, from which the Renaissance sprang forth. " Bessarion lived on the threshold between two ages. He is a Greek who becomes Latin,... a cardinal who protects scholars, a scholastic theologian who breaks lances in favor of Platonism, an enthusiastic admirer of antiquity who has contributed more than anyone to originating the modern age. He is connected with the Middle Ages by the ideal which he endeavors to realize in the Christian union and the crusade; and he predominates over his age and urges it with ardor into the new ways of progress and the Renaissance" (28). One of the contemporaries of Bessarion, Michael Apostolius ( Apostolios ), full of enthusiasm for Bessarion's personality and talent, made him almost a demigod. In his funeral oration for Bessarion he wrote: "[ Bessarion ] was the reflection of divine and true wisdom" (29). Many of Bessarion's writings are still not published. An interesting modern tribute is that at the end of the nineteenth century Italy began issuing a Catholic periodical pursuing the aim of the union of the churches, under the title Bessarione.

But Byzantium contributed greatly to the history of the Renaissance not only by implanting the knowledge of the Greek language and literature by lessons and lectures and by the activity of such talented men as Plethon or Bessarion, who opened new horizons to Italy; Byzantium also gave the West a vast number of earlier Greek manuscripts, which contained the best classical authors, not to mention Byzantine texts and the works of the Fathers of the Greek Church.

Italian humanists, guided by the well known bibliophile Poggio, traveled through Italy and western Europe about the fourth decade of the fifteenth century, i.e. the epoch of the Council of Florence, and gathered together almost all the Latin classics now known. After Manuel Chrysoloras, who aroused an enthusiastic veneration for ancient Hellas in Italy, there was evident an intensive movement for the acquisition of Greek books. For this purpose the Italians hoped to use the Byzantine libraries. The Italians who had gone to Byzantium to learn Greek wisdom returned to Italy bringing Greek books. The first of these was an auditor of Chrysoloras in Constantinople, Guarino. What Poggio did for collecting the works of Roman literature, Giovanni Aurispa did for Greek literature: he went to Byzantium and brought from Constantinople, the Peloponnesus, and the islands no less than 238 volumes, in other words, a whole library comprising the best classical writers. As, in connection with the Turkish conquest, living conditions in Byzantium were growing harder and more dangerous, the Greeks emigrated in large numbers to the West and carried with them the works of their literature. The accumulation in Italy of the treasures of the classical world owing to conditions in Byzantium, created in the West exceptionally favorable conditions for acquaintance with the remote past of Hellas and her eternal culture. By transmitting classical works to the West and thereby saving them from destruction at the hands of the Turks, Byzantium performed great service for the future destinies of mankind.


(1) Works, II, 252. This opinion was even given in the first edition of J. Kulakovsky, History of Byzantium, I, 12; in the second edition(1913) it was omitted.

(2) F. Petraeca, Epistolae de rebus familiaribus et Variae XVIII, 2, and XXIV, 12; ed. G. Fracassetti, II, 474, III, 302. See Uspensky Byzantine Civilization, 301- 2. A. Veselovsky, " Boccaccio, His Surroundings and Contemporaries," Works, V, 86.

(3) Variorum epistolarum, XXV; ed. Fracassetti, II, 369. Uspensky, Essays on Byzantine Civilization, 303.

(4) De genealogia deorum, XV, 6; 1532. ed., Korelin, The Early Italian Humanism and Its Historiography, 993.

(5) De genealogia deorum, XV, 6; 1532 ed., 390: hujus ego nullum vidi opus.

(6) Petrarca's Leben und Werke, 154.

(7) Essays on Byzantine Civilization, 308.

(8) Early Italian Humanism, 998.

(9) Works, V, 100-1.

(10) Petrarca, Lettere sinili di Petrarca, V, 3; ed. Fracassetti, I, 299; also III, 6, ed. Fracassetti, I, 73: "è certamente una gran bestia." See Lettere di Petrarca, ed. Fracassetti, IV, 98. Boccaccio, De genealogia deorum, XV, 6, 1532 ed., 389. See Veselovsky, " Boccaccio," Works, VI, 364.

(11) Petrarca, Lettere sinili, III, 6; ed. Fracasseti I, 174- 175. Lettere, ed. Fracasseti IV, 98. See Veselovsky, "Boccaccio," Works, VI, 362- 63.

(1 2 ) De genealogia deorum, XV, 6; 1532 ed., 390. See Veselovsky, " Boccaccio," Works, VI, 351-52.

(13) Essays on Byzantine Civilization, 308. See Boccaccio, De genealogia deorum, XV, 6; 1532 ed., 390: "Leontium... ut ipse asserit, praedicti Barlaae auditorem."

(14) P. Charanis, "On the Question of the Hellenization of Sicily and Southern Italy," American Historical Review, LII (1946-47), 74-86.

(15) P. Batiffol, L'Abbaye de Rossano, ix.

(1 6 ) " Boccaccio," Works, V, 22.

(17) Ibid., V, 23.

(18) Nec multum esset pro tanta utilitate ire in Italiam, in qua clerus et populus sunt pure Graeci in multis locis; Roger Bacon, Compendium studii philosophiae, chap, vi; Bacon, - Opera quaedum hactenus inedita, 434.

(19) Et par toute Calabre li paisant ne parlent se grizois non. P. Meyer, "Les premi è res compilations françaises d'histoire ancienne," Romania, XIV (1885), 70, n. 5.

(20) De rebus senilibus, XI, 9; ed. Fracassetti, II, 164.

(21) See P. Monnier, L e Quattrocento. Essai sur I'histoire littéraire du XV e siècle italien, II, 6.

(22) See Korelin, Early Italian Humanism,.. p. 1002 .

(23) Monnier, Le Quattrocento, II, 4: " Quis enim praestantiorem Manuele virum, aut vidisse aut legisse meminit, qui ad virtutem. ad gloriam sine ulla dubitatione natus erat...? Decembrio declares "that as to his knowledge of letters, he did not seem to be a man but rather an angel."

(24) Oratio dogmatica pro unione; ed. Migne, Patrologia Graeca, CLXI, 612.

(25) H. Vast, Le Cardinal Bessarion (1403- 1472), title page. R. Rocholl, Bessarion. Studie zur Geschichte der Renaissance, 105. L. Mohler, Kardinal Bessarion als Theologe, Humanist und Staatsmann, 406.

(26) See A. Sadov, Bessarion of Nicaea, 276. Mohler, Kardinal Bessarion, 275-76; concern ing Bessarion's library, 408-15.

(27) Ed. S. Lampros, , (1916) 146-94; also published separately XIII (1916),

(28) Vast, Le Cardinal Bessarion, ix, xi.

(29) Laudalio funebris Bessarionis; Migne, Patrologia Graeca, CLXI, 140.

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