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Byzantines in Renaissance Italy

Jonathan Harris (Hellenic Institute, Royal Holloway, University of London, Egham, Surrey, TW20 0EX, United Kingdom)


Traditionally, the fifteenth-century Byzantine exiles in Italy have been seen largely in terms of their contribution to the revival of Greek studies during the Renaissance. This can be traced in part to an enthusiastic outburst by the contemporary writer Leonardo Bruni, who claimed that one of them, Manuel Chrysoloras (d.1415), had restored to the Italians a knowledge of classical Greek, which had been lost for seven hundred years (Bruni, 431). The picture of the Byzantines as restorers of Greek letters was carried further in a famous passage by Edward Gibbon: ... the restoration of the Greek letters in Italy was prosecuted by a series of emigrants who were destitute of fortune and endowed with learning, or at least with language. From the terror or oppression of the Turkish arms, the natives of Thessalonica and Constantinople escaped to a land of freedom, curiosity and wealth ... I shall not attempt to enumerate the restorers of Grecian literature in the fifteenth century; and it may be sufficient to mention with gratitude the names of Theodore Gaza, of George of Trebizond, of John Argyropulus and Demetrius Chalcocondyles, who taught their native language in the schools of Florence and Rome (Gibbon, 7: 129-30). Yet the image of the Byzantine exiles as venerable scholars fleeing with their books under their arms represents both an exaggeration and an understatement. It exaggerates the part played by individual Byzantines in the revival of Greek learning in Italy, while ignoring the vast majority of the emigres, who were involved in no scholarly activity whatsoever. This article will look first at the wider phenomenon of Greek immigration to Italy in the fifteenth century, before turning to the question of the contribution of the Byzantines to the Italian Renaissance.


By 1400 it must have been clear to most Byzantines that what was left of their empire was doomed. The advance of the Ottoman Turks had left the capital, Constantinople, an island under siege, with only the Peloponnese and a few other isolated areas still under Byzantine rule. Constantinople itself had fallen into a state of ruinous decay far removed from its former glory. Hardly surprisingly, many Byzantines began to look towards the Christian West as a possible escape route from the inevitable. Italy was not only the closest, but it also offered a vibrant and progressive atmosphere which many Byzantine intellectuals contrasted favourably with their own ancient traditions and civilisation (Svevcvenko, 173-4; Geanakoplos, 'Byzantine looks at the Renaissance', 157-62). It was easiest for the wealthy and powerful, or those connected with court circles, to remove themselves to Italy. Theodore Palaeologus (d.1407), the brother of the Byzantine emperor Manuel II (1390-1425), for example, made arrangements with Venice that he should be received in Venetian territory if the Turks took Constantinople. Along with wealth and position, an added advantage was conversion to Latin Christianity, by accepting the authority of the Pope and the western version of the creed. A good example is Demetrius Kydones (c.1324-c.1398), a personal friend of Manuel II, who had converted to Catholicism at some point between 1355 and 1361. Sent to Italy as an ambassador in about 1381, Kydones spent most of his later years there, adopting Venetian citizenship and, as he put it, 'preferring to hear his country's bad news from abroad' (Chrysostomides, 411; Setton, 52-7). Prominent individuals like Theodore Palaeologus and Demetrius Kydones, however, do not constitute the whole picture. Many obscurer individuals were making their way to Italy, not only from Constantinople but also from the Greek-speaking areas ruled by the maritime republic of Venice: Crete, Corfu, Negroponte (Euboea), and the towns of Coron and Modon. For this reason, the largest number of immigrants was to be found in Venice.


By about 1478 the Greek population of Venice stood at some four thousand people, mainly concentrated in the Castello area of the city. This rapidly growing presence prompted Cardinal Bessarion to remark that Venice was 'almost another Byzantium'. In 1470 the Greeks were given a wing of the church of San Biagio in which to worship in their own language. In 1514 they received permission to build a church of their own and this was completed, as San Giorgio dei Greci, in 1573 (Geanakoplos, Greek Scholars, 35-7, 60; Nicol, Byzantium and Venice, 415-17). Many of these people appear to have found employment connected with Venice's position as a naval and mercantile power. They provided rowers for Venetian galleys, and carpenters for the Arsenal or shipyard. Between 1400 and 1442 a dynasty of Greek shipwrights dominated the Arsenal, designing galleys for both trade and war. Others, however, worked as tailors and gold wire drawers, or joined the Stradioti, a regiment in Venetian service recruited entirely from Greeks. An exception was Anna Notaras, a Byzantine noblewoman who had come to Venice before 1453 and who died there at an advanced age in 1507. Possessed of immense wealth, Notaras was financially independent and able to support many of her fellow Greeks in her household (Harris, Greek Emigres, 85-6, 180-1, 203; Nicol, Byzantium and Venice, 415-16). The Greek presence in Italy was not restricted to Venice. That in southern Italy had existed long before the fifteenth century. The area had been colonised by the Greeks in the eighth century BC, and an influx of refugees from the Arab and Slav invasions in the seventh century AD had reinforced the Greek-speaking element. The Byzantine empire had ruled parts of Southern Italy until 1071. The successes of the Turks in the Balkans, led many Greeks and Albanians to cross the Adriatic in search of safety. Many settled in the countryside but a recognisable Greek community had established itself in Naples by the end of the century (Harris, Greek Emigres, 27-9).


While in terms of numbers Venice was the most important centre for the Greeks in Italy, it was in Rome that the high-profile Byzantine emigres tended to congregate. The first of these arrived in the wake of the Union of the Eastern and Western Churches, proclaimed at the Council of Florence in 1439. The Union was not unanimously accepted in Constantinople, and several prominent Byzantine bishops who had supported it found themselves the objects of deep animosity among their own people. Some of them left the Byzantine capital and ended up living in exile in Rome. Foremost among them was Bessarion, Metropolitan of Nicaea, who had led the pro-uniate clergy at the Council and whom the Pope had rewarded by making a Cardinal. Another was Isidore, Byzantine Metropolitan of Kiev, who had been imprisoned by the Russians when he brought news of the Union of Florence. He later escaped to Rome and was also promoted to Cardinal. Gregory Melissenos, Patriarch of Constantinople, also fled to Rome in 1450. The victories of the Ottoman Turks sent others to Rome to seek the charity of the Pope. Constantinople itself fell in May 1453, and in the summer of 1460 the Sultan invaded and occupied the Byzantine-ruled Peloponnese. One of the rulers or Despots of the Peloponnese, Thomas Palaeologus, brother of the last Byzantine emperor Constantine XI (1449-53), fled to Corfu with his family and then crossed alone to Italy. Arriving in Rome in March 1461, he threw himself on the mercy of the Pope, Pius II. Pius granted Thomas a lodging and an annual pension which he enjoyed until his death in 1465. The pope also arranged for Thomas's children to join him in Rome. On Thomas's death his eldest son, Andreas Palaeologus (1453-1502), was recognised by the Pope as the legitimate heir to the Byzantine Morea, and his education, along with that of his younger siblings, Manuel and Zoe, was entrusted to Cardinal Bessarion. Andreas, however, was the only one to remain in Rome. Zoe married Grand Duke Ivan III of Moscow in 1472, and Manuel departed for Constantinople in 1476. Andreas achieved his majority in 1474, but his life thereafter was a sad affair. He was constantly short of money and spent many years travelling the courts of Europe in search of charity. Both contemporaries and modern scholars have blamed his penury on his own extravagance. Recent research, however, suggests that the real cause of Andreas's poverty was the constant curtailment of his pension by the papal treasury, which had been drained by the pope's involvement in costly Italian wars. Andreas died in Rome in 1502 (Runciman, 181-4; Nicol, Last Centuries, 398-401; Harris, `Worthless prince', 537-54).


Thus the Greek emigres who reached Italy during the fifteenth century were by no means all scholars: they ranged from exiled royalty to carpenters and mercenaries. Yet there can be no doubt that some of them played an important part in spreading a knowledge of the classical Greek language and ancient Greek literature in Italy. There was a good reason for this: reading classical Greek and even composing in the same style were an integral part of Byzantine higher education. Whereas in the West secular education had tended to die out in the early Middle Ages, in Byzantium it was sustained. In each generation, those who took their education beyond the age of fourteen would be instructed in the works of the ancient Greek poets, historians, dramatists and philosophers. Thus any educated Byzantine in the imperial service would have had a knowledge of these works which would have been the envy of many educated Italians, who were now starting to take an interest in ancient Greek literature (Constantinides, 1-2). Manuel Chrysoloras arrived in Italy at the end of the fourteenth century. He came not as a teacher or a scholar, but as an envoy of the Byzantine emperor, charged with negotiating western assistance for the beleaguered empire. In 1391, however, while staying in Venice, he gave some lessons in Greek to a certain Roberto Rossi, who then passed an enthusiastic account of his teacher to Coluccio Salutati (1331-1406), the Chancellor of Florence. So impressed was Salutati that he decided to secure Chrysoloras's services, and in 1396 invited him to teach grammar and Greek literature at University of Florence. Chrysoloras only occupied this post between 1397 and 1400, but in that period had a tremendous effect. Among his pupils were numbered some of the foremost figures of the revival of Greek studies in renaissance Italy, including Guarino da Verona (1374-1460) and Pallas Strozzi (1372-1462). Chrysoloras was not the only one to receive such a welcome. When George Gemistos Plethon attended the Council of Florence in 1439, his lectures on the differences between the work of Plato and Aristotle were eagerly received and prompted the later comment of Marsilio Ficino (1433-99) that Plethon had brought the spirit of Plato from the Byzantine empire to Italy (Thompson, 78; Setton, 57-8; Brown, 389-90; Woodhouse, 171-88). The success of Chrysoloras and Plethon cannot have gone unnoticed by other members of the Byzantine ruling classes, eager to escape to the West, and others were soon following in his footsteps. John Argyropoulos, an official in the service of one of the rulers of the Byzantine Morea, was sent to Italy in 1456 on a diplomatic mission. He too was offered the chance to teach in Florence and he accepted with alacrity, remaining in Italy until his death in 1487. Other cities also attracted Byzantines to teach Greek: Theodore Gaza of Thessalonica taught at Ferrara, Naples and Rome, Demetrius Chalkondyles of Athens at Padua, Florence and Milan (Geanakoplos, Constantinople and the West, 72-87, 91-113; Geanakoplos, 'The discourse', 118-44; Harris, Greek Emigres, pp. 122-3). Of no less importance than the teaching activity of these individuals, however, were their translations from Greek into Latin. Early in the fifteenth century, Manuel Chrysoloras co-operated with Uberto Decembrio (d.1427) to produce a Latin version of Plato's Republic, and in Rome the process of translation was specifically encouraged by Popes Nicholas V (1447-55) and Sixtus IV (1471-84). Under papal patronage, George of Trebizond produced Latin versions of Plato's Laws and, together with Theodore Gaza, of a large part of the Aristotelian corpus. The availability of these texts in Latin opened them up to a much wider readership (Monfasani, Collectio, 698-754; Geanakoplos, Constantinople and the West, 79-82; Wilson, 76-8; Setton, 78-80).


In addition to teaching and translating, the Byzantine scholars were also at the centre of the debate over the merits and meaning of works of the ancient Greek philosophers, particularly those of Plato. Unavailable in western Europe for most of the Middle Ages, Plato's works were now much more accessible thanks to the Latin translations of Manuel Chrysoloras, George of Trebizond and others. Renaissance Italy was particularly receptive to the ideas of Plato because political attitudes had been changing during the fifteenth century, as interest in the values which had been used to underpin the traditional concept of citizenship declined. In the past, the highest duty of the citizen had been considered to be that of involving himself in civic affairs, a notion that is prominent is the works of Cicero and Aristotle. Now a life of contemplative withdrawal and disengagement from political life was coming to be seen as praiseworthy. Politics were to be left rather to those who had been educated to pursue them, among whom the ruler or the prince was paramount. It is no coincidence that the later fifteenth century saw the writing of numerous `mirrors of princes', such as Niccolò Machiavelli's The Prince, all of which sought to define the qualities and education needed by the successful ruler. In this climate, Plato's Republic, which advocates rule by educated and wise guardians and which has little time for universal participation in political life, was likely to be of great interest. There was, however, one factor which prevented Plato from being as widely read as he might have been. While the philosophy of Aristotle could be reconciled with Christian theology without too much difficulty, there were several aspects of Platonic thought which could not. In the Republic, for example, Plato clearly espoused the doctrine of metempsychosis, the transmigration of souls, an idea completely at odds with the Christian teaching that, after death, souls await resurrection and judgement. Plato also advocated the sharing of wives and euthanasia, both of which are unacceptable to Christians (Hankins, Plato, i. 3-26; Monfasani, 'Platonic paganism', 45-61; Hankins, 'Humanism', 124). During the 1450s and 1460s a debate raged in Rome as to whether it was legitimate for Christians to read Plato, and the community of Greek scholars was at the centre of the controversy. The household of Cardinal Bessarion, close to the church of the Holy Apostles, became a meeting place for Greek and Italian scholars, often known as the `Academy', where this issue could be discussed. The foremost opponent of Platonic studies was George of Trebizond. Although he had translated Plato in the past, in 1458 George wrote a strongly worded denunciation of him, entitled Comparisons of Aristotle and Plato, in which he claimed that Plato's ideas led inevitably to immorality and heresy, and denounced any attempt to reconcile Platonism with Christianity. To prove his point, he cited Bessarion's teacher, George Gemistos Plethon, who he claimed had been led by reading Plato to abjure Christianity and to turn to the worship of the old Olympian gods (Monfasani, George of Trebizond, 201-29; Hankins, Plato, i. 165-92). In response, Bessarion and other members of his circle became some of the most prominent champions of the works of Plato against those who favoured the more traditionally acceptable Aristotle. In 1469, Bessarion to published his Against the Calumniator of Plato, the 'calumniator' being George Trebizond. In this work, Bessarion sought to defend Plato by stressing those areas of his thought which were reconcilable with Christianity. Those which were not, like Plato's ideal state, with its communal sharing of property and wives, he presented as ideals, unattainable in a fallen world. His championship of Plato proved to be extremely successful. By expounding Plato's thought in Latin, Against the Calumniator made it accessible to a much wider readership, and by stressing the points of agreement both with Aristotle and with Christian doctrine, it helped to make its study respectable and to encourage the development of Platonic studies in Italy (Setton, 73; Wilson, 57-67; Hankins, Plato, i. 217-63).


An exclusive emphasis on Bessarion and the other high-profile scholars like Chrysoloras and Argyropoulos would be to ignore the vast number of lesser-known individuals who made a significant contribution to the spread of a knowledge of classical Greek in Italy. These were the scribes who patiently copied manuscripts of the Greek texts, and later those who assisted in preparing those texts for printing. The scribes were often obscure individuals known only from the signatures or colophons which they appended to the manuscripts they copied. One example is Demetrius Trivolis, a native of the Peloponnese, who made a copy of Homer's Odyssey for Bessarion in Rome in 1469. One of the most prolific was the Cretan priest, John Rhossos, who spent some fifty years in Italy copying books for Bessarion and other patrons. Many of these scribes may have originally come to Italy as destitute refugees, and copied manuscripts to earn their living (Harris, Greek Emigres, 127, 134). Bessarion's death in 1472 would have robbed these scribes of their patron, but in one respect it assisted the diffusion of Greek texts. Many moved from Italy in search of employment elsewhere. Andronicus Kontovlakas went to Basel, George Hermonymos to Paris, and John Servopoulos to Reading in England, where they earned their living by teaching Greek and copying manuscripts for wealthy patrons (Harris, 'Greek scribes', 121-6). Another of Bessarion's legacies was even more far reaching. In 1469 he presented his immense library of 800 volumes, many of them copied by the scribes, to the church of St. Mark in Venice. Bessarion chose Venice partly because he considered it the most politically stable and secure of the Italian city states, and partly because it had offered a refuge for so many of his fellow Greeks. With the advent of printing in the 1490s, the Italian printer Aldus Manutius established a Greek press in Venice. The choice of location no doubt dictated by the availability of Greek texts in the library of St. Mark's, for Manutius based his editions on these books. Once again, however, obscure individuals played their part. Manutius made use of the large pool of native Greek speakers provided by the Greek community to assist him in the preparation of texts for publication. It was with the help of émigré Greeks like Demetrius Doukas and Mark Mousouros, that Manutius produced printed editions of nearly all the works of the major Greek authors of antiquity before 1515, thus ensuring their survival for posterity. (Geanakoplos, Greek Scholars, 116-20; Wilson, 62-7, 127-48; Labowsky, 3-91).


The traditional picture of the Byzantine exiles in fifteenth-century Italy, as painted by Gibbon, does represent something of an exaggeration. It ignores the fact that Greek studies had not been entirely moribund in the previous century, as Bruni claimed, and stresses the role of a small number of individuals. At the same time, it underestimates the role of the army of obscure Greek scribes and printers who did so much to bring about the multiplication of the necessary texts, and forgets that the scholars were part of a wider influx of refugees, many of whom were involved in no literary activity whatsoever. Yet by their teaching, translation, and involvement in scholarly debate, the Byzantine scholars helped to transfer to Italy an aspect of their own culture, ancient Greek literature, which was in turn to have a profound influence on the literature and thought of early modern Europe (Geanakoplos, Greek Scholars, 20-2; Setton, 44-5; Wilson, 1-7; Brown, 383-413; Hankins, 'Humanism', 131-2).


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Copyright (C) 2002, Jonathan Harris. This file may be copied on the condition that the entire contents,including the header and this copyright notice, remain intact.

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