Friday, August 17, 2012

The 15. Century Byzantine immigrants and their influence on Italian Renaissance

Giorgione, Sleeping Venus, 1510
By the year 1400, due to its land losses the Byzantine Empire had turned into separate little islets in the Ottoman Empire. There was the Trabzon Greek Empire on one side, the Despotate of Morea on the other side and there was the Constantinople in between them. The rapid progress of the Ottomans made the Byzantine people realize the inevitable end waiting for them, and they gradually began to move to safer places. Italy was the best place to move for these Byzantine people who had decided to escape, both for its closeness and its historical bonds coming from the Roman Empire when the Orthodox-Catholic distinction is ignored. The Southern Italy, which had been under the rule of the Byzantine until 1071, was mainly preferred by the villagers as the integration was relatively easier; Venice, which was a commercial and marine town, was mostly preferred by the middle-class class tradesmen. As the capital city, Rome was preferred by the nobles and the ones who had political relations. Venice received the most migration. As of 1460, there had been almost 5000-6000 Byzantine immigrants in Venice.

In Italy, people started to get interested in Latin ancient philosophy since the 15th century and the intellectual aspect of the Renaissance illumination began. Before the beginning of the great immigration activity from the Byzantine, Catholic Italy was already familiar with Aristotle (especially thanks to Thomas Aquinas) though the number of texts in hand was limited, and somehow it had managed to integrate Aristotle with the Christian Catholic doctrine especially in ethics, but they had almost no Latin translation about Plato (so certainly about Socrates). The Byzantine immigrants brought not only the Greek ancient philosophy books that had been lost and forgotten by the Europeans for 6 centuries but also various ancient books from geography to history, from linguistics to theology, and far more importantly, they brought the greatest loss of Europe in the medieval age, which was the secular education. In the Byzantine Empire, higher education was not only carried out according to Orthodox doctrines but also with a secular content using the works of the ancient Greek philosophers, historians and poets. In Italy, where the Renaissance illumination had just begun, this evoked a great admiration. And they must have been astonished that; “this miserable, and due to their Orthodox identity half-heretic miserable neighbor of them, which had been defeated by the Ottomans” had delicately preserved the ancient Greek philosophy and secular education which the Europeans had lost because of the medieval age.

Raphael, School of Athens, 1510 / Plato and Aristotle in the middle and Socrates  in the left with the green  dress

The Italian poet and one of the first humanists, Petrarca, “re-discovered” Cicero’s letters in early 14th Century, shared these with the Italians of his time and initiated the intellectual illumination.

"Renaissance was above all things a revival of Cicero, and only after him and through him of the rest of Classical antiquity."
Tadeusz Zieliński

“The rest of Classical antiquity” as defined by the Polish historian Zielinski, was completed by the books brought by the Byzantine immigrants. After Cicero, reading Plato, who had had a great influence on Cicero, and realizing that education could be secular, boosted the illumination that had been initiated.

Significant People:
George of Trabzon
George of Trabzon: He was born in Crete in 1395, and he got his name from his ancestors from Trabzon. He moved to Italy in 1430. He translated the works of Plato and Aristotle into Latin. He was a great supporter of Aristotelianism and a great anti-supporter of Platonism.

Manuel Chrysoloras: He was born in Constantinople in 1355. He was a statesman. He was sent to Venice in 1390 by the Emperor Manuel the 2nd Palaeologus to carry out lobbying work against the possible attacks of the Ottomans. In 1396, he started to give Greek language and literature courses in the University of Florence. He translated the works of Plato and Homer into Latin and shared these with the Italians of his time.
Manuel Chrysoloras

Theodorus Gaza
Leonardo Bruni: He was born in Toscana in 1370. He was a statesman, a humanist and an historian. He was considered to be the first modern historian. He indeed was the first historian to divide history into three categories as the Ancient Age, Medieval Age and the Modern (New) Age. He took Greek lessons from Manuel Chrysoloras. He translated the Greek works into Latin and shared these with the Italians of his time.

Theodorus Gaza: He was born in Salonika in 1400. He escaped to Italy in 1430, when Salonika was invaded by the Ottomans. He gave Greek language and literature courses in the University of Ferrera. He translated Aristotle’s works which were not available in Latin.
Basilios Besarion

Basilios Besarion: He was born in Trabzon in 1389. He got education in Constantinople and in Morea Peninsula. He became the Nicaean Metropolitan Bishop. He participated in 1437 Ecumenical Council of Florence to represent the Byzantine Empire. He adopted Catholicism in time. He was assigned as a cardinal by the Pope Eugene the 4th and he moved to Italy in 1439. He translated the works of Plato, Aristotle and the historian, Xnephon.

Discussions on Platonist philosophy:
The re-emergence of Plato in Europe in the Medieval age especially owing to the translations of George from Trabzon and Manuel Chrysoloras brought about significant discussions. The definition of a citizen who was interested in and participated in political issues, as set forth by Cicero and Aristotle was replaced by a citizen who left politics to its “specialists” and who instead dealt with meditation by avoiding earthly issues. Plato had had a great influence on this. “Rule of educated scholars” as stated in Plato’s works were interpreted as the limited participation of a simple citizen, and attracted a great support in the humanistic environment of Renaissance. Nevertheless; there was a big obstacle before Plato’s popularity: The church and university, which were somehow able to adopt Aristotle’s ideas into Christian doctrine made it impossible to fit Plato’s ideas on reincarnation and spouse-sharing into Christian belief.
The discussion between the Aristotelians and Platonists grew more in time. There were two people just in the middle of this discussion: One of them was George of Trabzon, who was a great supporter of Aristotle, though who himself translated the works of Plato. He claimed that reading Plato had to be prohibited as it would cause religious perversion; and Cardinal Besarion, a great supporter of Plato, who was again born in Trabzon and who claimed that the Platonist philosophy wasn’t that much distant from the Catholic doctrine, indeed.

This discussion between the Platonist and Aristotelian philosophy that took place around these two Byzantines in Florence and Venice, which served as the freest discussion environment in Europe at those times, fed and improved Renaissance in intellectual aspect.

Duccio, Calling of Apostle Petrus and Andreas / We see the Byzantine influence in art in this early Renaissance painting of Duccio. The faces of Jesus and apostles are just like the mosaics in Chora Church.

El Greco, The disrobbing of Christ, 1577 / Born in Crete in 1541, emmigrated to Venice in 1566 and 11 years after, in 1577 moved to Spain and spent the rest of his life. Contributed to Spanish Renaissance with his paintings. He signed his paintings as “ Cretan”.