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Johannes Bessarion

Cardinal, Byzantine scholar (ca. 1389-1472)

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Bessarion, JOHANNES (or BASILIUS), Cardinal, b. at Trebizond, 1389, or according to others, 1395, but most probably in 1403; d. at Ravenna November 18, 1472. Some claim illustrious parentage for him, but as to this nothing certain is known. In 1413, while still very young, he was sent to Constantinople, where he devoted himself to study, achieving great success in the field of letters. In 1423 he entered the Order of St. Basil and in the same year was sent to the Peloponnesus to study philosophy under Gemistus Pletho. It is known that Pletho was a bitter opponent of Aristotle, against whom he championed with immoderate zeal the doctrines of Plato, with-out, however, distinguishing between genuine Platonism and neo-Platonism. The lessons of Pletho, though making Bessarion a follower of Plato, did not prevent him from perceiving the many points of contact between the two philosophers, and, during the revival of ancient learning, constantly defending the harmonizing of the two systems; he criticized the unrestrained partisanship of his master quite as much as that of Michael Apostolius. His learning and eloquence soon excited the admiration and respect of all and brought him, within a short space of time, various ecclesiastical dignities. In 1436 he was made Bishop of Niema, but was not destined to see his diocese, however, as the emppeeror, John VIII Palaeologus, had hi m accompany him to the Council of Ferrara, which they reached March 4, 1438. Here his dignity and touching eloquence, as well as his vast theological erudition, gave him such great authority among the Greek bishops that the happy issue of the council—the reunion with the Latin Church—may be attributed in great part to him. This was fully recognized, as on July 6, 1439, in the cathedral of Florence, to which the council had been transferred, he was commissioned to read the Greek redaction of the Act of Union.

Bessarion returned to Greece, but during the same year is found once more at Florence with Eugenius IV, who, in the consistory of December 18, 1439 (according to others January 8, 1440), created him cardinal of the title of the Twelve Holy Apostles. At the same time another Greek, Archbishop Isidore, received the sacred purple. The brief duration of the union of the churches is well known. Bessarion himself, having changed to the Latin Rite was cordially hated by the schismatic Greeks. This notwithstanding, Bessarion continued to work zealously for the union of the other Oriental schismatic churches, the Jacobites and Ethiopians (1442), the Syrians (1444), the Chaldeans and Maronites (1445). At this time, also, to refute the accusations of Marcus of Ephesus, against the council, he wrote the book: “De successu synodi florentinn” Nicholas V, like Eugenius IV, gave evidence of the great regard in which he held the Greek scholar. In 1449 he made him Bishop of Ulazzara and in the same year conferred on him the suburbicarian See of Sabina, for which that of Frascati was shortly after substituted. In the following year he was sent as papal legate to Bologna, a city torn by constant factional quarrels. In the Brief of appointment of February 26, 1450, the pope says he is sending Bessarion tamquam angelum pads, and expresses the hope that with his experience and prudence he may be able to govern the city in peace.

Bessarion continued as governor of Bologna for five years, achieving complete success in calming the internal discord. Not satisfied with that, he introduced wise reforms into the city government and in the administration of justice. Above all he lavished all his attention and generosity on the university, Bologna’s greatest glory, restoring the building which threatened to fall into ruins. He gathered there as teachers the most famous professors of the time, supplying at his own expense the deficiencies in their honoraria, and encouraging with munificence particularly the study of the classics. Thus, he gathered about him a court of poets and men of letters. He was cordial to all, even the lowliest; by stringent legislation he sought to curb immoderate luxury; and he rebuilt and adorned many churches of the city, among them that of San Luca. By his prudent and far-seeing administration and his absolute impartiality he won the confidence of the citizens of Bologna, so that on his departure they honored his memory in an inscription; and ever afterwards, in all their necessities and in all transactions with the Holy See, they had recourse to his intervention.

While Bessarion was legate in Bologna, Cardinal Stefano Porcaro was in banishment in that city, being assigned one hundred ducats in addition to the annual pension of three hundred granted him by the pope. Porcaro succeeded in eluding Bessarion’s vigilance and escaping to Rome. Bessarion did not delay in apprising the pope of his flight. The rest is well known. In 1453 Nicholas V died; and in the conclave following his death, Bessarion was all but chosen to succeed him; however, Calixtus III was finally elected. Constantinople had just fallen into the hands of the Turks and the Byzantine Empire had been destroyed. Thereupon Bessarion used all his influence with Francesco Foscari, the Doge of Venice, as well as with the new pope to persuade them to take up the offensive against the invading barbarians. Not confining his efforts to words, at the cost of heavy pecuniary sacrifices he furthered the cause of the crusade. His zeal was still more pronounced under Pius II, whose election was due in a special manner to him. In the congress of Mantua, convened by the pope in 1459 for the purpose of forming a league of all Christian princes against the Turks, Bessarion took a most active part, not justified, however, by results. The love of his native land impelled him to accept the commission given him by the pope to attend two German diets held the following year, one on the 2nd of March at Nuremberg, the other on the 25th of the same month at Worms. Neither, however, had any practical results. At the command of the pope he went to Vienna to induce the emperor to assist with arms and supplies Matthias Corvinus, the young King of Hungary. After a long wait the German leaders, September 17, asked for another delay, and only the express wish of Pius II kept Bessarion in Germany for a whole year, pleading the cause of the Christians of the Orient. Internal discord among the German leaders prevented them from reaching any decision concerning the crusade, and Bessarion returned to Rome disillusioned and discouraged. As a reward for his labors the pope bestowed on him the commendatory Abbey of Grotta-Ferrata of Greek Basilian, which became a center of learned pursuits. Shortly afterwards, on the death of Cardinal Isidore, metropolitan of Kiew and Patriarch of Constantinople, Bessarion received the patriarchal title.

In 1463 Pius II once more sent him to Venice to win that republic over to the cause of the crusade which the pope, on his own initiative, wished to organize. Long, serious discussions ensued, and at last, in September of the same year, the republic signed a treaty of alliance with Matthias Corvinus, and on October 20 the crusade was solemnly proclaimed. The results hoped for, however, were not entirely achieved. During the pontificate of Paul II who continued the crusade, Bessarion withdrew from active affairs and devoted himself entirely to study, cultivating the friendship of many Greek and Italian scientists then in Rome, and engaging in learned discussions with them. Thus he won the title of Litterarum patronus. In his house the first Accademia was founded. In 1470 when Paul II desired to organize a new crusade, Bessarion wrote the letter “De Bello Turcis inferendo”. Sixtus IV, who approved the plans of his predecessor, sent Bessarion once more as legate to the King of France, the Duke of Burgundy, and the King of England to settle the discords which had arisen between the first two, and to induce the last-mentioned to join in the great expedition against the enemy of Christianity. On April 20, 1472, he left Rome—but was received in an unfriendly manner both in Burgundy and at Paris so that he was forced to return to report the complete failure of his mission. The disappointment, the discomforts of travelling, and his great age made sad havoc on his strength. At Ravenna he was obliged to interrupt his journey; there his death occurred at the Abbey of St. John the Evangelist, November 18, 1472. His body was taken to Rome and interred in a tomb which had been erected in the portico of the convent of the Conventual Minorites, close by the Basilica of the Twelve Holy Apostles. A simple sarcophagus, on which is inscribed a Greek distich of his own composition, contains his remains.

All the aspirations of Bessarion, which, more than great, were unique, were absorbed by three ideas: the union of the Oriental Church with the Latin, the rescue of Greek lands from the Mussulman yoke, and the triumph of classic literature and philosophy, especially the Greek. If the realization of the first two was only partial or, in a way, temporary, the third was certainly fulfilled to a more complete degree than perhaps Bessarion himself had dared hope. His labors in that direction had lasting success. By his translations of Xenophon’s “Memorabilia”, Aristotle‘s “Metaphysics“, etc., he paved the way for a more exact knowledge of the real thought of the Stagyrite. His part in the reconciliation of Platonism and Aristoteleanism has already been mentioned. In this contest of intelligence, he wrote the works “In calumniatorem Platonis” against George of Trebizond, who in his translation of the Laws of Plato had sharply criticized their author, exalting Aristotle instead. In the fifth book of his work, Bessarion, in turn, enumerates the faults of translation and the errors in the commentary of George. At a tremendous outlay, he gathered together a library of eight hundred codices of Greek MSS., and still at his own expense had many others copied by men of letters. After 1464 he gave these treasures to the Republic of Venice with which he had always been in the greatest sympathy. These codices formed the nucleus of the famous “Bibliotheca Sancti Marci”.


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