Fall of Constantinople and Byzantine Scholars in Renaissance Italy — the Fertile Soil out of Which the Modern World Emerged
The End of An Empire
May 1453 — the city of Constantinople, capital and last vestige of the once-great Byzantine Empire (itself an offshoot of the Roman Empire), is under siege. A rising power of the time, the Ottoman Empire has taken over increasing portions of the declining and decadent civilization. The massive Ottoman force, over 50,000 (compared to maybe 10,000, at most, for the Byzantines), can also boast some of the most cutting-edge military engineering innovations of the age — massive bombards used to pummel the walled city of Constantinople for many days. After 53 days of bombardment, the city falls and this last vestige of ancient Rome is history. Constantinople is now in possession of the Ottoman forces and their leader Sultan Mehmet II. Upon entering a ruined Byzantine palace in the defeated city, Mehmet quoted famous lines from the poet Saadi:
“The spider is curtain-bearer in the palace of Chosroes,
The owl sounds the relief in the castle of Afrasiyab.”
-Sultan Mehmed the Conqueror, quoting Saadi Shirazi (1210–1292)
The Byzantine Empire had been in steady decline since the sack of 1204 during the Fourth Crusade, revealing the tenuous relationship between Western Europe (particularly the Republic of Venice) and Byzantium. The following century brought devastation in the form of the Black Death and continued attacks from the rising of Ottoman Empire. Greek scholars had been fleeing the decrepit empire for the Italian Peninsula for decades by the time the last Byzantine emperor Constantine XI Palaiologos came to the throne in 1449. While the sun set on the effete Byzantines in their capital as the thousand year-old walls were breached, much of the collected wisdom of ancient Greek and Roman writers had made its way to the Italian Peninsula. Greek scholars of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries proved instrumental in the emergence of Renaissance Humanism in Italy.
Rebirth on the Italian Peninsula
The Italian Renaissance — the brilliant artistic and intellectual cultures associated with it (alongside political and technological innovations) — emerged out of three core developments in the late-medieval and even early-Renaissance world:
- a kind of proto-industrial revolution (the nascent industries of Italian cities, the rise of trade, rise of banking (and related innovations, such as double-entry bookkeeping and use of Hindu-Arabic numerals))
- the catastrophes of the Black Death, fall of Constantinople, and expulsion of Jews from Spain after the Reconquista — the hell out of which the Italian Renaissance emerged and developed as a kind of ‘via negativa’ — the massive loss of people after the Black Death put greater emphasis on this life, fostered increasing skepticism toward traditional institutions, and promoted the development of labor-saving technologies. The fall of Constantinople in 1453 marked the dramatic end of both a great civilization and a long-term stream of migrants leaving for Italy. The expulsion of Jews from the newly-unified Spain, while quite late in this story, led to an increase in Jewish refugees to, among other places, the Italian Peninsula where they contributed to economic and intellectual circles.
- the Franciscan Movement — the great artistic tradition of Renaissance Italy emerged out of the innovative, bottom-up, and earthy Franciscan movement — perhaps the closest thing to a revolution which could have emerged within the confines of the Roman Catholic Church. This ‘blood, sweat, and tears’ movement took the form of a religious order founded by a devout man who sought to bypass the authority of the Church through bringing the stories directly to the people and having them act them out (St. Francis developed the Nativity using real people). Subsequently, Franciscans emphasized the use of art to bring the stories of the Bible to poor, illiterate, migrant workers in proto-industrial environments in late-medieval and Renaissance cities. Franciscan churches, built of brick and filled with frescoes, were designed with speed and cost in mind. The original look toward the Classical past emerged only because the artists wanted to use them as models to depict realistic and engaging bodies in their artwork.
If one were to add a fourth development, it would be the intellectual currents, which were already present in proto-Renaissance Italy (and throughout Europe). Medieval scholasticism was dominant in the universities but had little application outside (much the same could be said for postmodernism today — indeed, postmodernism is a kind of (less useful) modern form of scholasticism). In any event, the point here is that, while the intellectual developments stemming from the achievements of the Three Crowns of Italian Literature — Dante, Petrarch, and Boccaccio — are of tremendous significance, they and the movements they would influence were predicated and shaped (to a great extent) on the three developments delineated above. Intellectualism, in the stale atmosphere of the Ivory Tower where academics engage in long-winded jousts and flirtations with sophistry. The dynamic intellectual, cultural, and political landscape of the Italian Peninsula in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries allowed innovative intellectuals, such as Petrarch, to begin to seek practical applications for their true love of wisdom outside the traditional institutions. Circles of pragmatic intellectuals were formed during this period which sought to recover and disseminate knowledge from the ancient world and, often, to use it for practical purposes. The modern world was forged in the crucible of the Renaissance.
Greeks in the West
The conscious development of Occident and Orient, or West and East, can be discerned in the geopolitics of the ancient world during the aftermath of the Greco-Persian Wars in the fifth century BCE but found reinforcement in the last centuries of the Roman Empire (when it was split into West and East/Byzantium). This West/East Split became religious as well with the Catholic-Orthodox split and reasserted itself during the Renaissance. There was, however a bridge as well as numerous ruptures. While Byzantium was falling, piece by piece, to the Ottoman Empire, Greek scholars migrated to the West bringing ancient texts with them. Prominent political, intellectual, and religious figures greeted them with increasing enthusiasm. Greek culture was never entirely wiped out on the Italian Peninsula after Greek civilization gave way to Roman rule — Greek speakers and Greek communities persisted, particularly in Sicily and some major trading ports like Naples. Indeed, it was in Naples that the young Giovanni Boccaccio learned to read Greek.
Among the first notable Greek translators was Barlaam of Seminara (c.1290–1348) — a native of Calabria, Italy who studied in Constantinople and returned to Calabria later in life before dying of bubonic plague. Barlaam was a theologian and philologist — one who studies the history of a language through written historical sources. Philology would become the preeminent intellectual pursuit of the Humanists as they sought to improve the quality of Latin from the garbled medieval style into something more closely approximating that used by the ancients (most notably Cicero). While he proved to be an instrumental figure in the intellectual development of early Renaissance Humanism, he proved far less effective as a theologian — trying and failing to reunite Eastern and Western Christianity.
“In appearance he is a rough man, he has a black face, a long beard, a black hair always occupied in constant thoughts, of rough customs, nor very civilized man, but as experience has shown, very learned of Greek letters and as a ark full of histories, and Greek fables, although of the Latin it is not very instructive.” -Giovanni Boccaccio describing Leonzio Pilato
Another major figure of the fourteenth century proto-Humanist movement was Leonzio Pilato(c.1310-c.1366), tutor to the young Boccaccio. Like Barlaam, Pilato was also a native of Calabria — we are at a stage before major scholars in and around Constantinople made the decision to leave Byzantium for the states of Italy. Leonzio Pilato was perhaps most known for his translations of Aristotle and Homer. Indeed, he was among the first to reintroduce Homer to Western European audience with his translations of the Iliad and Odyssey, completed by 1362.
Plato (c.428-c.348 BCE) was one of the most influential intellectuals who ever lived. His works continued to be read and cited for centuries. Indeed, perhaps alone among ancient thinkers, his entire body of works is believed to have survived. From the fall of Rome to the fifteenth century, however, this was not the case. While the study of Plato held firm in the Byzantine Empire, his work was almost completely lost in the West and his influence eclipsed by that of his student Aristotle. Only the Timaeus (which famously features the legendary island of Atlantis) was available to readers in Western Europe.
Interest in Plato reemerged in the fifteenth century with yet another (failed) attempt to reunite the Eastern and Western churches. Among the members of the Eastern delegation to this Council of Florence (1438–1439) was one of the most influential Neoplatonic philosophers since Plotinus 1,200 years before — Gemistus Pletho, later called Plethon (c.1355-c.1452). Plethon was born in Constantinople and proved to be one of the most important figures in the revival of ancient Greek ideas in the West. Plethon’s lectures on Platonic philosophy, coupled with his writings, increased interest among the educated in Plato’s ideas. Plethon went so far as to reject the Christian views of his time toward the end of his life and fully embrace the Pagan views of ancient Greece. This is significant in that the foundations of the West are fundamentally Pagan and it was Pagan beliefs and elements of Pagan culture that the early Church fathers used to flesh out a rather crude, under-developed, and derivative belief system.
The fifteenth century saw a great revival in Plato in the decades to follow the failed Council of Florence. As the once-great city of Constantinople fell to the Ottoman Empire, one of Plethon’s students prepared to make some of the most important contributions to Neopolatonic philosophy and the Italian Renaissance — the philosopher Marsilio Ficino (1433–1499). Ficino would go on to create his own Platonic Academy with the support of the Medici family and translate the works of Plato into Latin (also with Medici support). Greek thought proved essential to the triumph of Renaissance culture. In the decades before the fall of Constantinople, Greek scholars brought a wealth of ancient knowledge to the Italian Peninsula.