Fall of Constantinople and Byzantine Scholars in Renaissance Italy — the Fertile Soil out of Which the Modern World Emerged

depiction of the Siege of Constantinople in 1453
Ottoman Sultan Mehmet II ‘the Conqueror’ (r.1444–1446, 1451–1481), painted by Gentile Bellini

“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.

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
School of Athens — with Plato and Aristotle in the center (fresco by Raphael in the Apostolic Palace, Vatican City (1511))

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