Category: Persons

Greek scholars in Italy

In the late 14th century a number of scholars originating from the lands of the Byzantine Empire began resettling to Italy. With them they carried manuscripts, and rendered important services as translators and commentators; they taught ancient Greek and some of them composed important original treatises and commentaries, which influenced the course of philosophy and the sciences.

Because of the continuing decline of the Byzantine Empire, by the second half of the 14th century, several scholars thought it wise to seek their fortune in western Europe. Manuel Chrysoloras (1355-1415) is regarded as the pioneer of this movement. In 1397 he was invited to teach ancient Greek literature at Florence. Leonardo Bruni (1370-1444) became a dedicated student of his, and developed into the most important Aristotelian of the 15th century. Chrysoloras translated several ancient Greek texts into Latin, including Plato’s Republic. The composition of an ancient Greek grammar textbook prove vital for the dissemination of Greek learning.

Many followed Chrysoloras' example. George Trapezountios (1395-1472/3) moved to Italy roughly at the age of 20; he became distinguished as a translator of Aristotle and other ancient scientific texts, like Claudius Ptolemy’s works. He was the first to render the rules of rhetoric of the Byzantines in Latin. In the 1450s he strongly clashed with Bessarion (1408-1472) and Theodore Gazis (1398/1400-1475). Beyond personal differences, the bone of contention was the proper way of translating Greek texts and the question whether Plato or Aristotle should be considered the supreme philosopher. The clash between Aristotelians and Platonists had its roots in Byzantium, but it was carried to the West in the 15th century. Trapezountios’ Comparatio Philosophorum Platonis et Aristotelis (1458) introduced Latin speaking readers to a feud that had divided Byzantine scholars.

Bessarion, who studied under Pletho and had an promising career in store for him in Byzantium, decided to convert to Catholicism and became a cardinal in the western church, attempted to respond to Trapezountios. An important group of scholars gathered around him, who he encouraged and helped translate ancient Greek, mainly philosophical, tracts. His collection of Greek manuscripts formed the core of the Biblioteca Marciana at Venice. A large portion of the collection consisted of works of Latin scholasticism. Bessarion was distinguished for his moderate Platonism, which did not involve the disparagement of Aristotle. He regarded their philosophies as compatible, if one was to adopt the correct hermeneutical approach. This claim he defended in his In Calumniatorem Platonis (1469), where he responded to Trapezountios’ aggressive anti-Platonism.

At any rate, although there is a rich literature on the superiority of Platonism over Aristotelianism, with works such as Pletho’s De Differentiis, the fact that the vast majority of these works was in Greek meant that they hardly received any attention from the Western philosophical community during the 15th century. It was almost considered an intra-Byzantine feud, which was taken to a new level with Trapezountios’ work. Even Pletho’s brief presence in Italy (1438-1439) did not really have the huge impact usually claimed in the Greek bibliography. Pletho’s influence should rather be correlated with the re-appraisal of the Hermetic texts and the Chaldean Oracles, and the revival of interest in the Platonic tradition.

Theodore Gazis, Andronicus Kallistos (†1478), Michael Apostolis (1422-1478) and others were also drawn into the feud between Platonists and Aristotelians – these men were pursuing a career in Italy as translators, commentators and professors. Although some championed Aristotle and others Plato, they were united in their common enmity against Trapezountios, and sided with Bessarion. Gazis, one of Bessarion’s most loyal associates, was also distinguished as one of the most industrious and finest translators of ancient Greek philosophical works. The courses he offered at the university were also of the highest level.

John Argyropoulos (1405-1487) was also an important teacher and translator, offering instruction in ancient Greek philosophy at Florence for long periods (1456-1471, 1477-1481). Argyropoulos had studied at a mature age at the University of Padua, and insisted on teaching Aristotle, although he did not neglect Plato’s philosophy.

Important services were also rendered by Demetrios Chalkokondyles (1423-1511), who also taught at Florence during the same period as Argyropoulos, later moving to other Italian cities. He also became a prominent publisher, being the first to publish Homer's epics in the original Greek.

Constantine Laskaris (1434-1501) taught in southern Italy and Sicily, and also composed an influential Greek grammar textbook. Janus Laskaris (1445-1535) studied in Padua. Following Chalkokondyles’ departure from Florence, he taught ancient Greek, but did not remain there for long.

The Cretan Marcus Musurus (1470-1517) was a student of Laskaris; he settled in Venice and associated with the Italian humanist and printer Aldus Manutius. He successful taught at the University of Padua. In 1513 he published, for the first time in the West, “Plato’s Collected Works” in the original Greek.

Nicholas Leonicus Thomaeus (1456-1531) was born of Greek descent in northern Epirus; he was the first to teach Aristotelian philosophy in the original Greek at the University of Padua. He authored important works on Aristotle’s biological treatises.

Francesco Maurolico (1494-1575), born in southern Italy, originated from the Greeks of the diaspora. Maurolico published many ancient scientific texts and was a distinguished teacher of mathematics, astronomy and engineering.

The Greek scholars who resettled and made a career in Italy -there were many more than the ones already mentioned- offered vital services to the cause of reviving Greek studies, which constituted one of the cornerstones of the Renaissance. Through original works and translations, but also through their teaching, they contributed to the reappraisal of ancient Greek thought.

Greek intellectuals of the late Paleologan period were usually not specialized, professional teachers of grammar, rhetoric, and philosophy, but rather gentlemen scholars. […] They tended to be polymaths, often of high social rank, who taught privately […]. Greek studies could not, however, have been successfully transplanted to Italy had not the Italians themselves been well disposed to receive them […] (J. Hankins, Humanism and Platonism in the Italian Renaissance, Firenze 2003, pp. 279-280).
Author: Vassilios Syros
  • Geanakoplos, D.J,. Byzantine East and Latin West: Two worlds of Christendom in Middle Ages and Renaissance. New York, Hamden, Lancaster, 1966,1976,1983.
  • Geanakoplos, D.J,. Constantinople and the West: Essays on the Late Byzantine (Palaeologan) and Italian Renaissances and the Byzantine and Roman Churches. Madison Wisc., 1989.
  • Harris, J. Greek Émigrés in the West, 1400-1520. Camberley, 1995.
  • Monfasani, J. Greeks and Latins in Renaissance Italy: Studies on Humanism and Philosophy in the 15th Century. Aldershot, 2004.
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