Philosopher, Cardinal, Scholar (1403 – 1472)
One of the two greatest spiritual figures of the Middle Ages and Father of the Renaissance together with his teacher and mentor Georgios Plethon – Gemistus. Bessarion, whose true name was John of Trapezus, introduced the Greek philosophy and virtues to Italy, played an important role in the council of Florence and occupied a high rank in the Vatican as cardinal. He was a humanist, a scholar, an erudite and a Platonic philosopher whose actions contributed greatly to the revival of Hellenism in the West and the downfall of the religious establishment that had besieged Europe.
He was born in Trapezus during the final years of the Byzantine Empire, a time when education and religion were interconnected and controlled solely by the Church. Nevertheless, Trapezus was renowned for its promotion of education and wisdom. From a young child Bessarion became acquainted with the ancient Greek philosophy and literature while studying in the library of the palace of Trapezus. He continued his studies in Constantinople and in 1437 he was appointed Archbishop of Nicaea.
Bessarion was a flaming patriot. Even though he was accused by the Greeks for having embraced the catholic dogma, he remained truthful throughout his entire life to the promise he made that day he met the wise Georgios Plethon – Gemistus in Mystras to raise Hellenism on their shoulders and walk the path of revival of the entire Ancient Greek spirit. He was an avid advocate of the unification of the two Churches – catholic and orthodox – as he believed that this would salvage Constantinople from falling into the hands of the Ottomans. Hence, both student and master were chosen to serve as important diplomats of the Byzantine Emperor in the council of Ferrara – Florence.
Following the ill-fated success of the council, Bessarion was asked to remain in Italy by the Pope, who admired him for his wisdom, eloquence and diplomatic skills and appointed him cardinal and later Archbishop of Constantinople. During his years as cardinal, Bessarion served as governor of Bologna. The city became one of Italy’s most prestigious cities and flourished both economically and spiritually. For this, Bessarion was named “protector of the city”. In addition, he promoted various reforms in the Church administration and acted as the Pope’s diplomat
Bessarion’s name attracted hundreds of eminent professors, scholars, mathematicians, philosophers and astronomers from all around Europe, who wished to become his students. These humanists formed his first circle of students that would later be perfected in Rome and be known as The Academy or Bessarion’s Academy. In the Academy Bessarion taught Platonic philosophy. The insuperable amazement for his wisdom was such that the humanists felt they were in Plato’s Academy. The eminence of the Academy mirrored that of Pletho’s in Florence and was always open to the Greeks, the Greek refugees and the humanists. Bessarion wrote numerous and significant treatises, his most magnificent being In Calumniatorem Platonis by which he introduced Plato to the West. He wrote books on mathematics and philosophy, and translated the works of Ancient Greek philosophers. Moreover, Bessarion salvaged 746 books in total containing the original works of Ancient Greeks, from all of Europe with his own expenses. These books he donated to the library of Venice and would later form the nucleus of the Biblioteca Marciana, St. Mark’s Library, which to this day stores Bessarion’s entire collection of books. The French historian Vast wrote that “… (Bessarion) during these days is the true hegemon of Venice, the great inspirer of the struggle… He is respected as much as the Doge and he has a greater prestige than him, because his is personal and does not come from his position.” He also said that Bessarion was “the official assignee of Hellenism in Italy and the most serious representative of the Renaissance”.
Basilios Bessarion, in spite of his old age and failing health never ceased struggling for his life-long dream: the rebirth of the Byzantine Empire. He organized by himself two major crusades and several other minor for the liberation of Constantinople but all of them ended up unfruitful. He dedicated all his life and fortune for the salvation of Christianity and the revival of Hellenism. He was detested by the establishment for his “barba graeca” (Greek beard), the symbol of the dedication of his soul to the Ancient Greek spirit. Twice he was nominated for Pope and twice he failed to be elected because of conspiracy against him. However, he was loved by those whose souls he touched and all those humanists to whom he imbued the immortal spirit of Hellenism.
In the end, he died in complete poverty. The seeds of Hellenism he and the immortal Pletho had planted and those of whom he had taught others how to plant, in the following years, began sprouting and as they sprouted, their roots destroyed the pillars of religion on top of which the Middle Ages and the Inquisition had been built. Eventually all the seeds sprouted the trees of the Renaissance.
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- “Bessarion”. Helios New Encyclopaedic Dictionary. Passas, I. Athens, 1946. Print.
- Gravingger, Petros. Pythagoras and the Mystic Teachings of Pythagoreanism. Athens: Ideotheatron * Dimeli, 1998. Print.
- Theodorakakos, Kyriakos. Πλήθων Βησσαρίων Η Αυγή του Νέου Ελληνισμού. Retrieved from ΙΧΩΡ, issue 18. February, 2002, pages 72 – 87. Print.