Cardinal Bessarion

 A brief biographical sketch of Cardinal Bessarion, the young Greek boy of Trebizond who rose to become a prince in the Roman Catholic Church, without forgetting the land of his birth and his ancestors. During his life in Rome he always attempted to influence the Popes and monarchs of the European nations to help Greece and its people regain their freedom from the Ottomans. He was also instrumental for the translation and preservation of a large number of Greek manuscripts.

The life and work of Bessarion.

Bessarion (Ioannis) was born in Trebizond, a city of Asia Minor on the coast of the Black Sea in the year 1400. The Metropolitan of Trabizond Dositheos, who later became Metropolitan of Monemvasia, recognizing the genius of Bessarion at an early age, sent him to Constantinople in the year 1415 to receive formal education.

There he studied under Emmanuel Chrisokokkis and later Ioannis Hortasmenos. Among his schoolmates were Francisco Filelfo and possibly Marco Eugenic, who later became one of his adversaries.

In the year 1423 he entered the monastic life; and in 1426, was ordained a deacon in the Orthodox Church. He continued to live in Constantinople until 1431 when he was ordained a priest.

After his ordination he came to Mystra where for five years studied philosophy in the school of the philosopher George Gemistos-Plithonas. There his character was molded by the Platonic teachings of Gemistos, although there is no mention that he was in accord with the religious convictions of his teacher.

During his stay in Mystra, Bessarion became a companion of the two Paleologos brothers, Constantine and Demetrios, whose brother was Emperor Ioannis H'. His involvement with the two rulers of Morea, gained him the experience needed to recognize the political and social decay into which Hellenism had fallen, and called attention on the oncoming catastrophe. His lengthy letters addressed to the two Paleologos's, suggested that the only way to save the Empire was to realign it's political direction towards the West, and recommended immediate socio-political changes.

In 1437, Bessarion was appointed by the Emperor as member of the Orthodox representation who was to discuss the unification of the Churches in Florence, with the Roman Catholics, and at the same time he was given the office of Metropolitan of Nicea.

When he arrived in Italy, Bessarion was recognized as the leader of the representatives in their discussion with the Latins. And while in the beginning Bessarion followed the directions of the Orthodox Church, he eventually began to agree with them in their theological beliefs. While still in Italy, in 1439 Pope Eugenious IV bestowed upon him the honorary title of Cardinal.

After the signing of the agreement on the unification of the Churches and the end of the work of the Synod, he returned to Constantinople in 1440 but soon realized that it would be impossible to remain there because of the strong local opposition to the unification plans.

He returned to Italy where a number of titles and Officia were bestowed upon him by the Pope, such as the Protector of the monks of St. Basil in Italy, Abbot of the monastery of Kryptofferris (Grottaferrata), Bishop of Sabina, Archbishop of Tuslka and finally (Latin) Patriarch of Constantinople.

In the years 1455 and 1471 he was considered to be one of the most possible candidates to be elected Pope. However some of the conservative Cardinals were concerned about his Eastern origin and he was bypassed.

His palace in Rome became an Academy and a Center for the studies of Humanities. A large number of the most famous representatives of the Renaissance began to gather there, along with a great number of learned Greeks, and Greek refugees.

To many young scholars he provided the means of attending Italian universities, while he employed others to make translations of classical texts into Latin, or for making copies of the manuscripts of ancient Greek writers. In 1468 he offered his valuable collection to the city of Venice, and they became the core of the famous Markian Library.

After the fall of Constantinople, Bessarion devoted all his means to the formation of a crusade by the monarchs of the West against the Turks. Two times, the first in the year 1459 at the council of Mantua, and the second in 1464 in Ancona it seemed possible that the dream of a crusade was to become reality. Unfortunately, when the time came to put the plan into effect, both times the rulers of the European nations reneged.

Bessarion, as the representative of the Pope traveled to Naples, Venice, Hungary and Germany attempting to convince the monarchs to resume the holy war against the Turks. In 1472, the aged Bessarion traveled to France where he failed to convince the French King, Louis XI. Upon his return to Ravena, on his way back to Rome he died on November 18, 1472.

His body was brought to Rome and was buried in the Chapel of the Church of the Apostles, while later was transferred to the Franciscan monastery, where his grave exists to this day.

Those in the political and religious circles who have studied the person of Bessarion over the years, have criticized him to a great extend. They are unquestionably agreeable on his contributions to the renaissance of Greek studies in the West. However his position on the subject of the unification of the Eastern and Western Churches has become a very controversial point between historians and theologians. After his death while he became a symbol in the Roman Catholic Church, he was criticized strongly by the Orthodox Church. Some of his later Greek critics call him " traitor paid in silver" (N. Kalogeras, A. Diamantopoulos) while others admire him as the Greek of the highest ideals, and as the brightest political mind of his time. (Verianos, A.Diomedis). 

While his conversion to the Roman Catholic Church certainly had not humble motives, some credit is due to Bessarion for his belief that only through an alliance with the West, the political independence of the Greek nation could have been achieved; He also held the false idea that an enslaved nation could not sustain a free Church (which is not exactly correct, as the Greek Orthodox Church survived 400 years under the Ottomans, only to emerge a stronger institution).



We thank Christos for his valuable contribution. We felt that the story of Bessarion was very necessary in that it will help along with our other articles, "The trade in the Levant", "The fall of Constantinople", and "The Socio-economic conditions in the Levant" to set the stage for better understanding of the political and social environment in the Aegean Sea at the beginning of the 15th century.

Christos Kyriazis, in addition to the above research, has visited and photographed the places in Rome and the Vatican where Cardinal Bessarion lived and worked, and we present them here.

Christos Kyriazis,Researcher
Translation and Editing of research by George N. Rigos
May 4, 1996
Copyright © 1995 [Poseidon]. All rights reserved.
Revised: May 09, 1996.