Renaissance and Reformation Cardinal Bessarion
John Monfasani
  • LAST REVIEWED: 30 April 2021
  • LAST MODIFIED: 15 January 2015
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195399301-0230


In the last century of Byzantium, as the Ottoman conquests culminated in the taking of Constantinople in 1453, cultural influences between East and West flowed in both directions. The impact of Greek émigrés, manuscripts, and ideas upon the Italian Renaissance is well known. Much less appreciated is the large influence that medieval Latin Scholasticism exercised upon Greek intellectuals from the mid-14th century onward. Cardinal Bessarion (b. 1408–d. 1472) participated in this two-way exchange—indeed, contributed to it to an eminent degree. Chosen as one of the two main Greek spokesmen at the Council of Ferrara-Florence (1438–1439), he eventually became the leading proponent of union with the Roman Church among the Greeks and spent the rest of his life trying to make that union a reality. His coat of arms, consisting of a Latin arm and a Greek arm jointly holding up the cross of Christ, reflects how he understood himself as a Greek cardinal in the Roman Curia. Even before he came to Italy in 1438, he had studied St. Thomas Aquinas in the Greek translation made by Demetrius Cydones in the previous century. Eventually, while gaining fame as a patron of Greek and Latin humanists and forming one of the great libraries of Greek classical texts of all time, he also acquired a vast library of Latin scholastic texts. He was a major player in the Plato-Aristotle controversy of the 15th century and the most important Platonist of the Renaissance before Marsilio Ficino (b. 1433–d. 1499). His writings and translations were printed and read well into the 16th century. He consciously strove to integrate himself into Latin politics and culture. Several times he plausibly stood a chance of being elected pope in papal conclaves. He failed in his overriding political goal of a crusade to rescue Greece from the Turks, but by his writings, library, and patronage he played no small role in Renaissance culture. Since then he has become almost a paradigmatic figure in the ecumenical movement and virtually inescapable in discussions of the transmission of classical Greek texts and their manuscripts in the Latin West.

General Overviews

Mohler 1923–1942 has long been the standard study because of its detail and accompanying texts. Coluccia 2009 is recent, but not without flaws. The proceedings of four conferences, Il cardinale Bessarione 1972, Fiaccadori 1994, Gutkowski and Prinzivalli 2012, and Märtl, et al. 2013, have greatly expanded our knowledge of his life and works. Labowsky 1967 provides a trustworthy starting point for any study of Bessarion; Bianca 1999 and Monfasani 1995 are useful collections of various articles on the cardinal.

  • Bianca, Concetta. Da Bisanzio a Roma: Studi sul cardinale Bessarione. Rome: Roma nel Rinascimento, 1999.

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    NNNA most useful collection of articles on Bessarion by one of the great authorities on the cardinal and the Italian milieu.

  • Coluccia, Giuseppe L. Basilio Bessarione: Lo spirito greco e l’Occidente. Florence: Leo S. Olschki, 2009.

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    NNNThe most recent biography of Bessarion. Although some of its assertions are debatable, it contains much useful information, translations of Greek texts, and coverage of Bessarion’s entire life.

  • Fiaccadori, Gianfranco, ed. Bessarione e l’Umanesimo: Catalogo della mostra. Venezia, Biblioteca Nazionale Marciana, 27 aprile –31 maggio 1994. Naples, Italy: Vivarium, 1994.

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    NNNAn invaluable collection of major articles, documentary material, and images. The illustrations and the accompanying catalogue of manuscripts in the exhibit are of an extraordinary quality, quite apart from the very important and original articles in the volume.

  • Gutkowski, Andrzej, and Emanuela Prinzivalli, eds. Bessarione e la sua Accademia. Collected essays, mostly presented at the conference held in Rome, Italy, Mar 18, 2011. Rome: Miscellanea Francescana, 2012.

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    NNNA useful collection of up-to-date articles on Bessarion and his milieu.

  • Il cardinale Bessarione nel V centenario della morte (1472–1972): Conferenze di studio 7–18 nov. 1972 tenute nella «Sala dell’Immacolata» del Convento dei SS. XII Apostoli in Roma. Rome: Convento dei SS. XII Apostoli dei Frati Conventuali, 1974.

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    NNNSome of the contributions are now dated, but the two articles by Antonio Coccia on Bessarion’s biography and his relationship with the basilica of Ss. XII Apostoli remain valuable.

  • Labowsky, Lotte. “Bessarione.” In Dizionario biografico degli italiani. Vol. 9, Berengario–Biagini. Edited by Alberto M. Ghisalberti, 686–696. Rome: Treccani, 1967.

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    NNNStill the best short overview of Bessarion’s life and writings, with much accurate detail.

  • Märtl, Claudia, Christian Kaiser, and Thomas Ricklin, eds. “Inter graecos latinissimus, inter latinos graecissimus”: Bessarion zwischen den Kulteren. Papers presented at a conference held in Munich during 15–17 July, 2011. Berlin and Boston: De Gruyter, 2013.

    DOI: 10.1515/9783110316216Save Citation »Export Citation » Share Citation »

    NNNThe proceedings of the most recent conference on Bessarion, characterized by fundamental studies on his life and work. Almost all the contributions are cited elsewhere in this article.

  • Mohler, Ludwig. Kardinal als Theologe, Humanist und Staatsmann. 3 vols. Paderborn, Germany: Schöningh, 1923–1942.

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    NNNThe first volume (Darstellung) is a biography that has been superseded in some respects, but remains fundamental. The other two volumes are indispensable. Vol. 2 (Bessarionis In Calumniatorem Platonis Libri IV) contains a critical edition of the Greek text of Bessarion’s In Calumniatorem Platonis along with the Latin text published in 1469. Vol. 3 (Aus Bessarions Gelehrtenkreis: Abhandlungen, Reden, Briefe) gathers Bessarion’s letters and opuscules as well as a rich collection of relevant Greek and Latin texts by others.

  • Monfasani, John. Byzantine Scholars in Renaissance Italy: Cardinal Bessarion and Other Emigrés. Aldershot, UK: Ashgate, 1995.

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    NNNTen of the articles in the volume concern Bessarion directly or indirectly, while the remaining four treat Greeks and Greek culture in the Renaissance.

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