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Basilius Bessarion

Basilios Bessarion or Basilius Bessarion (in Greek Βασίλειος Βησσαρίων) (January 2, 1403 – November 18, 1472), a Roman Catholic Cardinal Bishop and the titular Latin Patriarch of Constantinople, was one of the illustrious Greek scholars who contributed to the great revival of letters in the 15th century. He has been mistakenly known also as Johannes Bessarion due to an erroneous interpretation of Gregory Mamme.


He was born at Trebizond, an Anatolian Black Sea port. The year of his birth has been given as 1389, 1395 or 1403.

He was educated at Constantinople, and went in 1423 to the Peloponnese to hear Gemistus Pletho expound the philosophy of Plato. On being tonsured monk, he adopted the name of an old Egyptian anchorite Bessarion, whose story he has related. In 1437, he was made metropolitan of Nicaea by the Byzantine Emperor John VIII Palaeologus, whom he accompanied to Italy in order to bring about a reunion between the Orthodox and Catholic churches. They had been separated since the Schism of 1054, but the emperor hoped to use the possibility of re-uniting the churches to obtain help from Western Europe against the Turks.

Upon his return to Greece, he found himself bitterly resented for his attachment to the minority party that saw no difficulty in a reconciliation of the two churches. At the Council of Florence, held in Ferrara (1438) and then Florence (1439-1445), Bessarion supported the Roman church and gained the favour of Pope Eugene IV, who invested him with the rank of cardinal at a consistory of 18 December 1439.

From that time, he resided permanently in Italy, doing much, by his patronage of learned men, by his collection of books and manuscripts, and by his own writings, to spread abroad the new learning. His palazzo in Rome was a virtual Academy for the studies of new humanistic learning, a center for learned Greeks and Greek refugees, whom he supported by commissioning transcripts of Greek manuscripts and translations into Latin that made Greek scholarship available to Western Europeans. He supported Regiomontanus in this fashion and defended Nicholas of Cusa. He is known in history as the original patron of the Greek exiles (scholars and diplomats) including Theodore Gaza, George of Trebizond, John Argyropoulos and many others.

He held in succession the archbishopric of Siponto and the suburbicarian sees of Sabina and Frascati. At the papal conclave of 1455 which elected the Aragonese candidate, Alfons de Borja, as Callixtus III, Cardinal Bassarion was an early candidate for his disinterest in the competition between Roman factions that pressed candidates of the Orsini and Colonna factions. He was opposed for his Greek background by the French Cardinal Alain de Coëtivy. "It is probable that the cardinals were less afraid of his Greek training and temperament than they were of his known austerity and passion for reform", Francis A. Burkle-Young has observed.

In 1463, his fellow humanist Aeneas Silvius Piccolomini, then Pius II, gave him the purely ceremonial title of Latin Patriarch of Constantinople. As Dean of the Sacred College of Cardinals (from April 1463), he presided over the Papal conclave, 1464 and Papal conclave, 1471. For five years (1450-1455), he was legate at Bologna, and he was engaged on embassies to many foreign princes, among others to Louis XI of France in 1471. Vexation at an insult offered him by Louis is said to have hastened his death, which took place on November 19, 1472, at Ravenna. He is buried in the Church of Twelve Apostels in Rome.

Basilius Bessarion
Wood engraving from the Bibliotheca chalcographica, B1

Tumb of Bessarion in the Church of Twelve Apostels in Rome


Bessarion was one of the most learned scholars of his time. Besides his translations of Aristotle's Metaphysics and Xenophon's Memorabilia, his most important work is a treatise directed against George of Trebizond, a vehement Aristotelian who had written a polemic against Plato, which was entitled In Calumniatorem Platonis ("Against the Slanderer of Plato"). Bessarion, though a Platonist, was not so thoroughgoing in his admiration as Gemistus Pletho, and he strove instead to reconcile the two philosophies. His work, by opening up the relations of Platonism to the main questions of religion, contributed greatly to the extension of speculative thought in the department of theology.

His library, which contained a very extensive collection of Greek manuscripts, was presented by him in 1468 to the senate of Venice, and forms the nucleus of the famous library of St Mark's, the Biblioteca Marciana.

Most of Bessarion's works are in Migne, Patrologia Graeca, vol. 161.

Lynn Townsend White in his famous essay "The Historical Roots of our Ecological crisis" mentions Bessarion as a 'great Greek ecclesiastic' who had gone to Italy and in 1444 wrote a letter to a Greek prince expressing amazement at the superiority of Western ships, arms, textiles and glass, and especially 'water wheels sawing timbers and pumping the bellows of blast furnaces.' White refers to Bessarion's letter as evidence that the man had seen nothing technologically comparable in the Near East

Sources and references

  • This article incorporates text from the Encyclopædia Britannica, Eleventh Edition, a publication now in the public domain.
  • Catholic Encyclopedia: "Johannes Bessarion" (not fully exploited)
  • Francis A. Burkle-Young, "The election of Pope Calixtus III (1455)" Bessarion an early candidate, opposed by the French.
  • Geanakoplos, Deno John. Greek Scholars in Venice: Studies in the Dissemination of Greek Learning from Byzantium to the West (Cambridge, Massachusetts : Harvard, 1962).
  • Gill, Joseph. The Council of Florence (Cambridge, UK : Cambridge University Press, 1959).
  • Harris, Jonathan. Greek Emigres in the West (Camberley : Porphyrogenitus, 1995).
  • Keller, A. "A Byzantine admirer of 'western' progress: Cardinal Bessarion", in, Cambridge Historical Journal, 11 (1953[-]5), 343-8.
  • Labowsky, Carlota. Bessarion's Library and the Biblioteca Marciana (Rome : Edizioni di storia e letteratura, 1979).
  • Legrand, Émile. Bibliographie Hellenique (Paris : E. Leroux (E. Guilmoto), 1885-1906). volume 1.
  • Mohler, Ludwig Kardinal Bessarion als Theologe, Humanist und Staatsmann (Aalen : Scientia Verlag ; Paderborn : F. Schöningh, 1923-42), 3 volumes.
  • Monfasani, John. Byzantine Scholars in Renaissance Italy: Cardinal Bessarion and other Émigrés (Aldershot, UK : Variorum, 1995).
  • Setton, K.M. "The Byzantine background to the Italian Renaissance", in, Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society, 100 (1956), 1-76.
  • Vast, Henri. Le Cardinal Bessarion (Paris : Hachette, 1878), see also (Geneva : Slatkine, 1977).
  • Wilson, Nigel Guy. From Byzantium to Italy. Greek Studies in the Italian Renaissance (London : Duckworth, 1992).
Preceded by
Isidore of Kiev
Titular Latin Patriarch of Constantinople
Succeeded by
Pietro Riario

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