Recently, someone asked me the question why didn't Athens, the cradle of civilisation, have a Renaissance in the same way Rome did? My answer might be unexpected as I will not respond to that question directly, but I will try to give an interesting perspective on how Greece might not have had a Renaissance, while in fact it hugely influenced the Italian one. Whereas the Renaissance was at its dawn in Rome and Florence; Pope Martin V brought the Papacy back to Rome, Pope Nicholas V was the first great patron of the arts, in Florence you had the first great masters of this era: Brunelleschi was working on the Duomo’s Dome, Donatello was creating magnificent sculpture, Fra Angelico, Benozzo Gozzoli, Paolo Uccello and Piero della Francesca were depicting beauty at such a high level that was never reached before, the Byzantine Empire, still in all its splendour was approaching its sad demise - but its last breath we still see in the art of the Italian Quattrocento. However, I will give you one event and one figure that will focus on how Greece influenced the Italian Renaissance, which we mustn’t forget was known for the rediscovery of ancient classicism, and where did that start? Raphael’s School of Athens down below is a clue. Here are the one event and the one figure: the Council of Florence (1431–1449) and the great Byzantine Cardinal Basilios Bessarion (1403–1472).
The seventeenth ecumenical council of the Catholic Church was convoked in 1431 by Pope Martin V shortly before his death, as the Council of Basel, the main theme of discussion would have been the rise of the Ottoman Empire (one of the reasons the Renaissance could not find ground in that troubled area, also the major patrons were in Italy). In 1437, Pope Eugene IV convoked a second rival council in Ferrara, then moved to Florence due to plague. The councils were eventually merged, the main goal was that of reuniting the Western and Eastern Churches. An important milestone of the Council was the arrival of the Byzantine Emperor, John VIII Palaiologos, and his court. The exotic parade through the streets of Florence hugely inspired artists of the time; the unusual hats, the wild oriental beasts and the spices, the rich brocade damasks not only impressed the aristocrats but also the artists of the time: Piero della Francesca, you can see Byzantine hats in his Flagellation, Filippino Lippi and Domenico Ghirlandaio, in their notable landscapes in the Carafa Chapel and the Sassetti Chapel Adoration of the Magi, you can see giraffes and other unusual beasts, but perhaps the most spectacular image we have is the Magi Chapel of the Medici Palace, with the superb cycle of frescoes by Benozzo Gozzoli, portraying just that procession, including the Emperor!
Among the Greek dignitaries at that council, was Cardinal Basilios Bessarion, Βασίλειος Βησσαρίων, he also held a great diplomatic role; he was the Latin patriarch of Constantinople, which at the time of the Papal States was essentially the role of an ambassador, between a state ruled by the Church (Rome) and a state that ruled over the Church (Byzantium). His origins are quite humble, contrasting with legend, not an unusual background during the Renaissance. He was born in Trazbon, while still a child he moved to Constantinople where he became a basilian monk, adopting the name Bessarion, after the 4th century saint. In the following years, he went to Egypt and Sparta where he was introduced to Cartophylax, a Byzantine diplomat, soon he entered the circle of Emperor John VIII. At the Council of Florence he expressed his concern for the Ottoman invasion of the Byzantine Empire, he also worked towards the unity of the Latin and the Greek Churches. He tried to heal the wounds left among the Byzantines after the Crusades, the Fourth Crusade of 1204 was particularly devastating. He proclaims a compromise at the end of the council between the two Churches. Back in Constantinople he finds hostility, perhaps after learning some very good diplomatic skills he manages to go back to Rome as Cardinal in 1439, with the titulus of the Basilica of Santi Apostoli. He will never return to Constantinople. Now, why was he important to the Greek cause during the Renaissance? After the fall of Byzantium in 1453, he hosted all the great Greek minds of the east in Rome and enlarged the Greek community at Rome’s Byzantine Abbey in Grottaferrata, enlarging the library and placing a special focus on the conservation of Greek classical culture. This process worked both ways, it preserved this great patrimony and at the same time, it influenced the Roman Renaissance scene. He himself was an important neo-platonic philosopher and a perfect Renaissance humanist, with special interest on the ancient Greek authors. He was also a great appreciator of the arts; both directly and indirectly, his portrait appears in the beautiful studiolo of the Duke of Urbino, his villa in Rome is an example of refined Quattrocento art and architecture, and his chapel was decorated by the greatest artist of the Roman Renaissance: Antoniazzo Romano, in the local style but with Greek echoes. His diplomatic career continued, he even visited France, King Louis XII’s court, and finally he died on 3 December 1472, his body entombed in that magnificent chapel in the Basilica of Santissimi Apostoli.
Here is how the Greeks contributed to the most exciting time in art history.