1. Birth - family
Bessarion was born in the city of Trebizond, in the Pontos, around 1400.1 His baptismal name was Basil.2 The only information available on his parents is that they came from the lower classes and had 14 children besides Bessarion.
2. Education - upbringing
Bessarion probably received his elementary education in his hometown of Trebizond, and it is possible that he was tutored by his patron Dositheos, the metropolitan of Trebizond. While still very young (around 1415) he travelled to Constantinople to receive higher education, where he joined a monastery. There, under the supervision of Dositheos, Bessarion received a thorough education by an eminent scholar of that time, George Chrysokokkes. During his apprenticeship with Chrysokokkes, he became acquainted with the Italian humanist scholar Francesco Filelfo. In 1423 he became a novice, and a few months later, in 1424, he was tonsured monk, taking the name Bessarion. Then, on the prompting of Dositheos, he became a student of the scholar John Chortasmenos, metropolitan of Silibria, who taught him mathematics and rhetoric and introduced him to the Aristotelian philosophy. In 1426 he was consecrated deacon. In 1431, when Dositheos was cοnsecrated metropolitan of Monemvasia, Bessarion, who had by now become a hieromonk, followed his patron to the Peloponnese. There he continued his education in Mystra, where he studied astronomy, mathematics and the Platonic philosophy under the renowned philosopher Georgios Gemistos, also known as Pletho.
3.1. Bessarion in Byzantium
Already as a youngster, while still studying, Bessarion belonged to the circles of the imperial court. Around 1427 he participated in a diplomatic mission to Trebizond, when the Byzantine emperor John VIII Palaiologos (1425-1448) tried to arrange the marriage of his daughter with the emperor of Trebizond. In early 1436, John VIII, impressed by the erudition of Bessarion, recalled him to Constantinople and appointed him abbot and teacher in the monastery of St Basil. In that same year Bessarion participated in a diplomatic mission to John IV (1429-1459), emperor of Trebizond, aimed at creating an alliance against the Türkmen. Apart from his teaching duties, Bessarion became an advisor to the emperor; he was convinced that the approach to the West was the only way out of the dire straits Byzantium was in. In 1437, shortly before the departure of the diplomatic mission which was to participate in a joint Council between the Eastern and Western Church, he became metropolitan of Nicaea.
During the Council of Ferrara in Italy, and later in the Council of Florence (1437-1439), Bessarion initially supported the views of those who opposed the Union of the Churches. Gradually, his opinion was reversed and he became a supporter of the Union; as a result, he was confronted with many of the Orthodox hierarchs participating in the Byzantine delegation. Nonetheless, he managed to convince the emperor of the political soundness of the Union and, in July 6th 1439, he read out before the Council the text which he had composed whereby Byzantium accepted the reunion of the Eastern with the Latin Church. In October 1439, together with part of the Byzantine delegation, he left Venice sailing for Constantinople.
Thanks to his supportive attitude towards the Union of the two Churches, Bessarion won the favour of Pope Eugene IV. As a reward for his stance, in December 18th 1439, while Bessarion was still travelling, he was created cardinal of the Catholic Church, of the title of the Twelve Holy Apostles.
3.2. Bessarion in Italy
In contrast to the honours offered to him by the Papal Church, the reception he was given in Constantinople was utterly hostile. The Byzantine people had rejected the Union and had turned against all those who had supported it with their signature. The faction of the anti-unionists, headed by Mark Eugenikos, metropolitan of Ephesus, who had already clashed with Bessarion during the Council of Ferrara-Florence, accused the metropolitan of Nicaea of betraying the Orthodox faith. Bessarion found himself in a tight spot; seeing that the atmosphere in Constantinople was rather tense and wishing to avoid further confrontations, late in 1440 he left Byzantium for good and settled in Italy. In December the 10th of the same year, he received the regalia of his new office in Florence.
The activity of Bessarion as a cardinal of the Papal Church mainly revolved around the idiorrythmic monasteries of Italy, and by 1446 he had compiled new regulatory statutes. His reforms were recognized by Pope Pius II, who in 1460 appointed him visiting overseer of the Greek Catholic monasteries of Italy, while for periods of time he served as abbot in some of them.
Thanks to his assiduous work and his astuteness, Bessarion rose through the ranks rapidly. In 1449 he was consecrated bishop of Tusculum, while in 1455, following the death of Nicolaus V, he was among the contenders for the Papal throne. However, the reaction of some Latin hierarchs on account of his Greek descent, as well as the political scheming of the French court, thwarted his election. Nevertheless, in recognition of his outstanding services, in May 1463 Pope Pius II bestowed on Bessarion the title of Catholic Patriarch of Constantinople (titulary).3 Showing his constant concern for the Greek areas and wishing to strengthen the efforts for the Union of the Churches, Bessarion had in the previous year managed to convince the Pope to institute an endowment,from the income of the patriarchate, for certain Cretan unionist priests.4
3.3. Diplomatic activity
Apart from his ecclesiastical work, Bessarion proved an eminent and tireless politician and diplomat. By 1442-1444 he was already striving to convince the Pope to launch a crusade against the Turks. In 1449, acting as papal legate, he managed to reconcile the major powers of Northern Italy, Venice and Milan, while from 1450 until 1455 he was a papal legate (protector ordinis minorum) in Bologna, where he helped conciliate the feuding political factions and showed interest for the reconstitution of the city’s university.
After the fall of Constantinople in 1453, Bessarion redoubled his efforts to unite the forces of the West in a crusade against the Ottoman Turks, aimed at restoring the Byzantine Empire. He also saw to the release of many prisoners, paying the ransom himself. In 1459 he actively participated in the congress, convened by the pope in Mantua, for the purpose of creating a alliance between the Italian states and the European monarchies. Undeterred by the congress’ failure, in the winter of 1459-1460 Bessarion travelled as a papal legate to various parts of the Central Europe. In February of 1460 he visited Nuremberg, while in the next year he travelled to Vienna. Although he managed to end the feuding between the German rulers in Austria and Hungary, he failed to muster the troops for the crusade he was planning. He returned to Rome in January of 1462.
Bessarion’s mission to Venice was more successful. A few days after his arrival there, in July 22, 1463, the Venetian state declared war against the Ottomans; Bessarion, having outfitted a warship on his own expenses, followed the Venetian fleet as far as Ancona. Unfortunately, the arrival of the fleet coincided with the death of Pope Pius II (on August the 15th, 1464) and Bessarion’s attempt to organize a campaign for the liberation of the Greek regions proved fruitless.
Parallel to his activity in Italy, Bessarion maintained contacts with Byzantium, not forgetting his old patrons, the Palaiologoi. Since 1443-1444 he corresponded with the Byzantine commander of Peloponnese and future emperor Constantine Palaiologos, while in 1465 he took custody of the young children of Thomas Palaiologus, brother of Constantine. Later, on his own incitement, the daughter of Thomas, Zoe Palaiologina, married Ivan III, ruler of Russia.
3.4. Intellectual work
Bessarion’s intellectual work in Italy may be deemed equally or perhaps more important than his political activity. A circle of scholars developed around the Greek cardinal (his contemporary called it the “Academy”, likening it to Plato's school); this circle was constantly enlarged by new refugees arriving from the Byzantine lands, who in Bessarion sought and found a patron and a mentor. Bessarion’s residence in Rome became a centre of important literary and theological activity, were Greeks (Theodoros Gazes, George of Trebizond, Michael Apostoles, Demetrios Chalkokondeles, Andronikos Kallistos) and Italian scholars (Lorenzo Valla, Poggio Bracciolini, Niccolò Perroto, Flavio Biondo) worked together. In the monastery of San Salvatore in Rome, Bessarion also created a school of the Greek language, while he also saw to the translation of many Greek classical texts into Latin; some were translated by him, like, for instance, the Memorabilia of Xenophon, the First Olynthiac of Demosthenes, a.o.
Bessarion’s contribution was crucial for the preservation of the ancient Greek literature; after the fall of Constantinople in 1453 he conceived the idea of rescuing as many manuscripts as possible from the Greek regions under Ottoman and Venetian rule. Through his main local associate Michael Apostoles, he managed to acquire or copy a number of manuscripts, many of which were unique. His collection, for which he had spent huge sums of money, numbered in the end 746 manuscripts, 482 of which were Greek. In 1468 he bequeathed his collection to the Venetian state, in the hope that in this way it would be more accessible to the Greeks who sought refuge in the West. Bessarion’s collection of manuscripts became the core of the later renowned Biblioteca Marciana of Venice.5
In the same year (1468) Bessarion actively participated in the creation of the first printing press in Rome. Among the first works to be printed there in the following year was a book of his, the In columniatorem Platonis, in which Bessarion criticized the Aristotelian views of George of Trebizond and attempted to place Platonic philosophy in the service of Christian faith and dogma, much in the way Thomas Aquinas had done with the Aristotelian philosophy. This work, which was divided into four volumes, was his most significant contribution in the quarrel that had erupted in the mid-15th century between Platonic and Aristotelian philosophers, a quarrel in which Bessarion tried to maintain a middle-of-the road stance. Among his works is a synopsis of Aristotle’s Physics in six volumes. Apart from his philosophical texts, many of his epistles, speeches and other rhetorical pieces survive, like his inaugural speech in Ferrara, the Oratio dogmatica de unione, the Epistula encyclica ad Graecos a.o.6
Following the capture of the previously under Venetian rule Euboea by the Ottomans (1470), once more there was an attempt by the new pope, Sixtus IV, to unite the forces of Christianity against the Ottoman threat. In this context, in the Christmas of 1471, the pope sent six cardinals on diplomatic missions to the various European royal courts. Among them was Bessarion, who in 1468 had been made bishop of Sabina, having once again been defeated in the conclave of 1471 which elected the new pope. Bessarion was sent to France, were he tried to convince the French monarch, the duke of Burgundy and the king of England to participate in the league. His attempts were abortive and the Greek cardinal embarked on his return journey in the fall of 1472. Worn down by the hardships of travelling and his advanced age, Bessarion passed away on November the 18th of the same year, in Ravenna, in northern Italy.7 His body was carried to Rome, and he was buried with solemnity in the temple of the Twelve Holy Apostles; his obituary was delivered by Michael Apostoles.
Leaving aside the paltry criticism that had been aired by Bessarion’s anti-unionist opponents following the Council of Ferrara-Florence, the opinion of his contemporaries on his person were more than positive. Bessarion enjoyed the admiration and respect of the scholars of the time, Greek and Italian alike, for his erudition and learning, while everyone recognized his efforts to preserve the great works of Classical Antiquity and make them available in the West. Lorenzo Valla’s description aptly captures the way he was viewed by his Italian scholarly contemporaries: “The Greekest among the Latin, the Latinmost of the Greeks”.
The views of modern scholars are similar. Bessarion is extolled for his efforts to revive Classical studies in Italy as well as for his ardour in salvaging, translating and copying numerous ancient Greek texts. The established view today is that Bessarion was one of the played a key role in the intellectual Renaissance in 15th-century Italy, contributing significantly to the rescue of the Ancient Greek legacy and its transmission to the West.