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What the West has won by the Fall of Byzantium?
By Marianna D. Birnbaum
Zbornik radova Vizantoloskog instituta, Issue 41 (2004)
Abstract: After the Fall of Byzantium, a large number of Greek humanists arrived in Europe. They greatly affected the study of Greek language and thought in the whole of Europe. This paper investigates three main areas of their influence: teaching, translating, and publishing.
Introduction: Wittily, Paul Oskar Kristeller wrote that the Renaissance could be practicallyreduced to the traveling of books and people.
It is a well-known fact that more than any other phenomenon, it was the restoration of Greek that widened the horizons of Western European scholarship. This was preliminary due to the scholars who exiled, or having fled the former Byzantium, became the source of a reconsidered education. In the following, I hope to shed additional light on the direct role of those Greek refugees in the revival of classical learning.
“Latin erudition, however ample, is imperfect without Greek,” wrote Erasmus who arrived in Italy during the fall of 1506. As he put it, “Italiam adivimus…Graecitatis potissimum causa.”
Indeed, Greek refugees from Ottoman held or threatened territories, in fleeing to the west, funded centers of learning or accelerated the development and dissemination of humanist thought. Well educated, versed in languages, wherever they landed, they became engaged in teaching, or editing and copying manuscripts, i.e. in the pivotal activities of the new learning.
It was Venice, with her closest connection to Byzantium that became the primary hub of Greek refugees, causing Cardinal Bessarion to refer to the Serenissimaas “almost a second Byzantium.” Greek humanism also became a political tool toVenice, because of her special relationship to Byzantium.
As it is widely considered, the beginnings of Greek studies in Italy can be traced to the Councils of Ferrara and Florence. However, the most lasting legacy of the Council Meetings, I propose, was their by-product, the scholarly activities they had triggered.
The first scholar to be mentioned here must be Manuel Chrysoloras (1355-1415), who should be credited with single-handed founding the discipline of Hellenic studies. Although Chrysoloras translated Plato’s “Republic,” his most important contribution to Hellenic studies was his grammar and his students. They included the ‘already famous,’ such as Leonardo Bruni and Palla Strozzi and dozens of newcomers to the discipline. In the memorable quote of Chancellor Bruni, it was Chrysoloras who inspired him “to learn the language no Italian had understood forthe last seven hundred years.”
In the following I shall attempt to present at least a broad evaluation of the impact Greek scholars had on the acculturation of Hellenic humanism in the late fifteenth and the early decades of sixteenth century Italy. I am going to consider two groups, albeit they often overlap: that of the scholar/teachers and of the copyists.