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Deno Geanakoplos

Byzantium and Renaissance
The Greco-Byzantine Colony in Venice and its Significance in the Renaissance

From Byzantine East & Latin West: Two Worlds of Christendom in Middle Ages and Renaissance. Edit. The Academy Library Harper & Row Publishers, New York, 1966.


The old theory that the Renaissance was caused by the great influx of Byzantine refugees coming to the West after Constantinople's fall in 1453 is today of course accepted by no reputable scholar. Indeed, some social-economic historians, pushing the pendulum far in the other direction, have tended to reduce almost to a minimum the significance of the part played by the Byzantine refugees. Now it is indisputable that the Renaissance, whether its roots were Italian or French or a combination of both, was at the outset a Latin, not a Greek movement. Yet there can be no doubt that ancient Greek literature and philosophy, which more than anything else expanded the intellectual horizon of the Renaissance, could have come to the West only from their principal medieval depository, the Byzantine East, including southern Italy. And in the transmission of this learning to the West, the role of the Byzantine refugee was decisive.

The history of the dissemination of Greek learning westward is now reasonably well-known, at least in broad outline. And a number of good biographies of the leading Byzantine or post-Byzantine humanists involved have been written,(1) though a host of lesser but not insignificant figures still await investigation. Nevertheless, western historians, in their focus on the western activities of the more famous Byzantine individuals such as Bessarion, Pletho, and Chrysoloras, have failed to notice a factor which, directly or indirectly, affected the lives of most of these emigrés—that is, the existence of a large, cosmopolitan Greek colony in Venice. This is particularly true with respect to the later period when Venice displaced Florence as the leading centre of Greek studies in Europe. Of course scholars are fully cognizant of the work of the famous Aldine press of Venice in producing first editions of the Greek classics, and they recognize a certain influence of Byzantium on the later brilliant art of Venice. But either because of undue concentration on the achievement of Aldus or because it has not generally been realized that the remarkable diaspora of Greeks to the West just before and for long after 1453 focused on Venice, historians have not viewed the lives of the Greek scholars, as many of them should be viewed, in the context of the thriving Greek community of Venice. It is the purpose of this essay, insofar as time permits, to reconstruct the more important events in the history of this colony, and then, having provided a more complete background to the activities of the Greek refugees in Venice, to attempt to draw a few conclusions as to the significance of the colony for the development of Greek learning in the Renaissance.


1. For bibl. on Byzantium and the Renaissance see Appendix, Bibliographical Note D.

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