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Judith Herrin
King’s College London
The West meets Byzantium
unexpected consequences of the Council of Ferrara-Florence 1438-9

For the Orthodox Church, relations with Western Christians and the church of Rome, have not always been easy – there have been many efforts to repair schisms and build stronger union between East and West and they continue today. This evening, however, I would like to examine one of those attempts, the Oecumenical Council summoned to the Italian city of Ferrara in 1438, which ended at Florence one year later. Although this universal meeting declared a successful Union in July 1438, it was never accepted by the majority of Orthodox believers in Byzantium, and it was not celebrated in Constantinople until the winter of 1452 when the Ottoman Turks were at the walls of the city. So this was not a lasting union of the churches. But it had unexpected consequences that do merit attention and I hope it will be interesting to look at them.

My paper might really be called "The hope of those without hope" η ελπις των απελπισμένων – an epithet of the Theotokos, Mother of God, that appears on a magnificent thirteenth century icon, covered with the fine silver revetment. It was probably made in Thessalonike, where Manuel Dishypatos composed the verses inscribed on it. (Dishypatos held the office of kanstresios, a member of the patriarchal chancery.) The icon was presented to the ruler of Milan when Emperor Manuel II Palaiologos was trying to raise funds and western military forces to combat the Ottomans. It went on extraordinary travels, from Italy it was sent to England, and then finally to Freising, where in 1440 it was installed in the cathedral and remains to this day, a tribute to western appreciation of a Byzantine work of art.

However, the epithet, "hope of those without hope", reinforced the role of the Mother of God as a very significant protector of the Byzantines. For us, it also seems symbolic of Byzantium in the fifteenth century, when Emperor John VIII Palaiologos and Patriarch Joseph II led over 700 Byzantine clerics and officials to Ferrara and Florence in 1438-9. In its greatly reduced state, the empire itself represented the hope of the hopeless.

First, a little background. In addition to the regular diplomatic contacts that Byzantium maintained with the West, intellectual contacts in the late fourteenth century were bringing East and West closer. From 1397 when Manuel Chrysoloras took up a three-year appointment to teach Greek in Florence, western awareness of the vast treasure of ancient Greek texts, philosophical, historical and poetic was greatly enhanced. He began his teaching with an exposition of Plutarch’s Parallel Lives, a much loved text in the East but relatively unknown in the West, and immediately attracted young Italian scholars anxious to master Greek and read such works for themselves. Among his prominent pupils, Guarino Guarini and Leonardo Bruni went on to make major translations of Strabo and Plato, respectively. Bruni also translated St Basil’s ‘Letter to young men’, which had become the key text justifying the study of ancient Greeks authors for Christians. Another pupil, Uberto Decembrio, translated Plato’s Republic before 1438.

Western interest in Greek was driven by the much stronger appeal of ancient texts and the search for actual manuscripts expanded from Constantinople to Venetian Crete and the Genoese islands of Chios and Mitylene. Two of the earliest Greek manuscripts deposited in what became the Vatican library were purchased in Mitylene, while Christopher Buondelmonti found the Aegean islands a great resource for his maps.

At the same time, western scholars went East to learn Greek in Constantinople, where famous teachers like George Chrysokkokos and John Chortasmenos were also attracting the most able and ambitious Byzantines. During the early fifteenth century Bessarion moved from Trebizond to the capital and then on to Mistras, in the Peloponnese where George Gemistos, called Plethon (in imitation of Platon), had his school. In the Byzantine capital, Greek teachers like Chrysokokkos provided a solid training in Greek to a large number of westerners, including Francesco Filelfo, and Christopher Garatoni, who both worked for the Venetian Bailo of Constantinople. Between 1433 and 1446 Garatoni purchased Greek manuscripts of nineteen authors, only one of which was Christian, Gregory of Nazianzos. The others, including Homer, Hesiod, Plato, Isocrates, Plutarch, the letters of Libanius, the history of Diodurus Siculus, and grammars, vocabularies and the dictionary of Suidas, reflect his desire to master ancient Greek wisdom. Similarly, Nicholas of Cusa who made several visits to Constantinople in the 1430s, purchased mss there.

Talk of a reunion of the churches had also been in the air for several years; in 1413-14, Manuel Chrysoloras had been sent back to Rome to negotiate the possibility of holding a council to achieve this end. But western forces in favour of church reform were also gaining strength, and in 1431 Pope Martin V summoned a universal council to the city of Basel to address them. This brought together a large number of bishops, monks and junior clergy, united in their determination to reform abuses of papal power. They identified themselves as a council with supreme authority within the church, and proceeded to issue decrees. Byzantium and other Orthodox churches also sent representatives to Basel where they witnessed the strength of the "conciliarists" (bishops who stressed the power of the council), and the weakness of the pope. For Eugenius IV the situation became ever more difficult as political threats in 1434 forced him to flee from Rome to Florence, where the Medicis faction had resumed power.

Through their envoys at Basel, the patriarch and emperor in Constantinople were kept informed about these developments and by 1437 they learned that both the council and the pope were offering to transport the Orthodox delegation to a council in the West. In these circumstances, Emperor John VIII Palaiologos believed that he could negotiate an agreement, which would link the union of the churches with a new western crusade against the ever-pressing Turkish threat. He told the patriarch to write to all the Orthodox to inform them of a universal council, including the Circassians, Mingrelians, Goths, islanders, and the Ethiopians. This clearly struck a positive note among far-flung communities, particularly those under the continuing pressure of Ottoman conquest. The patriarchs of Alexandria, Antioch and Jerusalem, whose presence was necessary for a council to be considered oecumenical, responded with suggestions for individuals who might represent them if the Sultan blocked their personal participation. Joseph II also wrote to distant Orthodox communities in Trebizond, Georgia, Russia, Moldovlachia, and the emperor added his own letters to the Grand Duke of Moscow and the Voïvode of Moldovalachia. At the same time, Pope Eugenius was inviting western Christians to prepare for the Council, and a large delegation from Scotland attended.

Thanks to the memoirs of Sylvester Syropoulos, we have a detailed, if biased record of this unprecedented expedition from Byzantium to the West. More than 700 clerics and secular officials set sail from Constantinople in November 1437; for many it was their first experience of sea transport, and the elderly Patriarch Joseph II found it very frightening and exhausting. After dreadful winter sailing and several unpleasant incidents (loss of ships in storms, attacks by pirates), they arrived in Venice early in 1438, and then sailed on to Ferrara. There John VIII indulged his passion for hunting to the irritation of his host, Niccolo d’Este who also found the maintenance of such a large party very costly. When cases of plague were identified nearby, the danger was possibly used as an excuse to transfer the council to Florence where Cosimo de’Medicis offered accommodation and sustenance.

The West now met Byzantium, when first the patriarch with his officials, bishops and numerous monks, and then the emperor with his courtiers, entered the city to be greeted by the entire population of Florence. They were welcomed by the chancellor, Leonardo Bruni, who had prepared a speech in Greek. The sight of the Byzantines together with their Basileus must have been quite new for Eugenius IV and most westerners. They were clearly rather shocked and fascinated by the Byzantines, who didn’t cut their hair, and wore their most elaborate costumes (ecclesiastical and courtly) at the opening ceremonies. John VIII Palaiologos had melted down the holy vessels of the Pantokrator monastery to manufacture his golden bridle and saddle decoration, so that he could ride to the negotiations in style; he is the model for one of the Three Magi in the Christmas scene painted by Bernozzo Gozzoli in the Chapel of the Medici palace. Pisanello also sketched the ruler before casting the now famous medallion made in Florence.

Since many Latin bishops knew no Greek and the emperor, patriarch and most of the Byzantines knew no Latin, interpreters and translators took on a more significant role in the running of the Council. Men with bilingual ability, including Greeks who had converted to the Roman church, and scholars and translators like George Trapezuntius from Crete and Theodore Gazes, gained prominence. Nikolaos Sekoundinos, born on Venetian Euboia, was appointed as the official interpreter and proved very adept at following conversations in both languages and correcting any attempts to mislead. Similarly, westerners with a good knowledge of Greek were greatly appreciated, such as Christopher Garantoni, Giovanni Aurispa who served as John VIII’s secretary; and Ambrogio Traversari, leader of the Camaldolenses monks, who made many translations of Greek texts during the Council.

Pletho’s contribution to the proceedings turned on the Filioque dispute and the wording of the creed used in different churches: he pointed out that if, as the Latins claimed, the clause ‘and from the Son’, Filioque, had been added and approved at the Seventh Council at Nicaea in 787, there would have been no more debate about it. But in fact, the procession of the Holy Spirit had bedevilled all later discussions between East and West – in the eleventh century schism, and again at the Council of Lyons in 1274. During his five month stay in Florence, Pletho is said to have given important lectures on Platon, and Marsilio Ficino later promoted the idea that he inspired Cosimo de' Medici to found the "Platonic Academy". While there are references to such discussions witnessed by Gregorio Tifernate, the lectures must have been given in Greek and would have needed a Latin translation to be of much use. Pletho’s comparison between the two philosophical schools, De differentiis Platonis et Aristotelis, was not translated into Latin until the sixteenth century. He himself recorded meeting a few humanists though not the more famous Bruni, Guarino, or Carlo Marsuppini.

However, Pletho may have left a complete copy of Plato’s works in Florence. Cosimo de’ Medici later gave such a copy to Ficino to translate into Latin. And he seems to have had some significant contact with Bruni, because he read and made notes in a copy of Bruni’s political treatise, Περι της πολιτειας των Φλωρεντινων, which is preserved in the Biblioteca Marciana in Venice.

Following the ceremony of Union pronounced on 5 July 1439 in the cathedral church of St Maria del Fiore, read in Latin and Greek, and the Charter of Union issued in both languages by Pope Eugenius the following day, the participants signed their adherence. Only Mark Eugenikos refused. The imperial party left Florence in August, having buried Patriarch Joseph II who died during the Council. They set sail from Venice on 19 October, and arrived home in Constantinople the following February (after another long and stormy sailing).

But the Council remained in session in Florence expecting to receive support from other Christian communities, alerted by letters from the Pope and Patriarch. Eugenius had written to his consuls and rectors in Kaffa, the Black sea port, asking for news of the Council to be transmitted to the Armenian church, and favourable responses were received. Patriarch Constantine, of the city of Vagarsabat, established his envoys to go to the Council and accept its decisions: "so that love, unity and charity should prevail among Christians". In July 1439 the reception of this delegation and its agreement with the Union was recorded.

The very next day Pope Eugenius wrote to the Coptic Church and later to John, the Negus, emperor, of Ethiopia. After considerable delay, in the summer of 1441 Andreas the Egyptian, abbot of the monastery where the great St Antony lived and died, arrived in Rome to sign the Union. And Nicodemus, abbot of the Ethiopian monastery in Jerusalem, who represented the Negus, declared the ‘most serene and most powerful emperor of the Ethiopians’ to be in full agreement with the Union. He reminded the Western bishops of the ancient roots of the Ethiopian church with references to Solomon and the Queen of Sheba, as well as Queen Candace and the eunuch who was converted by the Apostle Philip.

This outreach to distant churches brings me to the unexpected consequences of the Council of Ferrara-Florence, promised by my title. Many representatives who made the journey to Florence brought gifts of manuscripts to the Pope, which remain in the Vatican library. The Armenians may have presented a copy of the canon tables of Eusebius of Caesarea, whose writings had been translated into Armenian very early, including the sole surviving version of his Chronicle. So anything by Eusebius in Armenian was a real novelty in the West.

The Copts also brought with them manuscripts in Ethiopic, Coptic, and Arabic, which they used for liturgical purposes; however, communication between the two delegations was very difficult, as translators were hard to find. It seems that parts of the papal bulls were translated to and from Arabic by a hodgepodge team of papal legates to the East and Venetian merchants. They had particular difficulty over the existence of Purgatory, which had been discussed at the Council but was unfamiliar to the Copts. This passage in the Bull is not only grammatically confused, but also seems to suggest that Purgatory is a process that happens at the moment of death, or in heaven, while the difference between limbo and purgatory remained unclear.

However, the biggest surprise came from the Ethiopians, via the Jerusalem monastery, when they arrived with a manuscript written in their own language. This sparked the interest of Westerners in the Ethiopic script, and generated scholarship in a field of ancient Christianity, which employed an unknown tongue. The church in Russia, on the other hand, represented by Abraham of Souzdal, had been admitted with the Greeks rather than as a separate unit. However, the legacy of Isidore of Kiev’s donations to the Vatican library created a new Slavic collection, written in the script devised by Sts Cyril and Methodios in the ninth century. These represented the vast new Christian world of Orthodox Russia, which would assume such a prominent role after the fall of Constantinople to the Turks.

Images of these manuscripts can be viewed online at: Library of Congress, Rome Reborn: The Vatican Library and Renaissance Culture, 'How the Orient came to Rome', [Accessed 15/02/2010].

The manuscript gifts represent the appeal of Ferrara-Florence and the determination of distant Christians to be engaged in the process of union. Even after Eugenius’s return to Rome in Sept 1443, the Council continued its work, though no official records were kept. But papal bulls reveal the union with Syrians of Mesopotamia, represented by Archbishop Abdala of Edessa, which was celebrated on 13 Sept 1444; and with the Maronites and Chaldaeans of Cyprus, on 7 Aug 1445, which was the last official activity of council of Ferrara-Florence.

Finally, we have to consider the last unexpected consequence – despite all the success at Florence, ultimately the Council failed. Why did this happen?

In 1438 Emperor John VIII Palaiologos was intent on the Union of Churches for a strategic purpose - to gain serious military assistance against the Ottomans from western powers. But he must have known that Union would enhance the authority of the Pope and reduce that of the Patriarch of Constantinople. This could have submerged the eastern church under Rome’s power, which would have been a natural consequence of a successfully imposed Union. While the Greeks would have kept their liturgy and certain traditions, the Pope insisted on maintaining Latin bps in sees where the Greek bps called them "intruders", controlling appointments to episcopal sees, and possibly monasteries, and would have interfered in traditional eastern ways (both of administration and of dogma and canon law). As one of the "might-have-beens" of history, would then Orthodoxy has survived as a distinct branch of Christianity? It would probably have turned on the Russian church under the patriarch of Moscow.

But this was not just a religious threat for Eastern theologians, important though that must have been. The stubborn refusal of Byzantine monks, nuns, lower clerics and ordinary people to accept the Council was based on a deep suspicion of the West that went back to 1204. I think the sack and ruin of Constantinople, the wanton destruction of so many churches and monasteries, ecclesiastical objects and manuscripts, had become a constant feature of Orthodox understanding. At some very basic level, fear of western crusaders and their Latin Christian beliefs became part of Byzantine attitudes in the years that followed; indeed the first 57 were passed under Latin occupation of their Queen City. As foreigners who destroyed much of its Orthodox fabric they were the enemy. Despite much cultural exchange and all the positive links between individual churchmen, scholars and diplomats, the great mass of Orthodox believers manifested a profound hostility to what western military and church leaders intended. Indeed, when the officials of the Great Church in Constantinople became aware of Ottoman policies – basically to leave Christians to get on with their own religion while paying additional taxes, drawn from their landed possessions – they could express their anti-Latin feeling more freely.

On the emperor’s return from Ferrara-Florence, when news of the Union was announced, local reactions in the islands and later in Constantinople confirmed that most Orthodox found it unacceptable and accused the negotiators of abandoning their church. So the immediate Greek response to 1439 was deeply antagonistic. This was compounded by the fact that the Emperor did not play such an active role in supporting the Union at home, partly due to his grief at the death of his beloved wife while he was in Italy.

The hope of "those without hope" may have turned to their non-Christian enemies rather than their Christian brothers in the West, as captured in the phrase: "Better the Turkish turban than the Papal tiara". Of course, had Western military forces arrived to push back the Ottomans, while respecting the Byzantines as allies, opinion could well have changed. The Christian leaders of central Europe did make one last effort in a major crusading movement, which was crushed by the Turks at Varna in 1444. After that terrible slaughter, the Byzantines realised that they might have to defend Constantinople on their own. As the Ottomans encircled the city, the inhabitants put their faith in God and drew on their millennial tradition of self-belief, assisted by resident Italian merchants and mercenary forces. However, they were pitted against overwhelming odds.

Despite the ultimate failure of the union, the Council had positive influence on the transmission of manuscripts from East to West. Western interest in early Christian writings in Greek increased, for instance, the sermons of St John Chrysostomos which became better known through translations made by Theodorus Gazes and George Trapezuntius. The homilies of St Basil, particularly On the Holy Spirit, which had been extensively discussed at Ferrara-Florence, were re-translated. In keeping with the Council’s insistence on the superiority of old texts on parchment rather than more recent copies on paper, Bessarion returned to Constantinople to search for better texts of St Basil. He describes his pleasure in finding an old manuscript, which justified the theological position on the Trinity he had taken at the Council. Closer western attention was also paid to other texts cited at Ferrara-Florence: Ambrogio Traversari translated the entire corpus of Pseudo-Dionysios, a revered but difficult text. Arguments developed during the eleventh-century schism were re-examined, such those found in the writings of Theophylact of Euboia, which were less critical of Western practice, and were translated by Cristoforo Persona, who had served as interpreter and translator at the Council. Furthermore, orthodox writings against the errors of the Latins were compared with Western criticisms of Greek traditions, and works by Barlaam, Kabasilas and Photios on the issue of leavened or unleavened bread (azymes) were reread.

Clearly, Pletho’s exposition of Plato also encouraged humanist interest in his works and eventually many of these were translated, though sadly not all the Laws, which Scholarios managed to destroy pretty effectively after Plethon’s death in 1452. It must have been at this time that Bessarion wrote consolatory letters to the sons and colleagues of Pletho; he also acquired many of the Plethon manuscripts that he bequeathed to Venice which are now in the Marciana library.

In addition, it has been suggested that the debates on the papal primacy during the Council prompted Lorenzo Valla to look at the Constitutum Constantini, known as the Donation of Constantine; between April and May 1440, he wrote a highly critical analysis of it. Professor Glen Bowersock argues that "the Constitutum Constantini must have figured importantly in the protracted debates about papal authority in the Councils of Ferrara and Florence in 1438 and 1439". Valla's reading of the text was to prove decisive in revealing it as a forgery; and he went on to apply the philological method he used to investigate its inconsistencies and other invented features to the textual criticism of the Bible. He was one of the first scholars to point out errors by comparing the Latin of the Vulgate against the text transmitted in Greek manuscripts. Bessarion was also involved in similar work on the Gospel of John, and they corresponded about their critical methods. Valla was later to undertake a translation of Thucydides, at the behest of Nicholas V, and begin work on Herodotos, for which he again consulted Bessarion. This was an important milestone in the development of modern textual criticism.

Furthermore, Bessarion’s interest in mathematics and scientific works, notably Strabo, excited Traversari and other humanist scholars from the moment he arrived in the West. The Euclid and Ptolemy volumes that he brought with him were a major spur to further study and translation. In addition, Bessarion brought to Rome his own copy of the theorems of Diophantos, in which his teacher John Chortasmenos in Constantinople had written in the margin beside problem II, 2: ‘May your soul, o Diophantos, rest with Satan on account of the difficulty of your other theorems and particularly the present one’. This is the infamous theorem which Fermat claimed to have solved in his seventeenth-century copy, using the same marginal space of his bilingual edition. The scholion remained unchecked until, after nearly a century of efforts by various prominent mathematicians, Andrew Wiley resolved the problem and claimed the Göttingen Institute’s prize money.

These aspects of Ferrara-Florence should remind us what a significant role it played in encouraging the collection, study and translation of Greek texts. This encounter of East and West marks a pivotal moment in the history of oriental studies, and seems to have touched almost every cultural endeavour in Italy, from classical literature to mathematics, from philosophy to art. Long before Pope Nicholas V established the Vatican library, he had attended the Council and thus witnessed many of the discussions. In 1447 he was elected pope and began to acquire manuscripts in a competitive race with Bessarion, who had already set up his own library in Rome, and with the many Renaissance princes who were constructing beautiful libraries at the same time. Nicholas V sent agents to the East with large amounts of gold and instructions to acquire whatever Greek texts they could, while he also encouraged scholars, such as Lorenzo Valla and George Trapezuntius, to translate Greek works into Latin.

A further indication of the appeal of Byzantine objects may be traced in the ascription of miraculous powers to Byzantine icons already in the West. Many had been installed in Western churches with invented genealogies that went back to an original painting by St Luke. When Bessarion introduced the Byzantine cult of the Virgin to Grottaferrata, he made the same claim. In this way, Byzantine styles of veneration and ancient origins were invented to enhance the Eastern cult of icons. Finally, I should like to end with another unexpected consequence of the Council: the icon of Peter and Paul embracing – a symbolic image of the meeting at Florence. Maria Vassilaki has suggested most convincingly that on Venetian Crete where Greek icons and Italian altarpieces seem to have been commissioned by adherents of both churches indiscriminately, this image of the two saints was developed by painters like Angelos Akotantos. He was of Venetian origin but had married a local Cretan woman and become entirely Greek, as we learn from his will. He painted eight versions of the embrace, understood to symbolize the reunion of the churches, which was particularly welcome to Angelos. Even though the Council had been denounced by the people of Byzantium from 1439 onwards, and the Union ultimately failed, this image remained in the repertoire of Byzantine icon painters long after the fall of Constantinople to the Ottomans.

Joseph Gill, The Council of Florence (Cambridge 1959)
Joseph Gill, Personalities of the Council of Florence and Other Essays (Oxford 1964)
Henry Chadwick, East and West: the Making of a Rift in the Church: from Apostolic Times until the Council of Florence (Oxford 2005)
F. Dvornik, Byzantium and the Roman Primacy (New York 1966)
V. Laurent, Les "Mémoires" du Grand Ecclésiarque de l’Église de Constantinople Sylvestre Syropoulos sur le concile de Florence (1438-39), (Pontificium Institutum Orientalium Studiorum, Rome 1971)
Maria Vassilaki, "Praying for the Salvation of the Empire?" in Maria Vassilaki ed, Images of the Mother of God. Perceptions of the Theotokos in Byzantium (Aldershot 2004)
Maria Vassilaki, "A Cretan Icon in the Ashmolean: The Embrace of Peter and Paul", Jahrbuch der Österreichischen Byzantinistik 40 (1990), now expanded in
Maria Vassilaki, ed. The Hand of Angleos. An Icon Painter in Venetian Crete (Lund Humphreys/Benaki Museum 2010), 152-7
C. M. Woodhouse, Gemistos Plethon, The Last of the Hellenes (Oxford 1986)
James Hankins, 'Cosimo de' Medici and the "Platonic Academy"', Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes, 53 (1990)
Alastair Hamilton, 'Eastern Churches and Western Scholarship', in Anthony Grafton (ed.), Rome Reborn: The Vatican Library and Renaissance Culture (London 1993)
G. W. Bowersock, The Donation of Constantine (Cambridge MA 2007)
Nigel Wilson, Scholars of Byzantium 2nd ed (London 1974)
Judith Herrin, "Mathematical Mysteries in Byzantium: the transmission of Fermat’s last theorem", Dialogos, Hellenic Studies Review 6 (1999),
Demetrios Dedes, "θρησκεια και πολιτικη κατα τον Γεωργιο Γεμιστο Πληθωνα", Φιλοσοφια 5-6 (1975-6)

Judith Herrin
King’s College London