In the 15th century, even as the civilization of the Christian East was dying, the civilization of the Christian West was experiencing its great 'Renaissance'. In fact, the former reallty helped to bring the latter about. There was a more or less continuous migration of texts and scholars from the East to the West during the last several decades of the empire, and the great 'Byzantine Renaissance' that had begun in the days of Michael Psellus, in the 11th century, and that had fitfully persisted for almost four centuries, was now obliged to surrender its riches to the West.

Of course, no single cause can be assigned for the extraordinary flowering of the arts, philosophy, speculative theology, scholarship and scientific inquiry that occurred at the end of the Western Middle Ages, or for the rise of the new 'humanism' of early modernity. The mundane explanations are plentiful — the rise of a new merchant class and a general improvement of the economy, the resulting shift of wealth away from landholders and the Church into a more diversified secular realm, the increasing availability of classical texts and so on. Whatever the case, in those years — beginning in Italy and then spreading outward — a new passion arose for the recovery of the 'lost wisdom' of the ancient world. Nor was this merely a 'secular' movement, as we now understand that word.

The First Stirrings

Had it not been for the devastation visited on Europe by the Black Death in the second half of the 14th century, the Renaissance might have begun to spread far sooner. In Italy, which for a variety of reasons had long enjoyed privileged access to the Byzantine and Islamic East, the first period of 'humanism' - that is, a concerted return to classical models, literary, philosophical and artistic, and an equally concerted effort to develop new artistic techniques, new literary forms and new sciences - began in the late 13th and early 14th centuries. Dante's Divine Comedy may have been the crowning literary achievement of Medieval civilization, but it was also profoundly innovative in style, and was inspired far more by classical than by Medieval literary forms. The true father of the later Italian revolution in painting - in terms both of method and of figuration - was Giotto (c. 1270-1337).

Moreover, it was the late Medieval influx of Eastern texts that had nourished late scholasticism and the rise of the late Medieval university that created the intellectual conditions necessary for the remarkable developments of the 15th century. One of the greatest and most imaginative thinkers of the early Renaissance, for instance, was Cardinal Nicholas of Cusa (1401—64). It is true that Nicholas was sent by the pope to Constantinople on the eve of the Council of Florence, and there encountered Byzantine Platonism and Byzantine scholarship directly for the first time - indeed, it was while returning from the East that Nicholas experienced his reported great awakening regarding the nature of divine transcendence - but he had already been formed by texts and traditions available in the West, and so was able to absorb and transform Eastern Christian thought without difficulty in his own work. Thus his reflections upon the necessarily asymptotic approach of the finite mind towards knowledge of God, upon God as the 'coincidence of opposites', upon the nature of the infinite, upon God as the infinitely simple 'implication' of all that is 'explicated' in creation, upon the person of Christ, upon the nature of celestial movements, and
so forth, were a perfect confluence of Western and Eastern streams of thought

(passing through the medium, of course, of his own native genius).

Byzantine Exodus

[There is a portrait of Nicholas of Cusa, by an unknown artist. Among his many accomplishments, Nicholas was a theologian, scientist, philosopher, mathematician legal scholar and astronomer]

Without question, the Renaissance in Italy was nurtured by an infusion of Byzantine learning in the last days of the Eastern empire. And no figure was more influential in this regard than the great polymath George Gemistus Plethon (c.1352-1452), the brilliant Byzantine Platonist who — while acting as a delegate to the Council of Florence - delivered a famous oration 'Concerning the Differences between Aristotle and Plato' that inspired a new passion for Platonism in Florence: a passion that led ultimately to the founding of the Academia Platonica by Cosimo de' Medici (1389-1464).

This, as it happens, was a matter far closer to Plethon's heart than the reunion of the Churches. He was not really Christian in his beliefs, in any event; he was a secret adherent to a kind of late Neoplatonism, which drew upon many traditions (pagan, Zoroastrian, Chaldean, Jewish, Muslim and Christian), and which was formally polytheistic (though devoted, ultimately, to the one Great God). Plethon continued his sojourn in Florence after the Council of Florence to teach and proselytize for a new Hellenism, and through him an entire generation of Italian humanists was exposed to philosophical texts - and interpretations of those texts - to which they had hitherto had no access.

Almost as important in the transmission of Byzantine culture to Italy was Bishop — and later Cardinal — Basil Bessarion (1403—72), a former student of Plethon's, and as committed a Platonist (though a more committed Christian). He too was a delegate to the Council of Florence, and his loyalty to the pact of union obliged him to live in Italy as early as 1439.

The Academy

The intellectual centre of the early Italian Renaissance, though, was undoubtedly the Platonic Academy of Florence; and, of the many remarkable scholars directly or indirectly associated with it, two were particularly notable for their breadth of learning, intellectual daring and their influence: Marsilio Ficino (1433-99) and the count of Concordia, Giovanni Pico della Mirandola (1463—94).

In addition to being a linguist, physician and philosopher, Ficino was a priest and a theologian. Though there was a period in his life, apparently, when he underwent a crisis of faith, he ultimately became one of the most learned, energetic and eloquent advocates not only of the new humanism, but of a new Christian Platonism, much like that of the Church Fathers, but open to other traditions of thought as well. Made the first head of the Platonic Academy in 1462, he devoted the new institution to the collection, study and translation of Eastern texts.

Ficino not only translated the works of Plato and Plotinus, but wrote commentaries on them that profoundly shaped Christian thought over the next two centuries. The theme most central to his thought was love, understood as the universal bond holding all things together, and as the transcendent power by which the human soul may be assimilated to God. All his writings are imbued by a quintessentially 'Greek' optimism regarding the dignity and divine destiny of the human being.

If anything, this optimism is even more pronounced in the work of Pico della Mirandola, a man of impetuous brilliance and eclectic intellectual sensibilities, who believed he could achieve an ideal synthesis of scholastic and humanist, Aristotelian and Platonic, and Eastern and Western wisdoms. Of noble birth, he studied at the universities of Ferrara and Padua, travelled through Italy, visited Paris (and its university) and in 1486 met Ficino in Florence.

A painting (1412) by Gentile Bellini showing the influential Platonist Cardinal Bessarion. In Rome, Bessarion taught, sheltered Greek scholars fleeing the East, amassed precious Greek manuscripts and commissioned translations.

Though he remained a convinced and devout Christian, Pico believed that all truth should be cherished, and drew ideas from Jewish, pagan, hermetic, Chaldean and Persian sources; and he was the first of the Renaissance Christian Kabbalists. His most famous work, the 'Oration on the Dignity of Man', was composed as the inaugural address of a great public debate he planned for 1487, to discuss 900 metaphysical theses he had published the year before. The debate never occurred, though, due to a papal condemnation of 13 of these theses. Pico withdrew to France in 1488, but was arrested and detained until the pope was persuaded to allow him to return to Florence. There Pico lived the rest of his life, devout to the last - though not absolved of all suspicion of heresy until 1492.



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A good friend of Pico's in Florence - though no friend of Italian humanism - was the Dominican preacher and, in many eyes, prophet, Girolamo Savonarola (1452-98): a man whose ecclesiastical and political career illustrates with special vividness many of the tensions of the early modern period in Europe.

Savonarola came from a devout and scholarly family, and was from an early age marked out by his moral austerity and intellectual seriousness. It was a sore trial to his pious soul to live in an age in which a new paganism (as he saw it) was spreading through the West, and in which the papacy was in the hands of worldly men. In 1475 he joined the Dominicans and devoted himself to teaching and to the study of his beloved Thomas Aquinas. He arrived in Florence in 1482 as a lecturer for a Dominican convent there, but - after a spiritual experience of some profundity - he began preaching sermons of a distinctly 'prophetic' nature; and in 1485 he began to predict that the Church, so desperately in need of reform, would suffer divine chastisement for it faithlessness before being renewed by the Holy Spirit.

In 1490, he began preaching against the tyranny and dishonesty of the city's rulers, the Medicis. When the Medicis were driven from power by the French king Charles VIII (1470-98) in 1494 (an event Savonarola had predicted two years before), the Dominican preacher became by default the city's ruler. He instituted a democratic republic, both just and transparent.

Savonarola's great nemesis in those years, however, was the almost theatrically corrupt Borgia pope Alexander VI (1431-1503), whose chief talent - apart from siring illegitimate offspring and squandering small fortunes on his pleasures - was political intrigue. Neither Alexander's attempt to lure Savonarola to Rome in 1495, nor a threat of excommunication, nor a brief suspension of his licence to preach, nor the offer of a cardinal's hat prevented Savonarola from denouncing the vices of the papal court.

Ultimately Savonarola's political enemies, within Florence and beyond, conspired to incite a riot among the more disaffected citizens of Florence. Savonarola was seized. Officers arrived from Rome to try him, charges were falsified, torture applied, and he was sentenced to death by hanging (his body to be burned afterwards).  On the gallows, he bowed his head to receive plenary absolution from one of the pope's emissaries.

There is a statue of Savonarola in his native city of Ferrara in northern Italy.


Keith Hunt