Greek Émigrés

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Greek Émigrés

During the Renaissance, western Europe became home to many Greek émigrés (a term that refers to people fleeing a country, usually for political reasons). These immigrants had a significant influence on the culture of the Renaissance. The Greek scholars who came to Italy not only translated ancient works into Latin but also taught Italians to read and translate the originals.

The most important teacher of Greek in the Renaissance was Manuel Chrysoloras, who came from Greece to teach in Florence in 1397. Chrysoloras taught his students a new theory of translation that focused on capturing the sense of a text and not simply its words. One of his students, Leonardo Bruni, became the first major translator of Greek texts in the Renaissance. Bruni led other humanists* to begin translating the entire body of ancient Greek literature into Latin, a campaign that lasted for 200 years.

Another important teacher was George of Trebizond, an émigré who came to Italy as a Greek scribe*. Like many Greek émigrés in Italy, Trebizond was unable to support himself with only his knowledge of Greek. He quickly learned Latin and became a successful Latin teacher. He also translated a number of Greek scientific and philosophical works into Latin.

The Council of Ferrara-Florence, which brought together leaders of the Roman Catholic and Orthodox Churches, brought many Greeks to Italy in 1438 and 1439. One of the most important participants was a bishop named Bessarion, who was one of the most learned men in the Greek Orthodox Church. In 1440 Bessarion settled in Italy permanently, and he made many contributions to Italian scholarship. He wrote on theology* and other topics, and he translated Greek works into Latin. His most important works included a defense of Plato, an ancient Greek philosopher, and a translation of Metaphysics, a work by Aristotle (another ancient thinker).

When the city of Constantinople fell to the Ottoman Turks* in 1453, many upper-class Greeks, including scholars, fled to western Europe. Bessarion helped many of the émigrés who came to Italy, but eventually they had to support themselves. Translating became an important source of income for some. Pope Nicholas V wanted Greek texts of every kind translated into Latin, and the new arrivals were a valuable asset to this project because they could tackle difficult texts on topics such as science and philosophy.

Translating, however, was not steady work. While some émigrés found careers in teaching, publishing, and the church, others were less fortunate. Their situation worsened after Bessarion's death in 1472. John Argyropoulos, a major figure in the intellectual life of the Renaissance, had to sell his library to survive in Italy. Other prominent émigrés died in exile, became wandering teachers, returned to Greece, or disappeared.

Western Europe received one of Bessarion's greatest contributions after his death. After the fall of Constantinople, Bessarion had devoted himself to preserving the Greek culture. Over the years, he had assembled the greatest collection of Greek books anywhere in western Europe. After his death, the city of Venice inherited his personal library and constructed a new building to house it. Bessarion's books became part of the Biblioteca Marciana, one of the great public libraries of the Renaissance.

(See alsoCouncils; Libraries; Ottoman Empire. )

* humanist

Renaissance expert in the humanities (the languages, literature, history, and speech and writing techniques of ancient Greece and Rome)

* scribe

person who copies manuscripts

* theology

study of the nature of God and of religion

* Ottoman Turks

Turkish followers of Islam who founded the Ottoman Empire in the 1300s; the empire eventually included large areas of eastern Europe, the Middle East, and northern Africa