Fifteenth-century Greek bishop, theologian, and humanist; b. Trebizond, Jan. 2, 1403; d. Ravenna, Italy, Nov. 18, 1472. Originally of a modest family, Bessarion was apparently adopted by the Metropolitan Dositheus of Trebizond and educated in rhetoric, philosophy, and asceticism at Constantinople, where he had Manuel Chrysococcus for a master and Filelfo and George Scholarius (gennadius ii scholarius) as fellow students. Under the guidance of the archbishop of Selymbria, he took the monastic habit (Jan. 30, 1423), changed his name from Basil (not John) to Bessarion, and wrote an encomium in honor of the 5th-century saint thus chosen as his patron. He became a deacon in 1426. Ordained in 1431, he traveled to Mistra in the Peloponnesus, studied with George Gemistos, plethon, and wrote a series of monodia, or panegyrics, for the court. He settled a dispute between the emperor and his brother, the despot Theodore II of Morea (1436), and was recalled to Constantinople and made hegumen, or abbot, of the monastery of St. Basil.
In preparation for the Council of florence, he was created archbishop of Nicaea (1437), and he sailed with the emperor and Greek delegation to Venice. At the Council, both in Ferrara and Florence, he served with Mark eugenicus of ephesus as spokesman for the Greeks; eventually he accepted the Roman position on the filioque and procession of the Holy Spirit and helped win over most of the other Byzantine delegates. He signed the decree of union (June 6, 1439) and, despite an offer to remain in the Roman Curia, returned to Constantinople (Feb. 1, 1440), where he wrote three public letters of consolation to the emperor on the death of his wife, and took part in the election of the new patriarch of Constantinople, Metrophanes II (March 1, 1440).
When created a cardinal by Pope eugene iv, Bessarion returned to Florence (Dec. 10, 1440); signed the decree of union with the Jacobites (Feb. 5, 1442); and consecrated the Franciscan church of the Holy Cross. He returned to Rome with the Curia (Sept. 28, 1443) and took up residence close to his title church of the 12 Apostles. Bessarion quickly achieved a perfect knowledge of Latin and Italian. He was charged with the beatification process for St. Bernardine of Siena (1449), and he served as papal legate to settle a peace between Venice and Milan (September 1449). He was made papal governor of Bologna (1450–55) and went on embassies to Naples (1457), Germany (1460–61), Venice (1463), and France (1472), in the vain hope of stirring the rulers of these lands to join a crusade against the Turks. On his return from an unsuccessful mission to King Louis XI of France he died at Ravenna; his body was returned to his title church in Rome, and Nicholas Capranica delivered his panegyric.
Bessarion's early writings were mainly court elegies, panegyrics, and letters. Before the Council of Florence, influenced by the doctrine of Thomas Aquinas concerning essence and existence in God, he had rejected the doctrine of Gregory palamas in a defense of the writings of john xi beccus. At the council he delivered a Dogmatic Oration in favor of union, helped compose most of the Greek speeches, and wrote the treatises on the Eucharist and the epiclesis. After the council he published a refutation of the Syllogisms of Mark Eugenicus against the council; a "Justification of the Union" addressed to Alexis Lascaris Philanthropinus (c. 1444); and a Letter to the Despot Constantine on the defense of Greece. Appointed protector of the Greek monks in Italy, he wrote an epitome of the rule of St. Basil, reorganized their government, held a general chapter for the Basilians (1446) and supervised visitations. He was endowed with numerous benefices and used the revenue in aiding the Italian humanists and Greek émigrés, both princes and scholars. After the fall of Constantinople (1453) he determined to collect all the extant Greek literature, both classic and patristic, and before his death he bequeathed a library of over 30 cases of manuscripts to St. Mark's in Venice (1468).
He had secured the patronage of Popes Nicholas V, Paul II, and Pius II for having both the classic and patristic Greek literature translated into Latin. He aided and protected such humanists as poggio bracciolini, Laurenzo valla, and Bartolomeo Platina, who also wrote a panegyric in his honor. Bessarion had translated some of Aristotle's works, and he wrote a De natura et arte and turned most of his own Greek writings into Latin. With his In calumniatorem Platonis Bessarion defended the Greek philosopher's reputation and provided the West with a good knowledge of Plato's philosophy, demonstrating its reconcilability with both Aristotle and Christianity. On the death of isidore of kiev he was made patriarch of Constantinople (1463) and sent an encyclical to the Greeks living under Turkish rule. In 1470 he wrote an Oration to Princes calling them to a crusade; it was spread in northern Europe by William Fichet of Paris. Bessarion had encouraged L. Valla in his application of philological principles to textual criticism of the Bible, and composed a tract on the pericope in the Gospel of John (21.22). A man of deep piety and universal scholarly interests, he played a crucial part in the development of the Italian renaissance.
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[f. x. murphy]