Byzantine libraries in the West: from 1400-1453

The title of this section reflects, I believe, a specific phenomenon: the bringing to completion of the final Byzantine or Palaeologan renaissance in letters, which is to be sought in the West - more specifically in Italy - and the contribution made by Greek scholars to the humanist movement and the dissemination of Greek literature, through the spoken word and the Byzantine written tradition.
    The representatives of Byzantine humanism who moved to Italy from the beginning of the 15th century were obliged essentially to cut themselves off from their natural environment, and their new audience did not stimulate their Byzantine consciousness. Setting aside their personal concerns and dreams, and frequently also relegating their beliefs to second place, in order to survive in a strongly pro-unification climate, they were obliged to contribute to the foundation of Italian humanism. Fully aware that they had no natural audience for the completion of the Byzantine renaissance in Constantinople, they chose to accept the leading role proffered them by the Italians, rather than face the impasse in store for them in Constantinople.
    The myth that the Byzantine scholars fled to Italy after the fall of Constantinople in 1453, taking with them their manuscripts, needs to be radically revised; between the beginning of the 15th century and the fall of Constantinople, more than 1,000 Byzantine manuscripts had already been exported to Italy, mainly from Constantinople itself. These were not merely copies made at this period, moreover, but manuscripts of great importance in terms both of their age and the Classical texts transmitted in them.
    Virtually all the representatives of Byzantine letters and scholarship had assembled their own personal libraries, and the relationships they formed with the outstanding figures of Italian humanism encouraged the latter to complete their studies in Constantinople, and at the same time to endeavour to buy and copy Greek manuscripts, not only for themselves, but also on behalf of other scholars and patrons of culture and letters. Amongst these figures we may note: Manuel Chrysoloras, the first to introduce the systematic teaching of Greek to Italy, Georgios Trapezountios, Theodoros Gazis, Demetrios Chalkokondylis, Cardinal Bessarion, Ianos Laskaris, Michael Apostolis, and many others, while the outstanding Italians included Jacopo Scarperia, Francesco Filelfo, Guarino da Verona, Sassolo da Prato, Giovanni Tortelli and Giano Parrasio. Unfortunately, we are not in a position to say anything about their collections, since they usually changed hands either as legacies or as the result of commercial transactions, while the manuscripts themselves often have no owner's inscription.
     The interest involved iin the simple registering of these libraries and the reconstitution of their contents is, however, eclipsed by the more substantial interest attaching to the issue of the contribution made by these manuscripts to the support of humanist studies and the wide dissemination of Greek literature. Around the leading role played the manuscript, translators and scholiasts, printers and publishers, and the men that financed all these activities, created a network of men and affairs that demonstrates what is possibly the most attractive aspect of this phenomenon: the relations cultivated at a humanist level between Byzantine scholars and their pupils and colleagues in the West.



Manuel Chrysoloras. Engraving from I. Bullart, "Akadémie des sciences et des arts", Amsterdam 1682
Georgios Trapezountios. Woodcut from N. Reusner, "Icones", Basel 1599