Bessarion's World: Art, Science, and Crusade

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Greenlee, Justin, History of Art and Architecture - Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, University of Virginia
Fiorani, Francesca, Department of Art, University of Virginia

Cardinal Basil Bessarion (b. Trebizond ca. 1403, d. Ravenna 1472) is a recognizable figure to many art historians. In painted portraits and woodcuts from the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, including those from the studiolo of Federico da Montefeltro and Paolo Giovio’s Elogia virorum literis illustrium, Bessarion is represented as an old man in a red hat, a black tunic, and a gray beard. Regarded as a great man in his own day, he has been studied by specialists of Italian and Byzantine culture for his role at the Council of Ferrara-Florence (1438–39), his immigration from Constantinople to Rome (1440), and the legendary collection of books he donated to the library of San Marco (1468), which constitute the core holdings of the Biblioteca Marciana in Venice.

Bessarion was an avid collector of works of art, including relics and reliquaries, and an important patron of his cardinal titular church, the basilica of Santi Apostoli in Rome. However, Bessarion’s activities as a collector of artifacts has not received as much scholarly attention as his library, nor has it been placed into the context of the cardinal’s advocacy for Crusade. Few studies have considered that Bessarion’s collection was first and foremost a sign of his multifaceted identity as a scholar who converted from Orthodoxy to Catholicism and as a humanist who was a man of the church with a defined political agenda surrounding Crusade. In response, my dissertation is a study of the cardinal’s engagement with works of art in the fifteenth-century culture of Crusade in Europe and his desire to defeat the sultan, Mehmed II (r. 1444–46, 1451–81), in the Byzantine world.

Bessarion lived in Rome for over thirty years following his immigration from Constantinople, during which time the cardinal amassed an impressive collection of illuminated manuscripts, relics, reliquaries, Byzantine icons, scientific instruments, and liturgical objects. I present the thesis that Bessarion’s patronage of the arts and sciences was fueled by two closely related endeavors: first, the cardinal’s lifelong travels through the Byzantine world and Europe; and second, his fervent desire to launch a Crusade to reclaim territories controlled by Mehmed’s army. I argue that Bessarion acquired works of art for his collection in Rome to use them as instigations to Crusade and a moral mandate for Christian princes to take up the Cross and participate in a holy war against the Ottomans.

PHD (Doctor of Philosophy)
Bessarion, Bessarione, cardinal, cardinale, Bessarion's World, art, science, Italy, Byzantium, Mediterranean, fifteenth century, Rome, patronage, collecting, cultural interchange, relic, relics, reliquary, reliquaries, Crusade

© 2020 Justin Greenlee
Attribution-Non-Commercial 4.0 International (CC BY-NC 4.0)

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