e g r e g o r e s

"Graciously bestow upon all men felicity, the summit of which is the knowledge of the Gods." [Julian, Oration to the Mother of the Gods]

>Bessarion & the Other Roman Academy (The Heathen Minded Humanists, Part Five)

[The Heathen-Minded Humanists: Part One provides the background of the struggle between Pope Paul II and the Roman Academy; Part Two describes the crisis of 1468; Part Three (which I haven’t posted yet) presents the denouement, in which all charges are dropped and the Heathen Academy survives intact; Part Four tells the tale of the surprising evidence discovered four centuries later of the literally underground Paganism that existed in Rome in the 15th century; Part Five (below) looks at the other Roman Academy and its head, Cardinal Bessarion.]

Recall that 1468 was the year that Pope Paul II “discovered” a supposed conspiracy of Heathen-Republican-Sodomite-Assassins right under his nose in Rome. In fact there is good reason to believe that many, perhaps most or even all, of those caught up in the Pope’s dragnet were one or more of the first three of those four things, but no evidence was ever found at the time, nor has any come to light since, indicating that there was a really existing conspiracy to assassinate the Pontiff, or anyone else.

A very broad overview of the background of the events of 1468 in Rome was presented, a while back, in Part One of this series, while Part Two focussed more closely on the events of that year leading up to the denunciations of the leaders of the Roman Academy. But there were, in fact, two Academies in Rome in the year 1468, and both were suspected of harboring dangerous Pagan tendencies.

One the one hand there was, of course, the “Pomponian” Academy, whose brightest lights were Pomponio Leto and Platina, both of whom figured prominently in what is often referred to as “the” Roman Academy. But there was also a “Bessarionic” Academy, founded originally by Cardinal Bessarion (1403-1472), in whose home this other Academy was headquartered (while the other Academy met in the home of Leto).

Here is the entry for “Bessarion” in The Blackwell Dictionary of Eastern Christianity:

Bessarion was born about 1400 in Trebizond [somewhat ironically and confusingly, “George of Trebizond”, Bessarion’s arch-nemesis, was not from Trebizond] and named John. In 1423 he entered monastic life and was ordained. In 1437 he was appointed archbishop of Nicea and in that capacity worked to promote union with Rome at the Council of Ferrara-Florence (1438-45). Bessarion formally entered the Roman Catholic Church. He was made cardinal 91439) and twice received significant support as a candidate for the papacy. In 1463 he became Latin patriarch of Constantinople. Bessarion served as a senior papal diplomat, presided over a scholarly academy devoted especially to the translation of Greek classics, collected manuscripts and was a prolific writer. Greeks fleeing Ottoman power found him a generous patron. He left his collection of texts to the Republic of Venice, where it remains the heart of the Marciana Library. He died in 1472.

Bessarion had been one of the star pupils of George Gemistos Plethon, the Hellenic Pagan philosopher/sage of Mistra. Although he was a Catholic Cardinal (and before that an Orthodox Metropolitan), Basilios Bessarion was, in his heart of hearts, a Platonist. And his Platonism came directly from the more or less openly Pagan Platonism of Plethon, under whose spell Bessarion had fallen at the tender age of 20.

James Hankins, in his Plato and the Italian Renaissance (most of the following is based on pp. 210-212, where all of the direct quotes can be found), tells us that Pope Paul II had been the student of George of Trebizond (the arch-anti-Platonist) and that the two had retained a close bond. Prior to 1464 (the year Paul II assumed the Papal throne, with one of his principal rivals being Bessarion), George had been carrying on a somewhat forlorn little propaganda war against what he saw as the mortal threat to Christendom posed by the increasing popularity of Platonism. George felt the need, or so Hankins speculates, to write his anti-Plato screeds only in Greek, and to limit his audience to a few trusted fellow Byzantine exiles, due to the fact that Trebizond had no friends in sufficiently high places, leaving him “in no position to threaten” the most important representative of the menace of creeping Hellenism: Cardinal Bessarion.

“But”, Hankins tells us, “in 1464 the situation changed dramatically … [and] George lost no time in using his new position [as favorite of the new Pope] to pursue his prophetic vendetta against Bessarion.” In fact, George now openly, and in Latin, accused Bessarion of heresy.

At first it looked as if George might have underestimated his enemies. Over the protests of the Pope himself, Trebizond was arrested in 1466 and confined to a cell in the dreaded Castel Sant’Angelo, where he had to cool his heels for four months. During the time of Trebizond’s imprisonment, an ally of Bessarion, Fernando of Cordoba “published a treatise against Trebizond in which were collected praises of Plato from various Christian and Pagan authorities.” The game was now being played at a very high level, and for the highest of stakes.

The Pope, however, was still the Pope. By February of 1467 George was finally released, and Fernando of Cordoba became the subject of an investigation that made plain “the seriousness with which Paul II regarded the charges of heresy against the Platonists in Bessarion’s circle.” And then the following year Paul II dismissed a number of scholars in the Vatican’s employ whose outspoken Humanism made their spiritual purity suspect. One of these scholars, Platina, protested a little too forcefully, and found himself residing at the Castel Sant’Angelo. Upon his release, Platina, “far from being mollified” became a regular at the meetings of the nascent Roman Academy at the home of Pomponio Leto. Here is Hankins’ account of how things went down at this point:

“It is difficult to say precisely what activities this group [the Academicians meeting at Leto’s home] engaged in — many of them appear to have been cardinals’ secretaries — and with what degree of seriousness, but there is good evidence that they wrote salacious homosexual poetry, longed (like Cola di Rienzo and Stefano Porcari) for a return to the Roman republic, muttered treasonously against ‘papal tyranny’, and gave others the impression of holding heretical beliefs. In February of 1468 the Cardinals Fortiguerri and Gonzaga informed [sic] the Pope that the Academicians were conspiring against his life, and named ‘Callimachus’ (Filippo Buonaccorsi), Platina, ‘Petreius’ (Pietro Demetrio), and ‘Glaucus’ (Lucio Condulmer) as the ringleaders. The Roman police acted swiftly, manking numerous arrests. Platina was incarcerated once more in the Castel Sant’Angelo, and Pomponion Leto, who was standing trial in Venice for sodomy, was brought back in chains for trial. The conspirators were charged with republicanism, irreligion, heresy, neopaganism, and sodomy. Although Leto and Platina were ultimately acquitted of the charge of heresy and released, the affair kept Rome in turmoil for most of the summer, and that papal legate was still trying to secure Callimachus’ extradition from Poland as late as 1470.”

Much of what is said above has already been covered in Part One, and Part Two of this series, but that was back in July of last year, and, besides, it’s very useful to examine the varying accounts of the same events given by different historians. But Hankins now takes a step back from the action and gives us a broader picture of the Academic scene, so to speak, in Rome at the time:

“There is, to be sure, no direct evidence that Paul suspected either Bessarion’s circle or Platonism of having played a role in this [supposed] conspiracy. Insofar as the philosophical views of the [Pomponian] Academicians were known, they seemed to Paul to smack rather of Epicureanism than of Platonism [here Hankins appears to have forgotten that ancient Roman Pagans, upon whom the Pomponians explicitly modeled themselves, right down to their Republicanism, were rather free in mixing not only Platonism and Epicureanism, but also Pythagoreanism, Stoicism, Aristotelianism, and anything else on hand]. Moreover, Bessarion’s hostility to republicanism, which we shall discuss presently [but, at least for now, we shall have to mostly leave for future consideration], must have been well known. Nevertheless, there were still numerous connections between the Academic conspiracy and Bessarion’s Platonism, connections which hostile parties such as Trebizond, Palmieri, and Bishop Battista De’ Giuduci, O.P., would not have hesitated to bring to the Pope’s attention. There was, for instance, a large amount of overlap in the membership of the Pomponian and Bessarionic Academies; Leto and Platina had both been habitues of Bessarion’s house; it was Bessarion who (in effect) stood bond for Leto’s good behavior after his extradition; Bessarion was afterwards the leader in urging their release from prison. One of George’s main charges against Plato was the latter’s supposed [notice how Hankins is perfectly capable of inserting the adjective “supposed” when it suits him] advocacy of voluptas and sodomy, charges that had been made against Bessarion’s proteges Andreas Contrarius and Nicolo Perotti as well as against the [Pomponian] Academicians. George had also exposed in his Comparatio and Adversus Theodorum Gazam the neopagan rites of Gemistos Pletho, rites whose similarity to those practiced by the Pomponian Academy has even led some historians to assume (wrongly) a direct influence of Pletho upon Leto. Moreover, one of the princelings implicated in the Academic conspiracy had been Sigismondo Malatesta, known to be a great admirer of Pletho; so far, indeed, had he carried his admiration that he arranged [in fact, he carried this out personally] to have Pletho’s body brought from the [at the time Turkish controlled] Peloponnesus back to Rimini where he entombed it anew in his ‘neopagan’ Tempio Malatestiano designed by Leon Battista Alberti. Bessarion was a friend of Malatesta and had written some admiring verses on his sister Cleope. So it would have been an easy matter for some opponent of Bessarion to tar him with the same brush that had besmeared the Academicians.”

In a footnote, Hankins also points out yet another fascinating connection: “Bessarion had earlier been responsible for bringing another papal enemy to Rome, who was also a rival of George of Trebizond, namely, Lorenzo Valla.”

At this point it is worth our while to recall something written (and cited in a recent post) by the Honorable Sir James Cochran Stevenson Runciman, C.H., who studied history under J.B. Bury, and studied French, with Eric Arthur Blair (aka George Orwell), under Aldous Huxley, and whom the Daily Telegraph eulogized as “the pre-eminent historian of the Byzantine Empire,” and who, on top of everything else, was famous for his Tarot card readings (it is said that he once gave a reading to King Fuad of Egypt). Anyway, Runciman was of the opinion that there is a distinct possibility that Plethon converted Bessarion to Paganism at the age of 20, and that for next 50 years Bessarion remained a life-long secret disciple of Plethonic Paganism (for that reference, see “Hanegraaff on Plethon”).

To sum up this little sketch: In the mid 15th century there was a significant movement of philosophical/religious dissenters in Rome who drew their primary inspiration from Pagan antiquity. This was a diverse group that seems to have included both sincere Christians and outright Pagan apostates as well as a spectrum of intermediate positions. Some of these dissenters were primarily Latinate and focused on Roman antiquity, whereas others were more Hellenic in their interests and orientation. Many were devoted Platonists, while others may have been more Epicurean, Stoic or Aristotelian, but in truth they were probably all quite eclectic in their philosophical allegiances (just as were there ancient Greek and Roman exemplars). A significant number of them were early adopters of the republicanism that would in subsequent centuries become such an important current in European politics, while others were more conventional in their political views. Some were Byzantine exiles, others were native Romans, and still others were non-Roman Italians. And at the same time there were similar thriving Academies in Florence and Naples, and before long there would be hundreds of Academies throughout Italy.

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