Post-classical history

Bessarion (d. 1472)

Greek scholar, cardinal, and promoter of crusade projects.

Born around 1400, Bessarion, then archbishop of Nicaea (mod. Iznik, Turkey), accompanied the Byzantine emperor, John VIII Palaiologos, to the Council of Florence, where he led the party from the Greek church in favor of ending the schism with Rome (1438). From about 1442 he was resident in Rome as a cardinal, and after 1453 he was at the forefront of plans to launch a crusade to recapture Constantinople (mod. Istanbul, Turkey) from the Ottoman Turks.

Although originally opposed to the election of Pope Pius II because he thought him too old, Bessarion later loyally supported Pius’s crusade project. In the summer of 1453 he undertook a legatine mission to Venice, where he addressed a heartfelt appeal to the doge on the danger that now threatened Italy, and during 1460-1461 he toured Germany in an attempt to persuade the princes to unite against the common enemy. In 1471 he published his Oration to the Leaders of Italy Regarding the Imminent Perils, which conveyed much the same message to the rulers of the Italian city-states.

In his efforts to promote the crusade, Bessarion showed an astute appreciation of how to manipulate public opinion. His instructions to crusade preachers included advice on how to describe and exploit Turkish atrocities, and he seems to have encouraged refugees from Constantinople to tour western Europe giving firsthand accounts of their sufferings.

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