The Council of Florence

How the Renaissance Discovered Plato

Council of Florence by Unknown medieval artist

That this council, a last ditch attempt to heal the old schism between the Western and Eastern churches in 1438–39, happened in Florence had much to do with Europe’s richest man, Cosimo de’ Medici, offering to foot the bill. Cosimo wanted Florence to have the prestige of hosting the long awaited reconciliation of Christendom, but he wasn’t immune, either, to the possibilities the council would give him of arranging new business deals in the east.

The Greek party of 700 officials, scholars, theologians and interpreters was led by the Patriarch of Constantinople and the Emperor John VII Palaeologos, who was anxious to sort out the irritating doctrinal differences so the west would send him aid against the Ottoman Turks. The Western delegation was led by Pope Eugenius IV, a friend of Cosimo’s. But his first city of choice was Ferrara – before the huge expense of hosting so many guests and an outbreak of plague drove the pope to accept Cosimo’s offer.

The Florentines marvelled at their exotic, sumptuously costumed guests, their Mongol servants and rare animals, many of whom found their way into paintings – as in Gozzoli’s Three Magi fresco in the Medici palace. Much of the serious business, however, took place in Santa Maria Novella, where the Pope’s party lodged and council committee meetings were held.

Here, after very subtle negotiations between the advisors of the Pope and Patriarch, a compromise on the main sticking point between the two churches – the nature of the Holy Ghost – was reached, and on 6 July 1439 there was a moving announcement in the cathedral that ‘the wall which divided the Western and Eastern Churches has fallen. Peace and concord have returned.’

Florence celebrated, but when the Emperor returned to Constantinople, the Council’s compromises were blasted and had to be retracted. Nor did any of the vaguely promised aid against the Turks ever arrive from Italy, and in 1453 Contantinople fell.

Plethon, Detail from Gozzoli's Three Magi

The visiting Greeks, however, inspired more than colourful costumes in Florentine art. Among the dignitaries who accompanied the emperor were Gemistos Plethon and his student Johannes Bessarion, both leading scholars of Plato at a time when the philosopher was merely known as the name of Aristotle’s teacher in the west.

Plethon, although a friend of the emperor, was regarded with deep suspicion by the Orthodox establishment who thought he took Plato and classicism too far by advocating a return to the glory (and pagan) days of Greek civilization. As Machiavelli later would, Plethon advised the emperors on how to run a proper city-state, while his increasingly esoteric philosophy combined Christianity with symbols of classical polytheism – Christ infused with the spirit of Apollo.

Bessarion, by Theodor de Bry Mannheim MS

During the Council, Plethon and Bessarion often gave talks about Plato in the evenings. Cosimo and his humanist friends ate it up, and when Cosimo asked the two scholars to stay on in Florence after the Council, they did (Bessarion went on to Rome and became a cardinal).

Before Plethon left for Greece, he wrote a treatise for the Florentines, comparing the philosophies of Plato and Aristotle. Fired with enthusiasm, Cosimo sponsored a Latin translation of Plato from his pet scholar Marsilio Ficino; he opened up his fabulous library so his friends could study freely, and he founded the Platonic Academy in Villa Careggi.

Plethon’s more esoteric musings, nursed along by Ficino, would also have descendants in Renaissance philosophy, literature and art, including much that seems strange and enigmatic to us because we’ve lost the key – as in Botticelli’s mythologies

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