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Campus News

Pulling at the Threads of Renaissance History

By Greta Petry (March 4, 2005)

Professor John Monfasani


Professor John Monfasani

Professor John Monfasani of the Department of History is the first to tell a visitor that his new book Greeks and Latins in Renaissance Italy: Studies on Humanism and Philosophy in the 15th Century (Ashgate/ Variorum) is not for the layperson. "It's for specialists," he said, sitting in his office in Ten Broeck on Dutch Quad.

Indeed, parts of the book are in Latin, Greek, and Italian, and Monfasani has in the past translated original Greek texts into English for his projects. While his new book is not on The New York Times best seller list, it is about a time and place that holds great fascination for scholars.

"This is the third volume of my collected articles," said Monfasani, who earned a Ph.D. from Columbia University in 1973, writing his dissertation on George of Trebizond, a Greek émigré to Renaissance Italy. Monfasani has been exploring that corner of history ever since. He joined the University at Albany in 1971, and has written 10 books and more than 60 articles.

"The theory was that the Greeks were responsible for the Renaissance and for humanism," he said. "But in fact that is not true." He has studied humanists like Lorenzo Valla of Rome and Nicholas of Cusa.

In his work through the years, which has taken him to the Vatican library, as well as to Spain, Monfasani spends a lot of time searching original texts. And in this manner, he has made discoveries that correct the accepted historical record. For example, Nicholas of Cusa could read Greek.

"The theory is that Greeks transformed the West when in fact they came and learned Latin culture," Monfasani said. "I proved that Cusa knew Greek by the time he died. I have his autograph to prove this. I found the evidence in his own hand."

In similar fashion, it is generally accepted that the Sistine Chapel was built under Pope Sixtus IV della Rovere between 1475 and 1483. In fact, Monfasani has found evidence that it really was completed one year earlier.

On one wall of Monfasani's office is an old print depicting the city of Florence, Italy, with a chain border around it. "I am the executive director of the Renaissance Society of America," he said. "We copied the print for use as the cover of the program book for the annual meeting in Florence in March 2000."

While Monfasani has a career-long habit of picking at the skein of history to see whether accepted historical fact unravels, the work that has sustained him since 1980 is the Plato-Aristotle controversy.

"The classic philosophy of Aristotle dominates. In the Renaissance we see the first translation of all the writings of Plato. An educated Roman in antiquity could read Greek," Monfasani said. "After antiquity, an educated Latin could not read Greek. Then came the translations. Once Plato was translated, the big controversy started over who was the best philosopher."

George of Trebizond was a player in the controversy. Trebizond was a Greek Aristotelian who fell in love with Latin philosophy and translated Plato. "He thought Plato's influence would be the ruin of the church," said Monfasani, who teaches Early and Medieval Christianity to about 120 undergraduates as well as a reading course for graduate students in Medieval and Renaissance Intellectual History. Trebizond was the enemy of Bessarion, a Greek cardinal who studied philosophy under Gemistus Pletho. Pletho was a neo-pagan Platonist who opposed Aristotle.

"George of Trebizond was devastated by the idea that Bessarion might become Pope," said Monfasani. In 1455, Bessarion came close to becoming Pope, and he came close again three years later. His nemesis, George of Trebizond, wrote of the dangers of subversive paganism, and published a comparison of Plato and Aristotle, which led to Bessarion writing a defense of Plato. "They hated each other," Monfasani said of Bessarion and George of Trebizond.

"Trebizond was an apocalyptic prophet, not a straight philosopher, and was a peculiar religious prophet in his lifetime. He was not going to let the Antichrist take over in Rome," Monfasani said. "He didn't stop Bessarion but he announced to the world this Platonist conspiracy." As for Monfasani, "I take no side. I explain what these people were doing and the way personal animosity and religious differences affect history."

Last year, Monfasani found a Greek text that was lost for 500 years, titled "A Dialogue on Religion," between Sultan Mehmed II in the 1460s and Greek intellectual George Amiroutzes.

"The Greek original was lost during the Renaissance," Monfasani said. "I found it in Spain." His interest started when he was asked to review an edition of the anonymous Latin translation of the dialogue made in the Renaissance. He was able to identify the anonymous translator and prove that the supposed lost final part of the Latin translation was not lost at all, but survived in three manuscripts in the Vatican. He wrote an article on these discoveries in June 2004. Then in August, quite by chance, he discovered the Greek original.

"It's like looking for a needle in a haystack - if you look for it, you will never find it, but if you sit on it, you'll know it. I sat on a needle," Monfasani said.