Greek language and literature

   Although occasional individuals in medieval Western Europe knew some Greek, for the most part that language and the extensive literature written in it (Christian as well as pagan) were inaccessible to Western scholars from late Roman times until the end of the 14th century. Very few Greek philosophical works were available in Latin until the wave of translations of philosophy and science, mainly works of Aristotle, that occurred in the late 12th and early 13th centuries. Nearly all of those translations originated in regions recently reconquered from Islamic rule, such as Sicily and Spain, and the majority of the new Latin versions rested not on the original Greek but on Arabic translations made several centuries earlier. Not even the Latin crusaders' conquest of Constantinople in 1204 and the subsequent rule of the Byzantine capital by puppet governments backed by the crusaders and their Venetian allies was sufficient to stimulate Western scholars to learn Greek and investigate either Greek classical literature or the Greek Church Fathers. The earlier stages of the classical revival in northern Italy during the 13th and 14th centuries focused solely on Latin language and Latin literature.
   The most learned humanists, such as Petrarch, realized that the Roman authors had admired and imitated earlier Greek literature. Petrarch had a manuscript of the most famous work of ancient Greek poetry, Homer's Iliad, but he could not read it. Despite his efforts, he never learned to read the language. His Florentine contemporary Boccaccio arranged for a Calabrian, Leontius Pilatus, to come to Florence and teach Greek, but Pilatus was not a very assiduous teacher, and his students gained only a smattering of the language. The possibilities of mastering Greek were very limited. Greek manuscripts were rare, books of Greek grammar written for Latin-speakers even rarer, and the reference aids that modern students of language take for granted (bilingual dictionaries, tables of verb forms, bilingual texts) were virtually nonexistent.
   The leading successor to Petrarch's interests, the Florentine chancellor Coluccio Salutati, was convinced that adequate understanding of the Latin classics was impossible without access to their Greek sources. He prevailed on the city government to hire a distinguished scholar from Constantinople, Manuel Chrysoloras, to introduce regular instruction in Greek. Chrysoloras was a skilled teacher and (perhaps even more important) sufficiently fluent in Latin that he could communicate effectively with his Italian pupils. He arrived in Florence in 1397 and taught there for three years; then he taught at both Milan and Pavia before returning to Constantinople in 1403. By the time of his departure, he had laid the foundations needed to make competent instruction in Greek language and literature permanently available in the Latin West—first in Florence, but eventually in a number of Italian cities. His own merits as a teacher were one cause for his remarkable success. Even more important was the growing realization among leading humanists that without Greek, their scholarship on Latin classical literature was crippled.
   News of Chrysoloras' arrival caught the attention of younger humanists, many of whom set aside other activities in order to seize the opportunity to learn Greek. Pier Paolo Vergerio resigned his professorship of logic at Padua to study under Chrysoloras. Leonardo Bruni abandoned the study of law. Other humanists, such as Guarino da Verona and Francesco Filelfo, even followed Chrysoloras back to Constantinople in order to perfect their mastery of the language, acquire manuscripts, and familiarize themselves with the Greek literary works referred to by their favorite Latin authors. These new Hellenists felt honor-bound to put their new skills to work by creating Latin translations of Greek works hitherto known only by title and occasional excerpts in Latin authors. This process of translation continued through the 15th and 16th centuries. In addition, some Greek authors whose works had been available in Latin during the Middle Ages, such as Aristotle, were now retranslated directly from Greek. Leonardo Bruni produced a number of influential translations. Both Vergerio and Guarino became famous schoolmasters and established regular instruction in Greek as an integral part of the curriculum for the better sort of Latin grammar-schools.
   During the first half of the 15th century—and well before the fall of Constantinople to the Turks in 1453 — a substantial number of Byzantine scholars followed Chrysoloras' path to the Latin West, seeking to better their personal fortunes by catering to the growing interest in Greek. Thus the fall of Constantinople was by no means the beginning of access to Greek language and literature by Westerners. By 1500 Italy had become well supplied with competent Hellenists, not only Greek-born ones but also native Italians. Only a few Italian humanists could read Greek with great ease, however, and even fewer could write it well, but the new translations into Latin made the treasures of Greek literature lastingly accessible to Western scholars. This acquisition of ancient Greek literature was one of the permanent contributions of the Renaissance to the civilization of Western Europe. During the 16th century, the spread of interest in humanistic learning north of the Alps produced a similar wave of enthusiasm for Greek studies there.

Historical Dictionary of Renaissance. . 2004.

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