Byzantines in the Florentine polis: Ideology, Statecraft and Ritual during the Council of Florence

Byzantines in the Florentine polis: Ideology, Statecraft and Ritual during the Council of Florence

By Stuart M. McManus

Journal of the Oxford University History Society, Vol.6 (2008)

Introduction: In 1439 Leonardo Bruni, the Chancellor of the Florentine Republic, wrote a treatise about the political system of his adopted homeland which has perplexed scholars. In it, he seems to deny the assumption upon which the majority of his previous political works is based: that Florence’s government had a popular basis. However, a few months before the presumed date of composition of the treatise, the elected rulers of the city went on foot to the gates of the city to meet an Emperor, a ritualistic act designed to underline their humble origins as representatives of a popular republic. This seems to represent a discrepancy. Why would representatives of the same mercantile Republic present their polity at one point as ‘popular’ and anti-aristocratic, and soon after claim that this was not in fact the case? The beginnings of an answer may be found in the fact that both these events took place during the Council of Florence, an ecumenical council, which had been transferred from Basle to Ferrara, before finally arriving in Florence in 1439.

The Council of Florence was the culmination of attempts by the Byzantine Orthodox Church, based in Constantinople, to unite in faith with the Catholic Church in the West, in order to secure a crusade to save Constantine’s ‘Second Rome’ from the onslaught of the Ottoman Turks. This Council was also the last in a series of ecumenical Councils in the West in the first half of the Quattrocento which had sought to deal with the problems of schism and disorder which afflicted the western Church. This multifaceted Council naturally has as many interpretations as it does historians, with the authoritative voice of the British Jesuit Joseph Gill rightly soaring above the rest. All students of the Council must make recourse to Gill and his expert historical and theological study, and it was only by building on his study that a variety of more recent interpretations have emerged, which interpret the Council as the ‘magna carta della restaurazione pontificia’, or the defining moment in the birth of renaissance Platonism.  However, if we attempt to define the Council at a fundamental level, it was simply a diplomatic encounter between Latin and Greek ecclesiastics and secular potentates within the territory of a third entity, the Florentine polity.

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