Orthodoxy on Sale: The Last Byzantine and the Lost Crusade
By Silvia Ronchey
Proceedings of the 21st International Congress of Byzantine Studies, London, 21–26 August (2006)
Introduction: In July of 1460 a Venetian galley departed Porto Longo close to Pylos, and slowly tacked its way up the western coast of the Peloponnese. The galley had aboard the last remnants of the imperial Byzantine family. These included two young boys, a white faced adolescent, a teacher, a distinguished lady, visibly strained, not just from the voyage, but also from a feverish bout of malaria; and finally Thomas Palaiologus, the last son of Manuel II, the last despot of the Morea.
We can glean something of the appearance of Thomas Palaiologus from a marble statue of him, commissioned by Pius II. The statue was executed by the Pope’s principal sculptor, Paolo Tacconi di Sezze, also known as Paolo di Mariano, but better known as Paolo Romano. The sculptor, active in Rome in the fifteenth century, hid the identity of his Greek guest under the features of Saint Paul.
The true identity of the statue is revealed by Feliciano Bussi in his Cronaca Viterbese, in which he refers to the despot of Morea: “He died in Rome and since he was a handsome man, Pope Pius commissioned a marble sculpture of him and had it placed by the steps of Saint Peter’s…” The story would appear to be confirmed by Kenneth Setton in the second volume of his Papacy and the Levant, where, in a rather elusive footnote, he writes: “Thomas Palaiologus…semes to have left behind a curious memorial which still exists in fine conditions at the Vatican”. The statue of Thomas Palaiologos in the guise of Saint Paul can still be seen to this day, although actually not within the Vatican, but on the right hand side of the entrance to Ponte Sant’Angelo, located there by Clement VII after the Lanzichenecchi sack.
The refined, almost of sorrowful beauty of Thomas Palaiologos appears to have enchanted his western hosts during his stay in Italy. ‘Bellissimo omo’, remarks Feliciano Bussi in his chronicle. The ambassadors of Francesco Sforza were equally impressed: ‘As dignified as any many upon earth could be’, they exclaimed when they met him in Venice on 25 June, 1462, ‘reasonably tall in stature and his face carries such a wonderfully grave and prudent expression, which is confirmed by the very way in which he speaks’. Bartolomeo Bonatto, confidant of Barbara Gonzaga and representative of the Marquises of Mantua was as equally gushing: ‘He certainly is a handsome man and he possesses a dignified expression, he has good manners and is very refined’. On 2 January, 1463, in another letter to Barbara Gonzaga, Bartolomeo Marasca wrote that he met the last sovereign of the Morea at a dinner party given by her son, the Cardinal Francesco Gonzaga: ‘He is an impressive gentleman; he ate little during dinner and is sorely grieved’. Pictures of Thomas crop up in a number of other ‘concealed portraits’, hidden as shall see in the last artistic commissions of Enea Silvio Piccolomini and those of his descendants.