Anti-Byzantine Rhetoric in the Renaissance
I’ve resisted writing up the exchange below because it features heavily in a book I’ve scribbled, half of which is dedicated to the theme of “Byzance apres Byzance.” However, George of Trebizond’s confrontation with Guarino da Verona (d. 1460) is worth poking into the foreground because it belies the conventional narrative that the Renaissance was a sunlit upland of philhellenism. In reality, admiration for Hellenic learning jostled awkwardly alongside derogatory thinking about Greeks. The literary encounter is fairly typical of the period. Guarino attacked George’s erudition by casting him as a loquacious and ridiculous (“loquax” and “ineptus”) Greekling rather than an eloquent Latin, and accused him of immoral conduct (contrasting Roman gravitas with Greek levitas). Frustratingly, due to his eccentric character George is customarily cast as the cause of these disputes. This is unfair, however, as he was rarely the instigator of the spats in which he became embroiled (the most famous being a scuffle with Poggio at the papal chancery, which left the Latin “fleeing like a Florentine woman”). The conflict’s backstory involved George’s Rheticorum libri quinque (RLV). The culmination of his early works in Italy (in the early 1420s he composed a synopsis of Hermogenes of Tarsus and in 1426 wrote a second piece on the same author titled De Suavitate dicendi), its fifth book criticised an encomium on the condottiere Carmagnola (a mercenary whose dubious achievements included the destruction of Trezzo bridge, which boasted the largest single arch in the medieval world) whose author was none other than Guarino. In 1437 George came into possession of a letter circulating under the name of Andreas Agaso and addressed to Paulus Regius. Both were supposedly students of Guarino (no evidence of them exists). It defended their teacher and amounted to a scathing critique of the RLV. George swiftly responded with his own salvo addressed to Leonello d’Este, son of the Ferraran ruler (and, more to the point, Guarino’s student) which accused Guarino of adopting the Agaso pseudonym to attack him. Details aside, there’s a strong whiff of Latin chauvinism in the exchange; prejudices that are often associated with isolated figures such as Petrarch or Angelo Poliziano but rarely applied to the Renaissance pantheon at large. Yet the intellectual landscape was sometimes so (culturally) skewed that a Byzantine could find himself trying to argue against scholars who insisted on articulating a standard of excellence rooted in Latin, not Greek. Indeed, Byzantines repeatedly had accusations of sophism thrown at them, as well as charges of prioritising argumentation over truth, and prizing logorrhoea over eloquence.
Many of these accusations were grounded in Cicero, who’d not been beyond framing his Hellenic precursors as impudent “too clever by half” fellows who lacked dignity and honour. Even when the Greeks were given credit their medieval counterparts zealously inserted a division between them and their contemporaries: the Greeks not only suffered a culture that degraded over time but a people that followed suit. Back to “Agaso” (Guarino’s mask) who – deep in this vein of thought – labelled George a “sciolus” (one who knows a little) of the Latin language; one whose erudition was pretentious and superficial. Rather than capture the exchange in ponderous prose, I’ve arranged it as a dialogue that runs as follows:
George: Stop using Cicero against me. Agaso: I suspect you dislike him less because of any literary shortcomings than the fact he warned Quintus that the “shameless Greekling are untrustworthy and are schooled by long servitude in the arts of extravagant adulation.” But quite apart from that, confess that in lamenting the collapse of rhetoric you have disparaged a host of venerated authors. How can you be so bold? George: I make a distinction between speaking with the art [of rhetoric] and speaking about the art. True the authors you cite are examples of good rhetorical practice but they contributed nothing to a discussion of the art itself. Agaso: This is rich coming from you. Whenever you speak you chew your words and mumble like a thick swarm of bees in a hollow oak. It escapes me how you learned so little from your tutor, Guarino. George: Guarino gave me child’s grammar in the first month I arrived in Italy. As soon as I needed a proper education I acquired it from three instructors: Barbaro, Leonardus and da Feltre. Agaso: And now you’re a teacher. Yet it would be absurd and shameful to receive instruction in speaking Latin from a Greek who hardly knows Greek, much less Latin. George: You scorn learning from Greeks yet argue my RLV is “inconsequential” because a number of Greek authorities already sustain the study of eloquence. Your logic is very muddled. Even more bizarrely, I still remember when you were a young chap studying Pindar. You begged for my commentary then didn’t you? Agaso: A cheap jibe. One that beggars belief coming from a man so callous that he let his own brother become a beggar rather than financially support him. George: My younger brother had no money for the journey to Rome where he was promised a job. I had little in the way of funds so I gave him codices to sell so he could pay the way for his journey. Tragically, however, the first scholar he met was Guarino who bought this priceless reading material for tuppence leaving my brother in penury – a condition that caused his death. Agaso: I’ll not take lessons from a Greek. They are deceitful creatures. George: If you had not been instructed by them you’d have languished in the dark. In criticising Greeks as deceitful and dishonourable you prove yourself exactly those things. It would be endearing to be able to claim Guarino (who studied under Manuel Chrysoloras and even did a stint at Constantinople) was a lone seal in a warm sea of Latin empathy. But in reality he represented a strong contingent of anti-Byzantine Latins. Lorenzo da Monachi for instance issued a public condemnation of Greek studies, describing it as “fruitless” in 1416. And the aforementioned Poggio (Bracciolini) blamed the Greeks for the fall of Constantinople in On the Misery of the Human Condition (1455).
These were mild statements, however, compared to that of Matteo Palmieri, who is worth quoting in full: “I think simple humanity demands our sympathy at the fall of such a city. But if you consider the nature and customs of the Greeks, their treachery, idleness and avarice, it seems they deserved their punishment… the attitude to Christians is made clear above all by the destruction of Christian armies which Greek treachery wiped out as they made their way to recover the Holy Land.” A sentiment matched by Petrus Bravus who told Andronicus Contoblacas that “You are barbarians, not, as you say, Latins.” And that
“It was by the just judgment of God that Constantinople was destroyed. Even this catastrophe did not deter your obstinate minds from false beliefs, to which you return like a dog to vomit.”