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Bessarion, Cardinal [Johannes]locked

(b Trebizond (now Trabzon), Jan 2, 1402; d Ravenna, Nov 18, 1472).
  • Jonathan Harris

Byzantine cleric and patron. Consequent on the negotiations for the union of the Western and Eastern churches (1438–9), in which he took a prominent part, Bessarion changed to the Latin rite and was created a cardinal by Pope Eugenius IV (reg 1431–47). He resided in Rome from the 1440s as Cardinal Bishop of Sabina and Tusculum and later as titular Patriarch of Constantinople, during which time he employed the considerable revenues that he drew from these appointments to restore churches including SS Apostoli (c. 560) in Rome and della Madonna del Monte (12th century) in Bologna where he commissioned frescoes (destr.) by Galasso Galassi (fl 1449–88).

Bessarion’s patronage was influenced by his Byzantine roots. The chapel of the Madonna di San Luca (1198) in Bologna probably benefited from his generosity because it contained an icon from Constantinople, while the Madonna of Bessarion (Rome, SS Apostoli), attributed to Antoniazzo Romano and thought to have been commissioned by Bessarion, may have harked back to the tradition of the Virgin as the protector of Byzantium. Contemporary artists brought out his eastern origin in their depictions of him, two portraits by Gentile Bellini showing him with a Byzantine reliquary of the True Cross (copy by Andrea Previtali, Venice, Bib. N. Marciana; Vienna, Ksthist. Mus.). In the same way he made an unconscious contribution to art: his distinctive Byzantine appearance, especially his long, white beard, led to his features being copied to depict the Fathers of the Church, as in Vittore Carpaccio’s St Augustine in his Study (Venice, Scuola Giorgio degli Schiavoni), Antonio Vivarini and Giovanni d’Alemagna’s St Jerome with St Gregory (c. 1441–50; Venice, Accad.) and Vincenzo Catena’s St Jerome in his Study (London, N.G.). Bessarion bequeathed his library to the Republic of Venice which erected the Marciana to house it.


  • H. Vast: Le Cardinal Bessarion (Paris, 1878), pp. 185, 298–9
  • L. Mohler: Kardinal Bessarion als Theologe, Humanist und Staatsmann, 3 vols (Paderborn, 1923–42)
  • P. F. Santilli: La Basilica dei SS Apostoli (Rome, 1925), p. 81
  • L. Bréhier: ‘Bessarion’, Dictionnaire d’histoire et de géographie ecclésiastiques, ed. A. Baudrillet, 8 (Paris, 1935), cols 1181–1199
  • A. Frolow: La Relique de la Vraie Croix (Paris, 1961), pp. 563–5
  • R. Weiss: ‘Two Unnoticed “Portraits” of Cardinal Bessarion’, Italian Studies, 22 (1967), pp. 1–5
  • Prosopographisches Lexikon der Palaiologenzeit, ed. E. Trapp and others, 1, no. 270 (Vienna, 1976)
  • Bessarione e l’umanesimo (exh. cat., ed. G. Fiaccadori; Venice, Bib. N. Marciana, 1994)