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Reviewed by:
  • Sylvester Syropoulos on Politics and Culture in the Fifteenth-Century Mediterranean ed. by Fotini Kondyli etal.
  • Diana Gilliland Wright (bio)
Fotini Kondyli, Vera Andriopoulou, Eirini Panou, and Mary B. Cunningham, editors, Sylvester Syropoulos on Politics and Culture in the Fifteenth-Century Mediterranean. Birmingham Byzantine and Ottoman Studies 16. Farnham and Surrey: Ashgate. 2014. Pp. ix + 248. 16 illustrations. Cloth $124.95.

The Ferrara-Florence Council of Union was the final demonstration of the impotence of the Eastern Empire before the debacle of 1453 fourteen years later. Furthermore, the Council solidified the antipathies of the Eastern Church toward the Western one to an extent that still has little softened 576 years in the future. We are fortunate to have this book, which I hope will lead to further examinations of Syropoulos and to a complete English translation of his Απομνημονεύματα (Memoirs). (There is a French translation, that of Vitalien Laurent [1971], which has been remarkably ignored; I had the University of Washington library’s copy out for 12 years without anyone else making a request for it.)

Syropoulos, a Byzantine cleric, wrote his Memoirs about the 1438–1439 Council of Union in Ferrara and Florence. In Syropulos’s words, translated in the Appendix, the Memoirs contain “an account of events in relation to the journey and the reception of the Emperor, John VIII Palaiologos, by the Venetians, and their discussion; and in relation to his departure to the pope and the salutation, and the seating arrangement; and the placement of the delegates; and the four-month delay, and how the inauguration of the Council took place” (185). He gives us the years leading up to the Council, as well as the years following, when it all came undone (to his great relief). His Greek is uncomplicated and colloquial. He writes for a broad audience rather than for a literary one.

There has been no previous in-depth study of Syropoulos in English, although he is frequently used as evidence for theological discussions of the Council. In 2007, Mary Cunningham of the University of Nottingham convened a reading seminar at the University of Birmingham on the fifteenth-century Memoirs of Sylvester Syropoulos. A group of graduate students and faculty prepared English translations of Section 4 and a thematic commentary on the entire work. The results of the seminar were made available online and at conferences (Cunningham 2008). These results have been followed by this much-anticipated publication of a partial translation of and essays on Syropoulos.

Syropoulos has a richness of information, not only about conciliar issues, networks of culture, art, and travel, as well as living conditions in Mediterranean ports, [End Page 193] but particularly about the Greek personalities involved—the Emperor John VIII, his brother Demetrios, Mark and John Eugenikos, Scholarios, Bessarion, George Gemistos Plethon, the Patriarch Joseph II, and many others. As Syropoulos was a member of the patriarchal party opposed to John VIII, who supported the Union because it was supposed to provide military aid for Constantinople, his account is all the more valuable, though not always strictly in accord with other accounts of this difficult and unpleasant period. Mary Cunningham’s essay “Sylvester Syropoulos: The Author and His Outlook,” the first in the book, introduces Syropoulos and his Memoirs, presenting us with a deep background for the essays that follow.

The strongest theme in the book concerns logistics—diplomatic, travel, and personal. There were more than thirty years of discussions leading up to the Council, with numerous diplomatic missions between East and West. Vera Andriopoulou’s “Diplomatic Communication” discusses the period leading up to the Council and analyzes the diplomatic missions to the papacy and the West under Manuel II and John VIII. The Greeks left Constantinople intending to join Emperor Sigismund at the Council of Basel. Then, in early 1438, after their departure and when word of the death of the Emperor Sigismund had reached Italy, Pope Eugenius IV convoked his own council at Ferrara. The Council of Basel suspended him and elected Felix V late in 1439 after the Union had been declared in Florence.

Fotini Kondyli, in “Travelling Arrangements,” examines the provision of Venetian ships for the Greek participants and recounts the winter...


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