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Reviewed by
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 voyage. She narrates the voyage with restraint: it began with an earthquake and a storm before the five ships, crammed with 700 Greeks, slaves, mounds of clerical vestments and imperial luxuries, horses, hunting dogs, donkeys for dog food, and assorted merchandise for Italy, were out of sight of the City. The conditions only became worse.

In “Precedence and Papal Primacy,” Richard Price explores the delicate issues involving egos and authority, comparing Syropoulos’s accounts with other accounts of the same incidents. Whereas Syropoulos reports that everyone who met the pope in public had to kiss his foot, other accounts report the pope as standing to greet the patriarch or sitting, with officials kissing his hand or cheek or even bowing. This emphasis on insults reflects Syropoulos’s writing for the anti-Unionists in Constantinople. The death of Sigismund meant that seating arrangements for the council, instead of for a three-part body, emphasized a two-part body of inevitably opposing sides.

Two detailed essays reflect the complicated politics that impinged upon the council. Elizabeth Zachariadou, in “The Ottomans, the Greek Orthodox Church and the Perils of the Papacy,” explores the shifting complexities of the Ottoman world that threatened the empire and of the long-lasting Ottoman anxieties about a Western crusading fleet. Only one Ottoman source took note of the Council—and that was within the context of explaining the Crusade of Varna of 1443–1444. The Eastern Church had evidence that it could survive under a Muslim administration, while it was clear that union with the Latin Church would be its doom.

Trevor Dean, in the excellent “City, Marquis, Pope, Doge: Ferrara in 1438,” discusses the situation in Ferrara, where the Greeks (correctly) felt shortchanged by the Ferrarese. The Ferrarese (correctly) saw the presence of the Greeks as an excuse for increased exploitation by their ruler Niccolò d’Este. Ferrara and the Papacy were in conflict over their agreement as to funds for the Council, while Ferrara felt that Venice [End Page 194] was exploiting its dominance. All of these affected Greek perceptions, and here again Syropoulos’s understanding is not always that of other writers of the time.

Although the Council was ostensibly about religious doctrine, fortunately none of the essays in this book makes that a focus. Instead, two essays look at images which necessarily reflected the doctrines of their makers. In “Labelling Images, Venerating Icons,” Annemarie Weyl Carr illuminates the differences between the Greeks and Latins in regards to their views of icons and religious painting. The imperial confessor Gregory Melissenos complained that “I do not recognize” the images of Latin saints, which meant that he found them arbitrary, not fixed to their heavenly prototype with a correct label (79). Carr’s essay beautifully examines a number of contemporary Orthodox icons within the context of Eastern and Western theories of art.

In “What did Syropoulos Miss?”, Nikos Kontogiannis takes a most unlikely venue—the burial chapel of a converted Jew in a Dominican church in Greece—to show what could happen in a multiethnic community, as well as how it reflected a relationship that Syropoulos was unable to see. He makes particular use of some very fine, recently cleaned frescos not previously studied. Ashgate has shortchanged Kontogiannis and Carr in printing small black-and-white images when at least one of these exceptional frescos should be seen in color, as should be any one of the marvelous icons.

Neven Budak’s “On Syropoulos’s Dalmatian and Istrian Route” is an extremely useful and detailed essay on recent (for Syropoulos) Dalmatian history, but I do not find a reason for its inclusion in this book. It offers little for an understanding of the Memoirs beyond mentions of stops made by the Greek delegation’s ships.

The final essay, Eirini Panou’s “The Colours Sylvester Syropoulos Saw: The Ideological Function of Colour in Byzantine Historiography and Chronicles” finds only five colors in Syropoulos—red (kokkinos), scarlet (kokkobaphes), purple (porphyros), green (prasinos), and white (leukos). While the survey is interesting, it provides little information about Syropoulos or his views, as it conflates his understanding of, say, the lavish use of red by the Byzantines’ political and religious enemies with the traditional use authority has long made of red. Similarly, it conflates his criticism of the normal Latin display of affluence as arrogance toward the impoverished Greek delegation with Latin intent.

Finally, the Appendix provides an English translation of Section 4 of the Memoirs, with extensive and helpful footnotes. Although a translation has long been available in French (Laurent 1971), again, I hope that this work will be followed by a complete English translation.

Diana Gilliland Wright
Independent Scholar
Diana Gilliland Wright

Diana Gilliland Wright is a historian of the fifteenth-century Morea, the last Palaiologues, and the Venetian stato da mar. She has published a volume of 90 letters by a Venetian governor of Nauplion, Bartolomeo Minio, from 1479–1483 and a second volume of 61 letters from Crete 1500–1502. She has just completed a manuscript entitled The Knight and Death: The Kladas Affair and the Fifteenth Century Morea.


Cunningham, Mary. 2008. “The Syropoulos Project.” Accessed 19 December 2015. http://syropoulos.co.uk/index.htm. [End Page 195]
Laurent, Vitalien, trans. 1971. Les mémoires du grand ecclésiarque de l’Église de Constantinople Sylvestre Syropoulos sur le Concile de Florence (1438–1439). Paris: Éditions du Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique.