How did the Fall of Constantinople Change the Renaissance in Italy?
The Byzantine Empire, also known as New Rome, was very influential on the history and culture of Europe during the Middle Ages. By the 15th century, the Empire was in terminal decline and had been for several centuries. At this time the various Italian city-states were experiencing a cultural flowering that is known by historians as the Renaissance. In 1453 the capital of Byzantium fell to the Ottoman Turkish army and this was the effective end of the Byzantine Empire, that had endured for almost 1000 years.
The fall of the city was to have immense consequences for the Italian Renaissance. Fleeing Greek scholars were to decisively influence the direction and the course of the Renaissance. It led to an increasing availability of Greek learning that changed the intellectual climate in Italy. This led to a greater knowledge of Ancient Greek language and lore in the field of philosophy and Renaissance science. The Fall of Constantinople also changed the geopolitics of the Mediterranean and it left Italy exposed to Ottoman attacks. The end of the Byzantine Empire also contributed to the decline of the great cities of Genoa and Venice.
Byzantium and Italy had a long and complicated history. In the 6th century, the Emperor Justinian reconquered much of the peninsulas from the Goths after a devastating war. The Byzantines lost much of their conquests after Italy was invaded by the Germanic tribe, the Lombards. However, Byzantium retained control of Sicily and much of Southern Italy. There was a Byzantine presence in Italy until the mid-1050s until they were expelled by the Normans during their conquest of southern Italy and Sicily. Byzantium was often at odds with the Papacy in Rome over ecclesiastical jurisdictions and theological and liturgical disputes. These were ultimately to lead to the Great Schism between the Eastern and Western churches in the 11th century. Italians and Byzantines came into conflict in the aftermath of the ‘Latin massacre’ in Byzantium. This was the widespread killing of Italian merchants in the city in the 12th century.
Then in 1204, the Venetians led the Fourth Crusade to capture the city of Byzantium. Despite the tensions, there was a great deal of cultural exchange, much of it as a result of trade. Byzantine culture was very influential in the history of Italian art and architecture. ‘New Rome’ influenced the evolution of painting in the city-states, for examples the Byzantine tradition of icon painting was decisive on early Italian painting. This was also the case in architecture and the styles developed in the Eastern empire inspired Italian architects in the early years of the Renaissance. However, by the 14th century, the influence of Byzantium and its culture was negligible in Italy as the Renaissance entered its most important phase. Indeed, the Byzantine were regarded with contempt by many in Italians.
The Fall of Constantinople (1453)
By 1453 the Byzantine Empire was splintered and there were three so-called Empires that were, in reality only minor statelets. One was the city of Constantinople, its hinterland and some Aegean islands. The Ottoman Empire had expanded into Europe by the 1450s and it was a powerful military state. The Ottomans had besieged Constantinople is the past but had failed to overcome its apparently invincible ramparts. Sultan Mehmet I was determined to take the city which was a Christian enclave in his Empire and he feared that it could be used to attack his realm. Then Mehmet wanted the prestige of capturing the famed city of Constantinople. By the 1450s the city was only a shadow of its former glories. The Black Plague had decimated the population and the city was largely uninhabited. It was reckoned that there were only 50-60,000 citizens within the famous Theodosian Walls.
The Emperor was Constantine XI Palaiologos and he had little power and even fewer resources. He was widely esteemed and regarded as a brave monarch, but he was hopelessly outnumbered by the Turks. He had scarcely any men with which to defend the walls of the city. The Emperor was dependent on the services of some mercenaries and volunteers from all over Europe and especially Italy. The Genoese contributed ships and men to the defense of the city. Sultan Mehmet assembled a huge army, of 60,000 men that possessed massive cannons. Despite the weakness of the city it was still regarded as the best-defended city in Europe. The Ottomans besieged the city for fifty-three days and blockaded Constantinople by land and sea. The defenders fought valiantly against the Turks and threw back several assaults. The Ottomans used their heavy cannons to breach the walls and they swarmed into Constantinople. There followed a great massacre and the death of the Emperor in battle. The Italians who fought the Byzantines survived the siege managed to bring many citizens of Constantinople with them to Italy.
Greek scholars and the Italian Renaissance
The fall of Constantinople and the remaining Byzantine territories led to a flood of refugees traveling to Europe and especially Western Europe. Many settled in Italy and in particular, many scholars found refuge in Italy. These refugees included grammarians, humanists, poets, writers, printers, lecturers, musicians, astronomers, architects, scribes, philosophers, scientists, politicians, and theologians. They brought with them manuscripts from the destroyed libraries of Constantinople and other Byzantine cities. Prior to the 15th century the Italian humanist has been preoccupied with the study of rhetoric. They were not really interested in metaphysical speculation. However, this was to change with the introduction of, for the first time of the complete works of Plato. The dialogues of the Fifth-century Athenian philosopher was to transform the views of many humanists.
In Florence, the works of Plato led to the development of a neo-Platonist school of philosophy. The introduction of the thought of Plato led to a greater focus on metaphysical rather than ethical speculations. The Greek scholars also brought original copies of the works of Aristotle. Previously the works of this great thinker were only available through Arab commentaries especially those of Averroes. For the first time after the fall of Constantinople, Italian humanists could study the work of this philosopher under the guidance of Byzantine refugees. This led to a new appreciation of the Greek and his thought and many argue that it influences the humanists’ concept of Virtu or excellence. The Aristotelian notion of Virtu was one that was widely used, by Italian thinkers. It was utilized by Machiavelli in his study of power and history. The new manuscripts and the commentaries on Aristotle showed the Italians a new side of the great thinker, one which was not available to them previously. They learned that Aristotle emphasized the role of empirical study and investigation and that experiment was necessary to establish the truth. The Aristotelian emphasis on practical knowledge (praxis) encouraged many Italian scholars to adopt a greater emphasis on observation and experiment and this helped to foster the growth of science in Italy at this time.
The Ottoman Empire and the threat to Italy
The Fall of Constantinople shocked Europe and when the news that the capital of the New Rome had fallen, there was consternation, even panic. After 1453 there was widespread fear and many Christian kingdoms feared an Ottoman invasion was likely. The Fall of Constantinople was to change the geopolitical situation in the Mediterranean. Many feared that Italy was the next target of the Ottomans whose army was feared to be invincible. The end of the Byzantine Empire meant that the Turks could concentrate upon expanding to the west and east. Successive Popes called for a crusade in order to reclaim Constantinople and to defend the Italian city-states from a Turkish onslaught. There was a great deal of fear in Italy. These fears were realized in 1480 when the Turks invaded Southern Italy and seized the city of Otranto, part of the Kingdom of Naples.
Forces of the Ottoman Empire occupied the city and slaughtered some 800 locals who refused to convert to Islam. Many feared that Southern Italy and even Rome would fall. However, the city was later recaptured by a coalition of Christian forces. The invasion of Otranto showed the weakness of the Italian city-states and especially the kingdom of Naples. The fear of the Ottomans persuaded many Italians in the 16th century to accept the rule of either French or Spanish monarchs, as they could better protect Italy from the seemingly invincible Muslim Empire. However, the Ottomans focused on the capture of Vienna and their battle with the Safavid Empire and this possibly spared Italy from a further invasion.
The Fall of Constantinople: Venice and Genoa
The Fall of Constantinople had a profound impact on two of the most prominent Italian city-states, Venice and Genoa, both of whom were great trading and maritime powers. The Fall of Constantinople led to the collapse of Genoese influence in the Eastern Mediterranean and the loss of the city’s key ally. The loss of the Constantinople trade led to a decline in the economic fortunes of the city. Indeed, the city went into rapid decline and it was regularly in a state of near-anarchy as rival noble families battled for control in the states. So dire was the situation that by the early 16th century, under its Doge, it voluntarily submitted to the Spanish monarchy, in order to revive its economy and end the endemic violence in the city. Venice had arguably played a critical role in the decline of Byzantium when it diverted the Fourth Crusade to attack the Empire. It benefitted enormously from the capture of Byzantium by the Fourth Crusade and allowed it to develop a maritime Empire out of former Byzantine possessions. 
Venice after the Fall of Constantinople was obliged to defend its possession such as Crete and Thessalonica, at a time when its trade was disrupted by the Turks. The city-state was to become entangled into a bitter struggle with the Ottomans in the Eastern Mediterranean and Balkans. The Venetians opposed the Turks from Cyprus to Albania and managed to inflict several defeats of the Sultans armies. However, the wars with the Ottomans was to weaken the Venetian Empire. It has been argued that the constant wars contributed to the decline of Venice over a period of decades. From the perspective of Italy, the Venetians became very preoccupied with the defense of their possessions in the Balkans and in the Aegean Sea. As Venice lost territories it sought to expand into Northern Italy and especially the Po Valley, this was one of the factors that led to a series of wars such as the Cambri War (1508-1516). The Fall of Constantinople was a decisive turning point for both Genoa and Venice, although it was not the sole reason for their long decline.
The Fall of Constantinople was the end of an era for Europe. The end of the Byzantine Empire was both a blessing and a curse for Renaissance Italy. There was a flood of refugees from Constantinople and many scholars found sanctuary in the various Italians city-states. These brought with them knowledge of the Ancient classics and precious manuscripts that allowed the humanists to have a better understanding of philosophers and other writers from the ancient world. This helped to change the direction of humanist thought and it began to focus on metaphysical speculation and concepts such as virtue.
The Fall of the capital of the Byzantine world raised the threat level posed by the Ottomans to Italy. For several decades after the capture of Constantinople, the Italian states lived in the shadow of the Ottomans. The end of the Byzantine Empire was a catastrophe for Venice and Genoa. The loss of trade and the persistent attacks from the Turkish Sultans led to the decline of both city-states. The Fall of Constantinople for Genoa led to a crisis that severely weakened the Republic. In the case of Venice is led to a period of relative decline as the city had to fight regular costly wars with the Turks.
- Philippides, Marios and Walter K. Hanak, The Siege and the Fall of Constantinople in 1453 (Ashgate, Farnham and Burlington 2011), p. 56
- Phillpides et al, p. 89
- Deno J. Geanakoplos, Byzantine East and Latin West: Two worlds of Christendom in Middle Ages and Renaissance (Harper & Row Publishers, New York, 1966), p. 117
- Deno, p. 118
- Deno, p. 187
- Howard, Douglas A., A History of the Ottoman Empire. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2017) p, 113
- Pullan, Brian S., History of Early Renaissance Italy (London: Lane, 1973), p. 117
- Pullan, p. 20