At the end of the century the whole Platonic corpus was available in Greek and in translation. Between the Council of Florence in 1439 and the Cardinal Bessarion’s In Calumniatorem Platonis (ICP) in 1469 a controversy raged over the respective merits and understanding of Plato and Aristotle.The paper will examine the impact of Bessarion’s advocacy of Platonic thought in fifteenth century Italy. It will argue that the cultural and religious context heavily influenced interpretation of the philosopher.

In 1397 Leonardo Bruni wrote that for seven hundred years no one in Italy had been able to read Greek. By 1439 there were still few texts of Plato available in Latin translation: the Timaeus, partially translated by Calcidius in the fourth century, Henricus Aristippus’ twelfth century translation of the Meno and Phaedo, William of Moerbeke’s partial rendering of the Parmendies. Bruni’s translations of the Phaedo, Gorgias, Apology, Crito and Phaedrusappeared only shortly before 1439. Uberto Decembrio produced a crude translation of the Republic before 1402 which was retranslated by his son, Pier Candido, in 1439.

Bessarion moved from Byzantium to Rome in 1443 where he had become a papal diplomat. He was a scholar steeped in Platonic thought. He made it his mission to make Plato’s teachings better known and to demonstrate the convergence of Plato and Aristotle. In the opening chapter of ICP he wrote that Plato’s teachings were little known in Italy.

Bessarion faced three challenges, ignorance in Italy of the Greek language and of Plato, suspicion in the church of pagan literature in general and of Plato in particular, and the entrenched position of Aristotle in the teaching of theology and philosophy accompanied with a conviction of the incompatibility of Plato and Aristotle.

In Calumniatorem Platonis, published in 1469, is a defence of Plato against the anti-Platonic work of George of Trebizond, Comparatio Philosophorum Aristotelis et Platonis (1458). Bessarion sets out to defend the compatibility of Platonic philosophy with Christian orthodoxy. Conservative church circles objected to the obscurity and ambiguity of the dialogues which contrasted unfavourably with Aristotle’s text book style; some of Plato’s teachings were repugnant to Christians, particularly his belief in pre-existence of souls, creation by the demiurge from pre-existent matter and his tolerance or even approval of homosexuality and wives held in common.

This paper will argue that Bessarion interpreted Plato through a theological and moral filter by applying a neo-Platonic interpretation which he had imbibed as a student of Gemistus Plethon. It will assess the work still to be done on Bessarion’s influence and relationship to Ficino and other Florentine humanists.