BESSARION, JOHANNES, or Basilius (c. 1395–1472), titular patriarch of Constantinople, and one of the illustrious Greek scholars who contributed to the great revival of letters in the 15th century, was born at Trebizond, the year of his birth being variously given as 1389, 1395 or 1403. He was educated at Constantinople, and in 1423 went to the Peloponnese to hear Gemistus Pletho expound the philosophy of Plato. On entering the order of St Basil, he adopted the name of an old Egyptian anchorite Bessarion, whose story he has related. In 1437 he was made archbishop of Nicaea by John VII. Palacologus, whom he accompanied to Italy in order to bring about a union between the Greek and Latin churches with the object of obtaining help from the West against the Turks. The Greeks had bitterly resented his attachment to the party which saw no difficulty in a reconciliation of the two churches. At the councils held in Ferrara and Florence Bessarion supported the Roman church, and gained the favour of Pope Eugenius IV., who invested him with the rank of cardinal. From that time he resided permanently in Italy, doing much, by his patronage of learned men, by his collection of books and manuscripts, and by his own writings, to spread abroad the new learning. He held in succession the archbishopric of Siponto and the bishoprics of Sabina and Frascati. In 1463 he received the title of Latin patriarch of Constantinople; and it was only on account of his Greek birth that he was not elevated to the papal chair. For five years (1450–1455) he was legate at Bologna, and he was engaged on embassies to many foreign princes, among others to Louis XI. of France in 1471. Vexation at an insult offered him by Louis is said to have hastened his death, which took place on the 19th of November 1472, at Ravenna. Bessarion was one of the most learned scholars of his time. Besides his translations of Aristotle’s Metaphysics and Xenophon’s Memorabilia, his most important work is a treatise directed against George of Trebizond, a violent Aristotelian, entitled In Calumniatorem Platonis. Bessarion, though a Platonist, is not so thoroughgoing in his admiration as Gemistus Pletho, and rather strives after a reconciliation of the two philosophies. His work, by opening up the relations of Platonism to the main questions of religion, contributed greatly to the extension of speculative thought in the department of theology. His library, which contained a very extensive collection of Greek MSS., was presented by him to the senate of Venice, and formed the nucleus of the famous library of St Mark.
See A. M. Bandini, De Vita et Rebus Gestis Bessarionis (1777); H. Vast, Le Cardinal Bessarion (1878); E. Legrand, Bibliographie Hellénique (1885); G. Voigt, Die Wiederbelebung des klassischen Altertums, ii. (1893); on Bessarion at the councils of Ferrara and Florence, A. Sadov, Bessarion de Nicée (1883); on his philosophy, monograph by A. Kandelos (in Greek: Athens, 1888); most of his works are in Migne, Patrologia Graeca, clxi.