206. Giovanni Aurispa Piciunerio (1376 – 1459)

Historian of the 15th century born in Noto, Piciunerio was promoter of the revival of the study of Greek in Italy and keeper of the greater part of our knowledge of the Greek classics. A scholarship provided by the King of Sicily enabled him to study in Bologna (1404-1410). He then went out to Greece as a private tutor for the children of a Genoese merchant and settled on the island of Chios. Here he learned Greek and began to collect books and ancient texts. Returned to Italy in 1414, he supported himself by teaching Greek and by selling the works he had collected in Greece.

In 1418, Aurispa moved to Constantinople (Istanbul) for a few years, perfecting his knowledge of Greek and searching for manuscripts -he worked so hard at this that he later wrote that “he had been denounced to the Byzantine emperor for buying all the sacred books in the city”. Upon his return from that trip, he joined the papal court first in Florence and later in Rome. In 1421, Aurispa was sent by Pope Martin V to act as the translator for the Marquis Gianfrancesco Gonzaga on a diplomatic mission to the Byzantine emperor, Manuel Paleologos. After their arrival, he gained the favor of the emperor’s son and successor, John VIII Palaiologos, who took him on as his own secretarym until 1423 when he moved to Venice with the largest and finest collection of Greek texts to reach the west -these contained all of Plato, Plotinus, Proclus, much of Iamblichus, many of the Greek poets, including Pindar, Procopius, Xenophon, Callimachus, Oppian, the historical works of Dio Cassius, Diodorus Siculus, and Arrian, the oldest manuscript of Athenaeus, a 10th-century codex containing 7 plays by Sophocles, the Iliad, works by Demosthenes, and the Geography of Strabo.

In 1424 Aurispa went to Bologna, where he became professor of Greek at the university and from 1425 to 1427 he moved to Florence as Chair of Greek studies. This ensured that his collection was copied widely among the humanists. Quarrels in Florence led Aurispa to leave Florence and move to Ferrara where he took the Holy Orders and became tutor to Meliaduse d’Este, the illegitimate son of Niccolò III d’Este, Marquis of Ferrara. In 1438 Pope Eugene IV appointed him Apostolic Secretary in Rome and he held a similar position under Pope Nicholas V, who bestowed two lucrative commendatory abbacies on him.

Aurispa returned to Ferrara in 1450 and died there in 1459, at the age of 83.

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