Wednesday, March 28, 2018


N. G. Wilson, From Byzantium to Italy: Greek Studies in the Italian Renaissance. Second edition (first published 1992). London; New York: Bloomsbury Academic, 2017. Pp. xi, 231. ISBN 9781474250474. $35.95 (pb).

Reviewed by Renate Burri, University of Berne (

Version at BMCR home site


A quarter of a century after the publication of From Byzantium to Italy: Greek Studies in the Italian Renaissance,1 Nigel G. Wilson has prepared a second edition of this classic work. It remains an essential introduction to the reception of classical Greek literature in humanist Italy. A first, slightly revised edition of the book appeared in 2000 in Italian translation, and was reprinted in 2003.2 The author updated the work once more for its 2015 French translation.3

The new 2017 English edition is a reasonably priced paperback, but it is also available as an eBook (at the same price). According to the five lines added by the author to the Preface to the first edition (p. x), the principal motivations for this revision are the considerable amount of research done in the meanwhile, as well as new findings in the fields treated in the book. For this purpose, "various adjustments have been made, and a large number of the notes have been brought up to date" in the text of this new edition. Nonetheless, the newly designed cover presents the book – correctly, as we will see – as a "Second Edition" rather than as a revised edition. The Table of Contents and the structure of the book are identical to the first edition, but the pagination is not. After a short Preface and List of Abbreviations, the material is arranged in a chronological overview of the theme and presented in fifteen chapters of various lengths, some of which are divided into subchapters. The chapters and subchapters are dedicated mostly to protagonists or places. The last chapter, the Conclusion, is followed by the Notes, more precisely endnotes, referencing the body of the work and organized in sequence by chapter.4 These are primarily, but not exclusively, bibliographical references. Indexes conclude the volume.

The main focus of the book is the revival of Greek studies, including the reception and production of (usually) Latin translations of Greek classical works in Italy, bridging the late medieval and early modern periods. Planned as "a sequel to Scholars of Byzantium (p. ix), another classic by Wilson,5 the narrative's first main actor in the book under review is the Calabrian Leonzio Pilato. He produced – it seems at the suggestion of the leading Italian authors of that time, Petrarch and Boccaccio – complete Latin versions of the Iliad and the Odyssey as well as a Latin translation of the beginning of Euripides' Hecuba. Pilato also lectured on these authors in Florence in the early 1360s. But it was only with the Byzantine diplomat Manuel Chrysoloras, appointed Greek professor in Florence in 1397, that a continuous tradition of teaching and studying Greek in Italy was established. He provided Italian humanists such as Leonardo Bruni, Ambrogio Traversari, Guarino Veronese, and many others with the requisite know-how and he set new standards, thanks to his Greek grammar book, the Erotemata, and his method of translating idiomatically instead of verbum pro verbo.

Wilson concludes his narrative in 1515 – the year of Aldus Manutius' death. Manutius was the founder of the most significant Renaissance publishing house. Located in Venice, this firm established its reputation in large part through the editing of Greek texts. Theocritus was the first Greek text printed by the Aldine publishing house, appearing in 1495. From 1498 onwards the Cretan emigré Marcus Musurus became Manutius' expert collaborator in preparing Greek editions. The publishing house's activities had a deep and lasting effect on scholars and students. However, they were less kind to copyists, whose services became increasingly expendable. Musurus' death only two years after Manutius' concluded "one stage in the history of scholarship" (p. 177). At that point, the editions and Latin versions of Greek texts produced to date were based on only one or a very small number of manuscripts, and these were mostly not the most important textual witnesses. Wilson argues that, all in all, the corpus of Greek classical literary works, as far as it was extant after the Fourth Crusade in 1204, was preserved nearly completely by humanists active on Italian soil.

The bulk of the amendments in this second edition are found in the Notes. Numerous notes have been updated, and two thirds of the chapters now have one to five additional notes. I would have expected the book as a whole and the bibliographical information in particular to have been updated on a larger scale, but, as already stated, this is a second and not a revised edition. Additionally, mostly likely in keeping with his practice in the first edition, the author appears to refrain from mentioning some titles if they "did not seem to offer a real contribution to the point [he] wished to argue" (p. x). Still, the Notes should have been reworked more carefully, especially as far as style and consistency are concerned.6

The book is generally free of errors, but there are a few typographical mistakes, some of which are not present in the first edition, even though the text was not altered in the relevant passages for the second edition.7

Apart from these quibbles, it remains a pleasure and a thrill to read this book. Wilson's language is clear and concise. The author focuses on the essential but still enlivens the narrative with enjoyable and exciting anecdotes without ever losing the thread of his argument. He finds the right balance between sticking to facts and launching hypotheses on the basis of possible relations and links. In the age of companions and conference proceedings, this monograph particularly captivates thanks to the homogeneity of its contents and themes, as well as the sharpness of its focus. 8


1.   London: Duckworth, 1992.
2.   N. G. Wilson, Da Bisanzio all'Italia: gli studi greci nell'umanesimo italiano, edizione italiana, rivista e aggiornata, traduzione di Barbara Sancin (Alessandria: Edizioni dell'Orso, 2000, ristampata ibid., 2003).
3.   N. G. Wilson, De Byzance à l'Italie. L'enseignement du grec à la Renaissance, traduit par Henri Dominique Saffrey (Paris: Les Belles Lettres, 2015), p. 14: "Je suis heureux d'avoir une nouvelle occasion de faire une révision pour cette édition française."
4.   In the Italian and French translations (see above notes 3 and 4), the Notes appear as footnotes.
5.   N. G. Wilson, Scholars of Byzantium (London: Duckworth, 1983).
6.   For instance, references to works cited in an earlier chapter consist sometimes only of the name of the author + "op. cit." + page(s) (see, e.g., p. 197, n. 5), sometimes "op. cit." is additionally followed by "at Ch. #, n. #" (see, e.g., p. 188, n. 5), sometimes "op. cit." is replaced by a short title of the work in question (see, e.g., p. 187, n. 1). For books, place and year of edition are usually indicated, but in a few instances the place is replaced by the publisher's name (see, e.g., p. 186, n. 8). Note 4 on p. 185 is supplemented with further references, but the text of the following number appears unchanged so that the first word of it, "Ibid.", now refers to the wrong title. In n. 19 on p. 201 a reference to a preceding note has not been adapted to the new numbering of the notes due to the insertion of an additional note.
7.   These include: (p. 33) "pracsertim" for "praesertim", (p. 42) "Muntua" for "Mantua", (p. 91) "Vittorino's school He" for "Vittorino's school. He", (p. 92) "he would he blamed" for "he would be blamed", (p. 121) "empire the Enchiridion" for "empire, the Enchiridion", (p. 198) "Coaimo" for "Cosimo", (p. 207) "Miscellanca" for "Miscellanea", (p. 228) "Modens, Biblloteca" for "Modena, Biblioteca". A few errors can be found in text additions (p. 86: "He write" for "He wrote", p. 186: "MS. Urh." for "MS. Urb.", p. 210: "Matese" for "Maltese"). One further error has not been corrected from the first edition (p. 215: "intiera" for "intera").
8.   I wish to thank Y. N. Gershon for various suggestions pertaining to the text and English phraseology of this review.

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