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from issue no. 03 - 2003

An interview with Nikolay Spasskiy, Ambassador of the Russian Federation to Italy, on his book

Venice against Moscow for the legacy of Byzantium

An interview with Nikolay Spasskiy, Ambassador of the Russian Federation to Italy, on his book ‘The Byzantine’. Almost a spy story set at the time of the fall of Byzantium in 1453. The historical background is well-researched and is full of analogies with our own day

by Roberto Rotondo

Sixtus IV (1471-1484) receives Ivan III and his wife, anonymous sixteenth-century artist, Sistina ward, Sala Baglivi, hospital of Santo Spirito in Sassia,  Rome

Sixtus IV (1471-1484) receives Ivan III and his wife, anonymous sixteenth-century artist, Sistina ward, Sala Baglivi, hospital of Santo Spirito in Sassia, Rome

‘The Byzantine’, or how Moscow became the third Rome. The historical novel by Nikolay Spasskiy, writer and man of letters by choice, Russian ambassador to Italy by trade, is not just a spy story set in the second half of the fifteenth century. Palace intrigues, plots, blackmail and murders are woven into a highly detailed historical picture that offers startling analogies with our own day. We are in the years that followed the fall of Constantinople in 1453 when, like today, western civilization was treaded with unrest and fear. When Maomect II rode into the cathedral of Santa Sophia, the shock was overwhelming. Despite the fact that the death throes of the Roman Empire of the East had been dragging on for two centuries, it was the end of a society that had lasted a thousand years. Furthermore, anxiety was increased when natural phenomena took a hand, the passage in 1456, for example, of Halley’s comet terrified Europe with its long curving tail that suggested the sword of Islam. Then, too, many people spoke of the “clash of civilizations” and of new walls, cultural and military, to be thrown up to block the advance of Islam. The sole political prospect that Pope Nicholas V and, after him, Callixtus III and Pius II managed to conceive, was that of a new crusade of the Christian West under the lead of Venice, thus crowned heir to Byzantium. And this was the sole way also for Cardinal Bessarion, a Greek, a fine humanist and great diplomat, the most influential personality of the Byzantine world in exile, who had taken up residence in Bologna. But the idea of a new crusade did not convince the French – who indeed were looking to make an alliance with the Turks against Venice – and did not stir the Germans, who continued to postpone.
But, in Spasskiy’s novel, an alternative to Venice as heir of Byzantium, an alternative that shifts the geopolitical frame of the period, is conceived within Bessarion’s Byzantine humanist entourage. It’s an idea embodied in the mysterious protagonist of the novel, a Greek exile who has landed up at the Bolognese court of the powerful cardinal and of whom we know only the initial letter of his name, N. It is he, The Byzantine who, as Spasskiy puts it, «conceives an ambitious plan to save Byzantium not in the illusory world built around the myth of a new crusade as panacea for all evils, but in the real, harsh and cruel world he knew well. In that world there was no place for Byzantium as buffer between two worlds and two seas». His plan is to remove the legacy of Byzantium to Moscow. Russia would preserve Byzantine Christian civilization and, unlike Venice, would become a bridge between East and West.
Ambassador Spasskiy, why did you choose the second half of the fifteenth century as the setting for your novel? The analogies, perhaps, with our days? Am I off track?
NIKOLAY SPASSKIY: It was, in fact, for a variety of reasons. The first is that in that century, the fifteenth, my country became a modern state. Once free of Tartar occupation, within a few decades, what had been a combination of principalities came together as a nation state. The second reason is that if on the one hand the fall of Constantinople and the end of the Roman Empire of the East were dramatic happenings that stunned Europe, they marked on the other a key moment of the development of Russia, because they led to self-definition as successor state to the Byzantine Empire at the cultural, religious and political levels. The novel, in fact, hinges on the making of the famous marriage between the Byzantine princess Zoe and the great prince of Moscow Ivan III, that was notably to increase Byzantine influence on Moscow. The third reason is linked to the first two: I’ve always wondered how it was possible in a few short years to bring about the “removal” of the legacy of Byzantium to Moscow. An idea of the kind couldn’t have been worked out by the generation of the leading figures in the Council of Florence, Bessarion among them. It was too far from their way of thinking. The wedding had received the go-ahead from the Pope, and the cardinals also played a role, but it can’t have been them who wove the web. Bessarion was a man belonging to another world, that of the last wrongheaded, failed or never achieved crusades. So I imagined that behind the idea for the wedding of Zoe and Ivan III lay the patient work of an unknown figure who moves behind the scenes, a Byzantine refugee who took part in events but with a scheme quite different from that of the Pope and of Bessarion himself.
But, coming back to your question, I must say that we’re not just historians, we’re also citizens living at the start of the twenty-first century and, naturally, while I was working on the novel, I was thinking of the fate of our world and of my country. And I certainly couldn’t miss the dramatic worsening of what Huntington has called the «clash of civilizations».
Where does one see that concern most clearly in the novel?
SPASSKIY: In the background against which my characters move rather than in the plot. And it’s a concern that comes from my daily work as a diplomat. Because I won’t hide from you that as a citizen I’m very worried about what’s happening. And I have been for some years now. The novel was finished before the tragic events of 11 September 2001. And I didn’t add a line after that date. It’s been clear for some years that we find ourselves in a period of great possibility for the progress of the world and for the triumph of a new humanism but, at the same time, we are going through a period full of dangers for mankind that still hasn’t managed to find a just and realistic way of administering the phase following on the Cold War.
The hero N. sacrifices his whole life to a just cause. But he’s certainly not delicate about it: he gets Ivan III’s first wife poisoned, he blackmails Bessarion, hires spies and killers, trafficks and plots. A real Machiavelli. Does the end always justify the means in politics?
SPASSKIY: No. The air of cynicism of my characters and of the world around them is only to be explained by the fact that I tried to match the setting to the historical situation just as much as I could. Whereas the message I was trying to get across is much more simple: The condition today for helping and facilitating dialog, understanding, the coming together of peoples and different religions is to look straight in the face of the history of the men who have preceded us. Because history is also the history of great crises, of tragedies, of suppression and hatred. And we can’t unload all the blame for the errors of the past just on the figures who were at the summit of power. So, political correctness in our actions is one thing, and looking at history without censorship is another, because history must teach us something. It’s no accident that every chapter of the novel is introduced by a passage from the Commentaries of Pius II. Those passages sometimes use a brutal language, but they’re a window through which we can look out directly on that historical period, without mediation. They’re important to read.
On many pages of the novel it’s precisely the geopolitical picture of the second half of the fifteenth century that invites one to reflect. There are two contrasting visions in response to the Ottoman threat: that of those who want to crown Venice heir of Byzantium and make it the leader of a new crusade (Bessarion’s efforts for unity with the Orthodox aim at closing the ranks of Christian civilization) and that of those who look to Moscow as a bridge between East and West…
The cover page of the Spasskij's Novels

The cover page of the Spasskij's Novels

SPASSKIY: The plan of my hero N., that of removing Byzantine civilization to Moscow, arises not in opposition to Bessarion’s vision, but as a reaction to its failure. Indeed, with the fall of Constantinople comes the waning of the star of the powerful Greek cardinal that had shone with such brightness at the end of the Council of Florence in 1439. The act on the unity of the two Churches, in fact, was the peak of his glory even more than when he went into conclave with a good chance of becoming pope. But after Florence Bessarion received no backing, neither from the top levels of the decaying Byzantine Empire, who preferred to fall and die rather than yield to the western Catholic Church (and here lies the tragic sense of the Empire, a lesson to be studied and learned), nor from the West. Indeed, apart from all the proclamations, nobody lifted a finger to help the dying Empire against the final attack of the Turks.
In the novel you point out that in that century one came across popes among the humanists and humanists among the popes. Was the influence of Humanism common to Rome and Moscow?
SPASSKIY: Italy is the best place in the world for an understanding of how nations can have inherited a common baggage of experiences and ideas. It may seem superficial but in the period when I was writing my book I happened go through Bologna and looking at the battlements on the walls of Piazza San Petronio I thought how similar they are to those of the Kremlin. So I reflected on the fortunes and misfortunes of the many Italians who went to Russia following the marriage of Zoe and Ivan III, and who contributed in a notable way to the building of Moscow and to the development of our culture. But your Renaissance would never have been so great without that generation of Greek humanists who began to take refuge in Italy when the fall of Byzantium became mooted. Both you and we belong to the same civilization. It’s true that there was rupture, but we belong to the same historical current and both call ourselves Christian.
At the end of the book, stabbed to death by killers, N. thinks: «And so Venice will be heir of Byzantium, not Moscow». Why does he think he’s failed?
SPASSKIY: The last chapter of the book is the one most bound up with the personal life of the “Byzantine”. At the moment of death, N. wonders what the purpose of his life has been. But perhaps we can give a better answer because we can make a cooler judgment on those years. Certainly Moscow inherited much from Byzantium, but so did Venice. Of course I’m a diplomat and this is a novel, not a history book. But when I see Saint Mark’s today, this absolutely Byzantine basilica, the center of gravity in Venice, I think of how history goes ahead in cycles. At the start of its rise Venice was almost a colony of Byzantium. But it was precisely the Most Serene Republic that gave the mortal blow to the Byzantine Empire with the famous fourth crusade of 1204, that left Byzantium partitioned, divided, humiliated. Afterwards Venice, that had given no help to Byzantium at the crucial moment, to some extent repeated its historical dynamic: it became a bulwark against the Turks and sank into the same process of total decadence. A decadence fascinating but unstoppable. Moscow, instead, inherited from Byzantium its character as melting-pot, in which different races mix while the cultural and national features of the various people are respected. An important quality, so much so that Byzantium fell when it lost it.

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