Anna Notaras was the daughter of the last Megas Doux of Constantinople, Loukas Notaras. Her father is remembered both for his court rivalry with George Sphrantzes and his opposition to Emperor Constantine’s policy of ‘reuniting’ (subverting) the Orthodox church with the Latin church – better the Turkish Turban than the Latin Mitre – he is said to have proclaimed but he was clearly under no illusions as to what the Turkish Turban in his city would actually mean and had widely arranged for much of his wealth and some of his family to be removed to the safety of Italy before the city fell and he was executed.
Following the fall of Constantinople, Anna therefore found herself the inheritor of an ample fortune but unlike some of the other surviving Byzantine nobles, such as Constantine’s wastrel brother Thomas Palaiologos, she did not spend her exile squandering it. Instead, Anna Notaras became a pillar of the Greek exile community, first in Rome and more permanently in Venice.
Venice embraced a great many of Constantinople’s refugees but with only a pragmatic warmth. The Republic, now painfully aware of the growing threat the Turks posed to their own interests, was quick to use Greek and Albanian stradiots in its long war from 1463 to 1479 and the rollcall of these mercenaries reads like a who’s who of late-Byzantine noble houses but within la Serenissima, the Venetians were less keen on overt Greek-identity, in particular the Orthodox church which was the very core of Byzantine identity.
It was Anna who petitioned the Republic to allow the construction of an Orthodox church within Venice (something not granted until 1539) and when the Council of Ten prevaricated, it was Anna who badgered them into a compromise. She was granted permission to build an oratory within her own sizable Casa and hold Orthodox services within it from 1475. There the flame of Greek Orthodoxy in Venice flickered until San Giorgio dei Greci was finally built, almost a hundred years after the fall. To this day, three of its treasured icons were gifted to it from the estate of Anna Notaras, who had brought them with her from Constantinople.
Anna’s efforts did not end with her preservation of her religion. It is believed she was a close friend of Cardinal Bessarion, perhaps – as historian Donald Nicol speculates – it was into Bessarion’s care that the young Anna was first placed by her father in 1453. Bessarion is rightly famous for the hoard of Classical Greek manuscripts and books in his collection (donated in 1468 to the people of Venice). Anna too played an important role in the preservation and dissemination of ancient knowledge salvaged from the fires of her city. In 1470 she acquired a 12th century manuscript Catena of Job written for the Grand Duke of Cyprus.
Later, in 1499, the first exclusively Greek printing press in Venice began operation under the direction of Zacharis Kalliergis. The first product off the press was the Etymologiucum Magnum and the dedication at the front thanks the ‘most modest lady Anna, daughter of…Loukas Notaras’ who had defrayed its cost. Nicholas Vlastos is often credited with patronising the Greek printing presses of Venice but Vlastos was the factor of Anna Notaras – he was merely an agent for the noble, wealthy lady.
Her work towards preserving the Byzantine / Greek identity through the first turbulent decades of its exile extended beyond the academic and religious sphere to the material as well. Another of her projects was an attempt to create a self-ruled Byzantine colony within Italy. In around 1472 she began negotiations with the Commune of Siena to take possession of the old castle of Montauto and the lands surrounding it. A draft contract was made which allowed Anna to oversee 100 Greek families in a self-governing community. It is unclear exactly why the project never progressed beyond this point but one point of interest from the negotiations is the fact that Anna is referred to as Anna Notaras Paleologina and from this grew the legend that she had been betrothed to the last Emperor. In reality, the styling in the contractual document was likely a political ploy to give the commune the polish of imperial legitimacy.
She never married, nor became a nun – a somewhat unusual position for a woman of that era but given her wealth she had no material need to make a marriage and appears to have enjoyed her independence. She refused to learn Latin, a point noted by one diarist at her death in 1507. There are no firm dates for her birth, but she would have been at least seventy years old and had outlived not only the other notable exiles of her era but the bane of her youth, Mehmed II. Her achievements demonstrate that men and institutions in fifteenth century Italy were capable of working with and indeed for women under certain circumstances. Her achievements in the fields of politics, religion, book printing were noteworthy by the standards of anyone in that era, the fact they were achieved despite the social disadvantages of her sex suggest she was a woman of quite extraordinary character.