Petrarch, Father of Humanism

To be sure, the Latin, in both prose and poetry, is undoubtedly the nobler language, but for that very reason it has been so thoroughly developed by earlier writers that neither we nor anyone else may expect to add very much to it. The vernacular, on the other hand, has but recently been discovered, and, though it has been ravaged by many, it still remains uncultivated, in spite of a few earnest labourers, and still shows itself capable of much improvement and enrichment. Stimulated by this thought, and by the enterprise of youth, I began an extensive work in that language. I laid the foundations of the structure, and got together my lime and stones and wood.

(This is a small part of a letter that Petrarch wrote to Boccaccio)

Petrarch, father of Humanism.

Petrarch was an Italian scholar and poet, and one of the earliest humanists. Petrarch is often called the “Father of Humanism”.

In the 16th century, Pietro Bembo created the model for the modern Italian language based on Petrarch’s works, as well as those of Giovanni Boccaccio, and, to a lesser extent, Dante Alighieri.

Petrarch would be later endorsed as a model for Italian style by the Accademia della Crusca.

Petrarch’s sonnets were admired and imitated throughout Europe during the Renaissance and became a model for lyrical poetry.

He is also known for being the first to develop the concept of the “Dark Ages”.

Francesco Petrarch was born shortly after 1300 in a time and place where very few could read or write and those that did considered it a chore where as Petrarch saw a blessing. His passion to write his thoughts to paper was only overcome by the need to sleep or eat.

So great was his desire to write his thoughts and feelings and so difficult was it to find anyone in Europe to match his desire he found himself writing to Cicero, one of the only people he believed really shared his passion. (Cicero was a Roman Poet/Politician that died over 1200 years before Petrarch was born).

His writings would go on to influence countless others such as Boccaccio to write his own great works. And centuries later others such as Shakespeare would study his works and copy his sonnets.

So great were his writings that royalty treated him, the son of exiled nobles, like a king and in a letter to a friend he even goes as far as to say that he has caused his own plague to spread over Europe, one which has caused people to take up pen and paper and write and read.

And so ended the dark ages and the start of Humanism.

Youth:

Petrarch was born in the Tuscan city of Arezzo in 1304.

He was the son of Ser Petracco and his wife Eletta Canigiani.

His given name was Francesco Petracco. The name was Latinized to Petrarca. Petrarch’s younger brother was born in Incisa in Val d’Arno in 1307.

Dante was a friend of his father.

Petrarch spent his early childhood in the village of Incisa, near Florence.

He spent much of his early life at Avignon and nearby Carpentras, where his family moved to follow Pope Clement V who moved there in 1309 to begin the Avignon Papacy.

He studied law at the University of Montpellier (1316–20) and Bologna (1320–23) with a lifelong friend and schoolmate called Guido Sette.

Because his father was in the profession of law he insisted that Petrarch and his brother study law also.

Petrarch however was primarily interested in writing and Latin literature and considered these seven years wasted.

Additionally he proclaimed that through legal manipulation his guardians robbed him of his small property inheritance in Florence, which only reinforced his dislike for the legal system.

He protested, “I couldn’t face making a merchandise of my mind”, as he viewed the legal system as the art of selling justice.

Petrarch was a prolific letter writer and counted Boccaccio among his notable friends to whom he wrote often. After the death of their parents, Petrarch and his brother Gherardo went back to Avignon in 1326, where he worked in numerous clerical offices.

This work gave him much time to devote to his writing. With his first large scale work, Africa, an epic in Latin about the great Roman general Scipio Africanus, Petrarch emerged as a European celebrity.

On April 8, 1341, he became the first poet laureate since antiquity and was crowned on the holy grounds of Rome’s Capitol.

He traveled widely in Europe and served as an ambassador and has been called “the first tourist” because he traveled just for pleasure, which was the basic reason he climbed Mont Ventoux.

During his travels, he collected crumbling Latin manuscripts and was a prime mover in the recovery of knowledge from writers of Rome and Greece.

He encouraged and advised Leontius Pilatus’s translation of Homer from a manuscript purchased by Boccaccio, although he was severely critical of the result.

Petrarch had acquired a copy, which he did not entrust to Leontius, but he knew no Greek; Homer, Petrarch said, “was dumb to him, while he was deaf to Homer”.

In 1345 he personally discovered a collection of Cicero’s letters not previously known to have existed, the collection ad Atticum.

Disdaining what he believed to be the ignorance of the centuries preceding the era in which he lived, Petrarch is credited with creating the concept of a historical “Dark Ages”.

Mont Ventoux:

Petrarch recounts that on April 26, 1336, with his brother and two servants, he climbed to the top of Mont Ventoux (1,912 meters (6,273 ft)), a feat which he undertook for recreation rather than necessity.

The exploit is described in a celebrated letter addressed to his friend and confessor, the monk Dionigi di Borgo San Sepolcro, composed some time after the fact.

In it Petrarch claimed to have been inspired by Philip V of Macedon’s ascent of Mount Haemo and that an aged peasant had told him that nobody had ascended Ventoux before or after himself, 50 years before, and warned him against attempting to do so.

The nineteenth-century Swiss historian Jacob Burckhardt noted that Jean Buridan had climbed the same mountain a few years before, and ascents accomplished during the Middle Ages have been recorded, including that of Anno II, Archbishop of Cologne.

Scholars note that Petrarch’s letter  to Dionigi displays a strikingly “modern” attitude of aesthetic gratification in the grandeur of the scenery and is still often cited in books and journals devoted to the sport of mountaineering.

In Petrarch, this attitude is coupled with an aspiration for a virtuous Christian life, and on reaching the summit, he took from his pocket a volume by his beloved mentor, Saint Augustine, that he always carried with him.

For pleasure alone he climbed Mount Ventoux, which rises to more than six thousand feet, beyond Vaucluse.

It was no great feat, of course; but he was the first recorded Alpinist of modern times, the first to climb a mountain merely for the delight of looking from its top. (Or almost the first; for in a high pasture he met an old shepherd, who said that fifty years before he had attained the summit, and had got nothing from it save toil and repentance and torn clothing.)

Petrarch was dazed and stirred by the view of the Alps, the mountains around Lyons, the Rhone, the Bay of Marseilles. He took St. Augustine’s Confessions from his pocket and reflected that his climb was merely an allegory of aspiration towards a better life.

As the book fell open, Petrarch’s eyes were immediately drawn to the following words:

And men go about to wonder at the heights of the mountains, and the mighty waves of the sea, and the wide sweep of rivers, and the circuit of the ocean, and the revolution of the stars, but themselves they consider not.

Petrarch’s response was to turn from the outer world of nature to the inner world of “soul”:

I closed the book, angry with myself that I should still be admiring earthly things who might long ago have learned from even the pagan philosophers that nothing is wonderful but the soul, which, when great itself, finds nothing great outside itself. Then, in truth, I was satisfied that I had seen enough of the mountain; I turned my inward eye upon myself, and from that time not a syllable fell from my lips until we reached the bottom again. … (W)e look about us for what is to be found only within. … How many times, think you, did I turn back that day, to glance at the summit of the mountain which seemed scarcely a cubit high compared with the range of human contemplation …

James Hillman argues that this rediscovery of the inner world is the real significance of the Ventoux event.

The Renaissance begins not with the ascent of Mont Ventoux but with the subsequent descent—the “return … to the valley of soul”, as Hillman puts it.

Later Years:

The later part of Petrarch’s life he spent in journeying through northern Italy as an international scholar and poet-diplomat.

His career in the Church did not allow him to marry, but he is believed to have fathered two children by a woman or women unknown to posterity.

A son, Giovanni, was born in 1337, and a daughter, Francesca, was born in 1343. Both he later legitimized.

Giovanni died of the plague in 1361. Francesca married Francescuolo da Brossano (who was later named executor of Petrarch’s will) that same year.

In 1362, shortly after the birth of a daughter, Eletta (the same name as Petrarch’s mother), they joined Petrarch in Venice to flee the plague then ravaging parts of Europe.

A second grandchild, Francesco, was born in 1366, but died before his second birthday. Francesca and her family lived with Petrarch in Venice for five years from 1362 to 1367 at Palazzo Molina; although Petrarch continued to travel in those years.

Between 1361 and 1369 the younger Boccaccio paid the older Petrarch two visits. The first was in Venice, the second was in Padua.

About 1368 Petrarch and his daughter Francesca (with her family) moved to the small town of Arquà in the Euganean Hills near Padua, where he passed his remaining years in religious contemplation.

He died in his house in Arquà on July 19, 1374 – one day short of his seventieth birthday. The house hosts now a permanent exhibition of Petrarchian works and curiosities; among others you find the famous tomb of Petrarch’s beloved cat who was embalmed. On the marble slab there is a Latin inscription written by Antonio Quarenghi:

Etruscus gemino vates ardebat amore:
Maximus ignis ego; Laura secundus erat.
Quid rides? divinæ illam si gratia formæ,
Me dignam eximio fecit amante fides.
Si numeros geniumque sacris dedit illa libellis
Causa ego ne sævis muribus esca forent.
Arcebam sacro vivens a limine mures,
Ne domini exitio scripta diserta forent;
Incutio trepidis eadem defuncta pavorem,
Et viget exanimi in corpore prisca fides.

Petrarch’s will (dated April 4, 1370) leaves 50 florins to Boccaccio “to buy a warm winter dressing gown”; various legacies (a horse, a silver cup, a lute, a Madonna) to his brother and his friends; his house in Vaucluse to its caretaker; for his soul, and for the poor; and the bulk of his estate to his son-in-law, Francescuolo da Brossano, who is to give half of it to “the person to whom, as he knows, I wish it to go”; presumably his daughter, Francesca, Brossano’s wife.

The will mentions neither the property in Arquà nor his library; Petrarch’s library of notable manuscripts was already promised to Venice, in exchange for the Palazzo Molina.

This arrangement was probably cancelled when he moved to Padua, the enemy of Venice, in 1368. The library was seized by the lords of Padua, and his books and manuscripts are now widely scattered over Europe.

Nevertheless, the Biblioteca Marciana traditionally claimed this bequest as its founding, although it was in fact founded by Cardinal Bessarion in 1468.

Works:

Petrarch is best known for his Italian poetry, notably the Canzoniere (“Songbook”) and the Trionfi (“Triumphs”).

However, Petrarch was an enthusiastic Latin scholar and did most of his writing in this language.

His Latin writings include scholarly works, introspective essays, letters, and more poetry.

Among them are Secretum (“My Secret Book”), an intensely personal, guilt-ridden imaginary dialogue with Augustine of Hippo; De Viris Illustribus (“On Famous Men”), a series of moral biographies; Rerum Memorandarum Libri, an incomplete treatise on the cardinal virtues; De Otio Religiosorum (“On Religious Leisure”) and De Vita Solitaria (“On the Solitary Life”), which praise the contemplative life; De Remediis Utriusque Fortunae (“Remedies for Fortune Fair and Foul”), a self-help book which remained popular for hundreds of years; Itinerarium (“Petrarch’s Guide to the Holy Land”); invectives against opponents such as doctors, scholastics, and the French; the Carmen Bucolicum, a collection of 12 pastoral poems; and the unfinished epic Africa.

Petrarch also published many volumes of his letters, including a few written to his long-dead friends from history such as Cicero and Virgil. Cicero, Virgil, and Seneca were his literary models.

Most of his Latin writings are difficult to find today. However, several of his works are scheduled to appear in the Harvard University Press series I Tatti. It is difficult to assign any precise dates to his writings because he tended to revise them throughout his life.

Petrarch collected his letters into two major sets of books called Epistolae familiares (“Familiar Letters”) and Seniles (“Of Old Age”), a plan suggested to him by knowledge of Cicero’s letters.

He kept out of Epistolae familiares a special set of 19 controversial letters called Liber sine nomine that contained much criticism of the Avignon papacy.

These were published “without names” to protect the recipients, all of whom had close relationships to Petrarch.

The recipients of these letters included Philippe de Cabassoles, bishop of Cavaillon; Ildebrandino Conti, bishop of Padua; Cola di Rienzo, tribune of Rome; Francesco Nelli, priest of the Prior of the Church of the Holy Apostles in Florence; and Niccolò di Capoccia, a cardinal and priest of Saint Vitalis.

His “Letter to Posterity” (the last letter in Seniles) gives an autobiography and a synopsis of his philosophy in life. It was originally written in Latin and was completed in 1371 or 1372 – the first such autobiography in a thousand years (since Saint Augustine).

While Petrarch’s poetry was set to music frequently after his death, especially by Italian madrigal composers of the Renaissance in the 16th century, only one musical setting composed during Petrarch’s lifetime survives. This is Non al suo amante by Jacopo da Bologna, written around 1350.

A Tribute to Petrarch!

Jacqueline

 

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