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Petrarch: Books and the Life of the Mind

A paper presented at the Phi Alpha Theta Regional Conference, May, 1995, Illinois State University



During the Renaissance scholars began to turn their attentions to the great works of the pre-Christian writers. In rediscovering the classics, these scholars developed a new way of thinking, a new way of viewing themselves and their world. With this sea-change in the way scholars thought about knowledge, they went beyond the recovery of old knowledge to the development of new knowledge. However that rebirth of learning did not burst forth instantly. Many of its early figures still had one foot firmly in the Age of Faith. Although they saw the works of the ancient writers with new eyes, they still looked at the world with the eyes of the medieval scholars. One of these scholars Petrarch, who officially was a member of the clergy of the Catholic Church while he pursued his studies and writing in the new secular literature he and others like him were creating.

Francisco Petrarca, whose name is commonly anglicized as Francis Petrarch, was born on July 20, 1304 in Arezzo.1 He was the son of Ser Petracco dell'Ancisa, a Florentine notary exiled because of factional politics. Thus he grew up on the move as his father sought work in various cities. After an early attempt to study law he decided he wanted to be a man of letters. However in that time there were few ways to make a living by one's pen, so he took Holy Orders, although he had no real vocation.

In 1335 Pope Benedict XII made Petrarch a canon at the cathedral of Lombez. This appointment gave Petrarch a good income in return for very light duties. In fact, Petrarch probably did very little real work in return for his benefice, since it was common practice in those days for a titular canon to farm out his duties to one of the cathedral's working priests for a small fee. While such an act may seem like a dreadful abuse of the system to moderns, it was a common practice at the time. Certainly Petrarch did not regard it as being wrong. His biographer Bishop compares his attitude towards his benefice to the attitude of a modern stockholder who receives dividends derived from the labors of others and never questions the moral rectitude of such transfers of wealth.2

Although Petrarch needed the benefice from his canonry to support himself and his scholarship, he turned down several subsequent offers of higher positions in the Church hierarchy. In particular he turned down a bishopric offered by a later Pope because it would have involved more work that he would have had to personally attend to, work that would have interfered with his own literary efforts. The only high-level post that he appears to have been interested in was that of Cardinal, which would have given him access to vast wealth and power while demanding very little in the way of mandatory duties, but that was not to be.3 Thus he remained at the low levels of the Church hierarchy, receiving a relatively small benefice that enabled him to carry out his real work.

That work was the recovery of the literature of the ancient world. Petrarch devoted most of his time to the collecting and editing of classical manuscripts. He developed a system for critically editing those manuscripts and undertook to teach it to others.4 While the traditional monkish copying techniques insisted that every bit of the available parchment be used, resulting in pages crammed with text, Petrarch left wide margins in which to place future notes and commentary.

Certainly Petrarch possessed the skills necessary to do this sort of work. By all indications he was quite skilled in the Latin language, to the extent that all of his marginalia and most of his correspondence are in that language.5 Petrarch was even able to recover much of the classical Latin sense of words, instead of remaining immured in the Church's usages and the outlook that they represented. This shows particularly well in his epic poetic works, which he did in Latin. In his long narrative poem Africa, which concerned Scipio Africanus, he used the original classical senses of the terms fides (fairness, loyalty, and mutual confidence) and pietas (devotion to parents, family, race and country) rather than the Christian senses from which their English cognates "faith" and "piety" come.6

In fact, Petrarch saw no break between pagan and Christian Rome, unlike his contemporaries. Instead he regarded the whole span of history as one great divine epic. In his historical writings Petrarch often would write of the parallels between the Biblical chronology and that of ancient Rome. For instance, he said that Rome was founded at the same time as King David was writing the Psalms.7 He regarded Christianity's rejection of the classics of antiquity as the greatest failure of Christian scholars and the cause of what he saw as a great shadow over learning during the Middle Ages.8 Although it does not appear that he ever used the term "Dark Ages," his attitude probably helped create the concept that learning came to a halt between the time Rome accepted Christianity and his own time.

Certainly Petrarch's scholarship was far in advance of many of his predecessors and contemporaries. While Isadore of Seville derived his Etymologies from vague similarities between Latin words that supposedly supported some characteristic of the creatures or things so named, Petrarch rejected such fanciful ideas in favor of sound critical thinking. Even when he couldn't come up with more scientific explanations to replace the ridiculous ideas of his contemporaries, he refused to be absorbed into them simply because he had nothing better.9

Petrarch was aware that traditional medieval classifications of the arts lumped historia with grammar. In his work On His Own Ignorance he discussed an incident in which four young scholars of Aristotle came to him, pretending to be admirers of him, and then called him ignorant, although a man of good character and faithful in his friendships. In response, Petrarch pointed out that the things that they considered important were little more than collections of trivia that missed the things that were really important to a scholar.10

Petrarch was quite well-read in the literature that he studied, to a depth unusual today, where breadth of study is more common than depth. In a letter to Boccaccio he told about how he read and re-read the classical authors so thoroughly that he not just learned them, but absorbed them. They became a part of his being, to his very marrow.11

Petrarch viewed collecting books as being the actions of a custodian of memories, until the ghosts of the past filled his memories.12 In a sense he saw his work as that of bringing the authors to life within his mind by learning their books, and the transmission of them to future generations by seeing to it that adequate copies of them were made.

Although Petrarch was primarily a student of the Latin classics, he made a redoubtable effort to learn ancient Greek so that he could study the Greek classics in their original language instead of Latin translations. However obtaining the necessary instruction was almost impossible in his time. Through great dint of effort he did manage to secure the efforts of a Greek monk visiting Avignon for talks with the Pope, but this monk proved to be a poor teacher, although a willing one, and Petrarch learned no useable Greek. His method of teaching involved taking Plato and translating it bit by bit into Latin, with the idea that Petrarch would thus grasp the mechanics of the language and be able to read it. However flawed its approach and intended results might have been, this endeavor did provide him with a serviceable translation of Plato into Latin in the process.13 And in spite of the failure of his efforts to learn Greek, Petrarch did collect a number of Greek books in hopes that one day he would be able to read them in the original. Many times he would stare at them in longing for the day when he would be able to find a suitable tutor in the language and be able to fathom the mysteries hidden within a language that would remain shut to him for all his days. In a letter to Nicholas Sygeros, the Byzantine envoy to the Papal Court, he talks about his copy of Plato and his appreciation of the man's works, combined with his regret at not being able to read the language. Yet he still continued to hope that one day he would be able to, noting that Cato learned a substantial amount of Greek at an advanced age.14

Petrarch was a prolific writer of letters, and a great deal may be learned of his character from his letters. In his day it was far more difficult for a person to send a letter to a friend than it is in modern times. In the Fourteenth Century there were no regular mail services. The only way to send a letter was to entrust it to a person travelling in that direction, hoping that the person would not discard or lose the letter. Bandits lurked along the roads to rob and kill the unwary on an overland trip, while a journey by sea held the peril of storm and shipwreck. Many travellers never got through to their intended destinations, and many letters fell by the wayside with them, or were taken by bandits to be sold, particularly if their authors were well-known figures.16 This is one of the few letters in which he refers directly to his love of books. However his attitude toward his books comes out quite clearly in the way he uses the things he has learned from his books when writing on other subjects. In many of his letters he makes frequent references to the classical writers, regarding them as fine sources of wisdom.17 When trying to motivate Cola de Rizzo to take Rome and restore it to its former glory, he refers to the histories of Livy and Sallust.18

Petrarch undertook his famous climb of Mont Ventoux in 1336 after reading Livy's account of how Philip of Macedon climbed Mount Hermus (now Mt. Balkan in Bulgaria) in order to find out if he could see the Black Sea and the Adriatic at once from its peak. However that was justification for the undertaking. Petrarch's primary motivation in climbing was the challenge of scaling the peak. On this basis , Morris Bishop calls Petrarch the first modern mountain-climber.19 Petrarch discussed the climb in a letter to his former confessor, and stated that the account he found in Livy's History of Rome inspired him to make the climb.20

Petrarch once quoted Virgil in his defense of a young peasant who was condemned to death by the lord of his manor for having premarital sex with the girl he loved in violation of the traditional droit de siegneur.21 (Traditionally, the lord of the estate had the right to bed his serf women on their wedding nights. Although the women should have been virgins, there were no doubt cases in which they were not. While many lords probably chose to ignore such things, or were deceived by clever wenches who found ways to produce false blood, this one apparently chose to demand his rights and lay punishment for those who dared to filch what was regarded as rightfully his.)

But of all the classical authors, Petrarch held Cicero in the greatest of esteem. Perhaps it was one particular discovery that Petrarch made which inspired him to be such a great correspondent. During his visit to Verona in 1345, Petrarch found Cicero's Letters to Atticus in the cathedral library. Although still recovering from a fall from a horse, Petrarch set himself to the work of copying them in their entirety, along with a number of other letters of Cicero. The resultant manuscript was so large that it could not fit on a bookshelf and had to be set on the floor instead.22 These letters had been unknown to the scholarly world until that time, and they revealed a totally new side of Cicero to Petrarch. While Cicero's public works had shown him as aloof from politics, his private letters revealed him as a sly politician and courtier.23

Petrarch made many other journeys to discover manuscripts that had laid unknown and unused in monasteries and cathedral libraries. In this effort being a member of the clergy served him well, since it is unlikely that he would have been allowed to peruse many of those libraries if he had been a lay scholar instead. In one of his letters he recounts his travails on those voyages and how he found an oration of Cicero in Liˇge, but had a terrible time obtaining ink and had to make do with some that was yellow as saffron.24

Even when he had the means to hire others to copy manuscripts for him instead of doing his own copying, he frequently had difficulties in hiring reliable individuals. In a letter to Lapo di Castiglionchio he discusses his difficulties in getting a copy made of a work of Cicero that Castiglionchio had loaned to him. He begins by bemoaning the woeful lack of scribes that have a real understanding of the works that they are copying and ignorant scribes would produce unintelligible manuscripts and thus a great loss of learning. In regards to the specific problems he had in obtaining a copy of the Cicero in question he does not go into great detail, saying only that he could not have it copied because of the "incompetence of the copyists."25 One can only imagine what sort of frustrations must underlie that succinct summation of the problems encountered. His patience apparently exhausted by these inadequate results, he finally decided that there was simply no other way to obtain an adequate copy except by setting his own hand to the pen, and so he did. But even as he was midway through his undertaking, he began to have second thoughts about whether he should be devoting his time to such manual pursuits as the mere transcription of a text. That was when he came across Cicero's own account of copying down various orations of others during his idle hours. Seeing this evidence that his great hero had performed the work of a scribe to pass the time, Petrarch felt chastised at his doubts and decided that he should not be unwilling to make his own copies of Cicero's works when Cicero copied the works of others.

It is particularly fascinating to see the way in which he related to his books. In an earlier letter to Castiglionochio, thanking him for the receipt of a copy of Cicero (perhaps the selfsame volume that he was at such pains to get a copy made), he speaks of the book as though it were the man himself. He talks about how Cicero's writings were his companion in his lonely days at Vaucluse, but in language more typically used with the actual presence of the person, not merely the individual's writings.

In a letter to Neri Morando, an official in Venice, he related the story of how that huge tome of Cicero's letters that he had copied many years before fell over and wounded him in the ankle. In giving his account he talks about the volume as though it were Cicero himself, relating how he asked the tome why it fell over and that it (of course) said nothing in reply. Yet he relates it as though he really expected the book to answer him and give account of itself.26 Of course Petrarch was a poet, so it could be said with complete justice that he was merely speaking in the manner of a poet, ascribing human characteristics to the inanimate when he knew the difference perfectly well. Even so, it is clear that he regarded his books with great fondness. Petrarch did go so far as write two of his letters to Cicero himself, addressing the ancient writer as though he were still among the living.27 One may say that this was naught but a rhetorical device and his real audience was his own contemporaries, but it seems that at least in part he regarded himself as addressing his remarks to Cicero.

His greatest grief was caused by one of Cicero's writings, the famous De gloria which has been lost to scholarship forever. In a letter to Luca da Penna, while relating how he was a lifelong devotee of Cicero, he tells the story of how that manuscript passed through his hands. He had received several works of Cicero from Raimondo Soranzo, including De gloria, which he immediately recognized as a great treasure. However that precious volume was not long to remain in Petrarch's hands, to the eternal regret of all scholars of the antiquities. Not long after he acquired this treasure, an old friend of his boyhood days came to him. This was his former schoolmaster, Convenevola da Prata.28 He borrowed a number of Petrarch's books, claiming that he needed them in order to complete a project. Among them was that priceless volume of Cicero, which Petrarch was planning to have copied.29

When some time had passed and da Prata did not return the volumes, Petrarch grew concerned about them. Finally Petrarch began to suspect that da Prata had put them to some other use than study and began to investigate their whereabouts. In time he discovered that they had been pawned and went to da Prata, asking the name of the pawnbroker in order to redeem them. Da Prata refused, regarding this as something that would irredeemably besmirch his honor. He also refused Petrarch's offers of money so that he could go and redeem them himself. Finally the old man died, and all of Petrarch's further attempts to discover the whereabouts of that volume came to naught, much to his great grief.30 Perhaps the lost volume still lies hidden in some musty attic, forgotten and unrecognized. But after so many centuries that is unlikely, particularly in light of the devastation of the many wars between Petrarch's time and our own. It is more likely that the pawnbroker, not recognizing the importance of the treasure that had passed into his hands, sold it to someone who scraped or wiped off the writing and reused the parchment in the practice in that time.

Petrarch died in his library, surrounded by his beloved books and busy reading Virgil, on his seventieth birthday.31 However his influence upon the scholarly world did not die with him. Petrarch interested the other Italian humanists in seeking out and studying the classics.32 Many historians of philosophy have recognized just how important Petrarch was in initiating that movement that is now known as Renaissance humanism.33 His attitude toward the classics shaped the attitudes of the rest of the Renaissance scholars. Aldo Scaglioni gives the example of Machiavelli dressing up in his best clothes when he went into his library to read and study the works of the classical authors.34 And even Petrarch's weaknesses affected the course the study of the classics took. Robinson suggests that Petrarch's inability to read Greek and appreciate the Greek classics led ultimately to modern tendencies to overemphasize the Roman classics at the expense of the Greek classics.35

Probably there still would have been a Renaissance if Petrarch had never lived, or if he had drowned in the Arno as an infant as he so nearly did. There were certainly enough other brilliant minds in that period, all working to recover the knowledge that they regarded as being lost. But no doubt the Renaissance would have been poorer for the absence of Petrarch.


Copyright 1996 by Leigh Husband Kimmel, all rights reserved.

This paper was originally given under the name of Karen S. Boyer. It is an excerpt from a longer paper originally submitted as part of the requirements for a class in European Intellectual History at Illinois State University, taught by Professor Niles Holt. The author would like to thank Dr. Holt for his assistance in condensing it to a length suitable for presenting at a conference.

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