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From A Source Book of Mediæval History by Frederic Austin Ogg; American Book Company, New York; pp. 462-473.


81. Petrarch’s Love of the Classics

FRANCESCO PETRARCA was born at Arezzo in northern Italy in July, 1304. His father was a Florentine notary who had been banished by the same decree with Dante in 1302, and who finally settled at Avignon 463 in 1313 to practice his profession in the neighborhood of the papal court. Petrarch was destined by his father for the law and was sent to study that subject at Montpellier and subsequently at Bologna. But from the moment when he first got hold of the Latin classics, notably Cicero and Vergil, he found his interest in legal subjects absolutely at an end. He was charmed by the literary power of the ancients, as he certainly was not by the logic and learning of the jurists, and though his father endeavored to discourage what he regarded as a sheer waste of time by burning the young enthusiast’s precious Latin books, the love of the classics, once aroused, was never crushed out and the literary instinct remained dominant. The beginnings of the Renaissance spirit, which are so discernible in Dante, become in Petrarch the full expression of the new age. In the words of Professor Adams, “In him we clearly find, as controlling personal traits, all those specific features of the Renaissance which give it its distinguishing character as an intellectual revolution, and from their strong beginning in him they have never ceased among men. In the first place, he felt as no other man had done since the ancient days the beauty of nature and the pleasure of mere life, its sufficiency for itself; and he had also a sense of ability and power, and a self-confidence which led him to plan great things, and to hope for an immortality of fame in this world. In the second place, he had a most keen sense of the unity of past history, of the living bond of connection between himself and men of like sort in the ancient world. That world was for him no dead antiquity, but he lived and felt in it and with its poets and thinkers, as if they were his neighbors. His love for it amounted almost, if we may call it so, to an ecstatic enthusiasm, hardly understood by his own time, but it kindled in many others a similar feeling which has come down to us. The result is easily recognized in him as a genuine culture, the first of modern men in whom this can be found. . . . Finally, Petrarch first put the modern spirit into conscious opposition to the mediæval. The Renaissance meant rebellion and revolution. It meant a long and bitter struggle against the whole scholastic system, and all the follies and superstitions which flourished under its protection. Petrarch opened the attack along the whole line. Physicians, lawyers, astrologers, scholastic philosophers, the universities — all were enemies of the new learning, and so his enemies. And these attacks were not in set and formal polemics alone, his letters and 464 almost all his writings were filled with them. It was the business of his life.”1

In the latter part of his life Petrarch enjoyed the highest renown throughout Europe. The cities of Italy, especially, vied with one another in showering honors upon him. A decree of the Venetian senate affirmed that no Christian poet or philosopher could be compared with him. Arezzo, the town of his birth, awarded him a triumphal procession. Florence bought the estates once confiscated from his father and begged him to accept them as a meager gift to one “who for centuries had no equal and could scarcely find one in the ages to come.” The climax came in 1341 when both the University of Paris and the Roman Senate invited him to present himself and receive the poet’s crown, in revival of an old and all but forgotten ceremony of special honor. The invitation from Rome was accepted and the celebration attending the coronation was one of the most splendid of the age. In 1350 Petrarch became acquainted with Boccaccio and thenceforth there existed the warmest friendship between these two great exponents of Renaissance ideals and achievement. In 1369 he retired to Arquà, near Padua, where he died in 1374.

Besides his poems Petrarch wrote a great number of letters, some in Latin and some in Italian. Letter-writing was indeed a veritable passion with him; and he not only wrote freely but was a careful to preserve copies of what he wrote. His prose correspondence has been classified in four divisions. The largest one comprises three hundred forty-seven letters, written between the years 1332 and 1362, and given the general title of De Rebus Familiaribus, because in them only topics presumably of every-day interest were discussed and without particular attention to style. The second group, the so-called Epistolæ Variæ, numbers about seventy. The third, the Epistolæ de Rebus Senilibus (“Letters of Old Age”), includes one hundred twenty-four letters written during the last twelve years of the poet’s life. The fourth, comprising about twenty letters, was made up of epistles containing such sharp criticism of the papal régime at Avignon that the author thought it best to suppress the names of those to whom they were addressed. Their general designation, therefore, is Epistolæ sine Titulo. The following passages are taken from a letter found in the Epistolæ Variæ. It was written to a literary friend, 465 August 18, 1360, while Petrarch was at Milan, uncertain whither the political storms of the period would finally drive him. In the portion which precedes that given below the writer has been commenting on various invitations which had reached him from friends in Padua, Florence, and even beyond the Alps. This gives him occasion to lament the unsettled conditions of his times and to voice the longing of the scholar for peace and quiet. Thence he proceeds to speak of matters which reveal in an interesting way his passionate love for the beauties of classical literature and his sympathy with it s dominant ideas. Cicero was his favorite Latin author; after him, Vergil and Ovid. Greek literature, unfortunately, it was impossible of him to know at first hand. In spite of a lifelong desire, and at least one determined effort (which is referred to in the letter below), he never acquired even a rudimentary reading knowledge of the Greek language. At best he could only read fragments of Homer, Plato, and Aristotle in extremely faulty Latin translations.2

Source — Franciscus Petrarcus, Epistolæ de Rebus Familiaribus et Variæ [“Letters of Friendly Intercourse, and Miscellaneous Letters”], edited by J. Fracassetti (Florence, 1869, Vol. III., pp. 364-371. Adapted from translation in Merrick Whitcomb, Source Book of the Italian Renaissance (Philadelphia, 1903), pp. 14-21 passim.

If you should ask me, in the midst of these opinions of my friends, what I myself think of the matter, I can only reply that I long for a place where solitude, leisure, repose, and silence reign, however far from wealth and honours, power and favors. But I confess I know not where to find it. My own secluded nook, where I have hoped not only to live, but even to die, has lost all the advantages it once possessed, even that of safety. Petrarch’s
longing for
peace and
I call to witness thirty or more volumes, which I left there recently, thinking that no place could be more secure, and which, a little later, having escaped from the hands of robbers and returned, against 466 all hope, to their master, seem yet to blanch and tremble and show upon their foreheads the troubled condition of the place whence they have escaped. Therefore I have lost all hope of revisiting this charming retreat, this longed-for country spot. Still, if the opportunity were offered me, I should seize it with both hands, and hold it fast. I do not know whether I still possess a glimmer of hope, or am feigning it for self-deception, and to feed my soul’s desire with empty expectations.

But I proceed, remembering that we had much conversation on this point last year, when we lived together in the same house, in this very city [Milan]; and that after having examined the matter most carefully, in so far as our light permitted, we came to the conclusion that while the affairs of Italy, and of Europe, remain in this condition, there is no place safer and better for my needs than Milan, nor any place that suits me so well. We made exception only of the city of Padua, whither I went Drawbacks of
even Milan
and Padua
shortly after and whither I shall soon return; not that I may obliterate or diminish — that I should not wish — but that I may soften the regret which my absence causes the citizens of both places. I know not whether you have changed your opinion since that time; but for me I am convinced that to exchange the tumult of this great city and its annoyances for the annoyances of another city would bring me no advantage, perhaps some inconvenience, and beyond a doubt, much fatigue. Ah, if this tranquil solitude, which, in spite of all my seeking, I never find, as I have told you, should ever show itself on any side, you will hear, not that I have gone, but that I have flown to it. . . .

In the succeeding paragraph of your letter you jest with much elegance, saying that I have been wounded by Cicero without having deserved it, on account of our too great intimacy.3 467 “Because,” you say, “those who are nearest to us most often injure us, and it is extremely rare that an Indian does an injury Common
to people and
events near at
to a Spaniard.” True it is. It is on this account that in reading of the words of the Athenians and Lacedaemonians, and in contemplating the troubles of our own people with our neighbors, we are never struck with astonishment; still less so at the sight of the civil wars and domestic troubles which habit has made of so little account that concord itself would more easily cause surprise. But when we read that the king of Scythia has come to blows with the king of Egypt, and that Alexander of Macedonia has penetrated to the ends of India, we experience a sensation of astonishment which the reading of our histories, filled as they are with the deeds of Roman bravery in their distant expeditions, does not afford. You bring me consolation, in representing me as having been wounded by Cicero, to whom I am fondly attached, a thing that would probably never happen to me, at the hands of either Hippocrates 4 or Albumazar.5 . .

You ask me to lend you the copy of Homer that was on sale at Padua, if, as you suppose, I have purchased it (since, you say, I have for a long time possessed another copy) so that our friend Leo6 A request
for a copy
of Homer
may translate it from Greek into Latin for your benefit and for the benefit of our other studious compatriots. I saw this book, but neglected the opportunity of acquiring it, because it seemed inferior to my own. It can easily be had with the aid of the person to whom I owe my friendship with Leo; a letter from that source would be all-powerful in the matter, and I will myself write him.

If by chance the book escape us, which seems to be very unlikely, I will let you have mine. I have been always fond of this particular translation and of Greek literature in general, 468 and if fortune had not frowned upon my beginnings, in the sad death of my excellent master, I should be perhaps to-day something Fondness
for Greek
more than a Greek still at his alphabet. I approve with all my heart and strength your enterprise, for I regret and am indignant that an ancient translation, presumably the work of Cicero, the commencement of which Horace inserted in his Ars Poetica,7 should have been lost to the Latin world, together with many other works. It angers me to see so much solicitude for the bad and so much neglect of the good. But what is to be done? We must be resigned. . . .

I wish to take this opportunity of warning you of one thing, lest later on I should regret having passed it over in silence. If, as you say, the translation is to be made literally in prose, listen for a moment to the opinion of St. Jerome as expressed in his preface to the book, De Temporibus by Eusebius of Cæsarea, which he translated into Latin.8 Here are the very words of this great man, well acquainted with these two languages, and indeed with many others, and of special fame for his art of translating: Difficulty
of translating
works of lit-
If any one, he says, refuses to believe that translation lessens the peculiar charm of the original, let him render Homer into Latin, word for word; I will say further, let him translate it into prose in his own tongue, and he will see a ridiculous array and the most eloquent of poets transformed into a stammerer. I tell you this for your own good, while it is yet time, in order that so important a work may not prove useless. As for me, I wish the work to be done, whether 469 well or ill. I am so famished for literature that just as he who is ravenously hungry is not inclined to quarrel with the cook’s art, so I await with a lively impatience whatever dishes are to be set before my soul. And in truth, the morsel in which the same Leo, translating into Latin prose the beginning of Homer, has Longing for
the transla-
tion of Homer
given me a foretaste of the whole work, although it confirms the sentiment of St. Jerome, does not displease me. It possesses, in fact, a secret charm, as certain viands, which have failed to take a moulded shape, although they are lacking in form, preserve nevertheless their taste and odor. May he continue with the aid of Heaven, and may he give us Homer, who has been lost to us!

In asking of me the volume of Plato which I have with me, and which escaped the fire at my transalpine country house, you give me proof of your ardor, and I shall hold this book at A loan of a
volume of
your disposal, whenever the time shall come. I wish to aid with all my power such noble enterprises. But beware lest it should be unbecoming to unite in one bundle these two great princes of Greece, lest the weight of these two spirits should overwhelm mortal shoulders. Let your messenger undertake, with God’s aid, one of the two, and first him who has written many centuries before the other. Farewell.

82. Petrarch’s Letter to Posterity

THE following is a letter of Petrarch addressed, by a curious whim, to Posterity. It gives us an excellent idea of the poet’s opinion of himself and reveals the sort of things that interested the typical man of culture in the early Renaissance period. It is supposed to have been written in the year 1370, when Petrarch had completed the sixty-sixth year of his life. The letter betrays a longing for individual fame which was common in classical times and during the Renaissance, but not in the Middle Ages.


Source — Franciscus Petrarcus, Epistolæ de Rebus Familiaribus et Variæ [“Letters of Friendly Intercourse, and Miscellaneous Letters”], edited by J. Fracassetti (Florence, 1869, Vol. I., pp. 1-11. Translated in James H. Robinson and Henry W. Rolfe, Petrarch, the First Modern Scholar and Man of Letters (New York, 1898), pp. 59-76 passim.

Francis Petrarch to Posterity, greeting:

It is possible that some word of me may have come to you, though even this is doubtful, since an insignificant and obscure name will scarcely penetrate far in either time or space. If, however, you should have heard of me, you may desire to know what manner of man I was, or what was the outcome of my labors, especially those of which some description or, at any rate, the bare titles may have reached you.

To begin, then, with myself. The utterances of men concerning me will differ widely, since in passing judgment almost every one is influenced not so much by truth as by preference, and good and evil report alike know no bounds. I was, in truth, a poor Petrarch’s
early life
mortal like yourself, neither very exalted in my origin, nor, on the other hand, of the most humble birth, but belonging, as Augustus Cæsar says of himself, to an ancient family. As to my disposition, I was not naturally perverse or wanting in modesty, however the contagion of evil associations may have corrupted me.

My youth was gone before I realized it; I was carried away by the strength of manhood. But a riper age brought me to my senses and taught me by experience the truth I had long before read in books, that youth and pleasure are vanity — nay, that the Author of all ages and times permits us miserable mortals, puffed up with emptiness, thus to wander about, until finally, coming to a tardy consciousness of our sins, we shall learn to know ourselves.

In my prime I was blessed with a quick and active body, although Physical
not exceptionally strong; and while I do not lay claim to remarkable personal beauty, I was comely enough in my best days. I was possessed of a clear 471 complexion, between light and dark, lively eyes, and for long years a keen vision, which, however, deserted me, contrary to my hopes, after I reached my sixtieth birthday, and forced me, to my great annoyance, to resort to glasses.9 Although I had previously enjoyed perfect health, old age brought with it the usual array of discomforts.

My parents were honorable folk, Florentine in their origin, of medium fortune, or, I may as well admit it, in a condition verging upon poverty. They had been expelled from their native city,10 and consequently I was born in exile, at Arezzo, in the year 1304 of this latter age, which begins with Christ’s birth, July the 20th, on a Monday, at dawn. I have always possessed an extreme contempt for wealth; not that riches are not desirable in themselves, but because I hate the anxiety and care which are invariably associated with them. I certainly do not long to be able to give gorgeous banquets. I have, on the contrary, led a Preference for
plain and sen-
sible living
happier existence with plain living and ordinary fares than all the followers of Apicius,11 with their elaborate dainties. So-called convivia, which are but vulgar bouts, sinning against sobriety and good manners, have always been repugnant to me. I have ever felt that it was irksome and profitless to invite others to such affairs, and not less so to be bidden to them myself. On the other hand, the pleasure of dining with one’s friends is so great that nothing has ever given me more delight than their unexpected arrival, nor have I ever willingly sat down to table without a companion. Nothing displeases me more than display, for not only is it bad 472 in itself and opposed to humility, but it is troublesome and distracting.

In my familiar associations with kings and princes, and in my friendship with noble personages, my good fortune has been such as to excite envy. But it is the cruel fate of those who Intimacy with
renowned men
are growing old that they can commonly only weep for friends who have passed away. The greatest kings of this age have loved and courted me. They may know why; I certainly do not. With some of them I was on such terms that they seemed in a certain sense my guests rather than I theirs; their lofty position in no way embarrassing me, but, on the contrary, bringing with it many advantages. I fled, however, from many of those to whom I was greatly attached; and such was my innate longing for liberty that I studiously avoided those whose very name seemed incompatible with the freedom that I loved.

I possessed a well-balanced rather than a keen intellect — one prone to all other kinds of good and wholesome study, but especially inclined to moral philosophy and the art of poetry. The latter, indeed, I neglected as time went on, and took delight in sacred literature. Finding in that a hidden sweetness which I had once esteemed but lightly, I came to regard the works of the poets as only amenities.

Among the many subjects that interest me, I dwelt especially upon antiquity, for our own age has always repelled me, Admiration
for antiquity
so that, had it not been for the love of those dear to me, I should have preferred to have been born in any other period than our own. In order to forget my own time, I have constantly striven to place myself in spirit in other ages, and consequently I delighted in history. The conflicting statements troubled me, but when in doubt I accepted what appeared most probably, or yielded to the authority of the writer.

My style, as many claimed, was clear and forcible; but to 473 me it seemed weak and obscure, In ordinary conversation with friends, or with those about me, I never gave thought to my language, and I have always wondered that Augustus Cæsar should Attitude to-
ward liter-
ary style
have taken such pains in this respect. When, however, the subject itself, or the place or the listener, seemed to demand it, I gave some attention to style, with what success I cannot pretend to say; let them judge in whose presence I spoke. If only I have lived well, it matters little to me how I talked. Mere elegance of language can proclaim at best but an empty renown. . .


1  George B. Adams, Mediæval Civilization (New York, 1904), pp./ 375-377.

2   “There was no apparatus for the study of Greek at that time. Oral instruction from Greek or Byzantine scholars was the only possible means of access to the great writers of the past. Such instruction was difficult to secure, as Petrarch’s efforts and failure prove.” — Robinson and Rolle, Petrarch, p. 237.

3   This is a humorous allusion to the fact that Petrarch had recently received an injury from the fall of a heavy volume of Cicero’s Letters.

4  A renowned Greek physician of the fifth century B. C.

5  A famous Arabian astronomer of the ninth century, A. D.

6  Leo Pilatus, a translator.

7  Quintus Horatius Flaccus (65-8 B. C.), one of the literary lights of the Augustan Age, was a younger contemporary of Cicero. His Ars Poetica, was a didactic poem setting forth the correct principles of poetry as an art.

8  Eusebius, bishop of Cesaræa in Palestine, is noted chiefly as the author of an Ecclesiastical History which is in many ways are most important source of information on the early Christian Church. He lived about 250-339. St. Jerome was a great Church father of the later fourth century. His name is most commonly associated with the translation of the Bible from the original Hebrew and Greek into the Latin language. The resulting form of the Scriptures was the Editio Vulgata (the Edition Commonly Received) whence our English term “Vulgate.”

9  Eyeglasses were but beginning to come into use in Petrarch’s day.

10  Petrarch’s father and Dante were banished from Florence upon the same day, January 27, 1302 [see p. 446].

11  Marcus Gavius Apicius was a celebrated epicure of the time of Augustus and Tiberius. He was the author of a famous cook-book intended for the gratification of high-livers. Though worth a fortune, he was haunted by fear of starving to death and eventually poisoned himself to escape such a fate. There was another Apicius in the third century who compiled a well-known collection of recipes for cooking, in ten books, entitled De Re Coquinaria. It is not quite clear which Apicius Petrarch had in mind.


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