Today is the birthday (1304) of Francesco Petrarca, commonly anglicized as Petrarch, Tuscan scholar and poet, and one of the earliest Renaissance humanists. Petrarch’s rediscovery of Cicero’s letters is often credited with initiating the 14th century Renaissance, in fact. 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 was 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 Middle Ages as “Dark Ages.”
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, 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”– 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 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 by Roman Senatori Giordano Orsini and Orso dell’Anguillara on the holy grounds of Rome’s Capitol.
He traveled widely in Europe, 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. Henceforth he disdained the scholarship of what we now call the Middle Ages, coining the term “Dark Ages.”
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)), 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 old peasant had told him that nobody had ascended Ventoux before, and warned him against attempting to do so. The 19th-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 spiritual mentor, Saint Augustine, that he always carried with him. 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.
Petrarch spent the later part of his life 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. In the same year Petrarch was named canon in Monselice near Padua. 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: first in Venice, second 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 Petrarch’s works and curiosities
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.
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 Latin. His Latin writings include scholarly works, introspective essays, letters, and more poetry. Among them are Secretum Meum (“My Secret”), 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”); De Vita Solitaria (“On the Solitary 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. He also translated seven psalms, a collection known as the Penitential Psalms.
In addition, Petrarch 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, but several of his works are available in English translations. Petrarch broke radically with the much-praised Dante and his Divina Commedia. In spite of the metaphysical subject, the Commedia is deeply rooted in the cultural and social milieu of turn-of-the-century Florence. Petrarch confessed to Boccaccio that he had never read the Commedia. Probably this was untrue but shows that Petrarch wanted to distance himself from Dante.
Petrarch polished (some say “perfected”) the sonnet form inherited from Giacomo da Lentini and which Dante widely used in his Vita nuova to popularise the new courtly love of the Dolce Stil Novo. It was later copied (with suitable changes) by Shakespeare and others outside of Italy.
Petrarch was highly introspective and, as such, shaped the nascent humanist movement a great deal. Many of the internal conflicts and musings expressed in his writings were seized upon by Renaissance humanist philosophers and argued over continually for the next 200 years. For example, Petrarch struggled with the proper relation between the active and contemplative life, and tended to emphasize the importance of solitude and study. In a clear disagreement with Dante, in 1346 Petrarch argued in his De vita solitaria that Pope Celestine V’s refusal of the papacy in 1294 was as a virtuous example of solitary life. Later the politician and thinker Leonardo Bruni argued for the active life, or “civic humanism.”
I’m very much on Petrarch’s side in this debate. I live alone and spend my days in writing and contemplation. This life suits me. Of course I venture out to engage with the world when need be, but I am happiest alone.
Here’s a 14th-century Italian recipe for “mountain mushrooms” from Libro di cucina del secolo XIV.
Fungi di Monte
Toglie fungi di monte, e lessali: e gittatene via l’acquaa, mettili poi a friggere con cipolla tritata minuto, o con bianco di porro, spezie e sale e dà a mangiare.
[Take mountain mushrooms and boil them. Discard the water then fry the mushrooms with finely sliced onion, or the white of a leek, spices, and salt. Then serve.]
Simplicity itself. I used fresh porcini to make this dish because I had some left over from a trip to the market. I used leeks because I love them. The spices are the only challenge. Cardamom, cinnamon, nutmeg, and cloves were common in 14th-century Italy, but all of them are a little overpowering for me for use with mushrooms that have a strong, but delicate, flavor. If you are using common agarics (white commercial mushrooms), add what you want.
There is no need to boil the mushrooms first. Just roughly slice them and the leeks. Sauté them together over high heat in butter (preferably) or extra virgin olive oil. All I added was a few grinds of black pepper and served them over bread fried in olive oil. Great breakfast.