Petrarch the Man

Review: Francesco Petrarca, Elaine Fantham (trans.), 'Selected Letters'

"Petrarch" by Andrea di Bartolo di Bargilla / Uffizi Gallery
• March 4, 2017 4:58 am


Francesco Petrarca, or Petrarch, is remembered mostly as a sonneteer—the original sonneteer. The vernacular Italian poems of his Canzoniere (Book of Songs), which drew from the example of Provencal troubadours, made him famous during his lifetime. Focusing on the poet's unrequited love for Laura—a married woman who becomes a symbol of virtue itself—the poems turn inward and unpack the conflict between the poet's feelings for Laura and sense of duty towards God. "Father in heaven, after each lost day," he writes in Sonnet 62,

Each night spent raving with that fierce desire
Which in my heart has kindled into fire
Seeing your acts adorned for my dismay;

Grant henceforth that I turn, within your light
To another life and deeds more truly fair,
So having spread to no avail the snare
My bitter foe might hold it in despite.

But Petrarch did not think of himself as a sonneteer, as two newly translated volumes of his letters show. He was a poet, yes, but a Latin one. His original title for Canzoniere was Fragmenta rerum vulgarium, which could be translated, as Elaine Fantham notes in her introduction, "Bits of Stuff in the Vulgar Tongue." He worked most of his life on his epic Latin poem Africa, which tells the story of Scipio Africanus's exploration of Africa; he expected to be remembered more for that work than for his Italian sonnets.

Petrarch was also a scholar, a traveler, and a friend of princes. He is sometimes called the "Father of the Renaissance," but it's helpful to remember that Petrarch's interest in ancient writers was not divorced from either religious or political concerns. He longed to make Rome—and Italy—great again, and devoted himself to copying ancient Roman texts and extolling their virtues. Cicero and Seneca provided the wisdom; Julius Caesar, the example.

And so, in a long letter to Francesco de Carrara, a friend and ruler of Padua, Petrarch (unlike Machiavelli nearly a century later) encourages Carrara to foster love rather than fear in his subjects because there is nothing more antagonistic to the stability and length of a monarch's rule than fear. Quoting Cicero, Petrarch writes that fear "is a bad preservative, whereas kindness is faithful unto eternity." "Whom people fear they hate; whom each man hates he wants to die." Moreover, if a ruler is feared by his people, he in turn must fear them all, which is not great for the nerves.

He tells Carrara to exercise justice with mercy ("It is a noble form of vengeance to spare a man"), though he warns him not show any leniency to "cutthroats and traitors": "you don't want to be cruel to the majority just so you may seem compassionate to the few." He also advises Carrara to build roads and walls ("walls are a safe protection in war, roads are the most welcome adornment of peace") and have the city's laws read on a regular basis.

This last recommendation had a surprising origin. Apparently, the people of Padua had been ignoring a city ordinance against allowing pigs to run freely in town. The result, Petrarch complains, was that the "celebrated country of Padua" was being transformed into "a sty for pigs": "wherever you turn you may hear them snorting at random and see them uproot the ground; a loathsome sight and an ugly noise." If the ancient statute against the practice and its attached penalty (anyone who sees a free pig may take it) had been read on a regular basis, the law would never have become obsolete, Petrarch argues. The point is a practical one, but a reminder of the importance of reading founding documents regularly.

In other letters, Petrarch laments the many wars of the period and extols the benefits of a rustic and solitary life. Petrarch travelled widely, visiting Paris, Ghent, Cologne, and much of Italy and southern France—sometimes simply for pleasure, which was rare for the time. But he also spent several extended periods in the countryside outside Avignon, delighting in its simplicity. "I live with one dog and just two servants," he writes Francesco Nelli. "I wish I had sent them all away in India never to return, as they are the sole stormy disturbance of my rest!"

He also defends contemporary writers against critics who only praise the past. "Good poets are rare, I admit, few; but there are some," he writes, and goes on to point out how frequently the ancients lamented the poets of their own age—in the time of Virgil and Horace. "This was and will be unending," he writes: "reverence accompanies antiquity but envy dogs the contemporary."

One of the pleasures of the volumes, as is probably evident by this point, are the many striking lines, rendered beautifully in translation by Fantham. On historical ignorance in Rome, Petrarch writes: "nowhere is Rome less known than at Rome itself." On the ravages of chance: "there is nothing so wretched that it cannot befall even those who are called most fortunate." Or, on a lighter note, on an unattractive woman: "her face is such that, if Helen had owned it, there would have been no Trojan war." (Harsh, yes, but he goes on to praise her for other qualities.)

As with all the books in Harvard's I Tatti Renaissance Library, these volumes are beautifully designed and come with helpful footnotes, a brief chronology of Petrarch's life, and a comprehensive list of his primary works. They also include his letters to ancient writers and his famous autobiographical letter "To Posterity."

Petrarch lived in uncertain times; we less so. Still, the past is always relevant. In Petrarch's hands, it is also a source of great pleasure.

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