While some of the writers I intend to highlight in this series will likely be unfamiliar to all but the most dedicated of Renaissance scholars — and many of them will be recent “discoveries” for yours truly, I assure you — Francesco Petrarca, better known to most Anglophone readers as Petrarch, should need little introduction. One of the original Renaissance humanists (at least one friend and colleague would insist that Petrarch was the original Renaissance humanist), Petrarch wrote both extensively in both poetry and prose, but he may be best-known for his collection of poems, Canzoniere, written between 1327 and 1368. His poetry exerted a powerful influence on English poets of the sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries, thanks largely to the efforts of Thomas Wyatt (1503-1542), who first translated Petrarch’s poetry into English, and adapted their structure for use in his own poetry, published posthumously in Richard Tottel’s Miscellany (1557).
I must confess, however, to being far more of a fan of Petrarch’s prose, which is even more revolutionary than his poetry. Petrarch was an unabashed self-promoter, a prolific writer of letters and what would later, thanks in no small part to Montaigne, be better understood as essays. He was the first prominent writer since Augustine, nearly 1000 years earlier, to speak openly and candidly about his own internal conflicts and struggles at great length. In famous pieces such as “The Allegorical Ascent of Mount Ventoux” and “Letter to Posterity,” Petrarch mingled Christian impulses with secular moralizing and an unquenchable thirst for learning about the world he lived in. Whereas his poetry is an excellent expression of desire, love, and emotional turmoil, his prose gives a portrait of a man — earnest, flawed, and incredibly real. When I read Petrarch’s poetry, I am drawn into a world of allegory, metaphor, and classical allusions; when I read his prose, I am sitting at a table, having a conversation with the man himself. Both experiences can be deeply rewarding, but I always find the prose to be more relaxing to spend time with.
I’m going to highlight a brief selection of his prose, excerpted from a letter he wrote to the Abbot of St. Benigno, here somewhat inadequately dubbed “The Man of Letters” (source: Robinson and Rolfe, Petrarch, the First Modern Scholar and Man of Letters, 1898). This tidy little section highlights exactly the tone I have come to appreciate so much when reading Petrarch; referring to writing as a “disease” (tongue firmly in cheek), Petrarch coyly asks whether it is contagious, and if so, if it is possible he has infected others with the desire for writing. He also takes partial responsibility for the fact that “now there is no one who does not write [poetry]; few indeed write anything else.” As proof of his culpability, he offers an anecdote concerning an old man who came to him in tears, lamenting that his only son has chosen to follow Petrarch in a life of letters…and poverty. When Petrarch argues that he does not know the man’s son, his protest is dismissed: “He certainly knows you…My fondest hopes have been disappointed, and I presume that he will never be either a lawyer or a poet.” Here, Petrarch confesses to joining his friends in laughing the old man off the premises, an action he now laments, as their own sons now likewise forsake a life spent “preparing such papers as might be useful to themselves or their friends” in order to write verses.
Instead, it seems that the learned lawyers and doctors of Rome, together with carpenters and farmers, have abandoned their trades in favor of basking “by the purling waters of the Aonian fountain.” Even now, he notes, writers from all over Europe send him their verses in hopes of receiving a few kind words of encouragement from Petrarch, the world’s greatest living poet (or so it would seem). Petrarch expresses open disgust with the sheer number of bad poets crowding the street corners, although he does see signs of “true youthful genius” arising in Mantua, Padua, Verona, and a few other cities. This piece showcases one of Petrarch’s most prominent traits, one which was simultaneously his greatest strength and, as he openly noted in many works, his greatest weakness: pride. He isn’t just disgruntled by the fact that so many people have been compelled to take up the pen and begin writing verses, he’s primarily upset that his own skills and hard work are being cheapened by the apparent belief that almost anyone can write good verse, with little or no training, or even effort. Even the old man who comes to vent his anger at Petrarch begins (at least, according to the man himself) by acknowledging the honor and power of the latter’s name. The effect of the piece is to suggest that Petrarch is miffed that so many people should think they can aspire to the same heights as he — and I have to confess, I love him for it. After all, Petrarch was convinced that his name would echo throughout the ages to come, as indeed it has; and, given this notion, it would be fair to assume that a man educated in a medieval Christian context might work a little harder to polish his image, particularly late in his career. To be fair, Petrarch does admit to feeling chagrined at the tone and content of some of his writing, but that does not stop him from writing letters such as this one.
As one reads more deeply into Petrarch’s prose canon, a picture begins to emerge of a man of great intellectual capacity, a quick-witted poet whose life represents a dialectic between fundamental Christian morality, and the all-too-human weakness of desire, for love and lust as well as for fame. In short, Petrarch’s prose offers a full portrait of a genuine, earnest human being, a man struggling with his own pride, and failing to overcome it more often than not. Yet he refuses to let that failure define him, and thus, we get a glimpse of Petrarch as a man who is still humble enough to laugh at his own follies.