A History of Italian Literature/Chapter V

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A History of Italian Literature  (1901)  by Richard Garnett
Chapter V. Petrarch as Man of Letters



Although, hardly less than Shakespeare, born not for an age but for all time, Dante was nevertheless in an especial sense the poet of the mediæval period. The vast advance which he effected in the poetic art had no counterpart in a corresponding progress in the world of intellect. Powerful as his mind was, it seemed as an organ of thought rather architectural than creative; more intent on combining the materials it found into the most august edifice which their constitution admitted, than on gaining new channels for feeling and intelligence. This was to be the work of a mind far less original than Dante's, but happily placed at the confluence of mediæval ideas with an element by which they were destined to be submerged and transformed. In the year 1304, on the very day when Dante and his exiled companions were making their desperate attempt to fight their way back into Florence, Francesco Petrarca, the child of one of their number, was born a humanist by the grace of God in the Tuscan town of Arezzo. Six years after Dante's death a casual encounter with a lady who awoke the faculty of song within him made the scholar the first poet of his age. But neither the innate love of letters nor the awakened faculty of poetry would have exalted Petrarch to the literary supremacy he attained if he had not lived at the very juncture when literature, hitherto cultivated in some of its branches for mere utility, in others as an ornament of courtly life, was beginning to revive as a profession. Dante, a statesman, a philosopher, a prophet, was not in a true sense a man of letters, and neither his ideals nor his contemporary influence extended beyond the limits of Italy. Petrarch was the first modern literary dictator, the first author to receive the unanimous homage of a world of culture. Such a world had not existed since the decay of antique civilisation, and he may be said to have been in a manner both its cause and its effect. As the Erasmus, the Voltaire, the Goethe of his age, he claims a more distinguished place in literary history than even his exquisite poetry, much less his but relatively ample erudition, could have secured for him.

Seven months after Petrarch's birth his mother was allowed to return to her patrimonial estate near Florence, where she was sometimes secretly visited by her husband. The elder Petrarca (or, as the name was then spelt, Petracco) might have returned to his native city on the same dishonourable terms as those offered to Dante, but, like Dante, spurned them. Despairing of repatriation, he betook himself to Avignon, then the seat of the Papal Court, where he followed the profession of the law.

Petrarch was successively educated at Carpentras, at Montpellier, and at the University of Bologna, where his father's commands compelled him to the study of jurisprudence. The death of his parent in 1326 recalled him to Avignon, and restored him to letters. To qualify himself for ecclesiastical preferment he received the tonsure without taking orders, a step not unusual in those days, and devoted himself entirely to literature. The "Babylonish captivity" of the Church at Avignon, violently as he denounces it in his writings, was highly favourable to his interests, for it helped him to the patronage of Cardinal Colonna, whose brother, afterwards Bishop of Lombis, he had known intimately at the University of Bologna. It was probably from this source that he derived means to mingle with gay society and indulge in the fashionable follies of eccentric costume, which he ridicules in his later writings; for letters as yet afforded him no sure subsistence, and his scanty patrimony had been embezzled or wasted by his guardians. On April 6, 1337,[1] occurred the most momentous event of his life, his vision of Laura in church "at the hour of prime," which made him a poet. But for this, he might never have written in the vernacular. Cicero and Virgil, his literary idols, enjoined Latin composition, to which in all probability he would have exclusively addicted himself but for the need of celebrating Laura in a language which she understood.

The question of Laura's identity will be best considered along with the poems devoted to her praise and her adorer's passion. Neither love nor society, meanwhile, kept Petrarch from letters, and his reputation waxed daily. He displayed a happy faculty for maintaining relations with the great, equally honourable to both parties, exempt alike from presumption and servility. In 1330 be spent a considerable time with Bishop Colonna at his Pyrenean diocese of Lombes, and on his return was formally enrolled as a member of the Cardinal's household. His residence at Avignon made him known to the learned English prelate, Richard de Bury, and other distinguished visitors at the Papal Court, and he began to enjoy the favour of Robert, King of Naples, His vernacular poetry, though far inferior to that which he was destined to produce, was nevertheless making him and Laura famous, for he exclaims in an early sonnet:

"Blest all songs and music that have spread
Her laud afar."

In 1333 he made a journey to Paris, Belgium, and the Rhine, of which he has given us a lively account in his correspondence, and which produced at least one sonnet which showed that by this time he wanted but little of perfection:

"Through wild inhospitable woods I rove
Where fear attends even on the soldier's way,
Dreadless of ill for nought can me affray
Saving that Sun which shines by light of Love:
And chant, as idly carolling I move,
Her, whom not Heaven itself can keep away,
Borne in my eyes; and ladies I survey
Encircling her, who oaks and beeches prove.
Her voice in sighing breeze and rustling bough
And leaf I seem to hear, and birds, and rills
Murmuring the while they slip through grassy green.
Rarely have silences and lonely thrills
Of overshadowing forests pleased as now,
Except for my own Sun too little seen."

In the same year Petrarch graduated as a patriotic poet by composing his fine Latin metrical epistle on the woes of Italy. In 1335 he received from the Pope a canonry in the cathedral of his patron the Bishop of Lombes. In 1336 he achieved his celebrated ascent of Mount Ventoux, which marks an era as the inauguration of mountain-climbing for pleasure's sake. In 1336 and 1337 he undertook his first journey to Rome, which he found in a most lamentable condition from rapine and civil war. Attributing this to the absence of the Popes in France, he began his long series of exhortations to them to return, to which, being throughout his lifetime Frenchmen, they naturally turned deaf ears. Hence in a measure the disgust with Avignon which led him to seclude himself more and more in Vaucluse (shut valley), the picturesque retreat on the Sorga whither he betook himself in 1337, a beautiful description of which by Ugo Foscolo may be read in Reeve's biography. His adoration of Laura had not prevented his contracting less spiritual ties, for two children were born to him about this time.

Petrarch's rural leisure was largely employed in the composition of a Latin history of Rome, which can have had no critical value, but would Have been deeply interesting as exhibiting the classical feeling of the representative of the early Renaissance. He ultimately destroyed it, and turned to the composition of his Latin epic on the Punic war, Africa, for and from which he long expected immortality. His detestation of the Papal Court breaks out about this time in some powerful sonnets. His Italian poems, meanwhile, had made their way with the world to a degree surprising in an age unacquainted with printing. In 1340 he received on the same day the offer of the poetic laurel from the cities of Paris and Rome. Deciding for the latter, he embarked at Marseilles in February 1341, voyaged to Naples, received signal marks of favour from the King, and, repairing to Rome, was invested with the laurel by the Senator of the city, April 8, 1341. From this day the history of modern literature as a recognised power may be said to date. Ere his return at the beginning of 1342, he had finished his Africa, and bought a house at Parma to give himself a footing in his native land.

In 1343 Petrarch was again in Italy, discharging an important diplomatic mission with which he had been entrusted by the new Pope Clement VI. to the Court of Naples; the state of which he describes in dark colours, not too dark, as the history of the hapless Queen Joanna, Robert's successor, sufficiently proves. He nevertheless rendered himself acceptable to her, and, his mission honourably discharged, repaired to Parma, where (1344) he wrote the first of his great political odes, Italia mia benche il parlar sia indarno, and whence he was chased by civil discord. He did not, however, return to Avignon until towards the end of this year. The next few years were chiefly spent in literary occupations, the most remarkable of which was the composition (1347) of his ode to the Tribune Cola di Riend, in whom he saw the deliverer of his country. Petrarch's course was not free from the imputation of ingratitude to his old friends and patrons, the Colonna family; yet it would have been worse to have been silent at the prospect, however brief and delusive, of the resurrection of Rome. Other poets before him had written on Italian politics, but none, not even Dante, had so exalted their theme by eloquence and ennobling largeness of view:

"Her ancient walls, which still with fear and love
The world admires, whene'er it calls to mind
The days of Eld, and turns to look behind;
Her hoar and caverned monuments above

The dust of men whose fame, until the world
In dissolution sink, can never fail;
Her all, that in one ruin now lies hurled,
Hopes to have healed by thee its every ail.
O faithful Brutus! noble Scipios dead!
To you what triumph, where ye now are blest,
If of our worthy choice the fame have spread!
And how his laurelled crest
Will old Fabricius rear, with joy elate
That his own Rome again shall beauteous be and great!"

The next year, 1348, was one of havoc and desolation for Europe, through the ravages of the Black Death, which swept away a larger proportion of her inhabitants than any similar visitation recorded in history, Laura was among the victims, dying on April 6, the anniversary of her meeting with Petrarch. Cardinal Colonna, his chief patron since the death of the Bishop of Lombes, was also carried off on July 3. Nothing can be added to his own words:

"The lofty Column and the Laurel green,
Whose shade was shelter for my weary thought,
Are broken; mine no longer that which sought
North, south and east and west shall not be seen.
Ravished by Death the treasures twain have been
Whereby I wended with glad courage fraught,
By land or lordship ne'er to be rebought,
Or golden heap or gem of Orient sheen.
If this the high arbitrament of Fate,
What else remains for me than visage bent,
And eye embathed and spirit desolate?
O life of man, in prospect excellent!
What scarce slow striving years accumulate
So lightly in a morning to be spent!"

Petrarch's demeanour after the death of his Laura presents a strong contrast to Dante's after the like bereavement, nor does he suffer by the comparison. Nothing can surpass the poignancy of Dante's first grief as depicted in the Vita Nuova; but he soon forms another tie, and though the memory of Beatrice is ever with him, the human affection subUmates more and more into an abstract spiritual type. Petrarch's utterances, on the other hand, wear at first something of a conventional semblance, but constantly increase in depth and tenderness, and while he remains the humanist in his studies and the diplomatist in active life, his poetry, as of old, is all but monopolised by his one passion. As his attachment to Laura in her life had been compatible with frequent and long absences, so her death did not prevent him from discharging the public functions fitly entrusted to the most eminent scholar of his age.

Although he often expresses in his verse his delight in revisiting the banks of the Sorga, his life from this time was chiefly spent in Upper Italy, much occupied by the discharge of diplomatic commissions from the Pope, the Venetian Republic, and the Lords of Milan and Padua; constantly appealing to the Avignon Popes to terminate the "Babylonish captivity" of the Church; vexed by the undutifulness of his natural son, but finding comfort in his daughter; indefatigable in collecting and transcribing manuscripts; giving, though himself ignorant of Greek, a powerful impulse to Hellenic studies by commissioning a Latin translation of Homer; producing many of his most pleasing minor Latin writings; and throwing his last energies into the apotheosis of Laura in his Trionfi. He went to Paris to congratulate John, King of France, on his release from captivity in England; and was present at the marriage of Lionel, Duke of Clarence, at Milan, where or soon afterwards he may possibly have encountered Chaucer. Boccaccio followed him with respectful homage, and almost his last literary labour was the Latin translation of the Florentine's tale of Patient Griselda, The last four years of his life, though with many intervals of public business, were chiefly spent in his retirement at Arquá, a village in the Euganean Hills, where death overtook him as he bent over a book, July 20, 1374. He had virtually finished the Trionfi about three months previously.

We have devoted more space to the biography of Petrarch than to that of Dante, because, although Dante towers above him as a poet, Petrarch is the more important figure in Italian literary history. Dante stands alone: venerated as he was by his countrymen, and not wholly destitute of imitators, he yet founded no school, and his influence on the development of the Italian intellect is slight in comparison with Petrarch's. Together with the great schoolman who quitted the world as he entered it, he sums up the Middle Age, which in him and Aquinas attains its highest development. Petrarch, on the other hand, is the representative Italian. He does not, like Dante, deliver, but is himself a prophecy: the future of Italian culture is prefigured in him. He was also the first to bestow on Italy an unquestioned supremacy in the world of literature, and was the earliest restorer of the republic of letters, a conception extinct in the ages of barbarism. In this restoration, transcending the limits of his own country, his Latin writings were necessarily more influential than his Italian,[2] and although they do not properly belong to our subject, their great importance in the history of culture entitles them to a few words.

The chief causes of Petrarch's failure as a Latin poet are evident. In the infancy of vernacular literature it was not sufficiently understood that compositions in a dead language, however exquisite, must fail to bestow immortality. Nor could Petrarch himself be fully aware how impossible it was to write like a Roman poet in the new dawn of reviving classical studies. It took two centuries of culture to produce a Vida and a Sannazaro, and if their names are undying, the same can hardly be said of their Latin works. But there was a deeper reason. Petrarch attempted epic composition without epic inspiration. His genius was entirely lyric, and his poetry has little value except where it palpitates with lyrical feeling. When he writes on the misfortunes of his country, he is a poet even when writing in Latin; and his great Latin epic, the Africa, too often tame, notwithstanding its true natural feeling, sometimes, especially when near the end of the poem he speaks of himself, kindles into poetry. The Latin verses placed by Coleridge on the half-title of his own love-poems in Sibylline Leaves are almost as exquisite as the tenderest passages of the Canzoniere itself:[3]

"Quas humilis tenero stylus olim effudit in œvo,
Perlegis hic lacrymas, et quod pharetratus acuta
Ille puer puero fecit mihi cuspide vulnus.

Omnia paulatim consumit longior ætas,

Vivendoque simul morimur, rapimurque manendo.
Ipse mihi collatus enim non ille videbor:
Frons alia est, moresque alii, nova mentis imago,
Voxque aliud sonat.
Pectore nunc gelido calidos miserêmur amantes,
Jamque arsisse pudet. Veteres tranquilla tumultus
Mens horret, relegensque alium putat ista locutum.".

Although Petrarch preferred Latin to Italian in the abstract, and even affected to undervalue Dante because his chief works were composed in the vulgar tongue, he acknowledged that he had missed the perfection in Latin which he was conscious of having attained in Italian. His only prose-writings with any significance for us now are the autobiographic. Some of his ethical disquisitions, however, if they had come down from classic times, would have been regarded as precious monuments of antiquity. The most important of these is the De Remediis utriusque Fortunæ (1356), in two books, the first treating of the snares of prosperity, the second arming the soul against adversity. The reflections are forcibly expressed, but in themselves somewhat trite. His tract De sua et aliorum Ignorantia (1361), on the other hand, abounds with energy, and gives a lively picture of the strife in his bosom between the humanistic scholar and the orthodox Christian. More vital still, at least after some pedantic digressions have been discarded, is his Secretum, sive de Contemptu Mundi (1342), where the conflict in his mind between the sense of moral obligation and his passion for Laura is so depicted as to render him the prototype of Rousseau, and entitle us to derive one of the most characteristic departments of modern literature from him. He is no less the father of modern autobiography by the slight but charming sketch he has left of himself in his Epistola ad Posteros, prefixed to the general collection of his letters. It was a great discovery that the external circumstances of a remarkable life are not the only ones worth relating.

The most important of all Petrarch's Latin works is his collection of Epistles, partly formed by himself in his lifetime, and greatly enriched by the diligence of recent editors, especially Fracassetti. These are not only of high interest from the portrait they convey of the man himself, equally as an individual and as the ideal type of the man of letters, but form a perpetual commentary on the manners and customs of his age. Many, though composed by Petrarch, are written in the names of sovereigns or public bodies; others are letters of warm encouragement or warmer remonstrance to popes, emperors, and others who then seemed, but only seemed, to have the world's destinies in their hands. In all his correspondence with the great, Petrarch, like Dante, appears as the idealist, inspired by the remembrance of antiquity, and urging upon the rulers of the day a more exalted course of action than suited their dispositions, or, it must be admitted, was compatible with the circumstances of the time. They on their parts seem to have appreciated the honour of being lectured by such a man, and to have permitted him to say what he pleased, satisfied that he could exert no practical influence upon the course of politics. Printing and the liberty of the press have now made the humblest newspaper scribe more potent than the first man of letters of the fourteenth century. Some of Petrarch's epistles are of unique interest, such as the description of his ascent of Mount Ventoux, of the great tempest at Naples, and of the apparition of the ghost of the Bishop of Lombes, the first circumstantial narrative of the kind, and perhaps to this day the best authenticated.

Petrarch's encouragement of classical study is not the least among his titles to fame. He was the Erasmus of his age in so far as the rudimentary condition of criticism allowed, and, in so far as his means permitted, its Mæcenas. He discovered Cicero's epistles to Atticus, and, by his own statement, which there seems no sufficient reason for rejecting, had at one time the lost treatise De Gloria in his hands. He yearned towards Homer and Plato, whom he could not read in the original, but perused in translations. The fullest information respecting his literary tastes, the extent of his library and his knowledge of the classics, his borrowings and loans of manuscripts, his copyists and his bindings, will be found in the excellent monograph of Pierre de Nolhac, Pétrarque et l'Humanisme (Paris, 1892). Many manuscripts known to have belonged to him still exist, chiefly in French public libraries. The story of the destruction of his books by the neglect of the Venetians is groundless; they ought to have been made over to the Republic after his death, but they never reached Venice. The Aldine Italic type is said to have been modelled after Petrarch's handwriting, and the first book in which it was used was an edition of the author whom he principally annotated, Virgil.

This work was published before January 1, 1926, and is in the public domain worldwide because the author died at least 100 years ago.

  1. Petrarch says on a Good Friday, but Good Friday did not fall on April 6 in 1327, and the statement of the encounter having taken place in church at all is inconsistent with other passages in his writings.
  2. "It is pleasing," says Coleridge, in a note to his little-known Maximian, "to contemplate in this illustrious man at once the benefactor of his own times and the delight of the succeeding, and working on his contemporaries by that portion of his works which is least in account with posterity."
  3. From the epistle to Barbatos, Coleridge says of the entire composition: "Had Petrarch lived a century later, and, retaining all his substantiality of head and heart, added to it the elegancies and manly politure of Fracastorius, Flaminius, Vida, and their co-rivals, this letter Would have been it classical gem" (Anima Poetæ, p. 263).