The Age of Petrarch and Boccaccio



IN that same year 1302 in which the aristocratic party of the neri (Blacks), having seized the government of Florence by force, exiled Dante and other middle-class bianchi (Whites), the triumphant oligarchy indicted a White lawyer, Ser (i.e., Messer or Master) Petracco on the charge of having falsified a legal document. Branding the accusation as a device for ending his political career, Petracco refused to stand for trial. He was convicted in absence, and was given the choice of paying a heavy fine or having his right hand cut off. As he still refused to appear before the court, he was banished from Florence, and suffered the confiscation of his property. Taking his young wife with him, he fled to Arezzo. There, two years later, Francesco Petrarca (as he later euphonized his name) burst upon the world.

Predominantly Ghibelline—yielding political allegiance to the emperors of the Holy Roman Empire rather than to the popes—little Arezzo experienced in the fourteenth century all the tribulations of an Italian city. Guelfic Florence—supporting the popes against the emperors in the struggle for political authority in Italy—had overwhelmed Arezzo at Campaldino (1289), where Dante fought; in 1340 all Aretine Ghibellines between thirteen and seventy were exiled; and in 1384 Arezzo fell permanently under Florentine rule. There, in ancient days, Maecenas had been born; there the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries would see the birth of Giorgio Vasari, who made the Renaissance famous, and of Pietro Aretino, who for a while made it infamous. Every town in Italy has fathered genius, and banished it.

In 1312 Ser Petracco rushed north to welcome the Emperor Henry VII as one who would save Italy, or at least its Ghibellines. As sanguine as Dante in that year, Petracco moved his family to Pisa, and awaited the destruction of the Florentine Guelfs.

Pisa was still among the splendors of Italy. The shattering of her fleet by the Genoese in 1284 had reduced her possessions and narrowed her commerce; and the strife of Guelf and Ghibelline within her gates left her with scant strength to elude the imperialistic grasp of a mercantile Florence eager to control the Arno to its mouth. But her brave burghers gloried in their majestic marble cathedral, their precarious campanile, and their famous cemetery, that Campo Santo, or Sacred Field, whose central quadrangle had been filled with soil from the Holy Land, and whose walls were soon to receive frescoes by Giotto’s pupils and the Lorenzetti, and whose sculptured tombs gave a moment’s immortality to the heroic or lavish dead. In Pisa’s university, soon after its establishment, the subtle jurist Bartolus of Sassoferrato adapted Roman law to the needs of the age, but phrased his legal science in such esoteric verbiage as brought both Petrarch and Boccaccio down upon his head. Perhaps Bartolus found obscurity prudent, since he justified tyrannicide, and denied the right of governments to take a man’s property except by due process of law.1

Henry VII died (1313) before he could make up his mind to be or not to be a Roman emperor. The Guelfs of Italy rejoiced; and Ser Petracco, unsafe in Pisa, emigrated with his wife, his daughter, and his two sons to Avignon on the Rhone, where the newly established papal court, and a rapidly expanding population, offered opportunities for a lawyer’s skill. They sailed up the coast to Genoa, and Petrarch never forgot the unfolding splendor of the Italian Riviera—towns like diadems on mountain brows, slipping down to green blue seas; this, said the young poet, “is liker to heaven than to earth.”2 They found Avignon so stuffed with dignitaries that they moved some fifteen miles northeast to Carpentras (1315); and there Francesco spent four years of happy carelessness. Bliss ended when he was sent off to Montpellier (1319–23), and then to Bologna (1323–6) to study law.

Bologna should have pleased him. It was a university town, full of the frolic of students, the odor of learning, the excitement of independent thought. Here in this fourteenth century were given the first courses in human anatomy. Here were women professors, some, like Novella d’Andrea (d. 1366), so attractive that tradition, doubtless fanciful, described her as lecturing behind a veil lest the students should be distracted by her beauty. The commune of Bologna had been among the first to throw off the yoke of the Holy Roman Empire and proclaim its autonomy; as far back as 1153 it had chosen its own podesta or city manager; and for two centuries it had maintained a democratic government. But in 1325, while Petrarch was there, it suffered so disastrous a defeat by Modena that it placed itself under the protection of the papacy, and in 1327 accepted a papal vicar as its governor. Thereby would hang many a bitter tale.

Petrarch liked the spirit of Bologna, but he hated the letter of the law. “It went against my bent painfully to acquire an art that I would not practise dishonestly, and could hardly hope to practise otherwise.”2a All that he cared for in the legal treatises was their “numberless references to Roman antiquity.” Instead of studying law he read all that he could find of Virgil, Cicero, and Seneca. They opened to him a new world, both of philosophy and of literary art. He began to think like them, he longed to write like them. When his parents died (1326) he abandoned law, returned to Avignon, and steeped himself in classic poetry and romantic love.

It was on Good Friday of 1327, he tells us, that he saw the woman whose withheld charms made him the most famous poet of his age. He described her in fascinating detail, but kept the secret of her identity so well that even his friends thought her the invention of his muse, and counted all his passion as poetic license. But on the flyleaf of his copy of Virgil, jealously treasured in the Ambrosian Library at Milan, may still be seen the words that he wrote in 1348:

Laura, who was distinguished by her virtues, and widely celebrated by my songs, first appeared to my eyes… in the year of Our Lord 1327, on the sixth day of April, at the first hour, in the church of Santa Clara at Avignon. In the same city, in the same month, on the same sixth day, at the same first hour, in the year 1348, that light was taken from our day.

Who was this Laura? A will was filed in Avignon on April 3, 1348, by one Laura de Sade, wife of Count Hugues de Sade, to whom she had given twelve children; presumably this was the lady of the poet’s love, and her husband was a distant ancestor of the most famous sadist in history. A miniature attributed to Simone Martini, and now in the Laurentian Library at Florence, is described by tradition as a portrait of Petrarch’s Laura; it shows a face of delicate beauty, fine mouth, straight nose, and lowered eyes suggesting a pensive modesty. We do not know if Laura was married, or already a young mother, when Petrarch first saw her. In any case she received his adoration calmly, kept him at a distance, and gave his passion all the encouragement of denial. The occasional sincerity of his feeling for her is suggested by his later remorse over its sensual elements, and his gratitude for the refining influence of this unrequited love.

Meanwhile he lived in Provence, the land of the troubadours; the echoes of their songs still lingered in Avignon; and Petrarch, like the young Dante a generation before him, became unconsciously a troubadour, wedding his passion to a thousand tricks of verse. The writing of poetry was then a popular pastime; Petrarch complained, in one of his letters, that lawyers and theologians, nay, even his own valet, had taken to rhyming; soon, he feared, “the very cattle would begin to low in verse.”3 From his own country he inherited the sonnet form, and bound it into the difficult rhymepattern that for centuries molded and hampered Italian poetry. Walking along the streams or among the hills, kneeling distracted at Vespers or Mass, groping his way among verbs and adjectives in the silence of his room, he composed during the next twenty-one years 207 sonnets and sundry other poems on the living, breeding Laura. Gathered in manuscript copies as a Canzoniere or Songbook, these compositions caught the fancy of Italian youth, of Italian manhood, of the Italian clergy. No one was disturbed by the fact that the author, seeing no road to advancement except in the Church, had taken the tonsure and minor orders, and was angling for a benefice; but Laura may have blushed—and thrilled—on hearing that her hair and brow and eyes and nose and lips… were sung from the Adriatic to the Rhone. Never before, in the salvaged literature of the world, had the emotion of love been expounded in such diverse fullness, or with such painstaking artifice. Here were all the pretty conceits of versified desire, the fitful flame of love miraculously trimmed to meter and rhyme:

No rock, however cold, but with my theme
Shall henceforth kindle and consume in sighs!

But the Italian people received these bonbons in the most exquisite music that their language had yet heard—subtle and delicate and melodious, gleaming with bright imagery, making even Dante seem at times crude and harsh; now, indeed, that glorious language—the triumph of the vowel over the consonant—reached a height of beauty that even to our day remains unsealed. An alien can translate the thought, but who shall translate the music?

In qual parte del ciel, in quale idea

Era l’essempio, onde Natura tolse

Quel bel viso leggiadro, in ch’ ella volse

Mostrar qua giú quanto lassú potea?

Qual ninfa in fonti, in selve mai qual dea,

Chiome d’oro so fino a l’aura sciolse?

Quando un cor tante in sé vertuti accolse?

Benché la somma è di mia morte rea.

Per divina bellezza indarno mira

Chi gli occhi de costei già mai non vide

Come soavemente ella gli gira;

Non sa come Amor sana, e come ancide,

Chi non sa come dolce ella sospira,

E come dolce parla, e dolce ride.4*

His poems, his gay wit, his sensitivity to beauty in woman, nature, conduct, literature, and art, made a place for Petrarch in cultured society; and his condemnation of ecclesiastical morals in Avignon did not deter great churchmen like Bishop Giacomo Colonna, and a brother Cardinal Giovanni Colonna, from offering him hospitality and patronage. Like most of us he enjoyed and condoned before he tired and condemned; between sonnets to Laura he dallied with a mistress, and begot two illegitimate children. He had leisure for travel, and apparently substantial funds; we find him in Paris in 1331, then in Flanders and Germany, then in Rome (1336) as the guest of the Colonnas. He was deeply moved by the ruins of the Forum, revealing an ancient power and grandeur that shamed the poverty and squalor of the abandoned medieval capital. He pled with five successive popes to leave Avignon and return to Rome. He himself, however, left Rome and returned to Avignon.

For seven years, between his travels, he lived in the palace of Cardinal Colonna there, meeting the finest scholars, churchmen, lawyers, and statesmen of Italy, France, and England, and conveying to them some of his enthusiasm for classical literature. But he resented the simoniacal corruption of Avignon, the consuming leisure of ecclesiastical litigation, the confusion of cardinals and courtesans, the conversion of Christianity to the world. In 1337 he bought a small house at Vaucluse—“Closed Valley”—some fifteen miles east of Avignon. Traveling through majestic views to locate that hideaway, one is surprised to find it a tiny cottage built against a cliff, oppressed by massive crags, but caressed by the quiet flow of the undulant Sorgue. Petrarch foreshadowed Rousseau not only in the sentimental involution of his love, but in the pleasure he derived from natural scenery. “Would that you could know,” he wrote to a friend, “with what delight I wander, free and alone, among the mountains, forests, and streams.” Already in 1336 he had set a fashion by climbing Mt. Ventoux (6214 feet high), purely for the exercise, the view, and the vanity of victory. Now at Vaucluse he dressed like a peasant, fished in the brook, puttered in two gardens, and contented himself “with a single dog and only two servants.” His sole regret (for his passion for Laura had spent itself in hunting rhymes) was that he was too far from Italy and too near Avignon.

From that foot of land he moved half the literary world. He loved to write long letters to his friends, to popes and kings, to dead authors, to unborn posterity. He kept copies of this correspondence, and in his declining years he amused his pride by revising it for posthumous publication. These epistles, in vigorous but hardly Ciceronian Latin, are the most vital relics of his pen. Some of them so harshly criticized the Church that Petrarch kept them secret till he was safely dead. While accepting with apparent sincerity the full doctrine of Catholic Christianity, he dwelt in spirit with the ancients; he wrote to Homer, Cicero, Livy as if they were living comrades, and complained that he had not been born in the heroic days of the Roman Republic. He habitually called one of his correspondents Laelius, and another Socrates. He inspired his friends to search for lost manuscripts of Latin or Greek literature, to copy ancient inscriptions, and collect ancient coins, as precious documents of history. He urged the establishment of public libraries. He practised what he preached: on his travels he sought and bought classic texts as “more valuable merchandise than anything offered by the Arabs or the Chinese”;6 he transcribed unpurchasable manuscripts with his own hand; and at home he hired copyists to live with him. He gloried in a Homer sent him from Greece, begged the sender for a copy of Euripides, and made his copy of Virgil a vade mecum on whose flyleaf he entered events in the careers of his friends. The Middle Ages had preserved, and some medieval scholars had loved, many pagan classics; but Petrarch knew from references in these works that numberless masterpieces had been forgotten or mislaid; and it became his passion to recover them.

Renan called him “the first modern man,” as having “inaugurated in the Latin West a tender feeling for ancient culture.”7 This will not do as a definition of modernity, which did not merely rediscover the classic world, but replaced the supernatural with the natural as the focus of human concern. In this sense too Petrarch may deserve the epithet “modern”; for though moderately pious, and occasionally worried about the afterlife, his revival of interest in antiquity fostered the Renaissance emphasis on man and the earth, on the legitimacy of sensory pleasure, and on mortal glory as a substitute for personal immortality. Petrarch had some sympathy for the medieval view, and in his dialogues De contemptu mundi he let St. Augustine expound it well; but in those imaginary conversations he made himself the defender of secular culture and earthly fame. Though Petrarch was already seventeen when Dante died, an abyss divided their moods. By common consent he was the first humanist, the first writer to express with clarity and force the right of man to concern himself with this life, to enjoy and augment its beauties, and to labor to deserve well of posterity. He was the Father of the Renaissance.



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