If it is no longer easy to form a true idea of Petrarch and his work, the responsibility is more ours than his. He is more copious and explicit about his own nature, aims, and activities than any writer before him and most since his day. No one ever took more pains to present himself to posterity in the form by which he wished posterity to know him. But most of his works are in Latin, and English translations are few and not very accessible. Moreover, the last more or less complete edition of Petrarch’s oeuvre was published in 1581 and some individual texts have not been reprinted since then. If petrarch is known at all it is not for the Latin works, by which he himself and his contemporaries set most store, but for the Canzoniere, the sequence of 366 Italian poems, mostly sonnets, to Laura, the object of his devotion in life and in death. These poems have been frequently reprinted and translated even in the last century, though they are nowadays less read than talked about. A hundred can identify a Petrarchan conceit for one who has looked through more than a page or two of the Canzoniere.

Of the secondary, non-specialist literature on Petrarch in English, E.H.R. Tatham’s two volumes (1925-26), covering only a portion of Petrarch’s life, are long out of print. So is J. H. Whitfield’s Petrarch and the Renascence (1943). Without the late E.H. Wilkins’s admirable Life published in 1961, and without these two volumes by Mr. Bishop—one a translation of some of the Latin letters and the other a discursive study—the field would be thin indeed. These are the only books of their kind available.

IS IT TRUE, in other words, that Petrarch must be a classic because nobody reads him? Certainly it is easier to define his greatness in terms of his historical importance, for even the Canzoniere has fallen out of the central position it once had as the pattern of European lyric poetry for three centuries. In its day, of course, it was supreme. Petrarch’s Laura is the forerunner of Stella, Delia, the Dark Lady, and Petrarch’s images—the sigh-tempests, crystal tears, the eyes that kill, drown, or kindle the lover, the ice and fire, the comfort and despair of love—are the staple of Renaissance verse. We speak of them, a little wearily, as such. But the Canzoniere stands as a great poetic achievement in itself, in its insights and explorations, its dazzling rhetoric, and above all its magnificent lyric stamina. The loss is ours if we do not read it.

Petrarch’s significance, however, goes much further than this. It may be misleading to call him—as Tatham did—the first modern man of letters, but it is certainly true that all modern readers and writers owe him a debt. He was the first to insist explicitly on the value and excellence of secular learning and humane letters, demanding for them not mere tolerance but a place of honor. Typically, Petrarch chose to make his point by a carefully stage-managed public ceremony on the Capitol in Rome on 6 April 1341, at which the city solemnly crowned him poet with the Roman laurel, and conferred on him the title of Roman citizen, with a robe of honor and a poetic diploma. The oration in defense and in definition of the dignity of poetry which Petrarch delivered on the Capitol has rightly been called the first manifesto of the Renaissance. Its theme is the praise of the everlasting monument which poetry, being historical and moral in its function, concerned with truth, can build out of frail words. Great deeds die, however nobly done, but the poet-philosopher -historian can make them, their doers—and himself—live forever in his verse.

Petrarch’s example was decisive for Renaissance Europe. Most importantly, it was an example given to the present and the future in full consciousness of all its implications. No one, indeed, ever understood more exactly the pervasive and indelible power of “example,” in the sense of an action or report which excites to admiration and imitation. “Examples profit much/ten times in one/In persons full of more great deeds are done,” as a later poet has it. For Petrarch and the Renaissance the special power of his coronation derived from its identity with a classical model. He believed that he was following in the footsteps of the great poets of ancient Rome—he was mistaken as it happens—and reviving, in a city now fallen and enfeebled, one of its noblest antique customs. There is also the implied but no less passionate belief that imitation of the great men and the usages of a golden antiquity would bring about a resurgence of ancient glory in which arts and arms would flourish side by side. All the vestiges of ancient Roman civilization could be made to serve this end. Even the sight of coins minted by the ancient emperors might, Petrarch thought, suggest to the present Holy Roman Emperor, Charles IV, that he should imitate his predecessors by ruling his Empire from Rome and not from Germany. To complete the regeneration, the Pope must return from the Babylonian captivity at Avignon to the true chair of St. Peter, so that a greater—because Christian—Rome could rise on the ruins of the old.


Petrarch spoke of himself as a Janus, a figure facing both forward and backward, a man of his time whose preference was to look to the classical world for the enlargement and regulation of the present. His devotion to antiquity underlies everything he did or wrote, even his devotion to Laura. Time and again in the poems addressed to her we must catch, if we are to understand them, the ring of the enduring ancient bronze—in the transformation of a famous night piece from the Aeneid, for example (Surrey’s “Behold how all things now do hold their peace”), or of Horace’s Integer vitae—itself a love poem, incidentally (Surrey’s “Put me whereas the sun doth parch the green”).

THERE WERE TIMES, though, when devotion to antiquity, to Laura, and to the monument a man might make for himself by learning and letters seemed less than the truth. Petrarch was, after all, a professed cleric and had to face the dilemma of the Christian poet and scholar. The way from classical Latinity to the eternal abodes might not, after all, be open; his words might perish with the flesh and his soul be damned; the man who never loved and never wrote a line might sit in heavenly glory while Petrarch burned. With so little done in twenty years, so many works half-finished or not even begun, was he so sure even of worldly renown? In his Secretum or Private Book, Petrarch examines his own life and motives in the light of this spiritual disquiet, casting the examination in the form of a dialogue between Franciscus, who represents Petrarch the lover of the world, and St. Augustine, his spiritual master, who represents the uneasy, self-doubting, contrite side of Petrarch’s nature. Augustine is in no doubt which side is the right one. Franciscus’s restless love of glory and of Laura are the shackles that bind him to the world: he must save his soul by giving them up. Franciscus agrees, longing for true rest in God. But Petrarch never stopped writing or seeking fame.

If Petrarch had never written anything but the Canzoniere and the Secretum his works would still be the first modern masterpieces of literary self-consciousness. More remarkable still than these, perhaps, is the huge corpus of his Latin prose letters, another inexorably and fascinatingly detailed self-portrait. Like all Petrarch’s writings they seek to bridge the gulf of darkness both forwards and backwards, not merely to recommend the example of the ancient world but actually to bring the present into communication with it in such a way and by such means as will ensure that the communication will be lasting. The Latin language, not the barbaric stuff that the lawyers and dialecticians write, but the true old Roman eloquence, is the medium of communication. By it, we can speak to the ancient authors as we do to intimate friends. This feeling, always present in Petrarch, finds in most striking expression in the extraordinary series of letters addressed to classical authors, which were prompted by his discovery, in the Cathedral library at Verona, of a manuscript of Cicero’s letters to Atticus and others, hitherto unknown. By means of the Latin language we can also speak intimately to the future, not only by collecting and preserving our own works, including letters, but even more explicitly. In a long, unprecedented and unfinished letter, first drafted when he was in his forties, Petrarch describes his appearance and assesses his nature and his work for the benefit of a posterity which he never fully doubted would be interested. It is his conviction, the belief of a writer, that who he was, how he felt, and what he did, as much as what he had to say and how he said it, will interest others.

IN ALL, NEARLY six hundred letters are extant, most of them preserved in two precisely ordered collections. The first is the Familiares, four fat volumes in its modern edition, arranged and edited by Petrarch himself and “published” for the benefit of posterity in 1361. The second is the Seniles, the letters of old age, put together by a disciple on principles laid down by their author. These carefully worked but often highly personal “trifles,” as Petrarch called them, are remarkable documents in themselves. It is still more remarkable that any man of that time should so have valued himself and them as to have found them worth preserving and circulating. There was no precedent in the post-classical world and only Cicero’s in the classical. To find anything comparable in scale and range of topic and self-scrutiny we have to go forward to Luther and Erasmus, whose correspondence is vaster but lacks the disarming and conscious unself-consciousness of Petrarch’s. Not many even today have this sort of courage—or vanity. The collection of letters is the job of the literary executor.


PETRARCH’S CORRESPONDENCE is addressed to more than a hundred and thirty different people, living and dead, named and unnamed—emperor and empress, chancellor, doge, baron, tribune, cardinal, bishop (he was not above a little name-dropping), patron, fellow cleric, fellow or rival author. Chiefly, though, it is directed to his friends, for he valued friendship (his exemplar again, as in the title Familiares, and the notion of collecting his letters at all, is Cicero) above all earthly goods. Boccaccio, a disciple, became one of the best known and most faithful, but the dearest were the obscurer Lodewyck Heyliger, the Flemish musician whom Petrarch called Socrates, Philippe de Cabassoles, Lello di Stefano dei Tossetti, his Laelius. To them all, Petrarch poured himself out. An expedition to walk up nearby Mount Ventoux, his first sight of Rome, his perplexity about which city should be allowed to crown him poet, his interviews with the Emperor, the nature of hope, the persecutions of a local lord, the recollection of walks in Rome with a friend and their veneration of the “sacred” places, the present age which makes one a satirist whether one wants it or not, the murder of a friend, the misdeeds of his son, dreams, temptations, the blows of Fortune (a favorite topic this), his dog, his life of literary retirement at Vaucluse, his rage for books, his scorn for pseudo-scientists, his horror of having to take up school-mastering, the divinity of poetry, Dante—the list of topics is almost endless.

So much detail, anecdote, and incident make it easy to read the letters as if they were correspondence in the modern sense. But the occasions which prompt them are more formal, and their arrangement and interrelations more studied. They are no more spontaneous nor rhetorically less sophisticated than the poems of the Canzoniere. Their praises of the solitary life or the countryside, deeply informed as they are by Petrarch’s personality, are also profoundly conventional. The letter refusing a loan is, in every sense, a model of how to do so effectively. In the famous “landscape” letter, the spark from the peasant’s pick is not merely a vivid touch of color; its fire completes the sum of the four elements, earth, air, and water having had their turn. The letter on the ascent of Mt. Ventoux is as much a moral allegory as a mountaineer’s diary-entry and an expression of the feeling for external nature that Jakob Burckhardt was the first to single out as modern. Similarly, most of the letters in, say, Book I of the Familiares are sententious pieces on topics such as the fleetingness of one’s prime, moral essays or little treaties on “invention” and eloquence, not at all casual communications; we do them wrong if we equate them too closely with the letters of a writer of our day. But a writer Petrarch certainly was, unflaggingly driving his pen. “I could wish,” he says in a late letter, “that my work could be complete with my death. But since this is too much to hope for, I hope that death may find me reading or writing, or, if that is Christ’s will, praying and weeping.” The legend goes that they found him dead one morning, still bent over his Life of Caesar.

THE LETTERS THEMSELVES offer much the best possible introduction to Petrarch, to his astonishing variety and articulateness. Morris Bishop’s clear and readable translation of a representative selection of just over a hundred is therefore welcome. Nothing else of the kind exists in English and many letters are here translated for the first time. Mr. Bishop, in fact, has probably done more than anyone alive to make Petrarch available to a wider public, having previously translated the entire Canzoniere as well as the substantial chunks of other works embedded in Petrarch and his World (1963). Complaint is perhaps ungracious when so much has been given. But Letters from Petrarch is certain to be widely used in college courses, and one feels the lack of explanatory notes (there are some, but they are desultory) and introductory remarks, which could help the reader to catch more fully and correctly the general drift and tone, or the exact sense, of a given letter. Mr. Bishop refers us to Petrarch and his World, but this is a life-and-times, too general to help much in the hand-to-hand stuff of making out the meaning. The literal meaning, too, is sometimes obscured rather than clarified by the translation, in quite serious ways. In the two letters to Cicero, for example, we have “noble” instead of “rash”; “the salutary counsels of your own masters” instead of “your own salutary precepts”; “set free” instead of “were a haven for”; “we are sustained by the light which illumines our simplicity” instead of “we freely confess ourselves to be illumined by your light.” Cicero is made to lament that the elder Seneca, who was twelve years old at Cicero’s death and died in his bed when over eighty, was “cut off not by ripeness of years but by the raging civil wars”; whereas Petrarch is in fact using a literal quotation from Seneca, who is bewailing that he never set eyes on Cicero because the civil wars made this impossible.

Petrarch and his World is a large, knowledgeable, slightly old-fashioned book, full of plain statement and circumstantial detail, a broad, panoramic view of a vast area. Petrarch’s world is inhabited by poor, tortured, celibate monks, ribald students, stout servants, and sturdy lonesome males. To this reader at least, the treatment of Petrarch’s devotion to Laura makes tasteless and too easy fun of both: “Laura, then, didn’t want to and she couldn’t”; Hugues de Sade, the putative husband of Laura, “could not have taken Petrarch very seriously,” and “any competent rake” could have given Petrarch instruction. Petrarch’s melancholy—how do we know how “real” it was, in any case?—is caused by denial of the “physiological imperative” and Petrarch suffers from “graduate colic or intellectualepsy,” a state similar to the siccitas of the mystics. There is, however, no denying the usefulness of this book or Mr. Bishop’s command of Petrarch and his work.

A larger audience is Petrarch’s due, for he was one of the great shapers of European literary and scholarly consciousness and so aided greatly in the formation of a literary public. His conviction that the present, to be worth anything in itself and for the future, should always be supported by the knowledge of the past is not yet out of date.

This Issue

March 9, 1967