“I daily listen to your words with more attention than one would believe, and perhaps I shall not be thought impertinent in wishing to be heard by you,” wrote the Italian poet Petrarch in 1348. His addressee was the Roman philosopher Seneca, who had died nearly thirteen centuries before. Petrarch’s practice of writing to long-dead authors epitomizes—and helped to initiate—the essential double movement of humanist imitatio, the exchange by which schoolboys and scholars across late medieval and early modern Europe formed their ideas, values, images, tastes, and turns of phrase along the lines of an antiquity they were just beginning to regard (but had not yet begun to speak of) as “classical.”

The American scholar Thomas Greene in The Light in Troy, his 1982 study of humanism’s intimate relation to and sense of estrangement from the ancient world, called imitatio “a literary technique that was also a pedagogic method and a critical battleground.” Whom to take as one’s exemplars and how closely to follow them, which models to embrace and which to avoid or improve upon, were subjects of fervent debate. In theory, emulating the best of what had been written fostered expressiveness; “in practice,” Greene allows, “it led not infrequently to sterility.” But as Petrarch’s letter to Seneca suggests, the rewards of imitatio were perhaps primarily emotional: a communion with other minds that fortified readers against the disappointments of the present. Of his library at Vaucluse, near the papal court at Avignon, Petrarch wrote:

Here I have established my Rome, my Athens, and my spiritual fatherland; here I gather all the friends I now have or did have, not only those…who have lived with me, but also those who died many centuries ago, known to me only through their writings…. I am where I wish to be.

In A Marvelous Solitude, her new book on Renaissance humanists’ romance with reading, the Italian scholar Lina Bolzoni channels the allure, for Petrarch and those who came after him, of a life in books, its pleasures “more intimate and more intense than the satisfaction afforded by other worldly goods.” But such intimacy came at a cost: “A sense of being unsuited to one’s times, a feeling, almost, of extraneousness and alienation.”

There is often a whiff of misanthropy about Petrarch’s passion for books. In the fourteenth century, before the invention of movable type, books were artisanal objects, and even the simplest were inscribed and bound by hand. But once acquired, Petrarch observes, they asked little of their possessors; with books, unlike houseguests, “there is no tedium, no expense, no complaints, no murmurs, no envy, no deceit…. They are satisfied with the smallest room in your house and a modest robe, they require no drink or food.”

In what is perhaps his most famous letter, written to a former confessor in April 1336, Petrarch describes his ascent of Mont Ventoux, a nearby peak. Not wishing to journey alone, he rummaged through his mental Rolodex for a companion and found, he half-jokingly reports, “that hardly one among my friends seemed suitable”:

This one was too apathetic, that one over-anxious; this one too slow, that one too hasty; one was too sad, another over-cheerful; one more simple, another more sagacious, than I desired. I feared this one’s taciturnity and that one’s loquacity.

In the end he brought his younger brother, Gherardo—who indeed irritated him by climbing too swiftly and talking too much—and a pocket-size copy of Augustine’s Confessions. Arriving on the summit at last, exhausted and out of breath, he opened the volume at random and read this from Book Ten: “And men go about to wonder at the heights of the mountains, and the mighty waves of the sea, and the wide sweep of rivers, and the circuit of the ocean, and the revolution of the stars, but themselves they consider not.” It was a rebuke, and a revelation. “I was satisfied that I had seen enough of the mountain; I turned my inward eye upon myself,” Petrarch writes, convinced that Augustine’s words were “addressed to me and to no other.”

Monastic libraries had long served as repositories for the keeping and copying of texts, but Bolzoni credits Petrarch with crafting what she calls a “highly fascinating myth” about reading as a dialogue with the dead, at once timeless and immediate. When a heavy volume of Cicero fell on his leg two separate times, leaving a mark just above the ankle, Petrarch was delighted: “My Cicero thus made an indelible note on my memory and on my body with a scar that never disappeared.” To his friend Boccaccio he boasted:

I have read what is said in Virgil, Horace, Boethius, and Cicero not once but countless times…. I have thoroughly absorbed these writings, implanting them not only in memory but in my marrow, and they have so become one with my mind that were I never to read them for the remainder of my life, they would cling to me, having taken root in the innermost recesses of my mind.

And when Boccaccio wrote in a panic following a visit from a Sienese Carthusian who urged him to renounce his worldly studies for the sake of his soul, Petrarch sent a bracing reply: “Did not all our forefathers whom we wish to emulate spend all their lives with literature, grow old with literature, meet their end with literature?” But should his exhortations prove fruitless, he added:


If you desire to get rid of the very instruments of literature by selling your books and are utterly determined to do so, I am grateful, by heaven, that you have offered them to me before anyone else since…I am so greedy for books.

Again and again in his writing about dead authors, Petrarch emphasized their advantages over living people—or, as he scornfully put it, “those who think they are alive because they see traces of their stale breath in the frosty air.” No doubt Virgil, Horace, Boethius, and Cicero had their own human failings—“they may have been difficult and stubborn”; they too may have suffered from halitosis—but in their writings “the flower and fruit of their intellect is undiluted and abounding.” As Bolzoni observes, this is a significant alteration of existing commonplaces about books as mirrors:

The ghost one encounters through reading is better than the real person; the book remains the mirror of the soul, but it is a mirror that selects the best, that refines the image we see in it, cleansing it of all traces of mundane existence.

It was a refinement Petrarch craved for himself, the ultimate escape from the banality of the present. In the final, unfinished “Letter to Posterity” that concludes his Seniles, or “Letters of Old Age,” he confesses:

I have dwelt single-mindedly on learning about antiquity, among other things because this age has always displeased me, so that, unless love for my dear ones pulled me the other way, I always wished to have been born in any other age whatever, and to forget this one, seeming always to graft myself in my mind onto other ages.

In a letter to Giovanni Colonna he puts the matter more baldly: “Just as I am grateful to all those authors I have read…so do I hope that those who read me will be grateful.”

Reading was a passion in early modern Italy, Bolzoni shows, but it was also a pose, an emblem of “aristocratic detachment” from the pursuits of wealth, power, and social connections, on which access to and ownership of books practically depended. Federico da Montefeltro, the fifteenth-century Duke of Urbino, was a mercenary by trade and a renowned military and political tactician, but when he commissioned a Flemish master (likely Justus van Gent) to paint his portrait, he appeared seated at ease, “fully absorbed in reading a book from his library,” his helmet on a shelf and his scepter in the hands of his young son. That library was, according to Castiglione’s Il Cortegiano, “the crowning glory of his great palace,” filled with some nine hundred of “the finest and rarest books, in Greek, Latin and Hebrew.” The renowned Florentine bookseller Vespasiano da Bisticci, who had helped assemble it, called it “the finest library since ancient times.”

Federico’s books were housed in a vast hall attached to the palace’s main courtyard, and upstairs was a small, semiprivate room he dubbed his studiolo. Bolzoni calls it a “theater of reading,” and the phrase helpfully captures both the splendor of the place and its uses. The walls of the studiolo were intricately carved and hung with twenty-eight portraits of “illustrious men,” ancient and modern, all of them—with the exception of Ptolemy, who holds an astrolabe—with reading material in hand. The figures were philosophers, prophets, popes, saints, and poets. Moses holds the stone tablets of the Ten Commandments; Jerome pages through the Vulgate Bible; blind Homer uses his book as an armrest; and Euclid measures his with a compass.

More recent figures were present, too: Dante and Duns Scotus, Boethius and Thomas Aquinas. Petrarch was there, as was Federico’s own teacher, Vittorino da Feltre. Most of the figures are in modern dress, more or less, and their gestures and expressions are lively; Plato seems grumpy (vexed, perhaps, about being conscripted into the celebration of a medium he famously mistrusted), while Aristotle leans forward, eager to press a point. The effect, as Bolzoni observes, was not simply to channel the authority of the past but to animate and incorporate it into “a two-way exchange” with the present. Beneath each portrait was an inscription, usually bearing the duke’s own name, dedicating the image, taking credit for its placement, and suggesting how it should be interpreted—each of these saying, in effect, Federico was here, too.*


The practice of displaying portraits of venerated writers in libraries was itself ancient. In his Natural History, Pliny describes it as a Greek custom, newly imported to Rome, whereby “likenesses made, if not of gold or silver, yet at all events of bronze are set up in the libraries in honor of those whose immortal spirits speak to us in the same places.” The tradition primed early modern readers to imagine an intimate connection between texts and writers, books and bodies. Petrach lamented that seeing a fragmentary copy of Quintilian’s Institutio Oratoria, the foundational treatise on rhetoric, was like “seeing the dismembered limbs of a beautiful body.” When in 1416 Poggio Bracciolini found a complete version of the Institutio in the basement of a monastery in what is now Switzerland, he compared the discovery to a lifesaving act of emancipation, as if the book itself were a condemned prisoner:

He was sad and dressed in mourning, as people are when doomed to death; his beard was dirty and his hair matted with dust, so that by his expression and appearance it was clear that he had been summoned to an undeserved punishment.

From such melodramatic scenes, fueled by ancient myths of necromancy and marked (as Stephen Greenblatt has argued) with the violent impressions of contemporary heresy trials, emerged an unlikely heroic ideal: the learned philologist, whose powers of linguistic reconstruction allow him to resurrect the torn and battered corpus of ancient learning. As Leonardo Bruni wrote to Poggio, congratulating him on his discovery, “Quintilian, who used to be mangled and in pieces, will recover all his parts through you…Oh wondrous treasure! Oh unexpected joy!” In Miscellanea, a collection of essays on the art of criticism, the late-fifteenth-century scholar Angelo Poliziano writes in a similar vein about his own efforts to fashion an edition of Cicero’s De Natura Deorum, a work surviving “in a state no less pitiful than that of Hippolytus, torn limb from limb by frightened horses”:

The story goes that Aesculapius gathered and recomposed the scattered pieces of his dismembered body, giving them new life, but was then struck down by lightning by the envious gods. But no envy, no lightning will sway me from my attempt to bring back to life the father of the Roman language and philosophy.

Occasionally, one senses some strain in the narrative—a hint of how the self-flattering mythology of reading might compensate, or fail to compensate, for the inability to find other sources of purpose and fulfillment. In Leon Battista Alberti’s dialogue Theogenius, the old sage Genipatro tells the youthful Tichipedo that he regrets nothing of his former wealth and fame, having found a better existence in his books. For his part, however, Tichopedo urges his studious friend, Teogonio, not to waste his efforts “on supremely useless things”:

Will you ever allow yourself to desist from turning your pages day and night, day after day? What sweet friendship do these books of yours offer that you spend your time with them and become pale, exhausted, consumed, poor, and sickly?… You seek immortality by being not fully alive while still living, through this obstinate study of yours.

As Bolzoni points out, Tichipedo is Genipatro’s “morally deficient” foil. But the point stands: reading is a distinctly vicarious experience. Indeed, a man might look to literature precisely “because there is nothing else/he can turn his sights to.”

The author of those lines, from the prologue to a satirical drama called La Mandragola, was the former secretary of the Florentine republic, Niccolò Machiavelli. After the return of the Medici and the collapse of the republic in 1512, Machiavelli was removed from office, arrested, tortured, and finally released, retiring to a farm in Percussina, south of Florence. In a celebrated letter to Francesco Vettori, dated December 10, 1513, Machiavelli describes the nightly communion with books that helped him endure the privations and tedium of exile:

On the coming of evening, I return to my house and enter my study; and at the door I take off the day’s clothing, covered with mud and dust, and put on garments regal and courtly; and reclothed appropriately, I enter the ancient courts of ancient men, where, received by them with affection, I feed on that food which only is mine and which I was born for, where I am not ashamed to speak with them and to ask them the reason for their actions; and they and their kindness answer me; and for four hours of time I do not feel boredom, I forget every trouble, I do not dread poverty, I am not frightened by death; entirely I give myself over to them.
And because Dante says it is no true knowledge unless we remember what we have understood, I have noted everything in their conversation which has profited me, and have composed a little work On Princedoms.

As Bolzoni observes, “The magic ritual of reading, its incantatory force, its pleasures and benefits are here described with an extraordinary vividness.” But reading is merely a backdrop, no less carefully arranged than the portraits in Federico’s studiolo, to the scene of writing—that is, the composition of the “little work” later titled Il Principe, which Machiavelli wrote in hopes of regaining a place at the Medici court, and which he needed Vettori’s help in circulating. At the end of the letter, the pose of calm disinterest drops: “I am using up my money,” Machiavelli confesses, “and I cannot remain as I am a long time without becoming despised through poverty.” It is his wish, he says, “that our present Medici lords will make use of me, even if they begin by making me roll a stone.” The labors of ambition are Sisyphean—arduous, grubby, and potentially pointless—but they are labors for which he frankly longs.

It isn’t clear the gambit worked; Vettori was practiced at not taking Machiavelli’s hints. And in some ways, as the historian John M. Najemy wrote in Between Friends, his 1993 study of the pair’s correspondence, “the more successfully [Machiavelli’s] letter creates and sustains the illusion of presence, of speech and of the recovery of the past, the more acutely does it impose the realization of absence and loss.” But in harnessing the trope of recovery to his own ambitions, Bolzoni writes, Machiavelli also reorients it toward a future that is tantalizingly close. Reading becomes “a counterpoise to an opaque present, the sign of a change that is possible.”

Change was, after all, in the air: the spread of print, the rise of vernacular literatures, the stirrings of religious reform movements. Humanism both thrived on those transformations and resisted them as threats to its cultural prestige. Of Federico da Montefeltro’s library, Vespasiano da Bisticci said approvingly, “All the books are superlatively good, and written with the pen, and had there been one printed volume it would have been ashamed in such company.” (In reality, there were some incunabula—early printed folios—mixed in with Federico’s manuscripts.) In the second half of her book, Bolzoni looks north to see how those changes gradually worked on the humanist mythology of reading, turning it to new intellectual, spiritual, psychological, and—above all—practical ends.

Reading worked best, the Dutch scholar Desiderius Erasmus insisted, when it was conducted with pen in hand and notebook at the ready; the goal was not simply to commune with the past but to translate its idioms and ideas into one’s own. Echoing Poliziano’s celebrated retort to Paolo Cortesi—“Someone says to me, ‘You don’t express Cicero.’ So what? I’m not Cicero! All the same, as I see it, I express myself”—he urged would-be scholars to range widely across “various writers,” cultivating the true decorum of self-resemblance. “Since the entire scene of human activity has been transformed [since Cicero’s time], the only speaker who can respond to it appropriately [apte dicere] is one who is very different from Cicero,” Erasmus declared. “Wherever I turn I see everything changed, I stand on a different stage, I see a different theatre, a different world.”

The essential difference was Christianity, that great and definitive rupture in time. The divine Word was, for Erasmus, the true and living exemplar of eloquence and the proper object of readerly devotion. “We preserve the letters written by a dear friend, we admire them greatly, we carry them about, we read them over and over again,” he marveled. “Yet there are thousands and thousands of Christians who, although learned in other respects, have never even read the gospels and epistles in their whole life.” Translation was one remedy, print publication another. Erasmus’s own celebrity thrived on both: his translation of the Greek New Testament into Latin was a revisionary update of Jerome’s Vulgate, and became the basis for Martin Luther’s version in German and William Tyndale’s in English, while his Adagia, an annotated collection of Greek and Latin proverbs, ancient wisdom repackaged for the present, was a best seller across Europe in the sixteenth century.

Extracting commonplaces from one’s reading for reuse in one’s writing was a crucial element of humanist inventio, a way of anchoring innovation in tradition and breathing fresh life into ancient texts. Montaigne had quotations from scripture and the works of Sophocles, Lucretius, and Pliny inscribed into the ceiling beams of his circular library at Dordogne, giving material form to the stabilizing presence of antiquity. But when he read, he paced constantly, saying, “My thoughts fall asleep if I make them sit down. My mind will not budge unless my legs move it.” His Essays—“Of Idleness,” “Of Constancy,” “Of Cannibals,” “Of Thumbs”—capture a mind in motion. The first two volumes were printed in 1580; a revised and expanded edition appeared in 1588, featuring marginal notes in which Montaigne amended, interrogated, and argued with himself. “I aim here only at revealing myself, who will perhaps be different tomorrow,” he writes. “I cannot keep my subject still…. I do not portray being: I portray passing.”

Studded with quotations and allusions, the Essays are also a continual display—indeed, an outgrowth—of Montaigne’s reading. In the essay “Of Pedantry,” he mocks those who “go pillaging knowledge in books and lodge it only on the end of their lips, in order merely to disgorge it,” likening them to birds that “go in quest of grain, and carry it in their beak without tasting it.” A marginal note, added in 1588, confesses to the hypocrisy of this: “Isn’t it doing the same thing, what I do in most of my composition? I go about cadging from books here and there the sayings that please me.” In fact, the analogy to birds is from Plutarch (though Montaigne doesn’t say so), the ancient author who above all others attracted him. “When I write, I prefer to do without the company and remembrance of books, for I fear they may interfere with my style,” he declares in the long and winding essay “Of Some Verses in Virgil,” digressive even by Montaigne’s standards.

But it is harder for me to do without Plutarch. He is so universal and so full that on all occasions, and however eccentric the subject you have taken up, he makes his way into your work and offers you a liberal hand, inexhaustible in riches and embellishments. It vexes me…. I can scarce cast an eye upon him but I purloin either a leg or a wing.

Bolzoni writes that in Montaigne’s essays, “next to memory, we find a powerful and instinctive ars oblivionalis.” Claiming to lack stamina as a reader, he avers, “I leaf through books, I do not study them.” The fruit of such desultory browsing was a paradoxical sense of authority:

What I retain of them is something that I no longer recognize as anyone else’s. It is only the material from which my judgment has profited, and the thoughts and ideas with which it has become imbued; the author, the place, the words, and other circumstances, I immediately forget.

Petrarch would be aghast—or, perhaps, envious. To the regenerative cycle of reading and writing, imitation and discovery, Montaigne introduces an eddy of forgetfulness, an art of losing that makes presence and possession possible. On the other hand, a note added in 1588 observes, “I am so good at forgetting that I forget even my own writings and compositions no less than the rest. People are all the time quoting me to myself without me knowing it.”

This, then, was the immortality promised by books: not a marmoreal fixity but a perpetual liveliness predicated on erasure, confusion, accident, and change. “Not marble nor the gilded monuments/Of princes shall outlive this powerful rhyme,” boasts Shakespeare’s Sonnet 55, channeling the confidence of Horace and Ovid in both a language (English) and a form (rhyming verse) neither would have recognized as poetry. Indeed, the potency of “rude beggerly ryming,” as Roger Ascham termed it in The Scholemaster—his 1570 treatise on the “plaine and perfite way of teachyng” Latin—was a source of embarrassment to not a few English writers, a stigmatizing mark of the vernacular’s distance and difference from classical antiquity as well as from the achievements of continental humanism. Humanist learning, culture, and pedagogy arrived late in England—some two centuries after its birth in Italy. “But now,” Ascham insisted,

when men know the difference, and have the examples, both of the best, and of the worst, surelie, to follow rather the Gothes in Ryming, than the Greekes in trew versifiyng, were even to eate ackornes with swyne, when we may freely eate wheate bread emonges men.

But not everyone felt England’s belatedness, or its barbarity, as burdensome. “To say troth,” Gabriel Harvey wrote in a 1580 letter to Edmund Spenser, “We beginners haue the start and aduantage of our Followers, who are to frame and conforme both their Examples and Precepts according to that President [precedent] which they haue of vs.” In his poem “Musophilus,” Samuel Daniel went further, imagining appreciative readers of English in lands unknown to any ancient writer:

And who, in time, knowes whither we may vent
The treasure of our tongue, to what strange shores
This gaine of our best glory shall be sent
T’inrich vnknowing Nations with our stores?
What worlds in th’yet vnformed Occident
May come refin’d with th’accents that are ours?

Like the opening lines of Sonnet 55, such speculations can seem self-congratulatory in hindsight—a triumphal foretaste of English’s eventual global dominion. But in Daniel and Shakespeare’s own time, as J.K. Barret observes in Untold Futures, the open-ended uncertainty of that “who…knowes” was the point: sixteenth- and seventeenth-century English poets worked in a linguistic medium whose survival and significance were anything but assured. That lack of assurance was a boon to literature, argues Barret. Untold Futures is an account of what becomes possible—poetically, dramatically, and even grammatically—when the dream of reviving antiquity founders owing to the unreliability of memory and the instability of the present.

What replaces that dream is a more modest-seeming aspiration; Barret calls it “looking forward to looking back.” In this mood of anticipatory retrospection, present experience is legible from the vantage of a future that is neither immutably fixed nor apocalyptically transfigured but, precisely, imaginable: distant enough for speculation, near enough to be shaped with the tools at hand. Rhyme is one such tool, a predictive structure that cues the eye and ear for resolution; meter is another, as is genre. So is syntax—conditional clauses and future tenses—and so are vows, prophecies, wagers, and any linguistic formula that lays (necessarily tentative) claim to a future that is, practically speaking, still undetermined.

And it’s a good thing, too. In Philip Sidney’s Arcadia and Spenser’s The Faerie Queene, as in the imagined precincts of Shakespearean antiquity, knowing what’s to come is often a liability. Prophecies fail or go quibblingly awry, promises break, and the pages of old books are riddled with holes. Those who thrive are not the most learned but the least burdened by expectation, being either untaught or, like Montaigne, good at forgetting: changeling princes in pursuit of fairy visions, new baptized knights, and impassioned youths. Those who suffer most cruelly—Spenser’s Florimell and his Amoret, Shakespeare’s Lavinia—are inevitably figured as thralls to history, victims of plots set down long ago.

To be remembered is, in this context, both an ambition and a source of anxiety—the anxiety of becoming an influence. On the eve of the Battle of Agincourt, Shakespeare’s King Henry V rouses his troops with the promise of a future—what Renaissance grammarians called “the second future,” or future perfect—in which deeds as yet undone “shall be remembered.” But Shakespeare’s Cleopatra dreads a future in which “quick comedians/Extemporally will stage us…and I shall see/Some squeaking Cleopatra boy my greatness/I’th’ posture of a whore.” Scholars have tended to take both speeches as straightforwardly self-referential: Henry V is the memorial to which Henry lays claim in advance; the youthful actor who plays Cleopatra is the embodiment of her fear. But as Barret points out, the skilled boy actors of the Jacobean stage were more than capable of playing women convincingly. The humiliating spectacle Cleopatra envisions is not the tragedy in which she appears but the extemporaneous fooling that followed theatrical performance, when clowns burlesqued the plot in rhyme, or broadside ballads were sold as souvenirs to be sung to popular tunes. Such improvised wit, more antic than antique, could easily efface the impression of the play itself; there is no telling what an audience, or a reader, will remember.

Reflections like these might inspire melancholy—or a sense of liberation. It’s no coincidence that in the three Shakespearean dramas Barret examines closely—Titus Andronicus, Antony and Cleopatra, and Cymbeline—Roman antiquity is seen through the jaded eyes of so-called barbarians: captives and colonial subjects, Goths and Moors, Egyptians and Britons. English poets might benefit from alliances with such outsiders. “We are tolde…all Ryming is grosse, vulgare, barbarous,” writes Samuel Daniel in his 1603 A Defence of Ryme. But, he insists,

so naturall a melody is it, and so vniuersall, as it seems to be generally borne with al the Nations of the world…. Suffer then the world to injoy that which it knows, and what it likes: Seeing that whatsoeuer force of words doth mooue, delight, and sway the affections of men, in what Scythian sorte soeuer it be disposed or vttered, that is true number, measure, eloquence, and the perfection of speach.

In the end, Daniel reflects, both ancients and moderns are subject to the quicksand of culture; to boast of a humanist revival of letters is to betray “a most apparant ignorance, both of the succession of learning in Europe and the generall course of things.” Consider Petrarch, he muses, who for all his learning and Latinity is better remembered for his (rhyming!) Italian sonnets—and who would wish it otherwise? So imitatio meets its match in “the law of time, which in a few yeeres will make al that for which we now contend Nothing.” In The Light in Troy, Greene cites this realization as “a particularly bleak example” of humanist despair in the face of linguistic impermanence. But that mistakes Daniel’s tone, missing its irony and levity. Like many of his compatriots writing in a language born of conquest and cultural hybridity, Daniel could not help seeing opportunity in the flux of times and tastes. Who knew what the future might bring? He was where—and when—he wished to be.