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Petrarch (1304–1374)


Petrarch, or Francesco Petrarca, the Italian humanist, poet, and scholar, was born in Arezzo into an exiled Florentine family. He was taken to Avignon in 1312, and there he spent most of his life until 1353, except for a period as a student of law at Montpellier and Bologna and several long journeys to Italy. After 1353 he lived in Italy, mainly in Milan, Venice, and Padua; he died in Arquà near Padua. Petrarch held several ecclesiastical benefices and also enjoyed the patronage of the Colonna and the Visconti.

Petrarch's fame rests first on his Italian poems and second on his work as a scholar and Latin writer. His Latin writings include poems, orations, invectives, historical works, a large body of letters, and a few moral treatises. Among the treatises we may mention especially De Remediis Utriusque Fortunae (On the remedies of good and bad fortune; 1366), De Secreto Conflictu Curarum Mearum, better known as Secretum (On the secret conflict of my worries; completed before 1358), De Vita Solitaria (On the solitary life; 1356), and De Sui Ipsius et Multorum Ignorantia (On his own and many other people's ignorance; 1367).

Petrarch was no philosopher in the technical sense, and even his treatises on moral subjects are loosely written and lack a firm structure or method. Much of his thought consists of tendencies and aspirations rather than of developed ideas or doctrines, and it is inextricably linked with his learning, reading, tastes, and feelings. Nevertheless, it would be wrong to underestimate Petrarch's impact on the history of Western thought. He was the first great representative of Renaissance humanism, if not its founder; as a poet, scholar, and personality, he had a vast reputation during his lifetime and for several subsequent centuries. In many ways he set the pattern for the taste, outlook, and range of interests that determined the thought of Renaissance humanism down to the sixteenth century. Petrarch was regarded, by himself and by his contemporaries, not only as a poet, orator, and historian but also as a moral philosopher, and many of his attitudes were to receive from some of his successors the intellectual and philosophical substance which they seem to lack in Petrarch's own work.

One important aspect of Petrarch's thought that was to be developed by many later humanists was his hostility toward Scholasticismthat is, the university learning of the later Middle Ages. He attacked astrology as well as logic and jurisprudence and dedicated entire works to criticizing the physicians and the Aristotelian philosophers. These attacks, though sweeping and suggestive, are highly personal and subjective and rarely enter into specific issues or arguments. When Petrarch rejects the authority of Aristotle or of his Arabic commentator Averroes, he does so from personal dislike, not from objective grounds; when he criticizes such theories as the eternity of the world, the attainment of perfect happiness during the present life, or the so-called theory of the double truth (that is, of the separate validity of Aristotelian philosophy and of Christian theology), his main argument is that these doctrines are contrary to the Christian religion.

Yet the positive value that Petrarch opposed to medieval science was neither a new science nor mere religious faith but the study of classical antiquity. All his life Petrarch was an avid reader of the ancient Latin writers; he copied, collected, and annotated their works and tried to correct their texts and appropriate their style and ideas. He felt a strong nostalgia for the political greatness of the Roman Republic and Empire, and the hope to restore this greatness was the central political idea that guided him in his dealings with the pope and the emperor, with the Roman revolutionary Cola di Rienzo, and with the various Italian governments of his time.

Of the ancient Latin writers, Cicero and Seneca were among Petrarch's favorites. His polemic against dialectic and other branches of scholastic learning and his emphasis on moral problems seem to be modeled after the more moderate skepticism which Seneca expresses in his Moral Epistles with reference to the subtle dialectic of the older Stoics. To Seneca, Petrarch owes his taste for moral declamation and the Stoic notions that appear in his writingsthe conflict between virtue and fortune, the contrast between reason and the four basic passions, and the close link between virtue and happiness. Even greater is Petrarch's enthusiasm for Cicero, to whom he owes the form of the dialogue and much of his information on Greek philosophy. We might even say that Petrarch and other humanists owe to their imitation of Cicero and Seneca not only the elegance of their style, but also the elusive and at times superficial manner of their reasoning.

Petrarch could not fail to notice the numerous references to Greek sources in the writings of his favorite Roman authors. He made an attempt to learn Greek, and although he did not progress far enough to read the ancient Greek writers in the original, his awareness of Greek philosophy and literature did affect his outlook and orientation. He owned a Greek manuscript of Plato and read the Timaeus and Phaedo, which were available to him in Latin translations. He also gathered information on Plato in Cicero and other Roman authors and cited some Platonic doctrines. However, more important than these occasional references to specific theories is Petrarch's general conviction that Plato was the greatest of all philosophers, greater than Aristotle, who had been the chief authority of the later medieval thinkers. "Plato is praised by the greater men, whereas Aristotle is praised by the greater number." In his Triumph of Fame, Petrarch places Plato before Aristotle, and his lines appear to be a conscious correction of the praise Dante had given to the "master of those who know." Petrarch's Platonism was a program rather than a doctrine, but it pointed the way to later humanist translations of Plato and to the Platonist thought of the Florentine Academy.

Petrarch assigned second place to Aristotle, but he was far from holding him in contempt. He knew especially Aristotle's Ethics, and he repeatedly suggested that the original Aristotle may be superior to his medieval translators and commentators. Petrarch thus pointed the way to a new attitude toward Aristotle that was to take shape in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. Aristotle was to be studied in the original Greek text and in the company of other Greek philosophers and writers; his medieval Latin translations were to be replaced by new humanist translations, and his medieval Arabic and Latin commentators were to give way to the ancient Greek commentators and to those modern Renaissance interpreters who were able to read and understand Aristotle in his original text. Thus, Petrarch was the prophet of Renaissance Aristotelianism, as he had been of Renaissance Platonism.

Although Petrarch opposed the classical authors to the medieval tradition, he was by no means completely detached from his immediate past. Christian faith and piety occupy a central position in his thought and writings, and there is no reason to doubt his sincerity. Whenever a conflict between religion and ancient philosophy might arise, he is ready to stand by the teachings of the former. The Secretum, in which Petrarch subjects his most intimate feelings and actions to religious scrutiny, is a thoroughly Christian work, and his treatise De Remediis Utriusque Fortunae is equally Christian, even specifically medieval. His treatise De Otio Religioso (On the leisure of the monks) belongs to the ascetic tradition, and even Petrarch's polemic against Scholasticism in the name of a genuine and simple religion continues or resumes that strand of medieval religious thought which found expression in Peter Damian and St. Bernard. In his treatise on his ignorance, Petrarch goes so far as to oppose his own piety to the supposedly irreligious views of his scholastic opponents. This shows that it was at least possible to reject Scholasticism and remain a convinced Christian, and to reconcile classical learning with religious faith.

In accordance with this attitude, Petrarch liked to read the early Christian writers, especially the Church Fathers, along with the pagan classics but without the company of the scholastic theologians. His favorite Christian author was St. Augustine, who occupies a position of unique importance in his thought and work. Aside from numerous quotations scattered in Petrarch's writings, it is sufficient to mention two notable instances. Petrarch's Secretum takes the form of a dialogue between the author and St. Augustine, who thus assumes the role of a spiritual guide or of the author's conscience. And in the famous letter in which Petrarch describes climbing Mont Ventoux, he expresses his feelings by a quotation on which his eyes chanced to fall in his copy of Augustine's Confessions: "And men go to admire the high mountains, the vast floods of the sea, the huge streams of the rivers, the circumference of the ocean, and the revolutions of the starsand desert themselves" (Confessions x, 8, 15).

Besides these and a few other general attitudes, there is at least one theoretical problem on which Petrarch formulates views akin to those of many later humanists. He keeps asserting that man and his problems should be the main object and concern of thought and philosophy. This is also the justification he gives for his emphasis on moral philosophy, and when he criticizes the scholastic science of his Aristotelian opponents, it is chiefly on the grounds that they raise useless questions and forget the most important problem, the human soul. This is also the gist of the words with which Petrarch describes his feelings when he had reached the top of Mont Ventoux. The words are Petrarch's, and they express his own ideas, but they are characteristically interwoven with quotations from Augustine and Seneca.

Petrarch expresses for the first time that emphasis on man which was to receive eloquent developments in the treatises of later humanists and to be given a metaphysical and cosmological foundation in the works of Marsilio Ficino and Giovanni Pico della Mirandola. This is the reason that the humanists were to adopt the name "humanities" (studia humanitatis ) for their studiesto indicate their significance for man and his problems. Yet behind Petrarch's tendency to set moral doctrine against natural science, there are also echoes of Seneca and St. Augustine and of Cicero's statement that Socrates had brought philosophy down from heaven to Earth. When Petrarch speaks of man and his soul, he refers at the same time to the blessed life and eternal salvation, adding a distinctly Christian overtone to his moral and human preoccupation. He thus comes to link the knowledge of man and the knowledge of God in a distinctly Augustinian fashion and also to discuss an important problem of scholastic philosophy that had its root in Augustine: the question of whether the will or the intellect is superior. In discussing this scholastic problem, Petrarch follows the Augustinian tradition, as other humanists and Platonists were to do after him, in deciding the question in favor of the will.

Petrarch, the great poet, writer, and scholar, is clearly an ambiguous and transitional figure when judged by his role in the history of philosophical thought. His thought consists in aspirations rather than developed ideas, but these aspirations were developed by later thinkers and were eventually transformed into more elaborate ideas. His intellectual program may be summed up in the formula that he uses once in the treatise on his ignorance: Platonic wisdom, Christian dogma, Ciceronian eloquence. His classical culture, his Christian faith, and his attack against Scholasticism all have a personal, and in a way modern, quality. At the same time everything he says is pervaded by his classical sources and often by residual traces of medieval thought. In this respect, as in many others, Petrarch is a typical representative of his age and of the humanist movement. He did not merely anticipate later Renaissance developments because he was unusually talented or perceptive; he also had an active share in bringing them about, because of the enormous prestige he enjoyed among his contemporaries and immediate successors.

See also Aristotelianism; Aristotle; Augustine, St.; Augustinianism; Averroes; Bernard of Clairvaux, St.; Cicero, Marcus Tullius; Dante Alighieri; Dialectic; Dogma; Florentine Academy; Humanism; Medieval Philosophy; Patristic Philosophy; Peter Damian; Pico della Mirandola, Count Giovanni; Plato; Platonism and the Platonic Tradition; Renaissance; Seneca, Lucius Annaeus; Stoicism.


works by petrarch

Petrarch's Italian poems have been printed in numerous editions and translations; see also Roberto Weiss, Un inedito Petrarchesco (Rome, 1950). Of the Edizione nazionale of his collected works only six volumes have appeared, containing his poem Africa, a part of his lettersLe familiari, edited by V. Rossi and U. Bosco, 4 vols. (Florence: Sansoni, 19331942)and the Rerum Memorandarum Libri, edited by Giuseppe Billanovich (Florence: Sansoni, 1943). See also K. Burdach, Aus Petrarcas aeltestem deutschen Schuelerkreise (Berlin, 1929); Petrarcas "Buch ohne Namen" und die päpstliche Kurie, edited by P. Piur (Halle, Germany: Niemeyer, 1925); and Petrarcas Briefwechsel mit deutschen Zeitgenossen, edited by P. Piur (Berlin: Weidmann, 1933).

The collection of Prose, edited by G. Martellotti et al. (Milan and Naples, 1955), contains the Secretum, De Vita Solitaria, and selections from the invectives and other treatises. Le traité De Sui Ipsius et Multorum Ignorantia, edited by L. M. Capelli (Paris, 1906), is the only complete modern edition of this important treatise. For many other Latin works of Petrarch the old edition of his works, Opera (Basel, 1581), must still be used. See also Scritti inediti, edited by A. Hortis (Trieste, 1874).

English translations are available for the Secret, translated by William H. Draper (London, 1911); The Life of Solitude, translated by Jacob Zeitlin (Urbana, IL, 1924); On His Own Ignorance, translated by H. Nachod, who added the letter on the ascent of Mont Ventoux and excellent notes, in The Renaissance Philosophy of Man, edited by Ernst Cassirer, Paul Oskar Kristeller, and John H. Randall Jr. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1948), pp. 36133; the Testament, translated by Theodor E. Mommsen (Ithaca, NY, 1957); and for many lettersPetrarch, the First Modern Scholar and Man of Letters, 2nd ed., translated by James Harvey Robinson (New York, 1907), Petrarch's Letters to Classical Authors, translated by Mario E. Cosenza (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1910), and Petrarch at Vaucluse, translated by Ernest H. Wilkins (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1958).

works on petrarch

From the vast literature on Petrarch only a few works can be mentioned; for a bibliography, see N. Sapegno, Il trecento (Milan, 1948). For Petrarch's life and works see Edward H. R. Tatham, Francesco Petrarca, 2 vols. (London, 19251926); U. Bosco, Petrarca (Turin, 1946); Morris Bishop, Petrarch and His World (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1963); and, above all, numerous books and articles by Ernest H. Wilkins: Studies in the Life and Works of Petrarch (Cambridge, MA: Mediaeval Academy of America, 1955), Petrarch's Eight Years in Milan (Cambridge, MA: Mediaeval Academy of America, 1958), Petrarch's Later Years (Cambridge, MA: Mediaeval Academy of America, 1959), Petrarch's Correspondence (Padua, 1960), and Life of Petrarch (Chicago: University of Chicago, 1961).

For Petrarch as a scholar see Pierre de Nolhac, Pétrarque et l'humanisme, 2 vols., 2nd ed. (Paris, 1907), and "de Patrum et Medii Aevi Scriptorum Codicibus in Bibliotheca Petrarcae Olim Collectis," in Revue des bibliothèques 2 (1892): 241279; numerous studies by Giuseppe Billanovich, especially Petrarca letterato, Vol. I, Lo scrittoio del Petrarca (Rome, 1947), and "Petrarch and the Textual Tradition of Livy," in Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes 14 (1951): 137208. See also J. H. Whitfield, Petrarch and the Renascence (Oxford: Blackwell, 1943).

For Petrarch's political thought see Theodor E. Mommsen, Medieval and Renaissance Studies, edited by Eugene F. Rice (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1959); Aldo S. Bernardo, Petrarch, Scipio and the Africa (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Press, 1962); Jules Alan Wein, Petrarch's Politics (unpublished thesis, Columbia University, 1960); and Mario E. Cosenza, Petrarch and the Revolution of Cola di Rienzo (Chicago, 1913).

For Petrarch's religious and philosophical ideas see Armando Carlini, Il pensiero filosofico religioso di Francesco Petrarca (Iesi, Italy, 1904); Elena Razzoli, Agostinismo e religiosità del Petrarca (Milan, 1937); P. P. Gerosa, L'umanesimo agostiniano del Petrarca (Turin, 1927); K. Heitmann, Fortuna und Virtus (Cologne, 1958); William Granger Ryan, Humanism and Religion in Petrarch (unpublished thesis, Columbia University, 1950); and N. Iliescu, Il canzoniere petrarchesco e Sant'Agostino (Rome, 1962).

Paul Oskar Kristeller (1967)

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