The Venerable Petrarch

Next on my Italian Renaissance reading list is the father of Humanism, Francesco Petrarca, better know in the English speaking world simply as Petrarch (1304-76). He spanned the gap between Dante and Boccaccio, being friends with the latter and his dad mostly likely being an acquaintance of the former.

I’ve read and studied Petrarch before, at university and after. Reading him in translation is always a bit of a disappointment. The translator can choose either to convey his carefully nuanced meaning complete with complex classical allusions or to capture the easy flowing music of his words. No single translation can do both.

Among my personal problems in approaching Petrarch is that I’ve heard poems from the Canzoniere read in the original without understanding them. Just listening to the music of the words is wonderful in itself. I’ve also read some particularly good translations which show his ideas and philosophical arguments in their best light. I’ve never been able to do both at the same time and that begins to annoy me.

(I’ve also come to the conclusion that anyone who can experience the Canzoniere without developing an immediate and burning need to learn Italian has no soul.)

This current translation includes the standard selections from the Canzoniere but, more important, a goodly selection of his other poetry and letters.

The portion of the Secretum included in this anthology is the third chapter in which Petrarch and Saint Augustine engage in socratic dialogue on the fate of Petrarch’s soul. In his later life Petrarch was a big fan of Augustine and many see it as a way of him reconciling his humanism with traditional church belief. Naturally, he was attracted to Augustine’s insistence on free will as a means to salvation. I’ve read many other philosophical debates of the kind but this one struck me as nothing more than an old man trying to justify the actions of his life. The dialogue centres on Petrarch’s stalker obsession with Laura (who I believe more and more is a fictional construct rather than a real person as almost all academics insist) and how adoration of her has thrown him a long way down the slippery slope to hell.

The letters are great but they are another example of the same phenomena. There’s a famous letter in which Petrarch compares his climb of Mount Ventoux outside his home in Avignon to the getting of wisdom. There’s a very condescending letter to Boccaccio in which the famous poet tells that younger that he’s re-written one of Boccaccio’s tales and been praised for it even though he won’t lower himself to read a book aimed at the masses.

Don’t get me wrong. I love Petrarch and his poetry. You can really feel in his words a man who celebrates people with all their faults and virtues. But I found reading the selections from his prose works quite tedious.