Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Essay on Petrarch

Essay on Petrarch

Before the civic spirit and individuality evident and necessary to the Renaissance came to fruition, there had to have been something to trigger a change in the mentality of the medieval civilization. The medieval manorialism fostered illiteracy and ignorance and a very narrow view of the outside world, people did not question their place, the church, or the need to prepare for the after life. The “awakening” of the Renaissance came after the dawn of a new Roman Empire way of thinking.

Humanism is the intellectual, literary and scientific movement of the 14th to the 16th centuries without which the Renaissance would never have evolved. Humanism is a rediscovery and reevaluation (analysis) of classical civilization and the application of the aspects of this civilization to intellectual and social culture in the current time. It is a blend of concern for the history and actions of human beings, mainly the ancient Greeks and Romans, such as, Cicero, Ceaser, and Augustine, with the belief that man was at the center of the universe. Contrary to Christian teachings, humanist believe that man is subject and creator of his own destiny, governed by ideals of beauty, grace, and harmony and the glorification of individual freedom. These ideas provide the vehicle, in which the transition from medieval thinking of vassalage (servitude) and the afterlife to a return to the principles of the Pax Romana occurred. Christian humanism came to mean individualism and the value of life in the present.


Italy, and specifically Florence, is said to have been the birthplace of humanistic thinking and the Renaissance for a variety of reasons. Geography, more than anything, gave Italy the advantage over the rest of Europe. During the time when the rest of Europe was in the throes of medieval Feudalism and Manorialism, all commerce had stopped, but merchants and artists in northern Italy had maintained trade and commerce activities with both the Byzantine East and the European West. By the 11th century Italy dominated commerce in the Mediterranean and Western Europe, this enabled them to amass great wealth and a certain sense of self-confidence. The Italians, through organization and cleverness exploited their advantages, and by the high Middle Ages strong, wealthy and independent city-states, unlike the manors of Europe, had evolved. In addition, Italy was consistently exposed to not only the large-scale flow of goods, but also to new ideas and knowledge. It is important to note that although Italy had become independent, the Church still remained powerful and religion continued to be a governing factor. But, pre humanists began to question the teachings of the church and the corruption evident in the Papacy. Many pre Renaissance and Renaissance individuals felt torn between the pious teachings of the church and the earthly pleasures which wealth and independence brought. Until this point, education was scarce and only monastic schools existed, mainly for educating the clergy. The wealthy Italians, dissatisfied with the monastic schools, established independent municipal universities with a secular approach to learning, based on the classics. This was one of the decisive steps away from the church and towards a humanistic approach to life.

Humanism is thought to be the most significant and defining intellectual and literary movement of the Renaissance. The leader of the Humanistic movement was Francis Petrarch (the anglicized name of Francesco Petrarca, 1304-1374). He is often referred to as “the Father of the Renaissance.” Petrarch characterized the earliest glimmerings of humanism in a mindset dominated by the Christian church. He is seen as the writer who most clearly had one foot in the Middle Ages and the other in the Renaissance. Through persistence and industry he brought Western Europe into contact with antiquity and the values of the Roman Empire.

Petrarch was born in Arezzo in 1304 the son of a Florentine notary. The family was forced to leave Florence for Avignon when the Guelph party took control of Florence and Petrarch's father fell into political disfavor. Because he was forcedto leave his proud homeland, Petrarch always considered himself to be a man without a country. Although he assimilated the French culture and language, he would never forget his roots. This, later in life, would dominate his writing in which his sonnets, written in vernacular Italian, would help define Italian as an accepted language. At his father's insistence, he studied law at the University of Bologna, but left after his father's death to pursue a life of scholarship.

Petrarch was the first to undertake the collection of ancient texts and traveled all over Italy, Germany, and France to search through monastic and cathedral libraries. Petrarch Urged others to do the same and wealthy Italians all over Italy began their own libraries. By the 15th century famous libraries, that are still in existence today, had been established. His own extensive library of rare items was highly valued, and Venice granted him a home on the condition that he would leave his library to the city. One of Petrarch's legacies was his belief that the recovery and study of the works of antiquity could restore virtue, culture, and social order. He believed that the Italy of his day was the heir and successor of ancient Rome and that the various states of Italy should be united to resume the mission of ancient Rome.

During Petrarch's lifetime, he was famed primarily as a poet and scholar. His most influential work was Rime Sparse, a book of 366 sonnets most of them dedicated to his frustrated desire for a woman named Laura. Although he did not invent the sonnet, it can be found in 12th century Courtly Love poetry, the quality of his work and the use of the vernacular made it very popular and served as a reintroduction of the sonnet form to the literary world. This literary form is to this day is known as “Petrarchan sonnet”. In 1341 he was crowned Poet Laureate in Rome. This illustrious honor was a shining moment for Petrarch, as this was a public expression of respect and enthusiasm for his literary achievements.

Petrarch expected to achieve great fame from his epic biographical poem Africa, which was based on the life of Scipio Africanus who, to Petrarch, embodies the valiant and pious virtues of the ancient Romans. But, although he worked on this throughout his lifetime, it was never even published. His imitation of Virgil's Aeneid shows the degree to which he relied on Classical literature as a source and guide. Amazingly, he included his own commentaries and reflections on the events of the biography. This type of critical analysis shows that Petrarch had crossed a bridge into Renaissance thinking. Literary historian Eugenio Donadoni states that Petrarch was "a precursor of the humanists of the fifteenth century for whom the literature of antiquity was a cult" (Donadoni, 97). Morris Bishop in Petrarch and His World calls Petrarch "one of the rare men of his time, perhaps the only one, who had learned to read critically" (Bishop, 331). Petrarch had unwittingly become the creator of historical analysis and literary criticism.

In addition to his songs and sonnets, Petrarch's gift to posterity was an equally huge collection of letters. It has been said that Petrarch had a wider circle of friends than any man up to that time, and it is likely that he had a wider circle of correspondents; his letters, of which he always retained copies, number at least 350, and it is known that others have been lost or destroyed. Most of these were actually posted; a few, such as his rhetorical letters to Cicero, Plato, and Seneca, were never intended to be, but were simply written as a statement of Petrarch's philosophy in the context of the addressee's. Many of his letters are not philosophical at all, but simply familial and fraternal, an old friend reaching out to keep in touch with others. But in other cases, Petrarch's greatest philosophical statements, and his most profound insights, are contained in his letters.

Based on his studies of Cicero, Petrarch believed that there had to be more to virtue than religion. Petrarch philosophical works are an effort to resolve this conflict between earthly and spiritual needs. In His book, De Remediis Utriusque Fortunae (On the Remedies for Good and Bad Fortune), Petrarch theorizes that there is a problem inherent in every happy situation and a positive aspect to every bad one. His dialogues, De Contemptu Mundi (On the Scorn of the World, sometimes also called the "Secretum"), chronicle an imaginary dialogue between Petrarch and St. Augustine, Petrarch's favorite ecclesiastic. In it, Augustine accuses Petrarch of being worldly because of his pride, avarice, and his love for women (or rather a woman -- the ubiquitous Laura). Petrarch defends himself by saying that all these traits have actually raised him closer to God. That Petrarch could perceive that humanistic and individualistic qualities actually brought him closer to God is not a viewpoint popular to his time and is one more indication of his closing the gap between medieval and Renaissance thinking.

In his final years, he began working on an autobiographical letter, called the Letter to Posterity. This letter was never finished, in it the details of his life stop when Petrarch is not yet fifty, even though he was seventy when he died. The important thing about the Letter to Posterity, however, is the fact that he wrote it to assure his personal immortality. Historian Henry Hollway-Calthrop points out that “self-effacement was the rule of medieval thought, because the individual was nothing before the awful face of God.” (Hollway-Calthrop, 291) The ancients knew nothing of God or self-effacement and therefore said otherwise, and Petrarch apparently agreed with them. The Letter to Posterity was clearly written to immortalize him. In the words of Hollway-Calthrop, "It was not enough for him that his influence should work as a silent leaven in the minds of men; he wanted to be remembered as a man, as a personality" (Hollway-Calthrop, 293). And Petrarch himself says in this letter, "You may perhaps have heard some report of me, and you may like to know what sort of man I was, and what was the outcome of my works." (Robison, 59) He was anticipating his immortality as a writer, a definitively Renaissance era idea.

Petrarch's clearest venture into the Renaissance is contained in his reflections On The Ascent of Mt. Ventoux. Petrarch, in a letter describing the climb, tells how Gherardo, his younger brother, gamely chose the straightest path up the crags, disregarding danger, while Petrarch himself attempted to stay to the well-trodden paths. The problem was, all the well-trodden paths curved gently along the horizontal ridges of the slope and then led back down. Obviously this was because no one had ever preceded the brothers up the face of the mountain, so there were no paths. Petrarch saw this experience as a profound metaphor for the way he had been leading his life, in that the "easy paths" that do not lead the soul to heaven. When they finally reached the summit, he gazed out in joy over the vista he had at last attained, and opened St. Augustine's "Confessions." The very first words he saw were, "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 for themselves consider not.” (Lawall, 1672) Petrarch was angry with himself for still " admiring earthly things who might long ago have learned from even the pagan philosophers that nothing is wonderful but the soul, which, when great itself, finds nothing great outside itself." (Lawall, 1672) As he descends, he turns and looks back at the mountain peak, and thinks, "How earnestly should we strive, not to stand on mountain-tops, but to trample beneath us those appetites which spring from earthly impulses.” (Lawall, 1673) This passage demonstrates Petrarch's very soul was divided between the spiritual and the earthly, Christianity and classical antiquity. He was not a man of the Renaissance, but he came closer than any other man of his time. At the end of his life, bemoaning the fact that in his finite lifetime he had been unable to preserve all the knowledge of the past for all the generations of the future, Petrarch said, "I am as if on the frontiers of two peoples, looking forward and backward." And indeed he was.

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