Thursday, April 26, 2012

`Men Go to Admire the High Mountains'

On this date in 1336, Francesco Petrarca, his brother Gherardo and two servants climbed to the 6,263-foot summit of Mount Ventoux in Provence, apparently just for the hell of it. Jacob Burkhardt, the great chronicler of the Renaissance, said of Petrarch’s pioneering act of tourism, “The ascent of a mountain for its own sake was unheard of,” and concluded by calling the poet “a truly modern man.”

Petrarch had read in Livy’s History of Rome that King Philip of Macedon climbed Mount Hemus in present-day Bulgaria because he wished to know if the Black Sea and the Adriatic were both visible from the peak. In his letter to Dionisio da Borgo San Sepolcro, his former confessor, Petrarch writes: “…it seems to me that a young man in private life may well be excused for attempting what an aged king could undertake without arousing criticism.” Morris Bishop, Vladimir Nabokov’s closest friend at Cornell, writes in Petrarch and his World (1963):

“The decision was far more original than it would appear today. There is no clear record that anyone ever climbed a mountain for pleasure or mere curiosity from the time of King Philip of Macedon to that of Petrarch…[He] remains the first recorded Alpinist, the first to climb a mountain because it is there.”

Bishop says of Petrarch’s letter: “It also expresses for the first time that mountain-awe which has become a commonplace of human feeling, as of literature.” Whether or not Petrarch was the first mountain climber is unimportant. It’s his willingness to act on the itch of curiosity that endears him to me, coupled with the discipline of an eighteen-hour journey up and down the mountain. Nor am I certain Petrarch experienced “mountain-awe,” a suspiciously Romantic-sounding rapture for a man to feel in the fourteenth century. It reminds me of Thoreau’s dubious account in The Maine Woods of climbing Mt. Katahdin:

“Talk of mysteries!—Think of our life in nature,—daily to be shown matter, to come in contact with it,—rocks, trees, wind on our cheeks! the solid earth! the actual world! the common sense! Contact! Contact! Who are we? where are we?”

You’re a Yankee on a mountain in Maine. Calm down, Henry. Take a deep breath. In contrast to Thoreau, Petrarch read a book while at the top of Mount Ventoux, a pocket-sized edition of St. Augustine’s Confessions, a gift from Dionigi, to whom he writes:

“Where I fixed my eyes first, it was written: `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 stars - and desert themselves.’ [Augustine, Confessions, x.8.15] I was stunned, I confess. I bade my brother, who wanted to hear more, not to molest me, and closed the book, angry with myself that I still admired earthly things.”

Bishop’s gloss is modern and decidedly secular:

“In the rarefaction of the upper air his heightened sensibility stirred him to egotistic examination of his own state. In a devout mind such thought can only be religious. Most religion is egotistic.”

Perhaps, but compared to Thoreau’s mountain experience, Petrarch’s was saintly.


seraillon said...

I love things like this, these activities that no one now questions as unusual in any way - going to the top of a mountain for the view - but that at one time might have raised eyebrows. But Bishop's gloss - "modern and decidedly secular" - also strikes me as ludicrously Eurocentric. After all, there's an entire genre of "mountain poetry" in Chinese literature, replete with exquisite examples of "mountain-awe" preceding Petrarch by hundreds of years.

Amateur Reader (Tom) said...

There is also quite a bit of doubt about whether Petrarch climbed the mountain at all.

The "Letter" is a masterpiece, regardless.

Art Durkee said...

People who dismiss out if hand the feelings that one experiences on top of a mountain have probably never climbed one. Speaking as a poet ho has, Thoreau wasn't all that much exaggerating.

And Asian literature has a long tradition of "mountain awe" poems that in Sanskrit goes back a couple of thousand years or more. In Chinese it's a whole poetry genre.

Eric Thomson said...

Petrarch's mixture of curiosity and religious instinct isn't very different from that of Hadrian, who is known to have climbed two mountains at least, one of them Etna . After about 45 years' abstract acquaintance with Etna, I caught my first glimpse of smoke billowing from its snow-capped crater at about 4 o'clock this afternoon en route to Taormina. I did have to take a deep breath, as you would have had Thoreau do, thinking of Pindar more than Petrarch. Etna is the Mount Fuji of the European imagination. Perhaps it's somewhere in the stratosphere where East best meets West.