Tuesday, July 19, 2016

`A Well-Stocked Head and a Better-Stocked Library'

“The ideal which grew up in the Renaissance and has not yet died away, that of the many-sided humane thinker with a well-stocked head and a better-stocked library, the ideal personified in Montaigne, Ronsard, Johnson, Gray, Goethe, Voltaire, Milton, Tennyson, and many more—that ideal was, in modern times, first and most stimulatingly embodied in Petrarch.”

Francesco Petrarca – Petrarch -- died on this date, July 19, in 1374, in Arquà, near Padua, one day before his seventieth birthday. It’s risky to judge the men and women of the past by the blinkered standards of the present. Our assurance of our rightness is self-serving and arrogant, nothing more. Given all of that, Petrarch still seems curiously modern, almost one of us. Gilbert Highet’s characterization of the poet in The Classical Tradition: Greek and Roman Influences on Western Literature (1957) articulates our notion of an educated person: “a well-stocked head and a better-stocked library.”

Petrarch wrote prolifically in Latin and Italian. Among the most amusing and modern-seeming of his Latin works is Invectives (trans. David Marsh, I Tatti Renaissance Library, Harvard University Press, 2003). “Invectives Against a Physician” was prompted by the illness of Pope Clement VI in 1351-52. The pope was being treated by a committee of physicians. Petrarch wrote to Clement suggesting he rely on a single, experienced doctor, which provoked one of the committee members to attack Petrarch. In his lengthy tirade, the poet says, “Your own wasted pallor comes from the chamber-pots you study every day,” but he’s just warming up:

“Against your weapons, laughter and silence and contempt would have sufficed. There was no need for words. But I could not be silent. Otherwise you might have held a celebration in some sewer–which to you would be like a Capitol–among the banging of bed-pans and the farting of the sick--for such would be your trumpets, such your cheering army—to celebrate the ruin of the Muses and the destruction of sacred studies.”

Another essay in Invectives, “On His Own Ignorance and That of Many Others,” reads like a prescient preview of Montaigne, who wasn’t born until 1533. Petrarch can be as unexpectedly personal and free with his “I” as the Frenchman: “When I was in good health, I almost never let a day pass in idleness. I read, wrote, or pondered some learned question. I listened to others as they read, or questioned them when they were silent. I sought out not only learned men, but learned cities as well, so that I would return more learned and more virtuous.”    

Despite the amnesia pandemic, Petrarch is still with us. Section 55 of The Triumph of Love (1998) is Geoffrey Hill’s response to the final poem in Petrarch’s Canzoniere, a hymn to the Blessed Virgin, “Vergine bella, che di sol vestita.” Hill begins: “Vergine bella – it is here that I require / a canzone of some substance. There are sound / precedents for this, of a plain eloquence / which would be perfect.” The poem concludes:

Vergine bella, as you
are well aware, I here follow
Petrarch, who was your follower,
a sinner devoted to your service.”

About the poet’s death, Morris Bishop (Nabokov’s closest friend at Cornell) recounts a possibly apocryphal anecdote in Petrarch and His World (1963):

“According to an old story he was found, pen in hand, collapsed over his Life of Caesar. The story, of which the first extant record is dated fourteen years after his death, is now regarded as unreliable, being all too apt. It is at least possible, and fitting with all we know of his state of body and mind. I cannot willingly surrender the conviction that death found Petrarch reading and writing, praying and weeping. Nor the conviction that death gave him a kindly greeting, and that Petrarch responded with a welcome; for, as he said, what we commonly call death is in truth only the end of death.”

The story leaves us admiring Petrarch and his biographer.

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