BMCR 2017.10.46

Francesco Petrarca: Selected Letters, Volume 1; Volume 2

, Francesco Petrarca: Selected Letters, Volume 1. I Tatti Renaissance Library, 76. Cambridge, MA; London: Harvard University Press, 2017. xlvi, 747 pages. ISBN 9780674058347.
, Francesco Petrarca: Selected Letters, Volume 2. I Tatti Renaissance Library 77. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2017. viii, 807 pages. ISBN 9780674971622.

This new selection of Petrarch’s letters by Elaine Fantham is to be welcomed. In keeping with the other volumes in the I Tatti Renaissance Library series, it presents us with the Latin originals with facing English translation. Both are numbered by section for convenient citation, and the English feels fresh and natural throughout, offering a fluent translation rather than a strict word-for-word crib. For example, here is Fantham’s rendition of part of Petrarch’s discussion of poetic imitation:

Standum denique Senece consilio, quod ante Senecam Flacci erat, ut scribamus scilicet sicut apes mellificant, non servatis floribus sed in favos versis, ut ex multis et variis unum fiat, idque aliud et melius

‘In fact we should stick with Seneca’s advice, which was that of Horace before him, to write as bees make honey, not preserving the flowers but converting them into honeycombs, so that from many assorted elements a single thing is created, different and superior.’ (III.19.13)

Rather than organising the letters chronologically, Fantham has decided to arrange them into groups by topic. Across the two volumes we therefore have epistles on the self-conscious writing of letters (Part I), on Petrarch’s life and engagement with his world (Part II), on his scholarly projects and manuscript hunting (Part III), and his ‘moral’ letters (Part IV) which are frequently in dialogue with Seneca. Part V includes letters that discuss matters of education, especially of rulers and princes; and Parts VI and VII show Petrarch in correspondence with the secular and religious worlds of fourteenth century Italy as he writes to, for example, King Robert of Naples, Doge Andrea Dandolo of Venice, and Pope Urban V. Part VIII includes a selection of Petrarch’s ‘Letters to the Ancients’ where he writes to classical, mostly Roman, writers: Cicero, Seneca, Varro, Quintilian, Livy, Asinius Pollio, Homer. The well-known letters to Horace and Vergil have been excluded since they are written in verse. Part IX ends the collection with Petrarch looking back on his life and then to the future in his ‘Letter to Posterity’.

What comes over most strongly from this judicious selection and arrangement is the breadth and depth of Petrarch’s reading and interests: his excitement at the thought of discovering ‘lost’ classical manuscripts; his frustration at his lack of Greek when presented with a manuscript of Homer; his delight in his examination for the laurel crown; his advice to Pandolfo Malatesta on when to take a wife and which kind to choose. He is perhaps at his most charming when he scolds Cicero for his inconsistency (Sed quis te furor in Antonium impegit? ‘But what madness drove you against Antony?’, VIII.2.5) and his failure to live up to his own ideals (Nimirum quid enim iuvat alios docere, quid ornatissimis verbis semper de virtutibus loqui prodest, si te interim ipse non audias? ‘What is the point of teaching others, what the advantage of speaking in most elegant words about the virtues, if you don’t listen to yourself?’, VIII.2.6).

A theme that runs through these letters and that Petrarch returns to repeatedly is that of masculine friendship, whether that is interactions with state and political leaders or the genuine intimacy of his closest circle of friends. This is just one example of how these letters, taken as a collection, might be seen as an imitation of, and response to, classical letters such as those of Cicero and Seneca, almost as if Petrarch wants to bridge, via these letters, some of the chronological and cultural space between the classical period and his own.

One of the most striking conclusions from these letters is the extent to which the classical past and its writers and thinkers are, for Petrarch, not lost or dead but still living. Even while urging friends to continue the search for lost classical manuscripts, Petrarch situates himself in an intensely personal relationship with classical writers. This is brought out most sharply, of course, in his letters written to Cicero et al., letters which take on a tone of intimacy, familiarity and ease—these are characters who people Petrarch’s world.

Given the vast number of Petrarch’s correspondents and the political complications of the world he inhabits, Fantham has done an exemplary job of providing the requisite apparatus to make sense of these letters. The volumes contain an introduction, extensive notes to the translations that include dating, concordances, a full bibliography and index. Volume 2 additionally contains three useful appendices: a chronology of Petrarch’s life, a bibliography of his works, and biographical notes on his correspondents. All the notes are kept neatly to the back of each volume so that we can approach the letters unencumbered. The volumes themselves are handsomely produced, and I didn’t notice any typographical errors.

In summary, anyone interested in Early Modern receptions of classical literature in its broadest sense or Renaissance letters as a literary genre would do well not to miss this collection—Petrarch is often named the ‘Father of the Renaissance’ and these letters make clear that he additionally sees himself as a son of classical Rome.