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Letters of Old Age: Rerum Senilium Libri IXVI II.

The place of Petrarch in the formation of humanism and modernity is secure and widely recognized. But because Petrarch's most important works are the Latin ones (and the Letters are possibly his masterpiece) he is known outside the narrow circle of specialists through what has already been translated into English. This translation from the Latin of the Rerum Senilium Libri, a work thus far overlooked, is therefore a welcome addition to Petrarch scholarship. The collection of letters, in two volumes, is the eagerly awaited complement to Aldo S. Bernardo's excellent translation of Petrarch's other major collection of letters, the Rerum Familiarium Libri (1985). The Letters of Old Age presents us with the first complete English translation of the 128 letters compiled by Petrarch into this work, and will fill an essential niche in any collection in English of Petrarch's writings.

The basic text that was used for the Letters of Old Age was the 1501 Librorum Francisci Petrarche annotatio impressorum (Venice), but the translators also referred to four fifteenth-century manuscripts when corroboration or supplementation was required. The result is a reading both fluid and clear, fulfilling the translators' intent to provide a text that is easy to read and understand while still remaining faithful to Petrarch's strong and expressive style, which he crafted out of deepest admiration for the ancients.

The Letters of Old Age is divided into eighteen books. It opens with Petrarch's letter to Francesco Nelli, reminiscent of the introductory letter in the Familiares, which refers to the sadness experienced due to the tragic loss of friends in the then-current plague. It concludes with the well-known Letter to Posterity, which is a powerful autobiographical fragment and which gives Petrarch's mature retrospective judgment about his achievements. The Seniles collection was begun by Petrarch when his collection of letters for the Familiares grew so large he resolved to initiate two new volumes to house the overflow. The Seniles' letters were written from roughly 1361 through 1374, up to a month before Petrarch's death. He carefully chose and revised letters from his vast reserve, working and reworking to the point that some letters were drastically altered and others created strictly for inclusion in the text.

Petrarch incorporated letters with a tremendously wide range of both subjects and addressees. They are written to persons as varied as kings and popes to physicians, warriors, and even a minstrel. Their content ranges from political, religious and philosophical considerations to everyday events and observations, from the Church to astrology to dreams. Of particular importance are the letters to Boccaccio, which are more numerous than those to any other recipient. The carefully planned conclusion of the Seniles consists of a chapter of letters to Boccaccio, followed by the Letter to Posterity. These letters move from illness, emotion, and fortune to Petrarch's comments on and translation (and elevation) from the vernacular of Boccaccio's tale of Griselda. Taken together, these letters constitute an important chapter of literary history, with the shadow of Dante steadily lurking over his two successors, as they help us view Petrarch not as the anxious figure modernity has forged for us in recent years, but as a powerful thinker bent on giving a direction to the political debates of his time. Underlying these concerns in Petrarch's letters to more than 150 addressees, are themes of friendship, love and fame, as well as the darker issues always lingering in Petrarch's works - namely the preoccupation with the inevitability of time's progression and the certainty of death.

The letters of this central figure in the forging of humanism illustrate the amazing diversity of his thoughts, emotions and interests. The sheer volume of the letters that he wrote, only a small fraction of which were preserved, demonstrates that this dialogue and communication between the outer and inner worlds of the self, make up the fabric of an individual. The variety of themes within the Letters (history, medicine, poetry, moral topics such as friendships) underscores the importance of the necessarily encyclopedic reading of Petrarch which has recently been emerging. This means that Petrarch's work must be taken as an entirety of parts - the lyrics and the letters, the historical texts amid the epic fragment. Just as one cannot read one letter alone without having a conception of the entire text and how that letter, as a piece, is linked with the whole, one must also take his works, and his concept of the self, as a totality - or a unity made up of fragments - and explore the links that bind all the disparate elements together. The Letters of Old Age makes available to English-speaking students of the Renaissance one more indispensable element of the Petrarchan whole. Without these letters, no study of Petrarch would be complete.

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Author:Cozzarelli, Julia M.
Publication:Renaissance Quarterly
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Dec 22, 1996
Previous Article:Attending to Women in Early Modern England.
Next Article:A Miscellany on Nicholas of Cusa.

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