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The bard of love: Memory and antiquity in Petrarch.

plus sitiunt, quam capiunt
([people] thirst for more than they can receive)
(St. Augustine, Confessiones XI xxx 40)

Classical antiquity and modern culture

If any book can be acclaimed as a permanent canon of poetic identification in the realm of Western European poetry, this must surely be Francesco Petrarca's Canzoniere. The new code of communication he invented makes Petrarch not only a 'recollecting', but rather a 'recollected' poet, in other words a poet not only operating within the confines of past literature--like a bee immersed in pollen--but also one revived in the memory of poets no less hungry for nectar than he, such as Leopardi influenced by Petrarch's planctus, Montale who reinstated fixed metric patterns in his Occasioni, as well as Zanzotto's quest for truth in his Conglomerati. When faced with a writer whose works have attained virtually global recognition, the first question we ask ourselves is who this success is to be attributed to and what the meaning of it is. In certain cases, success can be termed as meteoric and ubiquitous, often linked to an ephemeral craving for a kind of collective intellectual satiety (examples of this are the over 300 million copies of the Harmony series sold from 1981 to the present day, not to mention the most recent novels in the Harry Potter saga). Moreover, there are other types of success endorsed both in time and space, whereby an author is able to elicit in new generations of readers different reactions of appreciation or even of identification (I refer in particular to Benigni's Dante). When a writer accomplishes the task of combining diachronic and synchronic success, within the sphere in which this success takes root, he or she becomes a 'Classic', in the dual meaning proposed by Aulus Gellius: '"Classici" dicebantur non omnes qui in quinque classibus erat, sed primae tantum classis homines, qui centum et viginti quinque milia aeris ampliusve censi erat' (Noct. Act. VI 13, 1). (1)

In conclusion, with reference to (Marcus Cornelius) Pronto: 'Ite ergo nunc et, quando forte erit otium, quaerite an "quadrigam" et "harenas" dixerit e cohorte illa dumtaxat antiquiore vel oratorum aliquis vel poetarum, id est classicus adsiduusque aliquis scriptor, non proletarius' (Noct. Act. XIX 8, 15). (2)

Aulus Gellius simply transfers to the classification of writers the division of the population in various 'classes' according to the census, as established in the Constitution of Servius TuUius. 'First class' citizens were termed as 'classics', whereas proletarians did not belong to any category at all. Therefore a 'Classic' writer designated a first-class, that is to say, a 'superior' or 'supreme' writer, is to be distinguished from the common herd of writers. For centuries, the only non-religious writers studied and recommended in scholastic institutions as philosophical and stylistic models to be emulated were the ancient Greek and Latin writers. Hence the inevitable association between 'Classic', 'exemplary' and 'ancient' (Greek or Latin) which also marked the transposition of the term 'Classic' from a category of artistic judgment to a sort of typological assessment. (3)

In Chapter XIV of his renowned European Literature and the Latin Middle Ages, dedicated to 'Classicism', Ernst Robert Curtius hardly mentions Petrarch and focuses mainly on his status as a Classic in the eyes of posterity. (4) No other poet in the world has ever been attributed, over the ages, such a high degree of authority and responsibility--so to speak--if we consider the vast resonance of his works throughout the whole of Europe, up to and beyond the 20th century. He alone is the poet of poets, a poet for all other poets. It is common knowledge that the Classics have always performed a normative role vis-a-vis modern writers; however, not all the ancients are necessarily Classics to be emulated. A good example is Martial, from whom Petrarch selects a few quotations, incorporating them here and there in a depreciative tone and anonymously (never mentioning the name of the writer) in his Latin works. Petrarch also displays a similar attitude, aimed at hiding from view the sources he draws upon, towards modern writers who, by virtue of their status, cannot be considered as Classics; while acknowledging them in practice, Petrarch steers clear of advocating them as models to be imitated. As an example, he exploits Giraldus Cambrensis (Giraud de Barri) whose Topographia Hibernica features in Petrarch's extremely select library, solely by virtue of the information contained in Chapter II 17 regarding the Island of Thule (reasonably familiar to the Eastern populations but virtually unheard of in the West) which, as Vinicio Pacca (2003: 591-610) observes, reveals itself as the 'matrice indiscutibile' (undeniable source) of his Familiare III 1. In brief, for Petrarch, modern and contemporary writers are, at best, fit for gap-filling, but certainly not for replacing information provided by the writers of Antiquity. It is no coincidence that in his De viris illustribus, an erudite work undertaken in 1338, the Italian poet polemically bans all contemporaries from his sublime Pantheon of the most famous personalities, as if to underline the inferiority of the former with respect to the eminent authorities of the past. Despite these provocations, his success--which has continued uninterruptedly ever since his death--lends itself perfectly to being selected as a standardized phenomenon, enabling us to reflect on the concepts of 'Humanism' and 'Modernity' that have traversed and hegemonically influenced seven centuries of culture, not only Italian.

As a premise, it is important to note to what extent Petrarch was familiar with and attached to his own 'classicity' because, as Michele Feo justly observes:
ebbe la ventura di essere un grande intellettuale, di esserne
totalmente consapevole e di ottenerne in vita per tutta Europa il
pubblico riconoscimento; da cio una sorta di costante autodifesa, di
periodico arroccamento contro gli assalti esterni, una gelosia della
propria idendta. Anche l'apertura, sempre piu cordiale, verso Omero
(come verso Dante) e dominata dal bisogno di non farsi invadere, di non
distruggere il proprio sistema. Omero ladno chiudera falle, definira
questioni aperte, corroborera acquisizioni gia note, non rivoluzionera
pero il mondo culturale e poetico del Petrarca. (5)

It is common knowledge that Petrarch considers the use of Latin to be an essential requisite for a 'Classical' poet--the language of erudite, illustrious men of letters, far removed from the contingencies of time and the use of the vernacular--with the result that he ends up becoming gradually more and more convinced that he is the one and only Classic in the modern world. This deep conviction was to have been amazingly articulated and compressed in his Africa, a Latin work in verse (also undertaken in 1338, but subsequently left unfinished), in which Petrarch aimed to restore Latin Humanism and language, seeing in these the cultural tradition and identity from which not only Italy but also the whole of Europe should take inspiration. (6) As for his credibility and his ardent desire to have his authority acknowledged also by his contemporaries, the following excerpt--a conversation on the etymology of the term 'poet' contained in a letter to his brother Gherardo--which has attracted the attention of more than one literary critic, will shed light on the issue:
Id sane non vulgari forma sed artificiosa quadam et exquisita et nova
fieri oportuit, que quoniam greco sermone 'poetes' dicta est, eos
quoque qui hac utebantur, poetas dixerunt. 'Quisnam' inquies, 'horum
est auctor'? Poteras, frater, absque fideiussoribus fidei mee stare;
memi forte ut vera et veri fronlem habentia referenti sine testibus
crederetur; sed si cautius agere mens est, locupletissimos fideiussores
ac fide dignissimos testes dabo: primus est Marcus Varro, doctissimus
Romanorum; proximus Tranquillus, rerum curiosissimus indagator; tertium
non adderem nisi quia is, ut reor, familiarior est tibi. Horum igitur
et Ysidorus, breviter licet et ipso teste Tranquillo, meminit
Ethimologiarum libro octavo. (Fam., X 4, 4-5) (7)

Michele Feo (1983) had already observed that this kind of self-assured and uncompromising ex cathedra pontification was an exclusive prerogative of the Classics. Petrarch obviously considered himself one of them. Moreover, his informal way of addressing the auctores (Isidorus, Varro, Suetonius), whom he discusses without reverential awe, hailing them with the familiar 'tu' form and taking pleasure in underlining their weak points (as in the letters contained in the Antiquis illustrioribus), is immediately apparent. Obviously Petrarch's unremitting and diligent reading of Classical authors over the years had provided him with in depth knowledge not only of their various styles and works, but also of their way of thinking, as illustrated in a significant parenthesis contained in his second letter to Cicero: '[...] si ex libris animum tuum novi, quern nosse michi non aliter quam si tecum vixissem videor [...]' ('if from your books I have learned your mind, which I seem to know as if I had lived with you" Fam. XXIV 4,9) (my translation). The revolution accomplished by the Petrarchan I-auctor with regard to the figure of the intellectual can also be assessed on the basis of these empirical observations. These, on the one hand, help to make explicit the renovative and traditional intents of a 'Petrarca, ricercatore senza frontiere, non collezionatore, o almeno non solo, ma inquisitore acuto e ardente, lettore insaziabile di libri (Fam. III 18) responsabili di complesse gestazioni ed originali parti', (8) while on the other hand confirming the validity of Ernest Renan's famous statement, the second part of which is often omitted: Petrarch was the first modern man because, in reality, he was a man of antiquity. (9)

We are all Humanists

The juxtaposition of ancient and modern, which enables us to revisit our entire literary tradition and, to a large extent, also European culture, lies at the core of our discussion. As a preliminary observation, we may say that to speak of revival, of evergreen intellectuals to be encased and suspended in time, certainly entails a reflection on the concept of 'antiquity', but also on the related concept of 'modernity'.

The term modern, deriving from the Latin modo ('now', 'just now'), has been freely juxtaposed, more or less clearly, to antique, not always to underline the superiority of the present vis-a-vis what is considered to be something belonging to the past. The positive, and almost provocative, implication whereby nowadays modernity is related to the concept of modernization--above all in the world of bureaucracy and politics (we need only think of the legendary reforms in Italy over the past few years)--underpins an ideological approach aimed at accelerating the process of 'regeneration' and at redeeming the institutions from what is considered to be outdated or detrimental to civil and economic development. In this case, present practice and old rules are a world apart: the ancients did things in a certain way; the new generations do the opposite.

In other cultural contexts, however, although we are dealing with the same juxtaposition, the term modern may simply be used to denote the disparity between what reveals itself as being outdated (without any derogatory connotation) and what is up-to-date: in Petrarch's age, recentiores designated modern or even contemporary writers, whereas the term antiquiores was reserved for writers of antiquity, although the dichotomy implied no kind of discrimination. On the contrary, outside the political and administrative sphere, the term modern can assume a pejorative nuance--if not an explicitly negative connotation--when the superiority of things of the past is privileged above the decline and corruption of the present. In this case, the adjective can specifically relate to mode or fashion (even if the term has a different etymology: from the Latin modus and French mode), referring to the habit of conforming to present customs and habits.

Ancient and modern, therefore, proceed side by side and, being somewhat 'flexible', they are to a certain extent debatable. Combining these two traditions, for example, the Fathers of the Church referred the adjective modernus to the new faith, in order to distinguish it from the ancient Pagan faith; however, the first Christian authors, who annihilated the ancient Pagan religion, salvaging only what was compatible with the new religion, did not disdain the possibility of incorporating ancient values in modern culture. By taking to the extreme the revitalization of ancient Humanism--towards which they initially felt a sense of inferiority--the Humanists appeared to overturn the Christian perspective, but they themselves ended up by privileging modernity, viewed as a fervent regeneration contesting even the established principles and regained values. The dual nature of such a revival was blatantly evident: on the one hand, it took the form of a laborious requalification of Christianity through the retrieval of antiquity, while on the other hand that of an arduous amendment of antiquity through the retrieval of an authentic form of Christianity (that of its origins).

In actual fact, the 14th-century revival of ancient values, based on the achievements in the same field of the Fathers of the Church, represented a different course of action, because it implied a return to Roman culture (which was soon extended to the entire Graeco-Roman world), in full awareness of the existence of a cultural divide. This is the essence of Humanism, in which we grasp the first distinguishing features of 'modern culture', a culture that harked back to pagan antiquity--almost the reverse process with respect to that accomplished by the Revelation--but with the prime objective of differentiating itself from the immediately preceding culture of the 11th-13th centuries. The latter, with respect to the period of antiquity, perceived itself as 'modern' on the strength of the fact that it had brought to completion the Christian modernization of Aristotelianism, Platonism and other Pagan philosophies. In exhuming old archetypes, Humanism was in opposition to Scholasticism because--more than distancing itself from the point of view of content --it conceived of, taught and transmitted knowledge in a different way. Humanism was undoubtedly not only a brand-new creation, whose novelty depended on the 'revisitation' of a grandiose past, but it was also a new method--which aimed at a 'refinement' rather than a retrieval of truths already revealed--and therefore it was determined to undermine the hierarchy of the various disciplines and their scholastic imprinting. This marks the beginning of the contradiction which, in its germinal phase, pervades Humanistic culture, which prided itself on returning to the origins --and thus to the Graeco-Roman heritage--often in the form salvaged by the Christian Fathers, while taking into account the decline of the recent evolution of theological rationalism, to the extent that it appeared contrary to modernity. (10)

This revolution within the framework is no trifling matter. The Humanistic period sees the materialization in the above-mentioned antinomies of the interminable dispute between the supporters of antiquity and the defenders of modernity. Such a dispute is one of the most well-defined symbols of modernity which, in literary historiography, is usually made to date back to the late 16th century, although it periodically reappears between the 16th and 17th centuries, between the 17th and 18th centuries and between the 19th and 20th centuries. Thus the Baroque, Enlightenment, Romantic and Avant-garde periods are considered to be characterized in turn by a hallmark of modernism and by a defence of Classicism that hark back, more or less consciously, to the historical Humanism of the 14th, 15th and 16th centuries.

While being obliged--for lack of space--to override certain details, we shall simply observe that the divergence that took root towards the end of the Humanistic period in the second half of the 16th century occurred in the name of modernity; and once more, in the name of modernity, the Enlightenment period proclaimed its own independent rebirth, not always admitting to moving along the same lines as the Humanistic tradition, which had already got caught up in proto-Enlightenment intents. It comes, therefore, as no surprise if the return to the origins, which took on the name of Renaissance, proved to be an innovative manoeuvre that acquired greater visibility in at least two extraordinarily new philosophical currents: the Enlightenment and the romantic Risorgimento. For all that--to quote an opinion endorsed by generations of critics--if historical Humanism, in its three centuries of reform, can be considered as the point of departure for the entire modern cultural evolution, this is due primarily to two solid lines of reasoning: the study of the humanae litterae and the notion of humans' perfectibility, which is tantamount to their real state of imperfection. To this intent, in the 1920s, the well-versed anti-Fascist philologist Cesare De Lollis opined that as the Humanists rightly recommended, the function of literary studies is to shape humankind, not the expert of this or any other literature. By virtually doing away with all hierarchies, in harmony with what was taking place in civil society, literary Humanism therefore lays the foundations for secular culture, thus bringing to fruition what in the present time is usually termed--sometimes misguidedly--as 'multidisciplinarity' or 'interdisciplinarity'; that is to say, the right of all arts and sciences, whether these be of a literary or technical nature, to contribute to the shaping of the individual and to their search for truth. Investigating in depth, we shall see that the theme of the power of the word, for a writer so laden with secular exegesis like Petrarch whose memory 'e mescolata, tesse su piu telai, levita nello spessore dell'intrico' ('is multifarious, weaves on more than one loom, and hovers in a tangled web'), (11) is not simply a question of studying the eloquence so dear to his heart, but it can also be considered as a debt towards the Platonic and subsequent Stoic tradition, a tradition that detected truth in the innermost designs of the soul expressed in literature.

We are, therefore, justified in stating that there would be no modernity without Humanism and Petrarch, not only because Humanism supposedly anticipated the modern world or infected it with its 'influences', but also because modern culture gained momentum from the Humanist Weltanschauung, at a time when the middle classes were coming into being and modern states were taking shape, creating a new 'tradition' corresponding to a methodical way of representing historical facts. The demolition of the concept of 'anticipation' and the scaling-down of fixed concepts such as 'imitation' and 'influence' (all of which are part and parcel of the same logical universe), have contributed to a critical assessment of 'tradition' as a concrete process of crucial importance within the historical perspective, despite on the one hand the tardiness and on the other the velocity of cultural transmission. When Petrarch judiciously creates his own library (dispensing with most 'scholastic' volumes) and criticizes the arrogance of the naturalists, the unruliness of the dialectic philosophers, as well as the specious complications of the men-of-law, he deals expertly with typically Humanistic issues, destined to re-emerge in depth in the modern era. Thus Humanism, precisely by virtue of the claims and methods it introduced--namely its criticism of the status quo as well as its historiographical and philological outlook--protracted towards the future, through the centuries, its complex and innovative role. Moreover, Petrarch marked the modern turning-point of an intellectual way of thinking at odds with the past, and deeply influenced critical thinking in the wake of the resistance and resurgence of the principle of authority.

Petrarch's modernity

The Latin style of doctrinal and legal texts, like the Dolce Stil Novo, of mystical inspiration and scholastic tone, now seem--to those who, like Petrarch, had been nurtured on the Classics--a modern deviation of the eloquence of antiquity. Roughly halfway through his life, which also corresponds to the middle of the 14th century, Petrarch makes a breakthrough, which was to have a bombshell effect on future generations, after much soul searching which was to direct him towards St. Augustine's interpretation of ancient values and which was to deeply aff"ect his love poetry by redefining it in ethical and philosophical terms. This is an issue on which Adelia Noferi (2001: 43-50) has laid particular emphasis; she speaks of the co-existence and overlapping of the mythical-romantic (related to guilt) register with respect to the ethical-psychological (related to innocence) register underlying the dualistic and antithetical core of the falling in love process that governs the dynamics of the Canzoniere. At the same time, the decision to privilege the Latin language, especially in Petrarch's meditative prose, but also in his epic literature, heralds in the season of Humanism with the aim of restoring to its seat of honour antiquity as an antidote to 'modern' degeneration, and in support of a more authentic modernity which, in Petrarch's case, is that of Christianity, rooted in the discovery of the inner life and the two irreconcilable poles of body and spirit.

Benedetto Croce's reflections can certainly shed light on this matter. In his Poesia popolare e poesia d'arte, he considered Petrarch to be:
il primo poeta moderno, dunque, in questo senso [che] in lui pel primo
si vede l'aspirazione a un'inconseguibile beatitudine nell'amore di una
creatura, magicamente concepita come datrice di perfetta beatitudine:
la felicita ricercata nel sentimento e nella passione, ossia nel
particolare non redento nell'universale ma posto esso come
l'universale; con la disperazione e la malinconia che a cio segue o
s'accompagna, col senso continuo della caducita e della morte e del
disfacimento [...]. Il Petrarca ritrae il fantastico desiderare,
l'irresoluto volere, la malinconia, l'acedia, che non ha diritti,
appunto perche non e un positivo ma un negativo e, come si e detto, una
malattia. (12)

If the poet, or rather the creative writer, is someone who has the power to present reality in the form of an illuminating synthesis in which each individual is able to discern a flash of his/her own personal experience, a classical text can be savoured, or rather apprehended, on various levels of meaning, thus enabling the reader to identify with the text according to his/her own cultural level. How can the public at large relate to Petrarch's writings? Of the innumerable aspects of Petrarch's work I shall single out one at random. I propose to focus on the concept of sloth or slothfulness, a modern malady in the words of Benedetto Croce, a semi-rational leitmotif, which distinguishes and links Petrarch to modern writers. In actual fact, we are dealing with an issue that harks back to the Secretum. In this famous conversation--a document that attests to the profound crisis that affected the bard of love around the fourth decade of the 14th century--he reflects on this capital vice, which he comments upon together with other vices. We are well aware that the analysis of eros and glory, in itself indicative of the conflicting human condition, will be more strictly related to the poet's biographical data, while in debating on this malady of the soul, Petrarch voices the deepest recess not only of his own conscience, but also of that of modernity, as if he were opening a window on novel 19th-century theories of the unconscious. This was something to be expected, given that Petrarch was as diligent as a writer as he was infallible in his empathic explorations. And if for moral theology sloth was an expression of negligence or indifference towards religion and spiritual love, for the poet--in the wake of Cicero's Tusculanae disputationes--it corresponded to the anguish rooted in the recesses of the conscience, a sort of dire evil that prevented the individual from acting and reacting, to the point of inducing them to despair of the possibility of regaining their health. In this light, anguish not only characterizes Petrarch's own personal condition, but also the universal condition of humans at the mercy of the slings and arrows of fortune obliging them to suffer their destiny. Franciscus' ego is overpowered by a manifest state of depression. Nothing more modern, nothing more ancient. Yet for the character of St. Augustine --in whom Petrarch's aspirations and moral consciousness are unobtrusively voiced --this acceptance of defeat is misleading and detrimental, not because it might be possible to free oneself completely of the tentacles of fortune (which would be tantamount to declaring oneself immune to the laws of human nature) but because the mind urgently needs to grasp the reality of the situation and aid the will to elude the throes of destiny. The pre-eminence of will--in the psychological sense--taking into account the constraints of human nature, and not in the purely pragmatic sense, according to which will is inevitably inclined, with its own energies, to choose good, as soon as it becomes acquainted with it--links Petrarch's meditation to the crisis of Scholastic intellectualism. (13)

What a perfect psychoanalyst St. Augustine would have made, there can be no doubt about that. He had urged Petrarch to abandon his epic and historical writings and to focus attention on his inner self, thereby sacrificing vain expectations of glory; and in his opening sonnet, having seen in St. Augustine the charisma of a father, Petrarch confirms his complicity with and utilizes the expression Secretum inani spe (14) (that is to say, vain hopes), taken from a passage in which the latter condemned the false progression between the quest for earthly glory and the attainment of eternal possessions. Petrarch's psychic upsurge, therefore, has intratextual associations, where the series of words unsheathed in the Secretum 'speranze/dolore/vergogna/pentimento/pieta' ('hopes/grief/shame/repentance/mercy') foreshadows the patterns 'vane speranze/van dolore/mi vergogno/vergogna-pentersi/pieta' ('vain hopes/vain grief/I feel ashamed/shame-repent/mercy') recurring in Voi c'ascoltate in rime sparse il suono (RVFY). The journey of the soul in interiore homine is a return journey to the self, through the darkness of the emotions, a viaticum whose end has been foreseen and determined by its conception and thus by its initial creation; the conceptual circularity of the journey is reflected in the circular structure of the RVF, but we are well aware of the fact that, on an existential level, such an itinerary entails a process of disintegration. Love, sloth and the quest for glory are the concerted forces that lead Petrarch to dispersion, a characteristic discussed by Marco Santagata (1992) in his Frammenti dell'anima and which permeates the 'rime sparse' of the opening sonnet, explored in the Prologo of the Amoroso pensiero. (15) It will be noted that this opening sonnet of the Canzoniere, which has an almost conclusive tone, manifests itself to 20th-century Italian literature as an edifying experience, if it is true that --for instance--Petrarch's lexis can be detected in Andrea Zanzotto's Conglomerati, in which the 'crode disperse', 'il mondo che si svela per quel che e', 'le membra sparse', le 'lettere disperse', il 'vergognarsi', i 'giovani freddissimi aprili', i 'vaghi errori' e 'l'errore onirico' ('solitary spurs', 'the world that reveals itself in its true light', 'the scattered limbs', the 'strewn letters', the 'feeling of shame', the 'bitterly cold Aprils of my youth', the 'nebulous errors' and 'the dreamlike error') are but a few of the countless semantic resonances that flood the pages of modern 20th-century writers.

If on the one hand literary success and the cult of the ego in his inner solitude were two crucial problems for Petrarch, on the other hand his work is infused with a moral awareness of the utmost importance; and, as Loredana Chines has justly observed, this is due to the fact that:
I contorni dell'anima petrarchesca hanno piuttosto a che vedere con le
conoscenze che l'intelletto possiede, Petrarca e quello che sa. Ma e
proprio qui il fascino straordinario della riflessione petrarchesca,
che dalla inesauribile sete di sapere trae condnui spund di
osservazione e di contraddizione, dalla lettura degli antichi
costruisce scandagli per i propri abissi, si preoccupa di tracciare un
percorso ideale di crescita e maturazione, ma lascia aperta la porta al
dissidio e malcela le tracce di condnue ricadute. (16)

These are the moments when Petrarch lays his writings open to vacuity and discovers the uncompromising rigidity of the other with respect to the self, expressed above all in Laura's countenance. Yet the Petrarch who features in the archives of modern times, thanks to the efforts of Zanzotto, and who deserves to be immortalized in the treasure chest of time, has a tendency towards uncertainty, contradiction, dispersion, discord (as does his Canzoniere), forever hanging over the precipices of void and nothingness. In this connection, what immediately emerges is the fact that the references to the opening sonnet have the function of expressing the substantial correspondence between the beginning and the end of the experience, totally inscribed within his inner doubt and torment. Moreover, in the light of a few observations made by Zanzotto on the topic--included in his essay Petrarca fra il palazzo e la cameretta (17)--we become immediately aware of the central role of the poet in his identification of writing as an ethical universe, in which the identity of the writer and the otherness of the beloved are issues that are continually at stake. Thanks to this in particular, Petrarch's works are able to shed light on modern debates on the ethics of writing held in the philosophical domain above all by Carlo Sini and Maurice Blanchot, as well as on the discussion--conducted by Emmanuel Levinas--on ethics as the identification of otherness expressed in the features of another person. Yet let us dwell--for the last time--on Zanzotto's acute analysis. He considered that the incipit of Petrarch's sonnet 150 'Che fai, alma? che pensi?' ('What are you doing, my soul? What do you think?') would seem to sum up humans' deep aspiration towards otherness, were it not for the fact that these questions, which could elicit a million answers, inevitably meet with a single non-answer because--to quote the poet of the Conglomerati--'ogni accenno di dialogo, ogni illusione di interscambio, ricade nel monologo' ('the minimum hint of dialogue, any possible illusion of interaction, sinks into the monologue'). (18) From the soundness of this historical survey, it would appear that in the fragmenta the otherness remains unresolved because it is rooted in a falsely dialogical semi-darkness, where the issues at stake take the form of a request for recognition and identification. It would be difficult to establish whether this could be Petrarch's true innovation, coupled with the revelation of the individual in the modern sense. However, what is certain is that Petrarch revealed himself to be ultra-modern in his maximum appraisal of the process of identification through writing, and his development of the concept of 'testimony' in the threefold psychological, literary and rhetorical sense. (19)

In light of these facts, the harrowing frustration that, in Petrarch's rhymes, is subject to the topoi of Love, sloth and the striving for glory belongs to a kind of language both timeless and stateless. Time after time, it can be recreated in the minds of poets of every age, as proof of the fact that we are all authors of the same book.


(1.) Gellius (1927: Vol. II, 58-59). 'Not all those men who were enrolled in the five classes were called classici, but only the men of the first class, who were rated at a 125,000 asses or more'.

(2.) Gellius (1927: Vol. III, 376-377). 'So go now and inquire, when you chance to have leisure, whether any orator or poet, provided he be of that earlier band--that is to say, any classical or authoritative writer, not one of the common herd--has used quadriga or harenae'.

(3.) See Puppo (1975: 1-3). Aulus Gellius is the starting point for Bettini's (2000) reflecdons on the concept of 'Classic'. See also Pacca (2012).

(4.) Curtius (1953: 264-267): 'The three great fourteenth-century Tuscans (Dante, however, being included only under severe restrictions) were set up as linguistic models. [...] There is no closed, "classical" system of Italian literature. Dante, Petrarch, Boccaccio, Ariosto, Tasso are great authors for whom there is no common denominator. Each of the five has a different relation to Antiquity. [...] The Marques de Santillana's poedcs (15th century) comes from Isidore and Cassiodorus. In his epicedium on Enrique de Villena (d. 1433) he has a catalogue of authors containing the following names: Livy, Virgil, Macrobius, Valerius Flaccus, Sallust, Seneca, Tully, Cassalianus (?), Alan, Boethius, Petrarch, Fulgentius, Dante, Geoffrey of Vinsauf, Terrence, Juvenal, Statius, Quintilian'.

(5.) Feo (1974: 139). '[...] he was gifted with being a great intellectual and, as such, fully aware of being able to count on public appreciadon and acknowledgment throughout his lifetime all over Europe; this accounts for his constant self-defence, his occasional need to withdraw within his private castle to ward off external attacks, as well as his need to protect his own identity. Even his sincere open-mindedness towards Homer (as well as towards Dante) is overshadowed by the desire to protect and preserve his own distinctiveness. However much the Ladn Homer bridges gaps, settles debatable issues, validates accepted theories, he will not succeed in revolutionizing Petrarch's cultural and poetic microcosm' (my translation). Homer was no more than an illustrious name in the Middle Ages and, right up to Petrarch's time, or at least until 1362 (the year of Leontius Pilatus' Ladn transladon of Homer), he was known to the public solely on the strength of Cicero's translations of part of his works in the Tusculanae disputationes. See Weiss (1977: 136-149).

(6.) For an in-depth and up-to-date study of this matter, see Tonelli and Valenti (2018).

(7.) 'It was necessary, of course, that this be done not in an every-day vulgar fashion, but in an unusual, artful and carefully elaborated manner. Now such speech was termed in Greek poetes; so, very naturally, those who used it came to be called poets. Who, you will ask, is my authority for this? But could you not dispense with bondsmen, my brother, and have faith in me? I believe you should trust my unsupported word, when I tell you things that are true and bear the stamp of truth. Still, if you choose to proceed more cautiously, I will provide you with the most solid assurance and witnesses whom you may trust with perfect safety. The first of these is Marcus Varro, the greatest scholar that Rome ever produced, and the next is Tranquillus (Suetonius), an investigator whose work is characterised by the utmost caution. Then I can add a third name--as I know that he is well known to you--Isidore. He too mentions these matters, although briefly and purely on the authority of Suetonius, in the eighth book of his Etymologies' (my translation).

(8.) Chessa (2005: 15). 'Petrarch, a scholar without frontiers, not a collector--or at least, only in part--but a harsh, zealous inquisitor, an insatiable reader of books (Fam. III 18) generating complex developments and original parts' (my translation).

(9.) Renan (1949: 252-253). 'Petrarch deserves to be defined as the first modern man, inasmuch as he introduced among Latin scholars the delicate affection for classical antiquity, the origin of our entire civilisation. The Middle Ages, on various occasions, had endeavoured to recover the broken thread and to re-establish the link with Classical tradition. Yet, despite their admiration for Classical antiquity, the Middle Ages failed to perceive its vitality and fruitfulness. Petrarch, on the other hand, was a man of antiquity in the true sense of the word' (my translation). On Petrarch's links with the various past literary traditions, see Marcozzi (2003).

(10.) Returning to the issue of the juxtaposition of ancient and modern, Loredana Chines (2013: 8) comments: 'La cultura che caratterizza il nuovo intellettuale non e piu quella medievale della filosofia scolastica, che "definiva" un vasto e rigido sistema di pensiero, e contro cui Petrarca si scaglia nelle sue Invective, bensi quella maturata alla luce della lettura degli antichi, la cui sapientia va studiata, e "analizzata", allo scopo di riscattare il male del tempo presente' ('The culture that characterises the new intellectual is no longer medieval Scholastic philosophy, which "defined" a vast and rigid system of thought, and against which Petrarch speaks out in his Invective, but a culture acquired through the works of ancient authors, whose sapientia must be studied and "analysed", with the aim of redeeming the evils of the present') (my translation).

(11.) Bettarini (1998: 34) (my translation).

(12.) Croce (1967: 71). (This forms part of Scritti di storia letteraria e politica). 'The first modem poet, therefore, in the sense that in him we witness for the first time the aspiration towards an unattainable state of rapture in the love of a creature, magically conceived as a dispenser of perfect beatitude: happiness pursued in feeling and passion, that is to say in an aspect that does not become part of the universal but is itself posited as the universal; with all the despair and melancholy that ensure or accompany it, with an unremitting sense of transience and death and decay [...]. Petrarch depicts illusory desire, hesitant will, melancholy, slothfulness, which is futile in the sense that it is not a positive but a negative element and, as previously stated, a malady' (my translation).

(13.) On this subject, see the fragmentary lines in Petrarca (1955: 107-109).

(14.) Petrarca (1955: 206).

(15.) Santagata (2014: 21-41).

(16.) Chines (2013: 16). 'The contours of Petrarch's soul relate to the knowledge possessed by the intellect, Petrarch is the man who knows. Yet herein lies the extraordinary fascination of Petrarch's way of thinking; from his unquenchable thirst for knowledge he derives endless suggestions for discussion and objection, his reading of the authors of antiquity provides him with the means to probe into his own abysses, his principal concern is to mark out an ideal pathway of growth and maturity, while leaving an open door to his inner conflict and poorly concealing the traces of his constant relapses' (my translation).

(17.) Zanzotto (1991:261-271).

(18.) See Luigi Tassoni's comment on the Sonetto del che fare e del che pensare, in Zanzotto (2001: 111-117) (my translation).

(19.) On the basic theme of writing and its symbolic implications in Petrarch's work, see Geri (2007).


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Giona Tuccini

University of Cape Town, South Africa

Corresponding author:

Giona Tuccini, Upper Campus, Room 216, Seattle Building, University of Cape Town, 5 University Avenue, Rondebosch, 7701, South Africa.


DOI: 10.1177/0014585818812452
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Title Annotation:Article
Author:Tuccini, Giona
Publication:Forum Italicum
Geographic Code:4EUIT
Date:May 1, 2019
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