Outside the sphere of scientific investigation, there is another way to draw near to nature.
Modern Recognition of Scenic Beauty — Crowning of Petrarch at Rome
is the name of our selection from The Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy by Jacob Burckhardt published in 1878. The selection is serialized in four installments for daily reading.
Previously in Modern Recognition of Scenic Beauty — Crowning of Petrarch at Rome.
Then came the Italian journey of Charles IV, whom it amused to flatter the vanity of ambitious men, and impress the ignorant multitude by means of gorgeous ceremonies. Starting from the fiction that the coronation of poets was a prerogative of the old Roman emperors, and consequently was no less his own, he crowned, May 15, 1355, the Florentine scholar Zanobi della Strada at Pisa, to the annoyance of Petrarch, who complained that the barbarian laurel had dared adorn the man loved by the Ausonian muses, and to the great disgust of Boccaccio, who declined to recognize this laurea Pisana as legitimate. Indeed, it might be fairly asked with what right this stranger, half Slavonic by birth, came to sit in judgment on the merits of Italian poets. But from henceforth the emperors crowned poets whenever they went on their travels; and in the fifteenth century the popes and other princes assumed the same right, till at last no regard whatever was paid to place or circumstances.
Outside the sphere of scientific investigation, there is another way to draw near to nature. The Italians are the first among modern peoples by whom the outward world was seen and felt as something beautiful. The power to do so is always the result of a long and complicated development, and its origin is not easily detected, since a dim feeling of this kind may exist long before it shows itself in poetry and painting, and thereby becomes conscious of itself. Among the ancients, for example, art and poetry had gone through the whole circle of human interests before they turned to the representation of nature, and even then the latter filled always a limited and subordinate place. And yet, from the time of Homer downward, the powerful impression made by nature upon man is shown by countless verses and chance expressions. The Germanic races which founded their states on the ruins of the Roman Empire were thoroughly and specially fitted to understand the spirit of natural scenery; and though Christianity compelled them for a while to see in the springs and mountains, in the lakes and woods, which they had till then revered, the working of evil demons, yet this transitional conception was soon outgrown.
By the year 1200, at the height of the Middle Ages, a genuine, hearty enjoyment of the external world was again in existence, and found lively expression in the minstrelsy of different nations, which gives evidence of the sympathy felt with all the simple phenomena of nature–spring with its flowers, the green fields, and the woods. But these pictures are all foreground, without perspective. Even the crusaders, who traveled so far and saw so much, are not recognizable as such in these poems. The epic poetry, which describes armor and costumes so fully, does not attempt more than a sketch of outward nature; and even the great Wolfram von Eschenbach scarcely anywhere gives us an adequate picture of the scene on which his heroes move. From these poems it would never be guessed that their noble authors in all countries inhabited or visited lofty castles, commanding distant prospects. Even in the Latin poems of the wandering clerks, we find no traces of a distant view–of landscape properly so called; but what lies near is sometimes described with a glow and splendor which none of the knightly minstrels can surpass.
To the Italian mind, at all events, nature had by this time lost its taint of sin, and had shaken off all trace of demoniacal powers. St. Francis of Assisi, in his Hymn to the Sun, frankly praises the Lord for creating the heavenly bodies and the four elements.
The unmistakable proofs of a deepening effect of nature on the human spirit begin with Dante. Not only does he awaken in us by a few vigorous lines the sense of the morning airs and the trembling light on the distant ocean, or of the grandeur of the storm-beaten forest, but he makes the ascent of lofty peaks, with the only possible object of enjoying the view–the first man, perhaps, since the days of antiquity who did so. In Boccaccio we can do little more than infer how country scenery affected him; yet his pastoral romances show his imagination to have been filled with it.
But the significance of nature for a receptive spirit is fully and clearly displayed by Petrarch — one of the first truly modern men. That clear soul–who first collected from the literature of all countries evidence of the origin and progress of the sense of natural beauty, and himself, in his Ansichten der Natur, achieved the noblest masterpiece of description — Alexander von Humboldt, has not done full justice to Petrarch; and, following in the steps of the great reaper, we may still hope to glean a few ears of interest and value.
Petrarch was not only a distinguished geographer — the first map of Italy is said to have been drawn by his direction — and not only a reproducer of the sayings of the ancients, but felt himself the influence of natural beauty. The enjoyment of nature is, for him, the favorite accompaniment of intellectual pursuits; it was to combine the two that he lived in learned retirement at Vaucluse and elsewhere, that he from time to time fled from the world and from his age.
We should do him wrong by inferring from his weak and undeveloped power of describing natural scenery that he did not feel it deeply. His picture, for instance, of the lovely Gulf of Spezzia and Porto Venere, which he inserts at the end of the sixth book of the Africa, for the reason that none of the ancients or moderns had sung of it, is no more than a simple enumeration, but the descriptions in letters to his friends of Rome, Naples, and other Italian cities in which he willingly lingered, are picturesque and worthy of the subject.
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