Appreciation of nature inspired Petrarch to pioneer a new poetry. All this is genuine modern enjoyment, not a reflection of antiquity.
Today’s installment concludes Modern Recognition of Scenic Beauty — Crowning of Petrarch at Rome
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.
The lovely hills about Siena, with villas and monasteries on every height, are his own home, and his descriptions of them are touched with a peculiar feeling. Single picturesque glimpses charm him, too, like the little promontory of Capo di Monte that stretches out into the Lake of Bolsena. “Rocky steps,” we read, “shaded by vines, descend to the water’s edge, where the evergreen oaks stand between the cliffs, alive with the song of thrushes.” On the path round the Lake of Nemi, beneath the chestnuts and fruit-trees, he feels that here, if anywhere, a poet’s soul must awake — here in the hiding-place of Diana! He often held consistories or received ambassadors under huge old chestnut-trees, or beneath the olives on the greensward by some gurgling spring. A view like that of a narrowing gorge, with a bridge arched boldly over it, awakens at once his artistic sense. Even the smallest details give him delight through something beautiful, or perfect, or characteristic in them — the blue fields of waving flax, the yellow gorge which covers the hills, even tangled thickets, or single trees, or springs, which seem to him like wonders of nature.
The height of his enthusiasm for natural beauty was reached during his stay on Monte Amiata, in the summer of 1462, when plague and heat made the lowlands uninhabitable. Half way up the mountain, in the old Lombard monastery of San Salvatore, he and his court took up their quarters. There, between the chestnuts which clothe the steep declivity, the eye may wander over all Southern Tuscany, with the towers of Siena in the distance. The ascent of the highest peak he left to his companions, who were joined by the Venetian envoy; they found at the top two vast blocks of stone one upon the other–perhaps the sacrificial altar of a prehistorical people–and fancied that in the far distance they saw Corsica and Sardinia rising above the sea.
In the cool air of the hills, among the old oaks and chestnuts, on the green meadows where there were no thorns to wound the feet and no snakes or insects to hurt or to annoy, the Pope passed days of unclouded happiness. For the segnatura, which took place on certain days of the week, he selected on each occasion some new shady retreat “novas in convallibus fontes et novas inveniens umbras, qual dubiam jacerent electionem.” At such times the dogs would perhaps start a great stag from his lair, who, after defending himself a while with hoofs and antlers, would fly at last up the mountain. In the evening the Pope was accustomed to sit before the monastery on the spot from which the whole valley of the Paglia was visible, holding lively conversations with the cardinals. The courtiers, who ventured down from the heights on their hunting expeditions, found the heat below intolerable, and the scorched plains like a very hell, while the monastery, with its cool, shady woods, seemed like an abode of the blessed.
All this is genuine modern enjoyment, not a reflection of antiquity. As surely as the ancients themselves felt in the same manner, so surely, nevertheless, were the scanty expressions of the writers whom Pius knew insufficient to awaken in him such enthusiasm.
The second great age of Italian poetry, which now followed at the end of the fifteenth century, as well as the Latin poetry of the same period, is rich in proofs of the powerful effect of nature on the human mind. The first glance at the lyric poets of that time will suffice to convince us. Elaborate descriptions, it is true, of natural scenery are very rare, for the reason that, in this energetic age, the novels and the lyric or epic poetry had something else to deal with. Bojardo and Ariosto paint nature vigorously, but as briefly as possible, and with no effort to appeal by their descriptions to the feelings of the reader, which they endeavor to reach solely by their narrative and characters.
Letter-writers and the authors of philosophical dialogues are, in fact, better evidences of the growing love of nature than the poets. The novelist Bandello, for example, observes rigorously the rules of his department of literature; he gives us in his novels themselves not a word more than is necessary on the natural scenery amid which the action of his tales takes place, but in the dedications which always precede them we meet with charming descriptions of nature as the setting for his dialogues and social pictures. Among letter-writers, Aretino unfortunately must be named as the first who has fully painted in words the splendid effect of light and shadow in an Italian sunset.
We sometimes find the feeling of the poets, also, attaching itself with tenderness to graceful scenes of country life. Tito Strozza, about the year 1480, describes in a Latin elegy the dwelling of his mistress. We are shown an old ivy-clad house, half hidden in trees, and adorned with weather-stained frescoes of the saints, and near it a chapel, much damaged by the violence of the river Po, which flowed hard by; not far off, the priest ploughs his few barren roods with borrowed cattle. This is no reminiscence of the Roman elegists, but true modern sentiment.
It may be objected that the German painters at the beginning of the sixteenth century succeed in representing with perfect mastery these scenes of country life, as, for instance, Albrecht Durer, in his engraving of the prodigal son. But it is one thing if a painter, brought up in a school of realism, introduces such scenes, and quite another thing if a poet, accustomed to an ideal or mythological framework, is driven by inward impulse into realism. Besides which, priority in point of time is here, as in the descriptions of country life, on the side of the Italian poets.
This ends our series of passages on Modern Recognition of Scenic Beauty — Crowning of Petrarch at Rome by Jacob Burckhardt from his book The Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy published in 1878. This blog features short and lengthy pieces on all aspects of our shared past. Here are selections from the great historians who may be forgotten (and whose work have fallen into public domain) as well as links to the most up-to-date developments in the field of history and of course, original material from yours truly, Jack Le Moine. – A little bit of everything historical is here.
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