This series has four easy five minute installments. This first installment: Poet, Scholar and Mountaineer.
The beauty of nature, of natural scenery amid mountains, fields, and lakes, seems to have passed unheeded during early medieval times. Even in the ancient days of classic culture it apparently attracted very little notice, except from an occasional poet. The present attitude of enthusiasm, which leads thousands of tourists to flock to Switzerland or to Niagara every year, is wholly a modern development. This development of what is almost a new sense in man certainly deserves notice. To fix an exact date for its beginning is, of course, impossible, but it is generally regarded as a product of the Italian Renaissance, and Burckhardt, seeking for its slow unfolding, traces it back to Petrarch, who, in his poetry, speaks of nature repeatedly.
Petrarch’s poetry was so highly valued by the Italians that they unanimously agreed to confer upon the author a laurel crown. This was a revival of the old Greek method of honoring poets, and as such it was felt by the Italians a specially fitting way to proclaim their reviving interest in art. So a great public gathering was arranged at Rome, and the laurel was with elaborate ceremonies placed on Petrarch’s brow.
The recipient of this new and distinguished honor is regarded as second only to Dante in Italian literature. In addition to his world-famed sonnets to Laura, he wrote much-admired Latin poems, and was a scholar of high repute. His enthusiasm for the ancient Greek and Latin authors made him the central figure in that revival of classic learning which at this time began in Italy.
This series is from The Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy by Jacob Burckhardt published in 1878.
Petrarch, who lives in the memory of most people nowadays chiefly as a great Italian poet, owed his fame among his contemporaries far rather to the fact that he was a kind of living representative of antiquity, that he imitated all styles of Latin poetry, endeavored by his voluminous historical and philosophical writings not to supplant, but to make known, the works of the ancients, and wrote letters that, as treatises on matters of antiquarian interest, obtained a reputation which to us is unintelligible, but which was natural enough in an age without handbooks. Petrarch himself trusted and hoped that his Latin writings would bring him fame with his contemporaries and with posterity, and thought so little of his Italian poems that, as he often tells us, he would gladly have destroyed them if he could have succeeded thereby in blotting them out from the memory of men.
It was the same with Boccaccio. For two centuries, when but little was known of the Decameron north of the Alps, he was famous all over Europe simply on account of his Latin compilations on mythology, geography, and biography. One of these, de Genealogia Deorum, contains in the fourteenth and fifteenth books a remarkable appendix, in which he discusses the position of the then youthful humanism with regard to the age. We must not be misled by his exclusive references to poesia, as closer observation shows that he means thereby the whole mental activity of the poet-scholars. This it is whose enemies he so vigorously combats–the frivolous ignoramuses who have no soul for anything but debauchery; the sophistical theologian to whom Helicon, the Castalian fountain, and the grove of Apollo were foolishness; the greedy lawyers, to whom poetry was a superfluity, since no money was to be made by it; finally the mendicant friars, described periphrastically, but clearly enough, who made free with their charges of paganism and immorality. Then follow the defense of poetry, the proof that the poetry of the ancients and of their modern followers contains nothing mendacious, the praise of it, and especially of the deeper and allegorical meanings which we must always attribute to it, and of that calculated obscurity which is intended to repel the dull minds of the ignorant.
And finally, with a clear reference to his own scholarly work, the writer justifies the new relation in which his age stood to paganism. The case was wholly different, he pleads, when the Early Church had to fight its way among the heathen. Now–praised be Jesus Christ!–true religion was strengthened, paganism destroyed, and the victorious Church in possession of the hostile camp. It was now possible to touch and study paganism almost (fere) without danger. Boccaccio, however, did not hold this liberal view consistently. The ground of his apostasy lay partly in the mobility of his character, partly in the still powerful and widespread prejudice that classical pursuits were unbecoming in a theologian. To these reasons must be added the warning given him in the name of the dead Pietro Petroni by the monk Gioacchino Ciani to give up his pagan studies under pain of early death. He accordingly determined to abandon them, and was only brought back from this cowardly resolve by the earnest exhortations of Petrarch, and by the latter’s able demonstration that humanism was reconcilable with religion.
There was thus a new cause in the world, and a new class of men to maintain it. It is idle to ask if this cause ought not to have stopped short in its career of victory, to have restrained itself deliberately, and conceded the first place to purely national elements of culture. No conviction was more firmly rooted in the popular mind than that antiquity was the highest title to glory which Italy possessed.
There was a symbolical ceremony familiar to this generation of poet-scholars which lasted on into the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, though losing the higher sentiment which inspired it–the coronation of the poets with the laurel wreath. The origin of this system in the Middle Ages is obscure, and the ritual of the ceremony never became fixed. It was a public demonstration, an outward and visible expression of literary enthusiasm, and naturally its form was variable. Dante, for instance, seems to have understood it in the sense of a half-religious consecration; he desired to assume the wreath in the baptistery of San Giovanni, where, like thousands of other Florentine children, he had received baptism. He could, says his biographer, have anywhere received the crown in virtue of his fame, but desired it nowhere but in his native city, and therefore died uncrowned. From the same source we learn that the usage was till then uncommon, and was held to be inherited by the ancient Romans from the Greeks. The most recent source to which the practices could be referred is to be found in the Capitoline contests of musicians, poets, and other artists, founded by Domitian in imitation of the Greeks and celebrated every five years, which may possibly have survived for a time the fall of the Roman Empire; but as few other men would venture to crown themselves, as Dante desired to do, the question arises, To whom did this office belong? Albertino Mussato was crowned at Padua in 1310 by the Bishop and the rector of the university.
The University of Paris, the rector of which was then a Florentine, 1341, and the municipal authorities of Rome competed for the honor of crowning Petrarch. His self-elected examiner, King Robert of Anjou, would gladly have performed the ceremony at Naples, but Petrarch preferred to be crowned on the Capitol by the senator of Rome. This honor was long the highest object of ambition, and so it seemed to Jacobus Pizinga, an illustrious Sicilian magistrate.
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