Naples:life,death &
                Miracle contact: Jeff Matthews

entry Sept 2014

Petrarch and/in Naples (sort of)

or, It's always been like this! (Really.)
Statue of Petrarca in the Uffizi in Florence
sculptor: Andrea Leoni (1845)

I'm pretty sure I started out to write about Petrarch in Naples, something literary, no doubt. As it turns out, there isn't much to tell about that specific aspect of his life. I got sidetracked. But, generally:

Francesco Petrarca (1304-1374) was born in Arezzo in the Republic of Florence and is one of the Trinity at the foundations of the modern Italian language. The other two are Dante and Boccaccio. Dante is about a generation earlier (he died in 1321), and Boccaccio is almost an exact contemporary of Petrarca; indeed, the two carried on a hearty exchange of letters. Though our 700-year-long telescope, we may think that there can't have been much difference among the three of them. Yet, of the three, Petrarch (the common English form of his name) is the "non-medieval" one, the one who pointed Italian literature towards the Renaissance and Humanism, the one whose poems in vernacular Italian, especially the sonnets, influenced generations of later poets not just in Italian but in other European languages. Yet, interestingly, his vast writings in Latin are also largely responsible for the rebirth of the interest in the classics that are the hallmark of the Renaissance, itself. Petrarch is apparently also responsible for the term, the "Dark Ages" to describe the period before the rebirth of classicism.

I think that is all I shall have to say along those lines. As I said, I got sidetracked. That was when I read that Petrarch, all those years ago, came to pretty much the same conclusion as many of the rest of us —Naples is a rough and tough place to live no matter what age you live in. He made two trips to Naples. The trips were in 1341 and in 1343. The first one was for the purpose of being tested by the erudite king Robert the Wise of Naples as to whether he (Petrarch) was worthy to be proclaimed poet laureate. It was to be a revival of a tradition that had lain fallow since classical times. The king approved and on April 8, 1341, Petrarch was crowned magnus poeta et historicus and awarded the privilegium laureae on the Campidoglio (the Capitoline Hill), one of the seven hills of Rome.*(note below)

The award of poet laureate was somewhat of a foregone conclusion. It was entirely based on the merits of Petrarch's unfinished poem, Africa, in Latin, dedicated to Robert the Wise, himself. The poem as well as the award was intended to launch a new age, as shown in Petrarch's own "coronation speech" as poet laureate. The oration is considered the first manifesto of what would later be called the Renaissance, the rediscovery of antiquity. After that, Petrarch spoke of Robert in the most glowing terms: "He was wise, he was kind, he was high minded and eminent king and philosopher...the only king of our age who was at once the friend of knowledge and of virtue...a king of kings."

(Cited in The New Solomon, Robert of Naples (1309-1343) and Fourteenth-Century Kingship by Samantha Kelly in the series The medieval Mediterranean,  2003, Brill, The Netherlands.)

King Robert died in 1343 and was followed as monarch of the kingdom by Joan I. As David Taylor comments in his entry in these pages on the second century of Angevin rule in Naples:
The Angevin rule of southern Italy following the death of Robert the Wise in 1343 to the beginning of Spanish rule almost exactly a century later was marked by everything we might like to associate with the late Middle Ages: plots and counter-plots, courtly love, betrayals and intrigues, battles, sieges, bullying barons and long-suffering serfs.

[There is a less complicated version for those with MADD, Medieval Attention Deficit Disorder, at this link.]
Joan I of Naples was not as bad as Joan II —see this link— but the enlightened days of Robert the Wise were clearly over in Naples, and Petrarch found that out on his second trip to Naples. He tried to get Joan to release certain members of the nobility held captive in Naples. He failed. He did, however, rekindle some friendships in Naples in 1343 and saw some of the sites mentioned by Virgil in the Aeneid, something that must have stirred the soul of this great Classicist. But his mission was a failure. He also witnessed a ferocious storm that destroyed part of the Egg Castle, fueling the notion that the enchanted egg that guarded the city
, said to have been put there by Virgil himself, must have broken, causing the disaster. Joan assured the masses that, yes, the egg had broken but that she had personally gone through the same magic ritual as Virgil, putting a second protective egg in place in the same spot! The people were calmed. (Considering the century that then followed, the queen was not very good at preparing eggs.) The storm also made Petrarch swear off of sea travel!) With Robert gone, Petrarch now saw the beginning of the decline of the city and kingdom into a very nasty period. The views he expressed on the city of Naples thereafter had nothing to do with his earlier praises of the king.

Illuminated manuscript from 1398, with an initial
containing a likeness of Petrarch.
British Library,
Harley Collection.

Matteo Palumbo of the Frederick II University of Naples has written an interesting article in Italies, an annual journal produced by the Centre Aixois d'Études Romanes (CAER), of Aix Marseille Université. The journal features items in the area of Italian Studies published in French or Italian. The article is from number 11 of 2007 and entitled "Bonnes manières et mauvaise conduite" [Bad Manners and good conduct in the Naples of Petrarca and Boccaccio]. This is the abstract of the article (my translation):

In literary tradition, Naples is presented as a dangerous city, where you are surrounded by all sorts of risks. As opposed to other towns and cities, often seen as perfect images of the locus amoenus, "pleasant place," Naples is the place of danger, violence and fraud. Boccaccio and Petrarch, almost in the same years, offer us their testimony to this reality. In 1343, the poet of the Canzoniere ["The Songbook," Petrarch's best-known book of poetry, written in vernacular Italian] describes a court in which every form of royal splendor has been degraded. But it isn't just the power of the state that shows degeneration. The daily life, itself, of the people no longer seems to be governed by the rule of law. At night, bands of rowdy youths roam at will, making passage in the city difficult and dangerous. And things are no better during the day. Petrarch recalls a merciless gladiatorial game in which a youth could have his throat slit to the applause of spectators gone rabid...

The article, itself, starts (my translation):
Everyone knows that living in Naples is difficult. Chance, violence, surprise, deception and trickery are always right at hand. They represent a perfectly natural risk, like some bit of fate that you just get used to. This idea, by the way, is nothing new. On the contrary, the roots are ancient. It is part and parcel of the layout of the place and of the jungle of streets. It goes with the irregular twists and turns of the alleyways, which (as Domenico Rea says) you have "to know by heart" to keep from getting lost...
As noted, Petrarch came to Naples for the first time in 1341when he was 37 years old, already known for Africa, which he had started two years earlier in 1339. He had already met Laura, the love (at least the literary love) of his life, possibly one Laura de Noves (1310–1348), whom he had met briefly in 1327 at Easter mass in the church of Sainte-Claire d'Avignon where he lived for many years. No one really knows if she was the one he worshipped from afar but it is clear that Petrarch then single-handedly invented the love sonnet, poetry of such beauty that it influenced centuries of subsequent European men of letters. This, for example (listed as poem 12 in most versions of the Canzoniere. The Italian starts:

Se la mia vita da l'aspro tormento/ si puo tano schermire, et dagli affani/ ch' i' veggia per vertu' degli ultimi anni,...

Here is part of the fine translation by Robert M. Durling:

If my life can withstand the bitter torment and the struggles for
so long that I may see, Lady, the light of your lovely eyes
 dimmed by the power of your last years
and your hair of fine gold made silver, see you abandon
garlands and clothes of green, and see your face lose its hue,
 which in my misfortune makes me slow and reluctant to lament;
 then at least Love will give me so much boldness that I shall
disclose to you
what have been the years and the days and the hours of my suffering...

Petrarch had already begun his Epistolae metricae, various letters of a biographical or literary nature. And he was also known as a kind of "first tourist" though they were not called that in his day — people who climbed mountains for the fun of it just to see what was up there. In 1336 he scaled Mont Ventoux in the Provence. The story says that he took St. Augustine's Confessions from his pocket and his eyes were drawn to this passage:
And men go about to wonder at the heights of the mountains, and the mighty waves of the sea, and the wide sweep of rivers, and the circuit of the ocean, and the revolution of the stars, but themselves they consider not.
Petrarch reflected that his climb was merely an allegory of aspiration towards a better life and he wrote
...I closed the book, angry with myself that I should still be admiring earthly things who might long ago have learned from even the pagan philosophers that nothing is wonderful but the soul, which, when great itself, finds nothing great outside itself. Then, in truth, I was satisfied that I had seen enough of the mountain; I turned my inward eye upon myself, and from that time not a syllable fell from my lips until we reached the bottom again. [...] We look about us for what is to be found only within. [...] How many times did I turn back that day to glance at the summit of the mountain which seemed scarcely a cubit high compared with the range of human contemplation...
He came to Naples again in 1343 and left disappointed, but most of his extraordinary literary output lay before him. This friend of Robert the Wise, this poet laureate, the Father of Italian Humanism, never returned to Naples. He certainly never missed the company of Queen Joan I. He certainly didn't miss the city, which by the time of his death in 1374 had sunk deeper into "...violence, surprise, deception and trickery...".  He spent the rest of his life in central and northern Italy ever more and more celebrated as a man of letters. He died at the age of 70 in Venice, where they had given him a house in exchange for his library, to be willed to the city at his death. It was said to be the largest private library in Europe.

*note: " of the seven hills of Rome." The coronation of the poet laureate took place in Rome and was sanctioned by the Roman senate but had nothing to do with the Roman Catholic church or the papacy for the simple reason that the Papacy was no longer in Rome, but in Avignon, in France. For more information on the Avignon Papacy, see this link.

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