Wednesday, December 5, 2018


Christopher S. Celenza, Petrarch: Everywhere a Wanderer. London: Reaktion Books, 2017. Pp. 263. ISBN 9781780238388. $22.50.

Reviewed by Vibeke Roggen, University of Oslo (

Version at BMCR home site

The book on my table is beautiful, on the inside as well as the outside. And it is not only attractive to look at, it is also well written—a pleasure to read. For your reviewer, one highpoint was the presentation of Petrarch's role in the transmission of Livy's great history of Rome.

The book contains six chapters, in addition to a brief Preface and an Epilogue with the subtitle "Death and Afterlife". There is a kind of chronology: the first chapter is entitled "Origins and Early Years", the last simply "Endings". The chapters in between present themselves more thematically than chronologically. Chapter 2, "The Discovery of the Ancient World", describes Petrarch the book collector and the scholar who contributed so greatly to the transmission of central classical authors such as Livy and Cicero. Celenza's excellent example from Petrarch's Livy manuscript illustrates both scholarly and pedagogically what this is all about, through a photo that shows one of Petrarch's conjectures and accompanying explanation in the text (51–53).

On a par with this is Celenza's analysis of Petrarch's coronation as a poet in 1341, and how he must have prepared the ground for this himself. The discussion forms an important part of Chapter 3, "A Reputation Assured", and gives a probable explanation of Petrarch's relationship with King Robert of Naples. The concept "social capital" is meaningful in this context. Nevertheless, one might ask why Petrarch's epic poem Africa as we have it is dedicated to King Robert, who died only two years after the coronation. The chapter treats the period 1337–1348.

Chapter 4, "The Interior Man", concentrates on Petrarch's dialogue Secretum, or the Secret as it is entitled here. The interlocutor Augustinus challenges Petrarch (Franciscus in the dialogue) on his various weaknesses—primarily love and glory. Augustinus criticises writing as a way to glory, "focusing on the works which, one suspects, Petrarch believed might gain him lasting glory: his On Illustrious Men and his Africa" (123). This sentence marks the transition from the subject of "the interior man" to a presentation of these two works.

Chapter 5 bears the title "A Life in Letters: Petrarch and Boccaccio" and is dominated by analyses of a few of Petrarch's letters to his younger friend. Petrarch is shocked; he has heard that Boccaccio has burnt his poetry in the vernacular after reading poems by Petrarch. It is in this context, apparently, that Petrarch first presented the hierarchy of early Italian vernacular writers, with himself as number two, above his younger friend Boccaccio, but with Dante at the top (153, 155). Why should Boccaccio be ashamed of being number three? Even Petrarch has a poet above him: Dante, not mentioned by name in Petrarch's works, is presented here as "that leader of our vernacular eloquence" (153).

Chapter 6, "Endings", treats the last two decades of Petrarch's life. The literary works discussed are primarily his Triumphs and the invective On His Own Ignorance. Part of the given background is the growth of universities, which coincided with the emergence of Aristotle in the Latin West (193). Even in this context, Petrarch presents himself as a critical thinker; he writes that his friends "would be amazed and silently angered, and would look at me as a blasphemer for requiring more than that man's authority as proof of fact" (195 with note 31, Celenza's modified translation from Invectives).

The book contains 27 informative illustrations, many of which show works of art. The text itself is laid out in a way that does justice to the content and invites reading. In order to keep the pages clear, endnotes are used rather than footnotes. The book is part of a series called Renaissance Lives, and, apparently, such graphic choices have been made for the series as a whole. As the title says, these are biographies—a genre that includes books that present themselves more like scholarly dissertations as well as books that come fairly close to novels. Celenza's Petrarch biography belongs to the latter group.

However, this less intellectual form comes with a few losses. One of them is the reader's overview. The titles of the six chapters only partly reflect the contents. Thus, in the above-mentioned Chapter 3 we find mentioned , in addition to the coronation, Cola di Rienzo and the Canzoniere. The chapters have no subtitles, but luckily, there is a fairly good index. There are no cross-references, only general remarks of the type "as we have seen …". To some degree the index can help, but not in the case of the poem Voglia mi sprona, "which we have encountered earlier" (88). A list of Petrarch's most important works would have been helpful. The same goes for his life: important events, where he was living, how he was employed, and works that he concentrated on and published in various periods.

Regarding Petrarch's 'love story', it is a relief to read about Laura here: "maybe we should say the woman he 'may have seen'" (87), and "Laura was an abstraction" (219). This book contains many such pertinent observations, and in various scholarly fields. In his treatment of the world of texts and books in the century before the age of printing, Celenza has chosen a pedagogical approach. Starting by "Now imagine …", he invites us as readers to enter Petrarch's world (45). Nor are we allowed to forget the catastrophe that struck not only Italy, but all of Europe as well in Petrarch's time: The Black Death. Celenza sums up: "It is worth emphasizing, as well, that the Renaissance in many ways represents a world constructed by survivors of a societally traumatic event" (103). In so many ways, the book suggests very useful answers, not only to the question asked in the last sentence of the Preface: Who was this man?, but also to the question What was his world like? Another question is this: What is it that we have to thank Petrarch for? The book traces lines related to what we may call the reception of Petrarch: to Montaigne, inspired by the letters, (58) and to Machiavelli, who quotes a poem by Petrarch at the end of Il principe (93). "Later thinkers would take inspiration from Petrarch's thoughts on Rome and Italy" (76), and we understand that the classical school curriculum would not have been the same without him (8). But perhaps Petrarch's initiative to bring about a rebirth of classical antiquity, in combination with Christianity, might have deserved a broader presentation.

A very relevant observation is that, from Petrarch's perspective, "the matters to be treated, celebrated and articulated within his poetry will be useful to the city of Rome" (75). Yes, Rome was a central factor for Petrarch, e.g., in his work to encourage successive Popes to move back from Avignon. And arguably, even Petrarch's support for Cola di Rienzo should be seen from this perspective, as a potential way to obtain new strength for Rome, instead of, or at least in addition, to the claim that Petrarch 'fell for' Cola (76) and was "enamoured of dictatorial figures" (64).

Petrarch's unfinished Latin epic poem Africa receives fair treatment here, which is not the case in some former biographies. One might discuss the part of Ennius in this epic. Celenza finds it striking that Ennius is used as a mouthpiece (131). However, the poet was known in Antiquity and later for his dream about Homer,1 and for Petrarch it was useful to let him present such a dream as a means to foretell the future about a Tuscan poet named Franciscus. According to Huss and Regn, it would have been an action of pride ("Hochmut") on Petrarch's part to claim that 'Franciscus' was going to supersede Vergil, and moreover, this would have ruined ("konterkarikiert") the Petrarchan Renaissance project.2

However, the account of the historical background (the Second Punic war) contains surprising errors. On pp. 47 and 71 we read: "… winning the final Punic war against North African general Hannibal", and "the Roman hero Scipio Africanus, who defeated the North African general Hannibal during the Punic Wars …". No, not the final Punic war, and not the Punic wars either, but the Second Punic war (219–201); the general in the Third Punic war was not Petrarch's hero, but that hero's adopted grandson, Scipio the Younger. Hannibal is repeatedly presented as an African or North African general; Carthaginian would be more precise. We read (127) that Scipio "had suffered early defeats against the Carthaginians and then, against the advice of some of Rome's leading figures, took forces with him into Carthage …". The Romans suffered a series of defeats against Hannibal, but these were not Scipio's defeats, even though he participated in two of the battles on Italian soil as a teenager. In 210 he was appointed to the command in Spain, where he was victorious. In 205 "he was assigned Sicily with permission to invade Africa if he saw fit."3 Nor is it correct that Scipio "settled back into an initially apolitical life" after his triumph (127). On the contrary, he participated actively in Roman politics for about fifteen years, serving as consul, censor and general. But later on in his life he met problems, and even a trial; the sources are not sufficient to give us details, but it was at this point he left Rome for good.

The presentation of Charlemagne (52 f.) is brief and somewhat misleading. We read here that he reigned 800–814, which is the period when Charles reigned as Holy Roman Emperor. However, the movement that is the reason that Charlemagne is mentioned here in the first place started in the 780s when its leading scholar, Alcuin, was invited to the court of Charles, at the time King of the Franks. Moreover, this movement did not restrict itself to the improvement of "biblical and other sacred texts"; even classical texts were taken care of—which is relevant in our context.

I have found only the following misprints: p. 28, reference to illustration 3, should have been 5; p. 52, "scio ('know' …)" for "scio ('I know' …)"; p. 243, note 63, "Petrarch, Africa, 9.9–97" for 90–97; p. 85, perhaps not a misprint, but the given reference to an illuminated manuscript can hardly be correct, namely that the artist was born in 1390, and the manuscript is dated to 1400. A question mark or two, and/or a "ca." would have improved things.

This is a book that is meant to read from start to finish, rather than as a reference work; reading it is a little like walking through a labyrinth, or solving puzzles (which the present writer at least loves doing). It is stimulating and it gives you new ideas.

Finally, a few words should be said about the title of the book: Petrarch: Everywhere a Wanderer. The title is translated from one of Petrarch's Latin poems, where the passage reads peregrinus ubique. (34) Petrarch lived in different places; we meet him on an excursion with his brother Gherardo, climbing Mont Ventoux (57), and there is also the "travel within the mind" (106). However, peregrinus has various meanings, and I would have preferred 'foreigner' or 'stranger' to 'wanderer' or 'pilgrim' – the latter is suggested as an alternative translation. As we read in this biography, Petrarch called himself a Florentine, even though his father had been exiled from Florence before the birth of his son. This might be an explanation of the expression.


1.   See, for example, Peter Aicher: "Ennius' Dream of Homer", The American Journal of Philology, Vol. 110, No. 2 (Summer, 1989), pp. 227–232.
2.   Bernhard Huss and Gerhard Regn: "Petrarcas Rom: Die Geschichte der Africa und das Projekt der Renaissance", in Huss and Regn (eds.) Francesco Petrarca: Africa, vol. 2 ("Kommentarband"), pp. 161–192, p. 167.
3.   "Cornelius Scipio Africanus (the Elder), Publius", in Oxford Classical Dictionary 1999, p. 298.

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