…. In 1974 the world celebrated 600 years since the death of Francesco Petrarch (1304-1374), the first prominent writer of the Middle Ages who, according to Leonardo Bruni, “had been the first who… could understand and bring into light the ancient elegance of the style that had been forlorn and forgotten before” ().
The actual persona of Petrarch is nowadays perceived as mysterious, vague and largely unclear, and reality often becomes rather obfuscated. But we are talking about the events of the XIV century here! The true dating of the texts ascribed to Petrarch often remains thoroughly unclear.
Already an eminent poet, Petrarch entered the second period of his life – the period of wandering. In the alleged year of 1333 he travelled around France, Flanders and Germany. “During his European travels, Petrarch became directly acquainted with scientists, searching the libraries of various monasteries trying to find forgotten ancient manuscripts and studying the monuments to the past glory of Rome” (, page 59). Nowadays it is assumed that Petrarch became one of the first and most vehement advocates of the “ancient” authors who, as we are beginning to understand, were either his contemporaries, or preceded him by 100-200 years at the most.
Mackey’s comment: Or, some of these were - as according to this present series - fictitious, and based on real characters of the Hellenistic era.
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In 1337 he visited the Italian Rome for the first time (, page 59).What did he see there? Petrarch writes (if these are indeed his real letters, and not the result of subsequent editing),“Rome seemed even greater to me than I could have imagined – especially the greatness of her ruins” ().Rome in particular and XIV century Italy in general had met Petrarch with an utter chaos of legends, from which the poet had selected the ones he considered to fit his a priori opinion of “the greatness of Italian Rome.” Apparently, Petrarch had been among those who initiated the legend of “the great ancient Italian Rome” without any solid basis. A significant amount of real mediaeval evidence of the correct history of Italy in the Middle Ages was rejected as “erroneous.” It would be of the utmost interest to study these “mediaeval anachronisms” considered preposterous nowadays, if only briefly.
According to mediaeval legends, “Anthenor’s sepulchre” was located in Padua (). In Milan, the statue of Hercules was worshipped. The inhabitants of Pisa claimed their town to have been founded by Pelopsus. The Venetians claimed Venice to have been built of the stones of the destroyed Troy! Achilles was supposed to have ruled in Abruzza, Diomedes in Apulia, Agamemnon in Sicily, Euandres in Piemont, Hercules in Calabria. Apollo was rumoured to have been an astrologer, the devil, and the god of the Saracens!
Plato was considered to have been a doctor, Cicero a knight and a troubadour, Virgil a mage who blocked the crater of the Vesuvius, etc.
All of this is supposed to have taken place in the XIV century or even later! This chaos of information obviously irritated Petrarch, who had come to Rome already having an a priori concept of the “antiquity” of the Italian Rome. It is noteworthy that Petrarch left
us no proof of the “antiquity of Rome” that he postulates. On the contrary, his letters – if they are indeed his real letters, and not later edited copies – paint an altogether different picture. Roughly speaking, it is as follows: Petrarch is convinced that there should be many “great buildings of ancient times” in Rome. He really finds none of those. He is confused and writes this about it:
“Where are the thermae of Diocletian and Caracallus? Where is the Timbrium of Marius, the Septizonium and the thermae of Severus? Where is the forum of Augustus and the temple of Mars the Avenger?
Mackey’s comment: These various, supposedly Republican Roman, characters, Marius, Cicero, Augustus, are (tentatively) given Hellenistic real identities in this series.
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Where are the holy places of Jupiter the Thunder-Bearer on the Capitol and Apollo on the Palatine? Where is the portico of Apollo and the basilica of Caius and Lucius, where is the portico of Libya and the theatre of Marcellus? Where are the temple of Hercules and the Muses built by Marius Philip, and the temple of Diana built by Lucius Cornifacius? Where is the temple of the Free Arts of Avinius Pollio, where is the theatre of Balbus, the Amphitheatre of Statilius Taurus? Where are the numerous constructions erected by Agrippa, of which only the Pantheon remains? Where are the splendorous palaces of the emperors? One finds everything in the books; when one tries to find them in the city, one
discovers that they either disappeared [sic!] or that only the vaguest of their traces remain”. ()
These countless inquiries of “where” this or the other object might be, especially the final phrase, are amazing. They indicate clearly that Petrarch came to the Italian Rome with an a priori certainty that the great Rome as described in the old books is the Italian Rome. As we are now beginning to understand, these books most probably were referring to the Rome on the Bosporus. However, in the early XIV century or even later, it was ordered to assume that the ancient manuscripts referred to the Italian Rome. Petrarch had to find “field traces” of the “great Roman past” in Italy; he searched vigorously, found nothing, and was nervous about this fact.
However, the letters attributed to Petrarch contain traces of a Roman history that differs considerably from the history we are taught nowadays. For instance, Petrarch insists that the pyramid that is now considered to be “the Pyramid of Cestius” is really the sepulchre
of Remus ….
The real parochial Italian Rome of the XIV century surprised the poet greatly, since it strangely failed to concur with his a priori impressions based on the interpretation of the ancient texts which he considered correct. This most probably means that he had rejected
other evidence contradicting this “novel” opinion. The gigantic Coliseum, for instance, proved to be the castle and the fortress of a mediaeval feudal clan, and the same fate befell such “ancient” constructions as the mausoleum of Adrian, the theatre of Marcellus, the arch of Septimius Severus, etc. Plainly speaking, all of the “ancient” buildings turned out to be mediaeval. This presents no contradiction to us; however, for Petrarch, who apparently already perceived Rome through the distorting prism of the erroneous chronology, this must have been extremely odd.
Apparently, we have thus managed to pick out the moment in the Middle Ages when the creation of the consensual erroneous version of the history of Italian Rome began. This couldn’t have preceded the first half of the XIV century – although we should add that it is possible that all of these events occurred significantly later, namely, in the XVI-XVII century.
According to Jan Parandowski, “Petrarch’s arrival marks a new era in the assessment of the state of the great city’s decline. Petrarch had been the first person of the new era whose eyes filled with tears at the very sight of the destroyed columns, and at the very memory of the forgotten names” (). Having wiped off the tears, Petrarch became quite industrious in what concerned the creation of the “true history” of the Italian Rome. He searched for statues, collected Roman medals, and tried to recreate the topography of Rome. Most of Petrarch’s energy was however directed at finding and commenting on the oeuvres of the “ancient” authors. The list of books that he allegedly owned survived until our days, the list that he compiled himself in the alleged year of 1336 a.d., on the last page of the Latin codex that is now kept in the National Library of Paris. Whether or not Petrarch had been in the possession of the original works of the authors, remains unknown. The following names are mentioned in the list:
Horace, Ovid, Catullus, Propercius, Tibullus, Percius, Juvenal, Claudian, Ovid, the comedians Plautus and Terentius; the historians Titus Livy, Sallustius, Suetonius, Florus, Eutropius, Justin, Orosius, Valerius Maximus; the orators and philosophers Quintillian, Varro, Pliny, Apuleius, Aulus Gellius, Macrobius, Vitruvius, Marcian Capella, Pomponius Mela, Cassiodorus, Boetius. As well, the names of a large number of holy fathers are listed.
We ask the following questions:
Can we trust in Petrarch’s ownership of these volumes?
How was the list dated?
Did Petrarch actually hold any of the oeuvres written by the abovementioned authors in his hands, or did he just collect the names?
Do we interpret Petrarch’s statements correctly nowadays? After all, they reach us via a filter of the Scaligerian editors of the XVI-XVII century. We perceive them through the glass of a distorted chronology. Petrarch’s letters are to be studied again, if they really are his and haven’t been written or edited on his behalf a great while later. One also has to emphasize that Petrarch didn’t specifically occupy himself with the dating of the texts he found. He was looking for the “works of the ancients” – apparently without questioning whether they preceded him by a hundred years, two hundred, or a thousand. Let’s not forget that a hundred years, let alone three hundred, is a long period of time.
With the growth of his income, Petrarch founded a special workshop with scribes and secretaries, which he often mentions in his letters. Everyone knew about his infatuation with collecting old books. He mentions it in every letter he writes to his every friend. “If you really value me, do as I tell you: find educated and trustworthy people, and let them rake through the bookcases of every scientist there is, clerical as well as secular” (). He pays for the findings bounteously. And they keep coming to him from all directions. He makes some important discoveries himself – thus, in the alleged year of 1333 he finds two previously unknown speeches of Cicero’s in Liège, and in 1334, Cicero’s letters to Atticus, Quintus and Brutus in Verona (, ). Let us remind the reader that according to the mediaeval legends, Cicero was a knight and a troubadour, q.v. above.
“Petrarch had reasons for considering himself to be responsible for the revival of interest in the philosophical works and essays of the great Roman orator” (, pages 87-88). Petrarch wrote: “as soon as I see a monastery, I head that way in hope of finding some work by Cicero.” The history of how he “discovered” the Cicero’s lost tractate titled De Gloria is very odd indeed. Its existence became known from a letter to Atticus that is attributed to Cicero. Petrarch claimed that he had allegedly discovered this priceless manuscript, but gave it to his old friend Convenevola. Who
is supposed to have lost it.
Nowadays Petrarch’s endeavours are usually written about with great pathos:
“It had really been the first one of those glorious expeditions rich in discoveries that shall be undertaken by the humanists of the generations to follow, who have journeyed like Columbus… in their search for parchments gobbled by numerous rats” (). Cicero’s letters were allegedly discovered by Petrarch in the Chapter Library of Verona, where no-one had been aware of their existence. For some reason, the original was soon lost by Petrarch, and he demonstrated a copy instead.
R. I. Chlodowsky wrote that:
“Petrarch proved a naturally born philologist. He had been the first to study the oeuvres of the ancient Roman poets, comparing different copies and using data provided by the neighbouring historical sciences… It had been Petrarch the philologer who had destroyed the mediaeval legend of Virgil the mage and sorcerer, and accused the author of the Aeneid of a number of anachronisms; he had deprived Seneca of several works that were ascribed to him in the Middle Ages, and proved the apocryphal character of Caesar’s and Nero’s letters, which had a great political meaning in the middle of the XIV century since it gave authority to the Empire’s claims for Austria”. (, pp. 88-89).
This is where the really important motives become clear to us – the ones that Petrarch may have been truly guided by in his “archaeological endeavours.” These motives were political, as we have just explained. We have ourselves been witness to countless examples in contemporary history when “science” was used as basis for one political claim or another. This makes chronology largely irrelevant. However, today when the characters of that epoch have long left the stage, we must return to the issue of just how “preposterous” the letters of Caesar and Nero were, and what was “wrong” in the mediaeval legends of Virgil.