The Vision of Petrarch

The Italian scholar and poet, Francesca Petrarcha (1304-1374) was known in English as Petrarch. He was a contemporary and friend of Dante and Boccacio. He popularized the works of the Roman poet Cicero. Some of his own poems were later put to music by Franz Liszt.

Petrarch is sometimes given the credit for instituting the term the “Dark Ages”. This was the time in Europe where much of what had been learned by classical scholars was discredited or forgotten. He championed the revival of the Greek and Latin traditions.

I was generally aware of his illustrious career but my attention was recently drawn to another of his fabled exploits.

Some months ago the good Dr Phil bought me a copy of the book “A Secret History of Consciousness” by Gary Lachman. It is aa intriguing and entertaining book and explores the thinking of such philosophers and mystics as Ouspensky, Gurdjieff, Madame Blavatsky, Rudolf Steiner , Jean Gebser and others. But Lachman also relates a story about Petrarch that gave me cause to think.

Apparently on April 26, 1336 Petrarch scaled Mont Venoux. Mont Venoux is a mountain in the south of France around six thousand feet high. Petrarch made the ascent with his brother and two servants. It is said that the unusual feature of this endeavour was that he wanted to see what the countryside looked like from such a high vantage point.

In a letter to Dionisio da Borgo San Sepolcro he explained his motivation thus:

“The idea took hold upon me with especial force when, in re-reading Livy’s “History of Rome”, yesterday, I happened upon the place where Philip of Macedon, the same who waged war against the Romans, ascended Mount Haemus in Thessaly, from whose summit he was able, it is said, to see two seas, the Adriatic and the Euxine.”

Inspired by this passage, Petrarch climbed Mont Venoux purely to see the view from the top. It is argued that before this, those that had climbed mountains did so for utilitarian reasons. People climbed mountains to get to the other side. The “other side” might have afforded them more land to exploit, respite from their enemies and so on. But it seems to have been inconceivable before this that someone might have climbed a mountain just to enjoy the view. From his elevated vantage point Petrarch could see the Alps, the mountains around Lyons, the Rhone and the Bay of Marseilles. No doubt this was a wondrous vista to behold.

Some scholars have proposed that this particular act seeded the beginning of the Renaissance. Petrarch had risen beyond the repressive constraints of the “Dark Ages” and had learnt to see the world differently. If such scholars are to be believed this single act ushered in a world of optimism, romanticism and humanism. Indeed some have credited Petrarch with being the first humanist.

This seems to me to be a very bold claim. I suspect it devalues the impact of human curiosity. I can not believe that there was not another human before Petrarch who wanted to see what lay over the other side of the mountain, not for utilitarian reasons but just to satisfy their curiosity. Without human curiosity (combined with some creative capacity) it would be difficult to imagine the progress of mankind from hominid to human being.

I am a keen fisherman. Some of my favourite memories come from my freshwater fishing. It is exhilarating to fish a new stream. And often the stimulus is not from where I might catch another fish but what might be beyond the next bend in the stream. I know there is the possibility of a set of rapids, a deep hole or maybe a snag where I can cast a lure. But the exhilaration has little about whether I will catch a fish. It comes from the stimulus of the unknown. To be somewhere I have never been before, to experience the intriguing possibilities of a new part of the stream is the incentive. I can’t believe that this innate curiosity would have come so late to us in evolutionary processes.

If you read of the exploits of some of the earlier explorers (pre-Petrarch) they also seemed to be just as much motivated by curiosity of the world at large as Petrarch. [Read for example of the exploits of the Chinese Buddhist monk Fa Sien who made the first recorded journey from China to India in 399; or again of another Chinese explorer Hsuan Tsang who spent sixteen years between 629 and 645 exploring Central Asia and India.]

According to his letter Petrarch reports that he took with him on his climb a copy of St Augustine’s “Confessions”. He was musing over the fact that maybe his ascent of the mountain was merely an allegory of an aspiration to a better life. When he reached the summit he opened the book at random. He recounts that the following passage was revealed:

“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.”

Again, in the aforementioned letter, he tells his friend:

“ …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. Those words had given me occupation enough, for I could not believe that it was by a mere accident that I happened upon them. What I had there read I believed to be addressed to me and to no other.”

The Jungian psychologist and author, James Hillman believed this was the more significant event relating to Petrarch’s climb. He maintained that Renaissance did not commence with Petrarch’s ascent of Mont Venoux but with his rediscovery of his inner world on his descent -as he expressed it with Petrarch’s “return to the valley of the soul.”

It is worth recalling one of Oliver Wendell Holmes’ famous quotes:

“What lies behind us and what lies before us are tiny matters compared to what lies within us.”

3 Replies to “The Vision of Petrarch”

  1. Thank you Ted, and Petrarch of course invented the famous Petrarchan Sonnet which was and is used by pretty-well every serious Poet…except of course Shakespeare who invented his own.

  2. I read somewhere about the secrets to a happy life and one of the dozen or so dot points said that every year of our life we should go some place that we have never been before. I suspect that more often than once a year is better still. For my part there is no doubt, there is a feeling of excitement when I set out on a trip be it for a week or a few hours. When I was a child I did it often. Always keen to stretch my boundaries but now as an aging adult I seem to be too busy or lazy. When I do give myself a kick up the bum and get out of the house to go for a bush walk or what ever I still always feel great afterwards. Have to ask myself why I don’t do it more often.

    Just reflecting now about those memories of exploring I have to add something. All my explorations that are memorable were in the natural world. I have visited cities and gotten lost in shopping centres but I can’t say that I had feelings of triumph afterwards. I have never become excited about what was around the corner in a new shopping centre. Perhaps there is something magical about visiting a natural place where there are no people. A beach without a footprint or a quiet stream where you sit quietly and think and have your spirits soar when a platypus takes a sneak breath in front of you. We hate to be alone today but when we force ourselves to it in a natural setting it can be a wonderful experience.

  3. I wonder whether my fascination with maps and blueprints stems from a similar interest in seeing the whole laid out before me. The internal journey, that is another challenge entirely.


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