Studies in the Correspondence of Petrarch
WE often speak as though there were something peculiarly honorable and sacred in a firm friendship between two authors of repute; and yet we surely know that no code of the unwritten law of life is more general in its application than that which ordains that while we may welcome a man’s acquaintance on account of what he has done, we make him our friend only for what he is. If Petrarch and Boccaccio had not both been writers in an age when writers were few, they very probably might never have met ; and yet it was neither the Rime nor the Decameron which bound them fast together, but the curious compatibility of two very unlike natures, — sympathetic qualities, not similar achievements.
Petrarch himself comprehended perfectly the true theory of human attachments, and states it with force in one of his letters to that friend of many years, the Prior of the SS. Apostoli in Florence : “ Virtue is the basis of friendship, and mutual charity all that is needed to preserve it. It is a simple thing ; caring nothing for externals, wanting no rouge. And although many unsought pleasures attend it (who indeed can number the comforts and delights that spring from friendship ?), yet charity has no need of any such stimulus ; it is selfcontained, — its own motive and its own reward.”
Concerning the life of Petrarch up to the time of his first meeting with Boccaccio, in 1350, we have ample information ; that of the younger man seems to elude us at every turn. We know that Boccaccio’s family hailed from the little hill town of Certaldo, some thirty miles southwest of Florence; and we know that he was born in 1314, — that is, ten years later than Petrarch. — but whether in Paris, Florence, or Certaldo itself has been much disputed. His father was in straitened circumstances, and had other children to provide for; but he gave his son Giovanni some sound instruction in the principles of grammar and arithmetic, and then bound him out to a merchant, in whose office he spent six idle years. As many more were passed under a distinguished professor of ecclesiastical law, " the result of which was,” to borrow Boccaccio’s own halfwistful, half-humorous account, “ that I neither became a merchant nor did I turn out a canonist. I simply failed to become an eminent poet.”
The critical years between twenty and twenty-eight were passed by Giovanni at the learned and merry court of King Robert of Naples, and there, on the 7th of April, 1341, he followed Petrarch’s example, and fell in love in church. The object of his adoration, she whom he fancifully named Fiammetta, “ dear little flame,” was Maria d’Aquino, a natural daughter of the king, and in her honor were composed his earliest works, the Filicopo and Teseide.
It was in February of this same year, 1341, as the reader will remember, that Petrarch had visited Naples in order to undergo an examination by King Robert in person on his qualifications for the laureateship; but if Boccaccio was among the spectators during those three days of searching inquisition, Petrarch knew nothing of it, and he went off to receive his prize at Rome without having made the personal acquaintance of the younger poet.
Boccaccio was in Florence in 1342 and 1343, and there composed his Ameto and Amorosa Visione. Afterwards he seems to have returned to Naples, and to have resumed for a time his old life there; but the death of his father in 1349 brought him back once more to his native Tuscany. The year 1348 had been the plague year, which first suggested to light-hearted Boccaccio the plan of his Decameron, while it inflicted upon Petrarch such terrible losses ; and in the Latin hexameters which the elder poet sent to the younger at about this time, and which were, so far as we know, the first written communication which passed between them, Petrarch showed that he was yet staggering under the onset of manifold calamity: —
Crash on my ear, like deafening thunderpeals,
Woes upon woes. How many forms of grief
And dread hath Fate devised ! I find it hard
Bravely to boar such losses and such fears.
All that I hear is woeful: now, that one
I love was borne away by black-robed death,
And one fell by the sword ; a third is bound
In fetters, and a fourth lies very low;
This one the wild beasts slew, and that one feeds
The greedy fishes in the glassy sea.
I have nor heart of stone nor will of steel,
And I am very sad.”
Ten years later we find a reminiscence of the first meeting between Petrarch and Boccaccio, near the end of the laureate’s elaborate apology for his neglect and seeming contempt of Dante, — a letter to which we shall have occasion to refer again : —
“ Not to speak of a host of delicate attentions and friendly offices with which you have overwhelmed me, there is one in particular which I can never forget. I refer to that time when I was hurrying across mid-Italy during a sharp frost, and you intercepted me, — not by loving thoughts alone, which are, as one may say, the footprints of the soul, but by a rapid journey in your own proper person, so marvelously eager were you for a glimpse of the man whom as yet you had never met. You had sent me in advance a noble poem ; and thus it was that you revealed to me, whom you were resolved to love, first the aspect of your soul, and then the expression of your countenance. It was late, and darkness already shutting in, when, after my long exile, I once more set foot in the city of my fathers ; and you, by the form of your salutation, so much more tender and reverential than I deserved, seemed to recall the poetic meeting with Anchises of the king of Arcady : —
To hail the man, and clasp right hand in right.’ ” 1
When this memorable meeting took place, Petrarch was on his way to Rome to celebrate the jubilee of 1350; and a strange and melancholy visit, apart from the mystic benefit of the religious anniversary, it must have been to him. The Colonna, who had been used hospitably to receive him, were, so to speak, all gone. Battle and pestilence had combined almost to obliterate the name since last the laureate had been the guest of Giovanni di San Vito, seven years before. Since then, too, Cola di Rienzo, whose cause Petrarch had espoused so ardently, had risen and flourished and fallen, and was now a fugitive in Bohemia ; while the last stage of the poet’s autumnal journey was rendered painful by an accident which he describes in a letter to Boccaccio, written probably while he was still confined to his bed, and picturesquely dated, “ Rome, November 2. In the silence of a windless night.”
“ I had left Bolsena, now a small and insignificant town, but formerly one of the chief places of Etruria, and I was beginning to be impatient for my fifth sight of the holy city.” A crowd of sorrowful memories assailed the traveler as he proceeded, and he was trying to draw what comfort he could from the reflection that the motive, at least, of this fifth and perhaps last pilgrimage was more serious and noble than that of his previous visits, since now he was seeking his soul’s safety, and then mere earthly pleasure and pride, “ when the horse of that holy old abbot whom I mentioned before, and who was riding on my left (a sinister circumstance, indeed, it had like to have been for me !), gave a kick, and struck me upon the knee, where the poples joins the tibia, with such violence that a loud crack as of breaking bones was audible, and all our stragglers hurried up to see what had happened. I was in such agony that it seemed to me at first as if I must stop there; but the aspect of the place was very uninviting, and so, making a virtue of necessity, I kept on, arriving late at night at Viterbo, and on the third day thereafter at Rome.”
The Roman doctors thought ill of the injury, and Petrarch thought so ill of the doctors and their treatment that he vowed he would never again permit one to approach him in his professional capacity. Yet the case must, one would think, have been tolerably well managed, since before the end of the year he was back in Florence, having been splendidly received en route at his native town of Arezzo. On this occasion he spent several days in Florence, probably in Boccaccio’s house, and then left for Padua, where he was to pass the winter.
There, in April, 1351, Boccaccio came to him, bearing a formal invitation from the city of Petrarch’s ancestors that he should return and dwell among his own people, together with a promise of the restoration of his father’s confiscated estates. The amiable ambassador seems never to have conceived a doubt about the success of his mission ; but Petrarch, though he did not decline outright the tardy proposals of “ ungrateful Florence,” replied ambiguously, and in a strain of chilling irony, that he felt himself “ quite unworthy such a signal mark of liberality and piety.” So Boccaccio returned crestfallen, and soon got tidings that Petrarch was intending to pass the summer at Vaucluse. “ No doubt,” he observes, “ one misses many of those luxuries in which the city abounds, but one finds certain things of which the city is destitute, and which are specially to my taste, such as ease, freedom, silence, and solitude.” He goes on to say that the two chief drawbacks to his Provencal residence he finds to be that it is a long way from Italy, the country of his soul, and much too near that “ hell upon earth, the Occidental Babylon.” However, he does not intend to stay long, but hopes to be back in the autumn, —: “ both he and his books,” which he now proposes to add to his Italian library. But the kalends of April, 1352, found him still on the banks of the Rhone, whence he wrote as follows to Boccaccio: —
“ For fear you should fancy yourself quite forgotten, I have done my best to send you something by this messenger; but whether it be due to the brevity of time, or the paucity of events, or the multitude of cares by which I am more than usually harassed, or to my hope and purpose of soon seeing you again and holding sweet converse with you face to face, I have found, after much beating of my brains (not to attempt any further excuses) nothing worth writing, unless it be the fact that there is nothing to write. I am terribly mixed up with the affairs of ‘ Babylon,’ but it is of no use expatiating upon these. I have already said much concerning them in my letters to other friends, and were I to attempt to go into the matter fully words would fail me. Of my private affairs there is nothing to tell. The one thing certain is that I must die. Seneca may flout me as he once flouted Cicero ; all I can say is that I find myself only one unit in a great mass of so-called free men. I am neither well nor ill, alive nor dead, nor shall I ever begin either to live or to thrive until I have found some way out of this labyrinth. This is my one thought and purpose. Farewell, and whatever annoyances you may be enduring, believe that they are light beside this exile of mine.”
Not until 1353 did Petrarch at last return to Italy, where, to the astonishment and somewhat to the scandal of the world, he took up his residence at the court of Giovanni Visconti, archbishop and tyrant of Milan, A good many of his friends reproached him, more or less bitterly, with what looked so like treachery to the cause of Italian independence, and even Boccaccio took leave to remind him, as delicately as might be, how inconsistent this action was with the sentiments Petrarch had expressed in 1351, when he, Boccaccio, had been the bearer of the overtures of Florence, and when, after days spent by Petrarch in sacred studies, and by Boccaccio in copying his friend’s works, the two had held high converse together till far into the night.
It must be confessed that Petrarch’s defense, when shorn of rhetoric and sifted of evasion, amounts to little more than that he liked the life he led in Milan very much indeed. He found the formidable Visconti clever, considerate, and above all complimentary, and he had, as he tells a friend in Florence, a most delightful installation “ at the extreme west end of the city, very near the basilica of Sant’ Ambrogio. The situation of the house is as healthful as possible ; it stands on the left hand side of the church, commanding in front a view of the lead-covered dome and the two towers of the facade, while the rear windows look over the city walls, across miles of wooded country, to the Alps, which whiten with snow as soon as summer is past.”
Petrarch retained this pleasant residence in Milan till 1361, during which time there was certainly a slight coolness between him and Boccaccio, which we cannot help regarding as honorable to the younger poet. Three letters only can be assigned to the years between 1353 and 1359, and these are all from Petrarch, and short. Two are simply to thank Boccaccio for gifts of some of his exquisite manuscript copies of Latin authors, — the one a magnificent volume containing Augustine’s complete works, the other consisting of selections from Cicero and Varro. Boccaccio’s skill as a copyist was remarkable, and he was always employing his talent in the service of his friends ; and in fact, when the regular correspondence between him and Petrarch was resumed, it was apropos of another and very memorable gift of the same kind.
Early in the spring of 1359, Boccaccio had been induced to pay a visit of a few days to his friend in Milan. Generous almost to a fault in his judgment of other poets, and prone, if anything, to exaggerate their achievements while unduly depreciating his own, we may imagine the consternation and perplexity of Boccaccio when he found Petrarch almost entirely ignorant of the Divine Comedy; and, his visit ended, it became a labor of love with him to produce a beautiful copy of the great masterpiece,2 which he sent, to his late host, accompanied by some graceful verses earnestly recommending Dante Alighieri to his notice. Whatever we may think of the prolix communication which he received from Petrarch in reply, the document is too important and instructive not to be quoted at some length.
“ Many things in your letter,” it rather stiffly begins. “ require no answer, seeing that we have so recently discussed them in person ; but there are one or two matters which I have noted as demanding my special attention, and which I will proceed briefly to speak of.
“ In the first place, you excuse yourself with much earnestness for having possibly said too much in praise of our fellow-countryman, that poet who employs the language of the people, though his subject matter is unquestionably noble. And your manner of doing so would seem to imply that I might look upon his renown, or upon that of any other man, as detracting from my own. Thus, you say that all your praise of him would, if rightly considered, only redound to my glory ; and you add, by way of further apology for the tribute you have paid him, that it was he who inspired and directed your earliest studies. Your grateful recognition of what you owe him is, of course, a mere matter of justice and gratitude ; or, more strictly speaking, of filial piety. For if we owe all [sic] to the progenitors of our bodies, and much to the makers of our fortunes, what do we not owe to those who have fathered and fostered our talents ? . . .
“ The thing which disturbs me most, in your apologetic epistle, is that I should after all be so little known to one who, I thought, understood me thoroughly. Am I not then one to rejoice — nay, to glory — in the praise of illustrious men ? Believe me, nothing is further from my nature, no baseness more foreign, than the sentiment of envy. On the contrary, I call God, the Searcher of hearts, to witness that nothing in life has ever been more painful to me than to see deserving men deprived of their due honor and reward. ... It is those who hate me who have charged me with hating and despising that poet, in order to discredit me with the common herd, to whom he is especially acceptable. . . . For why, in the first place, should I hate a man whom I never saw but once in my life, and that when I was a mere boy ? He lived on terms of intimacy with my father and my grandfather, — a younger man than the latter,1 but older than the former, in company with whom he was banished from Florence, on the occasion of the same civil tumult. A very warm friendship then sprang up between these two victims of a common calamity, as is wont to be the case when there is a similarity of tastes and pursuits as well as of destiny. He, however, endured that exile, to which my father, harassed by many cares, domestic and other, succumbed ; and he followed with ever-increasing zeal his original purpose, careless of everything but his fame. Now, this I consider marvelous and beyond all praise, that a man should keep to his chosen path, and never be moved either by poverty or exile, or the taunts and slanders of his compatriots, or his own natural affection for wife and children. . . . You see how odious and even ridiculous is this charge, trumped up by I know not whom, of enmity on my part against one whom I have no motive to hate, but, on the contrary, many to love : such as my father’s regard and their common patriotism, and the genius of the man himself, and his style, which is the best possible of its kind, and one which must always and everywhere preserve him from contempt.
“ Another count of the indictment against me, and one upon which great stress has been laid, is that I, who have been from my youth up so enthusiastic a collector of books, should never have possessed a copy of his works. . . . Well, it is true, but the reason which has been alleged for the omission is not true. I was then trying my powers in his own line ; that is to say, I was devoted to the vulgar tongue. I had not yet dreamed of anything more elegant, nor learned to aspire to higher things ; but I was very much afraid, youth being so pliable and prone to indiscriminate admiration, that if I became imbued with his or any other man’s phraseology I should, consciously or unconsciously, turn out to be a mere imitator. Being somewhat overbold for my years, I resented this notion, and had the confidence or the vanity to think that I had talent enough to form, even in that line, a characteristic style of my own without the help of any mortal. How far I was right others must judge. . . .
“ I have perhaps dwelt too long on an affair of minor importance, which ought never to have moved me so much, and I might indeed have found a better employment for this fleeting hour, if your very apologies had not seemed to repeat the common accusation. For it has become, as I said before, the custom of many men to accuse me of hating or despising him whom I have purposely refrained from naming to-day, lest the vulgar crowd, which hears everything and understands nothing, should take up the accusation against me. . . . For what show of plausibility is there in the notion that I could be jealous of one who gave his whole life to a kind of composition which I practiced only in my earliest youth ; so that that which was to me a mere first attempt, a pastime, a form of relaxation, became, I will not say his only, but his chief form of expression? How could there possibly, I ask you, be envy, or room even for a suspicion of envy, here? You say, in your enthusiasm, that he could have employed another style had he so pleased. I dare swear he could. I have so high an opinion of his talents that I think he would have excelled in any style he might have chosen, but everybody knows what style he did choose.”
There is much more in the same strain, but it becomes painful reading, and perhaps we have had enough of it. There is a subtle danger to our own integrity of judgment, as well as a certain immodesty, in permitting ourselves to dwell too long upon the weaknesses of the great. Petrarch would have been the greatest writer of his century, if that other, whom he here permits himself to patronize, had not been so immeasurably greater than he. Let us not be betrayed into his fault, and flippantly criticise where we are perhaps unable to comprehend. Boccaccio is usually reckoned as much less than Petrarch as Petrarch was certainly less than Dante, but he had one beautiful and inestimable gift, the faculty of reverent appreciation ; and we can at least sympathize with the sad and baffled feeling, the sense of dull disappointment, with which he must have folded and put away the laureate’s lengthy letter.
In how different a spirit do we find Petrarch writing to Boccaccio, a few months later. October, 1359, of “ Virgil, Horace, Livy, and Cicero. These I have read and re-read, not once, but a thousand times ; not cursorily, but studiously, intently, bringing to them the best powers of my mind. I tasted in the morning, and digested at night; I quaffed as a boy, to ruminate as an old man. These works have become so familiar to me that they cling not to my memory merely, but to the very marrow of my bones : they have become so identified with my own genius that, even were I never to read them again, they would still be there, rooted in the deepest recesses of my soul.”
Nevertheless, he goes on rather finely to say he would not permit himself consciously to borrow from these masters of his ; not even to the extent to which they sometimes borrowed from one another. And if Boccaccio or any other friend, he adds, has ever discovered in his writings any overt act of plagiarism, they would do him the utmost service by pointing it out, bravely, frankly, and kindly. “No reproof could be more acceptable to me, save one which should touch the conduct of my life ; and I declare myself ready and eager to amend both life and style, and that not merely at the suggestion of my friends, but in obedience to the howls of my rivals, If only I discern some spark of truth amid the darkness of their hate.”
Nor was Petrarch invariably absorbed in himself and his own fame.
He could also enter into the difficulties and appreciate the occasional vagaries of his friend, and give him counsels of the most practical common sense. About two years after the date of the last letter. Boccaccio received a visit from a monk of Siena, who succeeded in thoroughly frightening him by a prediction of his imminent death. The letter which the younger poet wrote to the elder upon this occasion has not been preserved, but we gather from the reply it drew forth that he was on the point of obeying the friar’s mandate, relinquishing his studies, selling his books and the few other treasures which he possessed, and going into a convent pour faire son âme. This impulsive purpose Petrarch opposes briskly and with authority, drawing his arguments from a wide range of authors, both sacred and profane. His final summing up is in this wise : —
“ Many, doubtless, have attained the highest degree of sanctity without learning, but learning need never prevent any one from becoming a saint. It is true the apostle Paul was taunted with having been made mad by much learning, but the world has long known how much truth there was in that reproach. Were I to speak my whole mind upon this matter, I should say that the path which leads to virtue by the way of ignorance may be easy, but that it is the chosen route of the sluggish and the cowardly. The goal of all good men is the same, but it is reached by a great variety of roads. One traveler goes faster, and one slower; one moves in shadow, another in light; one stops at a lower level, and one climbs to a greater altitude. Blessed is the journey of them all, but most glorious surely the path which leads through the sunshine and over the heights. . . . But a truce to controversy. ... If you are indeed firmly resolved to abandon your studies and sell your books, thus parting with the very instruments of culture. I am much obliged to you for having given the preference over all other purchasers to me, who am, as you say, and as I freely own, so greedy of books.”
And then follows a passage which shows Petrarch in his most amiable and charming light. As for the poverty which Boccaccio pleads, he is not, he says, going to insult him by sending him a list of other illustrious paupers. Whenever he, Petrarch, has offered him anything, Boccaccio has seemed to prefer his own independence and peace of mind to accepting an obligation. All very proper and praiseworthy, no doubt. “ But what I do not consider in the least admirable is your haughty disregard of my many friendly invitations. I have not the means of making you rich ; if I had, I should do so without further parley. But I have more than enough for the needs of two men who could live together in one house and be of one mind. You will wrong me if you make light of my offer. If you do not trust me, you wrong me yet more deeply. Farewell.”
Whatever influence Petrarch’s arguments may have had, it is certain that Boccaccio relinquished his purpose of quitting the world ; and though he did not consent to live with his friend altogether, he paid him a long visit in Venice in 1363, and, returning to Florence at the end of the summer, was followed almost immediately by a sad and tender letter announcing the death of those two dear friends whom they had always called Lælius 3 and Simonides.4 He also expresses the keenest anxiety on Boccaccio’s own account.
“ I wrote you a long letter concerning this twofold misfortune and the woes which are afflicting the entire world ” (the plague had reappeared) ; “and then I did not send it, but kept it by me, not so much through languor and inertia (though these may have had their part) as through the fear of having written in vain to you, as I had done to those two. For to both I had sent very long letters, which arrived before their limbs were cold, and were returned to me in one and the same hour, from places far asunder, with their seals unbroken. I saw at once what ill tidings they brought, and threw them as they were upon the fire, a funeral sacrifice to those dear manes. And to tell you the truth. Donato and I have been seized with panic lest the same fate should have overtaken you. We cannot believe that, if you were still in life, yon would not have written to relieve the torment of our anxiety. If living, you are indeed inexcusable. But if, as Virgil says, absumpta salus, you need no excuse. Happy you, and wretched we who remain to weep for you, if indeed we have any tears left to shed.”
Fortunately for himself and for posterity, Boccaccio was enjoying, and long continued to enjoy, excellent health. His friendship with Petrarch had now reached its mezzo cammin, and was to grow ever firmer till its close. In 1365, Boccaccio was sent on an embassy from b Forence to Pope Urban V. at Avignon. Petrarch, who happened to be occupying his “cisalpine Parnassus” at Pavia, hoped for a visit from the ambassador on his return; but the latter was forced, by press of business, to hurry past, and merely sent a letter of regret on his arrival in Florence.
“ You did well.” writes Petrarch on the 14th of December, “to visit me by letter, since you could not or would not come in person. From the moment I knew you had crossed the Alps, on your way to the Occidental Babylon, — which is as much worse than the Oriental as it is nearer at hand,— I was in misery until I heard of your return. . . . God be praised, who has brought you safely back. . . . If, however, you had not been in such exceeding haste, it would have been easy for you to make a detour from Genoa to this place. Then you would have seen not only me, whom you can see anywhere, but something which I think you have never seen, — the city on the Ticino which the moderns call Pavia, which the grammarians tell us means ‘admirable.’ It was a famous residence of the Lombard kings, and had been visited by Augustus Cæsar during the German war, long before their time. . . . You would have seen the city where Augustine found a tomb, and Severinus (Boethius) fit surroundings for the exile of his old age and for his death. Now they sleep in two urns beneath the same roof, along with that King Luitprand who had the remains of Augustine brought hither from Sardinia, — a noble and pious company of truly great men. It seems as though Boethius, the earnest disciple of Augustine, had refused to be severed in death from him whom he resembled in his genius and his works, especially in his treatise on the Trinity. . . . And who would not long to find his last restingplace beside these most enlightened and holy men ? ”
At the close of this same letter we find Petrarch acknowledging in a somewhat critical spirit a gift from Boccaccio which he had himself Solicited : —
“ The extracts from Homer5 which you made for me arrived before I left Venice, and I am deeply indebted to your kindness, but also very sorry for your unnecessary trouble, which I never would have imposed had I known what I now know. The truth is, I had not the slightest desire to know what passes in the Greek inferno ; it is quite enough to be familiar with that of the Latins: and God grant that we may know the latter by books and hearsay only, and not by personal experience ! I was merely curious to see how Homer, a native of Greece or of Asia, and blind withal, would have described the remote and lonely parts of Italy, — the Æolian Islands, Lake Avernus, the Circean promontory. But since you propose to send me, later, the whole of this great work, I may yet find there what I desire. My only anxiety is that you say you will send me the Iliad in full and extracts from the Odyssey, while what I want is in the latter poem.”
Unfortunately, only a few of Boccaccio’s letters to Petrarch have been preserved. To judge by those we have, they must have been full of charm, bright, graphic, affectionate, — just what one would have expected from a man of his temperament and his gifts. In order to understand the first from which we shall quote, a little explanation will be necessary. On the 10th of duly, 1361, Petrarch’s son Giovanni, who had been legitimized along with his sister Francesca by Clement VI., but who had caused his father, in a short life, incessant pain and disappointment, died suddenly of the plague. Not long afterward,— possibly, as Fracassetti thinks, in the same year, — Francesca, who appears to have had all the personal graces and filial virtues that her brother lacked, was happily married to Francesco da Brossano, a native of Milan, but settled in Venice. The sweetest of Petrarch’s declining days were passed in their home, and his grandfatherly fondness for their children and grief for the one who died in infancy are very touching ; while Boccaccio records as follows the gracious impression made upon him by that fair Venetian interior. The letter is addressed to “ Francesco Petrarca, Laureate,” and dated Florence, June 30. The year is not given; Fracassetti conjectures 1368.
“ It was to see you, my illustrious master, that I left Certaldo on the 24th of March, bound for Venice, where you then were ; but I was detained at Florence by the continual rains, the persuasions of my friends, and the formidable accounts brought back by those returning from Bologna of the perils of the way, until I learned, to my deep disgust, that you had been recalled to Pavia : whereat I was so disturbed that I was near giving up my whole plan, as I seemed to have the best of reasons for doing. For though there were a good many things in Venice which I wanted to see, I never should have set forth on account of these. But there were certain friends of mine, who had confided to me the management of delicate affairs of their own, whom I was unwilling to disappoint; and also I did have a strong desire to behold those two people to whom you are so extremely and so justly attached, — I mean your Tullia 6 and her Francesco, whom I had never seen at all, whereas most of those whom you have loved in the past are already known to me. And so, the weather having improved. I resumed my journey, and finally arrived, dead tired, at the end thereof. Of my unexpected and most joyful meeting with Francesco on the way I think he himself has told you. When we had exchanged gay and friendly greetings, and I had learned that you were safe and well, as also many other gratifying things about you, I had leisure to consider the stately figure and sweet countenance of the man himself, his refined speech and gentle manners; and I derived amazing pleasure from the sight, and at the very first glance approved your choice. But when did you ever do anything which I did not approve ?
“ I had to tear myself away from him, however, and at daybreak I boarded my little bark.7 But the moment I set foot upon the shore of Venice it was as if you yourself had given notice of my coming, for I was surrounded by a concourse of our own fellow-citizens, each one competing for the privilege of being my host in your absence. . . . Had there been no friend to meet me, I should of course have gone to an inn, for I could not stay in Tullia’s house when her husband was away. . . . But so soon as I was a little rested I went to pay my respects, and she, feeling my arrival as she would have done your own, came out to meet me, her cheeks glowing with a charming blush. Her eyes fell when she saw me, but she saluted me prettily, and welcomed me with a most modest and filial embrace. I saw at once how you had prepared her for my coming, and how completely you had trusted me, and I blessed God for your confidence. So, after we had exchanged a few words, we went and sat down in your little garden, where there were several friends present, and where, in the simplest and quietest manner possible, and always preserving the same matronly dignity, she placed at my disposal the house and the books and all your belongings. And while we were talking, who should come out but your — and my — dear little Eletta,8 with a step sedate beyond her years, yet laughing as she looked at me even before she knew who I was. I snatched her to my arms, not so much gladly as greedily, for she seemed to me, at the first glance, to be the very child whom I had lost.9 How can I describe it? If you do not believe me, ask William of Ravenna, the physician, or our friend Donato, who both knew her, whether your Eletta be not the very image of mine, — the same features and expression, the same merry eyes, the same gestures and movements and carriage of the little person. Only mine was rather taller, because she was older ; she was almost five and a half when I saw her last. Had they spoken the same dialect, they would have used the selfsame words. I could scarcely have told them apart, but that yours has golden, and mine had chestnut hair. Ah me ! how many times, when I was fondling and frolicking with your grandchild, the thought of the lost one brought tears to my eyes, which I wiped away hastily, that they might not be seen!
Later on he recurs to the fine character of Francesco, and to his unstinted hospitality. “And do you know,” he says, “ that when I was leaving Venice, he, aware of my poverty, which I never deny, took me, late at night, into his own little room, and, without any parade of words, grasped my puny arm in those huge hands of his. and, in spite of all my remonstrances, fairly made me blush for his generosity ; then he embraced me and ran away, leaving me aghast at what I had suffered him to do. God grant that some day I may be able to repay him ! ”
Boccaccio’s poverty, like that of many other open-hearted and agreeable men, was plainly constitutional, and only to be palliated for the time being by any material aid. Petrarch himself sometimes offered him a more fanciful order of consolation, as in the following letter, in which he replies to Boccaccio’s statement that he had been ill in a lonely place, far away from physicians, whom, however, he could not have afforded to summon, had there been any at hand. It will be seen that the prejudice against the profession which Petrarch had imbibed at Rome during the jubilee year was still in full force.
“ I must really congratulate you on your isolation and impecuniosity, which were as serviceable to you in this case as they have often been to other men in spite of themselves; for had you been in easier circumstances you would no doubt have called in a doctor, not to say butcher; and you would have done this, not because you expected him to cure you, but for those conventional reasons which perpetually lead men to risk their lives rather than imperil their credit in the eyes of the world. You never made any secret of your opinion concerning physicians. You say in so many words that they are more apt to diminish the substance than the sufferings of their patients, and to lighten their purses of gold rather than their bodies of evil humors. This is the way I manage. I have had a good many friends, first and last, who were physicians, and of these four are still living, one in Venice, one in Milan, and two in Padua, all of them polite and accomplished men, capital talkers, keen in argument, excessively plausible, — capable, in short, of doing murder in the mildest and most reasonable manner, and then offering the most satisfactory apologies for what they have done. Cicero, Seneca, and Aristotle are forever on their lips, and, what is more remarkable, even Virgil; for whether it be owing to mental weakness or some form of mania, or to mere chance, they know everything better than their own profession. . . . Now, if I fall ill. I welcome them all to my house, but as friends merely, never as physicians ; for I am always delighted to see my friends, and I consider it one of the most efficacious means of restoring and preserving health. If they advise anything which appears to me reasonable, I do it, and acknowledge my obligations to them. If their prescriptions do not square with my views, I let them talk, and follow my own counsel. And I have given special orders to my own people that, if I am ever in serious danger, they are not to do to me any of the things which the doctors order, but to let Nature have her way, and the God who created me and has set a limit to my days, which I may not overpass,”
Petrarch seems to have had a strong presentiment that this limit ” would coincide with his grand climacteric. There are two letters of his to Boccaccio, written, the one on his sixty-second, the other on his sixty-third birthday ; that is to say, when he felt himself to be entering upon the critical year, and when he considered that he had safely passed it. The first is a long and dreamy essay on the theory of the climacteric and the vanity of human life, accompanied by the touching confession of many of his own shortcomings, as well as of the faith which continually rose " triumphant o’er his fears.”
“ And so,” he says, near the close of this letter, “ I look upon death as an effect of nature, and find comfort in the hope of a resurrection to life eternal. All the good and wise have agreed with me in the first; some very great men have been without the second, and yet, by the sheer force of their virtue, they have met death so quietly and bravely as to show how possible — nay, how easy — it is to rise above its terrors. How shameful, then, it would be for a Christian, with all the light he has received, to shrink from death ! To-day, and in this very hour, I enter upon the year which is falsely called fatal, since it can bring me nothing new, or at least nothing dreadful, if I quit me like a man. . . . For I was born at dawn, in the city of Arezzo, in the year 1304 of this last era, which takes its name and its beginning from Jesus Christ, in whom is my hope ; . . . and to-day is Monday, the 20th of July of the year 1366. Count, then, upon your fingers, and you will see that I have fulfilled sixty-two years since I crossed the threshold of this troubled life, and that I am stepping at this moment into the tremendous sixty-third. ... I have told you my first day: I would gladly tell you my last, if I knew it. But in vain I repeat with David, ‘ Lord, make me to know mine end.’ Wherefore I recommend all my days, and the latest above all, to the King of the Ages.”
Petrarch’s next birthday, however, found him still alive, and in a cheerful if somewhat less elevated frame of mind. “ The year has come round again, dear brother,” he begins, “ and the sun is once more in Leo, having made a complete turn of the zodiac since I wrote you a letter which may have alarmed you somewhat, though I myself was feeling very calm.” He attributes his composure of mind on that critical morning to the good and pious meditations he had been making rather than to his contempt of “astrological babble.”
“ For I must admit,” he proceeds, “ that, on a review of what I had observed during my own short life, I had almost persuaded myself that there was some truth in what they say about the seventh and ninth years ; that is, that these years do often bring unpleasant changes and unusual misfortunes. But that, as the same authorities pretend, the year sixtythree, which is the multiple of the two, ought, for that reason to be twice as malignant as the others, this I never did believe, and still less can I do so now, when, by divine mercy, I have experienced the exact contrary. . . . For the fact of the matter is that, whatever the portentous year may have been or may be to others, to me it has been full of good and pleasant things ; and I never remember to have enjoyed more perfect health in all my life.”
Tradition (for, strange to say, there is no precise evidence) has it that Petrarch lived exactly to complete his threescore years and ten, and then, on the morning of another 20th of July, was found dead in his library, bowed, as had been his wont in life, over one of his beloved books.
A long break in his correspondence with Boccaccio follows Petrarch’s climacteric. If any letters were exchanged between 1367 and 1373, they have not been preserved ; but in the latter year Petrarch sent his friend three letters in one packet, or rather two accompanied by the following explanatory note : —
“ I thought at first that I would not answer your letter at all,10 because, although the advice which it contained was practical and friendly, it was entirely averse to my way of thinking. I then took it into my head to write you a long letter on quite another subject, which letter was so full of erasures that I undertook to copy it; whereupon a friend came in, and, pitying my weak condition, — for I am almost always ill in these days, — he offered to relieve me of the labor. But while he was writing I said to myself: ‘ What will my Giovanni say to this ? He will be sure to think that I am ready to write to him on trivial matters, but will not answer him on essential points.’ So, without much reflection, but quite on the impulse of the moment, I picked up the pen which I had flung aside, and wrote another letter, not quite as long as the first, but at least a proper answer to yours. Almost two months elapsed before I found any means of sending to you ; but now at last here come those two voluminous epistles, accompanied by the present little note, and left quite open, in order to spare the officials along the route the trouble of unsealing them. They are quite welcome to read them, but I trust that, having done so, they will forward them without alteration. They will see that we are not plotting war: and I would that no one else were doing so, and that we might all enjoy that peace which seems banished from our borders ! Please to read first the letter in my handwriting, and then the other. I have arranged them in this order. I expect you to say, when you have finished, ‘ Can this be my friend, the poor, ailing, overworked old man, or is it not some brisk young person of the same name, with nothing in particular to do ? ’ Nay, it is I myself, but I rather wonder at my own energy. Farewell.”
One would like to quote in full the eloquent old man’s testimony to the blessing of work, in the second letter; his ardent belief in the beneficial effects of study upon the physical health, both as a prophylactic and a cure. The gift of long life, he says, would be to him a curse rather than a blessing, were his years to be passed in idleness. A little further on he takes up the defense of poverty, prefacing his discourse upon this head by a familiar quotation from his beloved Horace : 11 —
Sicilian bred, and chariot fine
By neighing race horse drawn, are thine ;
And woolens soft thy frame define
In murex double-dyed.
But no false Fate ’t was gave to me
Some notes of Grecian melody,
Of my few acres made me free,
And the hase crowd’s malignity
Well taught me to deride.’
“ There is the proper answer to any one who presumes to boast of his perishable riches ! I take leave to repeat in this place what I have always said when discussing this matter with my friends. Suppose a man, endowed only with his many virtues, takes service with a prince who shows himself hard and mean, and says to his protégé, ‘ Do you he content with your virtues, and suffer me to bestow my substantial benefits upon less exemplary men.’ The other would then have a perfect right to retort, ‘ My virtues, if I have any, were no gift of yours. If, therefore, you would be just, you ought simply to consider my merits, and reward me in accordance with these, recognizing that what is in me is Heaven’s gift, not yours.’ . . . But so may not a man speak to God, the donor of his virtues, the maker of his body and his soul.”
Nor can we imagine Petrarch using quite this language with Galeazzo Visconti. He would not have been guilty of such a breach of good manners. Nevertheless, this high-spirited passage undoubtedly affords one more clue to the secret of Petrarch’s remarkable, yet upon the whole honorable acceptability to the great and powerful. He outdid all other courtiers by the mere fact of rejecting all the courtier’s hackneyed arts. He accepted what princes and potentates had to give him, simply but proudly, as a fair exchange for what they had received from him ; and by so doing he preserved his personal dignity, while offering a subtle suggestion that it was for their own sake he adhered to his patrons, and not for what they could give him.
The third letter in the packet was not, as we have seen, in Petrarch’s hand, but there could never have been any question about the authorship. It is interesting from the fact that it is one of the very few in the correspondence which refer to Boccaccio’s own works.
“ There lately fell into my hands — I cannot remember who gave it to me — a book written by you in our mother tongue, and, if I mistake not, while you were still young.12 I cannot pretend to have read it thoroughly, for the volume is bulky, and written in a free and easy style to catch the popular fancy; whereas my occupations are many and my time is short. . . . So what do you think I did ? I ran it over rapidly, noting a point here and there, as a traveler in haste notes the objects along his route. . . . Thus cursorily perused, your book pleased me very much; and though I was occasionally offended by a certain coarseness and freedom of expression, I attributed the fault to your years, to the style and the language you had employed, to the lightness of your theme, and above all to the quality of those whom you addressed. For it is always most important to consider for whom one is writing, and to adapt one’s language to the tone of one’s readers. . . . As usually happens, however, when one skims a book, I noted more particularly the beginning and the end. In the former I found a description of that horrible pestilence whereby, for an unparalleled warning to the world, our age was crammed with misery and woe ; and I was profoundly impressed by the masterly manner in which you had depicted, and the feeling with which you had deplored, that awful scourge of our fatherland. On the other hand, the last story in the book struck me as different from all the rest, and I was so delighted with it that, though distracted by a thousand cares, I committed it to memory, and greatly enjoyed repeating it to myself; resolving also to recite it to my friends, the first time our conversation should turn upon any kindred subject. This, not long after, I actually did ; and all who heard me were so fascinated that it occurred to me the tale might prove equally acceptable to those who do not understand our vulgate. . . . So, one day, when I had been racking my brains after my usual fashion till I had exhausted my patience with myself and mankind, I flung my work contemptuously aside, seized a pen, and began to rewrite your story, making sure that you would not dislike having me for a translator. . . . My version having been much admired, and being in great request, to whom but yourself should I dedicate it? — for yours it is. Whether it be improved or injured by its new dress you must judge. It returns whence it came, . . . and if any ask me whether the tale be true, I shall refer them to its proper author, my dear Giovanni.”
And then follows Petrarch’s refined and somewhat amplified rendering of the oft-told tale of the patient Grizzel. Something is indeed sacrificed of Boccaccio’s entirely convincing naïveté, but the laureate has added exquisite touches of his own, lovely bits of scenery, and more than one supremely happy epithet. Boccaccio’s long-suffering heroine was plainly the old poet’s last love. He would like to think that she had once lived, though he candidly owns that he does not expect the matrons of his day to conform to her standard of wifely devotion. The matrons of ours would consider themselves bound by the most sacred obligations to Woman and the World to resist, from the first such outrageous pretensions as Gualterio’s ; and what is indubitably best for Gualterio is probably (though this seems less certain) best for Griseldis as well.
To this Latin translation of the Griseldis Petrarch appends a postscript, in which he takes a fond farewell of Boccaccio as a correspondent.
“ I am firmly resolved.” he says, “to write no more letters, both because they distract me more than they used from graver studies, and because I know no other way of avoiding the insolence of those miscreants into whose hands they are likely to fall. ... I determined some time ago that I would write more briefly, in order to save a little of the time which is wearing so fast away ; but, that resolution proved of no use, and I am now convinced that it is harder for true friends to say little than to be wholly silent. . . . Farewell, then, friends! Farewell, letters!
“ Among the Euganean Hills,
June 4, 1373.”
There is every reason to suppose that Boccaccio bowed with his usual gentle deference to the austere decision of his aged friend. The consciousness of his own failing health and the near hope of an eternal reunion doubtless helped him to be patient. It seems certain, at all events, that, no further written communication passed between them. The latest of Boccaccio’s own letters which we possess 13 was written to Francesco da Brossano, in Venice, in reply to one announcing the laureate’s death : —
“ I received your sad letter, dearest brother, and not recognizing the hand, I broke the seal and glanced at the signature ; but the moment I saw your name I knew what the letter contained, and that it was come to tell me of the happy passage of our renowned father and master, Francis Petrarch, from the earthly Babylon to the heavenly Jerusalem. . . . It came into my mind to go to you, that we might weep together over our common misfortune. . . . But I am another man from him you knew in Venice. I have wasted away and lost my color ; my eyes are dim ; my knees shake under me, and my hands tremble. There is no more question of the Apennines for me. I have just managed, by the help of friends, to crawl back to the old place at Certaldo, where, weak in body and troubled in soul, I while away my days, unsure of myself, and relying on God alone, who can, if he will, subdue my fever, and give me his healing and his grace. . . .
“ But enough of me. When I had read your letter, a great wave of pity swept over me; . . . not, you may be sure, for that best of men, concerning whom I am assured, when I remember his goodness and the fashion of his life, — his prayers, his fasts, his vigils, and his all-pervading piety, — that he has winged a straight flight from the sorrows of this evil world to the presence of the most high Father and the everlasting joy of his Christ. It was myself I compassionated, and other friends of his, — friends abandoned upon this quicksand as in a boat without a rudder, driven ashore by wind and wave. Yet even amid the tumult of my distress I could think of the sharper grief which must be yours and hers, your wife, Tullia, my ever loved and honored sister. . . . You tell me that he closed his eyes in the little village of Arquà, in the Padovan territory, leaving an earnest injunction that he should be laid to his last rest upon that very spot. . . . Ah me ! I own my sin, if sin it be ! As a Florentine, I grudge so bright an honor to that Arquà who hath it through another’s humility, and not by any merit of her own ! . . .
“ My weakness warns me that I must write no more. I am come to my last prayer, — love me, dear brother, and farewell for long. ...It has taken me almost three days to write this short letter, which I close at Certaldo on the 3d of November.
GIOVANNI DA CERTALDO.”
Before the end of the next year the friends were reunited; but ere he went Boccaccio had found voice for another and fuller tribute to the master whom he was following so fast: —
That kingdom thine, all souls may hope to share,
Though weight of many sins from earth they bear,
So God’s election place them on his right.
Now art thou where the longing for a sight.
Of thy sweet Laura drew thee oft, and where
My Fiammetta, who is ever fair,
Sits down by her full in their Maker’s light.
With Dante, Cino, and Sennuccio now,
Thou livest secure of peace for evermore,
And knowest all that here we could not know.
Oh, if on earth we loved, in pity bow.
And draw me hence ; and sight of her restore
Who kindled in my heart Love’s earliest glow! ”
Harriet Waters Preston.
- Æn. viii. l63, 164.↩
- Or rather, probably, to complete and embellish one which he had already made, since there would seem hardly to have been time enough between Boccaccio’s visit and Petrarch’s acknowledgment of his gift for making an entire copy of so long a work. This unique memorial of the three chief writers of the Italian revival is now in the Vatican library.↩
- Dante was, in fact, in his fortieth year when Petrarch was born.↩
- Lello di Pietro Stefano, a Roman.↩
- Francesco Nelli, Prior of the SS. Apostoli at Florence.↩
- They were translations into Latin, for Petrarch could not read the original.↩
- Francesco, who was starting on a journey, had met Boccaccio upon the mainland.↩
- Francesca’s daughter.↩
- Boccaccio has embalmed the memory of this little girl in his beautiful fourteenth eclogue, where she is called Olimpia.↩
- Boccaccio had evidently written entreating Petrarch to remember his age and infirmities, and to slacken a little the ardor of his studies.↩
- Carm. II. xvi. 33-40.↩
- The stories comprising the Decameron were first collected and given to the world in 1353, when Boccaccio was thirty-nine years old, but some of them were probably written earlier, for we hear of his reading tales of his own to Joanna of Naples in 1344.↩
- Dated “ November ” only, but probably belonging to the following year, 1374.↩