Petrarch, sampling every city and every host, took up his residence in Venice in 1361, and lived there for seven years. He brought his library with him, containing almost all the Latin classics except Lucretius. In an eloquent letter he deeded the precious collection to Venice, but reserved its use to himself till his death. As a gesture of appreciation the Venetian government assigned to him the Palazzo Molina, furnished for his comfort. However, Petrarch took his books with him on his later wanderings; at his death they fell into the hands of his last host, Francesco I da Carrara, an enemy of Venice; some were kept at Padua, most were sold or otherwise dispersed.
It was probably at Venice that he wrote an essay De officio et virtutibus imperatoris (On the Duty and Virtues of an Emperor), and a long concatenation of dialogues De remediis utriusque fortunae (Remedies for Both [Good and Bad] Fortune). He counsels modesty in prosperity and courage in adversity; warns against hitching one’s happiness to earthly victories or goods; teaches how to bear with toothache, obesity, the loss of a wife, the fluctuations of fame. It is all good advice, but it is all in Seneca. About this time, too, he composed his greatest prose work, De viris illustribus, thirty-one biographies of Roman celebrities from Romulus to Caesar; the 350 octavo pages devoted to Caesar constituted the most thorough life of that statesman till the nineteenth century.
Petrarch left Venice in 1368 for Pavia, hoping to negotiate a peace there between Galeazzo II Visconti and Pope Urban V, only to learn that eloquence without guns finds no ears among diplomats. In 1370 he accepted the invitation of Francesco I da Carrara to live for the second time as a royal guest in Padua. But his aging nerves resented the city’s bustle, and he soon retired to a modest villa at Arqua, in the Euganean hills, twelve miles southwest of Padua. There he passed the remaining four years of his life. He gathered and edited his letters for posthumous publication, and wrote a charming miniature autobiography, Epistola ad posteros (1371). Again he yielded to the philosopher’s ancient failing—to tell statesmen how to manage states. In De republica optime administranda(1372) he advised the lord of Padua to “be not the master but the father of thy subjects, and to love them as thy children”; to drain marshes, ensure a food supply, maintain churches, support the sick and helpless, and give protection and patronage to men of letters—on whose pens all fame depends. Then he took up The Decameron, and translated the story of Griselda into Latin to win for it a European audience.
Boccaccio was now in a mood to regret that he had ever written The Decameron or the sensual poems of his youth. In 1361 a dying monk had sent him a message reproaching him with his evil life and merry tales, and prophesying for him, in case he deferred reform, a speedy death and everlasting agonies in hell. Boccaccio had never been an assiduous thinker; he accepted the delusions of his time in regard to casting horoscopes and telling the future through dreams; he believed in a multitude of demons, and thought that Aeneas had veritably visited Hades.56 He turned now to orthodoxy, and thought of selling his books and becoming a monk. Petrarch, advised of this, besought him to take a middle course: to turn from the writing of amorous Italian poems and novelle to the earnest study of the Latin and Greek classics. Boccaccio accepted the counsel of his “venerable master,” and became the first Greek humanist in Western Europe.
Urged on by Petrarch, he collected classical manuscripts; rescued books XI-XVI of the Annals, and books I-V of the Histories, of Tacitus from their oblivion in the neglected library of Monte Cassino; restored the texts of Martial and Ausonius, and contrived to give Homer to the Western world. Some scholars in the Age of Faith had carried on a knowledge of Greek, but in Boccaccio’s day Greek had almost totally disappeared from the ken of the West except in half-Greek Southern Italy. In 1342 Petrarch began to study Greek with the Calabrian monk Barlaam. When a bishopric in Calabria fell vacant Petrarch successfully recommended Barlaam for it; the monk departed, and Petrarch dropped Greek for lack of a teacher, a grammar, or a lexicon; no such books were then available in Latin or Italian. In 1359 Boccaccio met at Milan one of Barlaam’s pupils, Leon Pilatus. He invited him to Florence, and persuaded the university—which had been founded eleven years before—to establish a chair of Greek for Pilatus. Petrarch helped to pay his salary, sent copies of the Iliad and the Odyssey to Boccaccio, and commissioned Pilatus to translate them into Latin. The work was frequently delayed, and involved Petrarch in a troublesome correspondence; he complained that the letters of Pilatus were even longer and dirtier than his beard;57 only through Boccaccio’s exhortations and cooperation was Pilatus prodded to complete the task. This inaccurate and prosaic version was the only Latin translation of Homer known to Europe in the fourteenth century.
Meanwhile Pilatus had taught Boccaccio enough Greek to read the Greek classics haltingly. Boccaccio confessed that he understood the texts only partly, but described what he did understand as surpassingly beautiful. Inspired by these books and Petrarch, he devoted almost all his remaining literary work to the purpose of promoting in Latin Europe a knowledge of Greek literature, mythology, and history. In a series of brief biographies De casibus virorum illustrium (On the Vicissitudes of Famous Men) he ranged from Adam to King John of France; in De claris mulieribus he told the stories of famous women from Eve to Queen Joanna I of Naples; in De montibus, silvis, fontibus, etc., he described in alphabetical order the mountains, forests, springs, rivers, and lakes named in Greek literature; and in De genealogiis deorum he composed a handbook of classical mythology. So deeply did he become absorbed in his subject that he spoke of the Christian God as Jove, of Satan as Pluto, of Venus and Mars as if they were as real as Mary and Christ. These books seem now intolerably dull, written in bad Latin and with middling scholarship; but in their time they were precious manuals for students of Greece, and played an important role in implementing the Renaissance.
So Boccaccio moved from the escapades of youth to the dignity of old age. Florence used him now and then as a diplomat, sending him on missions to Forlì, Avignon, Ravenna, and Venice. At sixty he was physically weak, suffering from dry scab and “more maladies than I know how to enumerate.”58 He lived in suburban Certaldo in bitter poverty. Perhaps it was to aid him financially that some friends in 1373 persuaded the Florentine Signory to create a cathedra Dantesca, or chair of Dante, and to pay Boccaccio a hundred florins ($2500) to give a course of lectures on Dante in the Badia. His health broke down before the course was complete, and he turned to Certaldo reconciled to death.
Petrarch had written, “I desire that death find me ready and writing, or, if it please Christ, praying and in tears.”59 On his seventieth birthday, July 20, 1374, he was found leaning over a book, apparently sleeping, actually dead. In his will he left fifty florins to buy a mantle for Boccaccio as protection against the cold during the long winter nights. On December 21, 1375, Boccaccio too died, aged sixty-one. For fifty years now Italy would lie fallow, till the seeds that these men had planted would come to flower.