It was a pitiful capital of the world. The papacy having moved to Avignon in 1309, no economic means remained of supporting even such moderate splendor as the city had known in the thirteenth century. The wealth that had trickled from a thousand bishoprics into streams from a dozen states no longer flowed into Rome; no foreign embassies kept palaces there; and rare was the cardinal who showed his face amid the ruins of the Empire and the Church. Christian shrines rivaled classic colonnades in dilapidation; shepherds grazed their flocks on the slopes of the seven hills; beggars roamed the streets and highwaymen lurked along the roads; wives were abducted, nuns were raped, pilgrims were robbed; every man carried arms.13 The old aristocratic families—Colonna, Orsini, Savelli, Annibaldi, Gaetani, Frangipani—contested with violence and intrigue for political mastery in the oligarchic Senate that ruled Rome. The middle classes were small and weak; and the motley masses, mingled of a score of peoples, lived in a poverty too stupefying to generate self-government. The hold of the absent papacy upon the city was reduced to the theoretical authority of a legate, who was ignored.
Amid this chaos and penury the mutilated remains of a proud antiquity nourished the visions of scholars and the dreams of patriots. Some day, the Romans believed, Rome would again be the spiritual and political capital of the world, and the barbarians beyond the Alps would send imperial tribute as well as Peter’s pence. Here and there men could still spare a pittance for art: Pietro Cavallini adorned Santa Maria in Trastevere with remarkable mosaics, and in Santa Cecilia he inaugurated a Roman school of fresco painting almost as important as Duccio’s in Siena or Giotto’s in Florence. Even in Rome’s destitution poets sang, forgetting the present for the past. After Padua and Prato had restored Domitian’s rite of placing a laurel wreath upon the brow of a favorite bard, the Senate thought it befitting the traditional primacy of Rome to crown the man who by universal consent was the leading poet of his nation and his time.
And so, on April 8, 1341, a colorful procession of youths and senators escorted Petrarch—clad in the purple robe that King Robert had given him —to the steps of the Capitol; there a laurel crown was laid upon his head, and the aged Senator Stefano Colonna pronounced a eulogy. From that day Petrarch had new fame and new enemies; rivals plucked at his laurels with their pens, but kings and popes gladly received him at their courts. Soon Boccaccio would rank him with “the illustrious ancients”; and Italy, proud of his renown, proclaimed that Virgil had been born again.
What sort of man was he at this apex of his curve? In his youth he had been handsome, and vain of his looks and clothes; in later years he laughed at his once meticulous ritual of toilette and dress, and curling of the hair, and squeezing of the feet into fancy shoes. In middle age he grew a bit stout and doubled his chin, but his face had still the charm of refinement and animation. He remained vain to the end, merely pluming himself on his achievements instead of his appearance; but this is a fault that only the greatest saints can shun. His letters, so fascinating and brilliant, would have been more so without their sham modesty and honest pride. Like all of us he relished applause; he longed for fame, for literary “immortality”; so early, in this presage of the Renaissance, he struck one of its most sustained notes, the thirst for glory. He was a little jealous of his rivals, and descended to answer their slurs. He fretted some (though he denied it) at Dante’s popularity; he shuddered at Dante’s ferocity as Erasmus would at Luther’s crudity; but he suspected that there was something in the dour Florentine too deep to be fathomed by a facile pen. Himself now half French in spirit, he was too urbane to curse half the world; he lacked the passion that exalted and exhausted Italy.
Equipped with several ecclesiastical benefices, he was affluent enough to despise wealth, and timid enough to like the literary life.
There is no lighter burden, nor more agreeable, than a pen. Other pleasures fail us, or wound us while they charm; but the pen we take up rejoicing, and lay down with satisfaction; for it has the power to advantage not only its lord and master but many others as well, even though they be not born for thousands of years to come…. As there is none among earthly delights more noble than literature, so there is none more lasting, none gentler or more faithful; none that accompanies its possessor through the vicissitudes of life at so small a cost of effort or anxiety.14
Yet he speaks of his “varying moods, which were rarely happy and usually despondent.”15 To be a great writer he had to be sensitive to beauty in form and sound, in nature and woman and man; that is, he had to suffer more than most of us from the noises and deformities of the world. He loved music, and played the lute well. He admired fine painting, and numbered Simone Martini among his friends. Women must have attracted him, for at times he spoke of them with almost anchoritic fear. After forty, he assures us, he never touched a woman carnally. “Great must be the powers of both body and mind,” he wrote, “that may suffice both to literary activity and to a wife.”16
He offered no novel philosophy. He rejected Scholasticism as vain logicchopping far removed from life. He challenged the infallibility of Aristotle, and dared to prefer Plato. He went back from Aquinas and Duns Scotus to the Scriptures and the Fathers, and relished the melodious piety of Augustine and the Stoic Christianity of Ambrose; however, he quoted Cicero and Seneca as reverently as he cited the saints, and drew his arguments for Christianity most often from pagan texts. He smiled at the discord of philosophers, among whom he found “no more agreement than among clocks.”17 “Philosophy,” he complained, “aims only at hair-splitting, subtle distinctions, quibbles of words.”18 Such a discipline could make clever debaters, but hardly wise men. He laughed at the high degree of Master and Doctor with which such studies were crowned, and marveled how a ceremony could make a pundit out of a fool. Almost in modern terms he rejected astrology, alchemy, demoniac possession, prodigies, auguries, dream prophecies, and the miracles of his time.19 He had the courage to praise Epicurus20 in an age when that name was used as a synonym for atheist. Now and then he spoke like a skeptic, professing Cartesian doubt: “Distrustful of my own faculties… I embrace doubt itself as truth… affirming nothing, and doubting all things except those in which doubt is sacrilege.”21
Apparently he made this exception in all sincerity. He expressed no doubt as to any dogma of the Church; he was too genial and comfortable to be a heretic. He composed several devotional works, and wondered had it not been better for him, like his brother, to ease his way into heaven through monastic peace. He had no use for the near-atheism of the Averroists in Bologna and Padua. Christianity seemed to him an indisputable moral advance upon paganism, and he hoped that men would find it possible to be educated without ceasing to be Christians.
The election of a new pope, Clement VI (1342), made it advisable for Petrarch to return to Avignon and present his compliments and expectations. Following the precedent of awarding some benefices—i.e., the income from ecclesiastical properties—for the support of writers and artists, Clement gave the poet a priorate near Pisa, and in 1346 made him a canon of Parma. In 1343 he sent him on a mission to Naples, and there Petrarch met one of the most unruly rulers of the age.
Robert the Wise had just died, and his granddaughter Joanna I had inherited his throne and dominions, including Provence and therefore Avignon. To please her father she had married her cousin Andrew, son of the king of Hungary. Andrew thought he should be king as well as consort; Joanna’s lover, Louis of Taranto, slew him (1345), and married the Queen. Andrew’s brother Louis, succeeding to the throne of Hungary, marched his army into Italy, and took Naples (1348). Joanna fled to Avignon, and sold that city to the papacy for 80,000 florins ($2,000,000?); Clement declared her innocent, sanctioned her marriage, and ordered the invader back to Hungary. King Louis ignored the order, but the Black Death (1348) so withered his army that he was compelled to withdraw. Joanna regained her throne (1352), and ruled in splendor and vice until deposed by Pope Urban VI (1380); a year later she was captured by Charles, Duke of Durazzo, and in 1382 she was put to death.
Petrarch touched this bloody romance only at its source, in the first year of Joanna’s reign. He soon resumed his wandering, staying for a while at Parma, then at Bologna, then (1345) at Verona. There, in a church library, he found a manuscript of Cicero’s lost letters to Atticus, Brutus, and Quintus. In Liége he had already (1333) disentombed Cicero’s speech Pro Archia—a paean to poetry. These were among the most fruitful explorations in the Renaissance discovery of antiquity.
Verona, in Petrarch’s time, might have been classed among the major powers of Italy. Proud of her antiquity and her Roman theater (where one may still, of a summer evening, hear opera under the stars), enriched by the trade that came over the Alps and down the Adige, Verona rose under the Scala family to a height where she threatened the commercial supremacy of Venice. After the death of the terrible Ezzelino (1260) the commune chose Mastino della Scala as podesta; Mastino was assassinated in due course (1277), but his brother and successor Alberto firmly established the rule of the Scaligeri (“ladder bearers,” from the apt emblem of a climbing family), and inaugurated the heyday of Verona’s history. During his reign the Dominicans began to build the lovely church of Sant’ Anastasia; an obscure copyist unearthed the lost poems of Catullus, Verona’s most famous son; and the Guelf family of the Capelletti fought the Ghibelline family of the Montechi, never dreaming that they would become Shakespeare’s Capulets and Montagues. The strongest and not the least noble of the Scala “despots” was Can Grande della Scala, who made his court an asylum for exiled Ghibellines and a haven for poets and scholars; there Dante for several years indignantly climbed the shaky stairs of patronage. But Can Grande brought Vicenza, Padua, Treviso, Belluno, Feltre, and Cividale under his power; Venice saw herself threatened with a strangling encirclement; when Can Grande was succeeded by the less ardent Mastino II she declared war, brought in Florence and Milan as her allies, and forced Verona to surrender all but one of the conquered towns. Can Grande II built the majestic Scaligero Bridge over the Adige, with an arch whose span of 160 feet was then the largest in the world. He was assassinated by his brother Consignorio, who followed this fratricide with a wise and beneficent rule, and built the most ornate of the famous tombs of the Scaligers. His sons divided the throne and quarreled to the death; and in 1387 Verona and Vicenza were absorbed into the duchy of Milan.