Rienzo failed to restore ancient Rome, which was dead to all but poetry; Petrarch succeeded in restoring Roman literature, which had never died. He had so openly supported Cola’s revolt that he had forfeited the favor of the Colonna in Avignon. For a time he thought of joining Rienzo in Rome; he was as far on the way as Genoa when he heard that the tribune’s position and conduct were deteriorating. He changed his course to Parma (1347). He was in Italy when the Black Death came, taking many of his friends, and killing Laura in Avignon. In 1348 he accepted the invitation of Iacopo II da Carrara to be his guest in Padua.
The city had a burdensome antiquity; it was already hundreds of years old when Livy was born there in 59 B.C. It became a free commune in 1174, suffered the tyranny of Ezzelino (1237–56), recovered its independence, sang litanies to liberty, and subjected Vicenza to its domination. Attacked and almost overcome by Can Grande della Scala of Verona, it abandoned its freedom and chose as dictator Iacopo I da Carrara (1318), a man as hard as the marble that bore his name. Later members of the family succeeded to his power by inheritance or assassination. Petrarch’s host seized the reins in 1345 by murdering his predecessor, tried to atone by good government, but was stabbed to death after four years of rule. Francesco I da Carrara (1350–89), in a remarkable reign of almost forty years, raised Padua to a passing rivalry with Milan, Florence, and Venice. He made the mistake of joining Genoa against Venice in the bitter war of 1378; Venice won, and subjected Padua to her rule (1404).
Meanwhile the city contributed more than its share to the cultured life of Italy. The majestic church of St. Anthony, known affectionately as II Santo, was completed in 1307. The great Salone, or Sala della Ragione (Hall of Parliament), was repaired in 1306 by the monastic architect Fra Giovanni Eremitano, and still stands. The Reggia, or Royal Palace (1345f), had 400 rooms, many with frescoes that were the pride of the Carraresi; nothing remains of them but a tower whose celebrated clock first chimed in 1364. At the beginning of the century an ambitious merchant, Enrico Scrovegni, bought a palace in the old Roman amphitheater known as the Arena, and summoned Italy’s most famous sculptor, Giovanni Pisano, and her most famous painter, Giotto, to decorate the chapel of his new home (1303–5); as a result the little Arena Chapel is now known throughout the educated world. Here the genial Giotto painted half a hundred murals, roundels, and medallions, telling again the wondrous story of the Virgin and her Son, surrounding the main frescoes with the heads of prophets and saints, and with ample female forms symbolizing the virtues and vices of mankind. Over the inner portal his pupils, with half-hearted seriousness, depicted the Last Judgment in a carnal confusion of gargoylelike grotesques. Mantegna, decorating a chapel in the near-by church of the Eremitani a century and a half later, may have smiled at the simple draftsmanship, the primitive perspective, the monotonous similarity of faces, poses, and figures, the imperfect sense and command of anatomy, the blonde heaviness of nearly all the figures, as if the Lombards of Padua were still Longobards freshly come from well-fed Germany. But the lovely features of the Virgin in the Nativity, the noble head of Jesus in the Raising of Lazarus, the stately high priest in The Wooers, the calm Christ and coarse Judas of The Betrayal, the serene grace, harmonious composition, and developing action of the spacious panorama in color and form, make these paintings—still fresh and clear after six centuries—the first pictorial triumph of the fourteenth century.
Petrarch may have seen the Arena frescoes; certainly he appreciated Giotto, for in his will he left to Francesco da Carrara a Madonna “by that excellent painter, Giotto, a picture whose beauty… surprises the masters of the art.”28 But at the time he was more interested in literature than in art. He must have been stimulated by hearing that Albertino Mussato, a humanist even before Petrarch, had been crowned as Padua’s poet laureate in 1314 for writing a Latin drama, Ecerinis, in the style of Seneca; this, so far as we know, was the first Renaissance play. Surely Petrarch visited the university that was the city’s noble pride. It was at this time the most celebrated school in Italy, rivaling Bologna as a center of legal training, and Paris as a hotbed of philosophy. Petrarch was shocked by the frank “Averroism” of some Paduan professors, who questioned the immortality of the individual soul, and spoke of Christianity as a useful superstition privately discarded by educated men.
In 1348 we find our restless poet at Mantua, then at Ferrara. In 1350 he joined the flow of pilgrims bound for the jubilee in Rome. On the way he visited Florence for the first time, and established a cordial friendship with Boccaccio. Thereafter, said Petrarch, they “shared a single heart.”29 In 1351, on Boccaccio’s urging, the Florentine Signory repealed the edict that had confiscated Ser Petracco’s property, and sent Boccaccio to Padua to offer Petrarch a money recompense and a professorship in the University of Florence. When he rejected the offer Florence repealed the repeal.