In 1351 Petrarch returned to Avignon. Probably at Vaucluse he wrote a pretty essay, De vita solitaria, lauding the solitude that he could bear as a healing medicine but not as a sustaining food. It was shortly after this return to Avignon that he brought the medical fraternity down upon his head by exhorting Pope Clement VI, who was in failing health, to beware of doctors’ prescriptions. “I have always begged my friends, and ordered my servants, never to let any of these doctors’ tricks to be tried on my body, but always to do the exact contrary of what they advise.”49 In 1355, exasperated by some therapeutic fiasco, he composed an intemperate Invective Against a Physician. He was not much better disposed toward lawyers, “who spend their entire time in disputations…. over trival questions. Hear my verdict upon the whole pack of them. Their fame will die with their flesh, and a single grave will suffice for their names and their bones.”50 To make Avignon completely distasteful to him Pope Innocent VI proposed to excommunicate Petrarch as a necromancer, on the ground that the poet was a student of Virgil. Cardinal Talleyrand came to Petrarch’s rescue, but the air of saintly ignorance that now perfumed Avignon sickened the laureate. He visited his monk brother Gherardo, wrote a wistful treatise De otio reliogiosorum (On the Leisure of Monks), and toyed with the idea of entering a monastery. But when an invitation came to him to be the palace guest of the dictator of Milan (1353), he accepted with a readiness that shocked his republican friends.
The ruling family in Milan bore the name Visconti from having often filled the post of vicecomites, or archiepiscopal judges. In 1311 the Emperor Henry VII appointed Matteo Visconti his vicar in Milan, which, like most cities in northern Italy, loosely acknowledged itself as part of the Holy Roman Empire. Though Matteo made serious blunders he governed so ably that his descendants held power in Milan till 1447. They were seldom scrupulous, often cruel, sometimes extravagant, never stupid. They taxed the people heavily for the numerous campaigns that brought most of northwestern Italy under their rule, but their skill in finding competent administrators and generals brought victory to their arms and prosperity to Milan. To the woolen manufactures of the city they added a silk industry; they multiplied the canals that extended the city’s trade; they gave to life and property a security that made their subjects forgetful of liberty. Under their tyranny Milan became one of the richest cities of Europe; its palaces, faced with marble, lined avenues paved with stone. With Giovanni Visconti, handsome, indefatigable, ruthless or generous at need or whim, Milan reached its zenith; Lodi, Parma, Crema, Piacenza, Brescia, Bergamo, Novara, Como, Vercelli, Alessandria, Tortona, Pontremoli, Asti, Bologna acknowledged his rule; and when the Avignon popes contested his claim to Bologna, and visited him with excommunication, he fought Clement VI with courage and bribery, and with 200,000 florins won Bologna, absolution, and peace (1352). He paid for his crimes with gout, and adorned his despotism with the patronage of poetry, learning, and art. When Petrarch, arriving at his court, asked what duties would be expected of him, Giovanni replied handsomely: “Only your presence, which will grace both myself and my reign.”51
Petrarch remained eight years at the Visconti court in Pavia or Milan. During this comfortable subjection he composed in Italian terza rima a series of poems that he called Trionfi: the triumph of desire over man, of chastity over desire, of death over chastity, of fame over death, of time over fame, of eternity over time. Here he sang his final word of Laura; he asked pardon for the sensuality of his love, conversed with her chaste ghost, and dreamed of being united with her in paradise—her husband having apparently gone elsewhere. These poems, challenging comparison with Dante, represent the triumph of vanity over art.
Giovanni Visconti, dying in 1354, bequeathed his state to three nephews. Matteo II was a sensual incompetent, and was fraternally assassinated for the honor of the house (1355). Bernabò governed part of the duchy from Milan, Galeazzo II the remainder from Pavia. Galeazzo II was a capable ruler who wore his golden hair in curls and wedded his children to royalty. When his daughter Violante married the Duke of Clarence, son of King Edward III of England, Galeazzo dowered the bride with 200,000 gold florins ($5,000,000), and gave the two hundred English attendants of the groom such presents as outshone the generosity of the wealthiest contemporary kings; the leavings of the wedding banquet, we are assured, could have fed ten thousand men. So rich wastrecentoItaly, at a time when England was bankrupting herself, and France was bleeding herself white, in the Hundred Years’ War.