In Search of a Phoenix: Petrarca’s Servants

Francesco Petrarca (or Petrarch) is well-known to us as one of the major Italian poets, one of the “three fountains” of Italian Renaissance poetry as Dante, Petrarch and Boccaccio are sometimes called. His unrequited devotion to madonna Laura is a subject of a vast critical research. However, much of Petrarca’s character may remain hidden from us, unless we turn to his letters. Rerum Familiarium (Letters on Familiar Matters), written between 1325 and 1366 and organised in twenty-four books between 1345 and 1366, is a living testament of intellectual and creative ability of this famous poet, but more than that, the letters show us a very witty, even humorous man. At the very end of the third volume of Rerum Familiarium there are over 10 letters addressed to the great men of the past, including Cicero, Seneca, Homer, and Livy; Petrarch was also known for giving antique names to some of his friends, whereby there are epistoles to Olympio and Socrates in this collection. One of the letters greatly reminded me of myself: in it Petrarch complained to his correspondent that he was inundated with his own papers and drafts that were scattered all over his house so much so that he decided to burn them. My own drafts are to be found absolutely everywhere, but I am yet to be inundated.

The collection may leave one wondering how good it must indeed have been in the 14th c. from the intellectual point of view. The letters reveal an important aspect of a shared scholarship, and although we do not see the letters by or from Petrarch’s correspondents, one has to assume that the current of quotations and references was flowing both ways. One can also not find enough praise for the translator, Aldo S. Bernardo, although, as he noted in the preface, this work was in part triggered by the deteriorating knowledge of Latin among the Renaissance students. On the other hand, thanks to him, everyone who doesn’t know Latin, can dive into the boundless sea of Petrarch’s epistolary work.

As I said, however, the letters also show us the “down-to-earth” Petrarch. Not in one of them does he compain about the age, the servants, and we even hear that his cobbler and taylor didn’t listen to him (much to his annoyance) when he requested that his garments should be of bigger size. The letter quoted below gives a great example of this “worldly” side of the poet’s character.

Petrarca to Sennuccio di Firenze (Rerum Familiarium, IV, no. 14)

I have in my home three pairs of servants, or, to speak more modestly, of lower class friends, or, to tell the truth, of domestic enemies. Of the first pair one is far too simple and the other is far too shrewd. Of the second, one is rendered useless by his childishness and the other by his age. Of the third, one is mad and the other is shamefully lazy, and as in Cicero’s saying in a letter to Socrates, one is in need of a bridle, the other of a spur. Faced with such opposition I used to attempt to correct the situation, but now I sit as a simple spectator, nor can I stop wondering at the minds of those who regard mobs of servants as something glorious, and are commonly found in the company of those whom they feed, delighting, that is, in the company of their domestic underminers. It is enough for you to know my need, nor do I believe that you expect me to beg you for help. If by chance there should appear anywhere in rather humble straits a spirit whose age and conduct are moderate, you will have found a man in whom such qualities as I seek are to be found – I would not say perfectly but tolerably – and who could be not my servant but my colleague, friend, and master. Yet I fear that I seem to be committing you to a search for a Phoenix which usually is reborn only after 500 years, exists singly in all the world, and isn’t known to us in the West. Farewell.



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