Petrarch's former residence in Italy

Treasures According to Petrarch

This essay defining what Petrarch saw as treasures is included in my most recent book The Modern Salonnière. The 34 other essays in the book feature similar literary adventures and essays about traveling with intention.

Recovering Wrecked Treasures 

A rendering of a Medieval copyis is now considered one of history's treasures.
A rendering of a Medieval copyist.

I have come to realize I harbor a romantic view of the copyists who predated the printing press. I can just see the monks and scholars who brought classical knowledge forward with their calligraphic handwriting—slumped over their desks, ink staining their fingers, candles flickering as they worked into the night. Did their hands cramp? Were their backs sore as they caressed the parchment with their quills for hours on end? Did the refilling of the inkwell break their concentration, requiring them to re-steady their grasps, or was their muscle memory so strong, they didn’t even notice? 

A fifteenth-century zibaldone that included a copy of a Petrarchan letter on Laura I saw at the Beinecke, one of the library's true treasures. Image © Saxon Henry.
A fifteenth-century zibaldone that included a copy of a Petrarchan letter on Laura I saw at the Beinecke. Image © Saxon Henry.

I have seen only one example of a copyist’s work in person. It was a number of sheaves from a fifteenth-century zibaldone that included a copy of a Petrarchan letter on Laura. It was a serious privilege to have the opportunity to examine the treasure at the Beinecke Library at Yale. These parchments at the library are the predecessors to the earliest books that were published beginning in the 15th century, among them Paolo Giovio’s collection of biographies of important writers that debuted in the mid-sixteenth century to celebrate writers who had not had the good fortune of having their works printed during their lifetime. 

Paolo Giovio’s book on important writers of the time, one of history's publishing treasures. Image © Saxon Henry.
Paolo Giovio’s book on important writers of the time. Image © Saxon Henry.

Dante, Petrarch, and Boccaccio, were three of the luminaries featured, each of which highlighted the stature of the writing during medieval and Renaissance times. Petrarch is one of the historical figures I admire greatly, though not just for his poetry—he was one of the scholars who was determined to save manuscripts that might not have survived had he not copied the classic texts for his library. 

Petrarch’s former home in Arqua where he spent the last years of his life immersed in reading, writing, and saving wrecked treasures. Image courtesy WikiMedia.
Petrarch’s former home in Arqua where he spent the last years of his life immersed in reading, writing, and saving wrecked treasures. Image courtesy WikiMedia.

How different things would have been for him had printing presses been running while he was working like a maniac to ensure that his work survived. The extreme stress of crisscrossing Europe on horseback, usually at the behest of a pontiff, was evident in his letters, and it’s endearing to read about the number of times he set aside days during his travels to devote them to copying (by hand, mind you) important manuscripts along the way. One such excursion was endured under challenging conditions. 

It was during a trip to Liege when he wanted to copy two of Cicero’s orations but he was having trouble finding ink. When he did secure some, he wrote, “The little that I could obtain was as yellow as saffron!” Thomas Campbell, who shares the anecdote in his biography of Petrarch, put it best when he wrote that the poet was nothing short of heroic for his zeal, for his knowledge in recovering wrecked treasures of the classics, and for his Herculean labors in transcribing them: “He was indefatigable in collecting and copying many of the choicest manuscripts; and posterity is indebted to him for the possession of many valuable writings in danger of being lost through the carelessness or ignorance of the possessors.” If Petrarch’s father had succeeded in turning this great man away from poetry to law, what a tremendous amount of classical knowledge we could have lost.

Girolamo da Cremona’s “The Triumphs of Petrarch.” Image courtesy the Google Art Project.
Girolamo da Cremona’s “The Triumphs of Petrarch.” Image courtesy the Google Art Project.

Treasures According to Petrarch © Saxon Henry, all rights reserved. Saxon is an author, journalist, poet, and strategist whose books include The Modern Salonnière, Anywhere But Here, Stranded on the Road to Promiseand Four Florida Moderns.

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