Francesco Petrarch
On Religious Leisure
(De otio religioso)

Edited & Translated by
Susan S. Schearer

Introduction by
Ronald G. Witt

The Medieval Review

The Journal of Medieval Latin

Quaderni d’Italianistica



The Medieval Review, February 25, 2004
Reviewed by Michael Calabrese, California State University

THIS HANDY PAPERBACK volume offers the first English translation of Petrarch’s discourse “On Religious Leisure,” a letter he wrote to his brother Gherardo after visiting him in the Carthusian monastery at Montrieux in 1347. The text expounds upon the very concept of leisure and Petrarch’s own feelings of attachment to the world that made his visit to the angelic monks all the more poignant and made his involvement in the affairs of the world and in his own literary and intellectual pursuits all the more regrettable and shameful. As Ronald G. Witt’s introduction argues, the work is significant particularly in its homage to Petrarch’s personal relationship with his brother, explored also in letters (Fam. 1.4) and in the Bucolics. Petrarch was aware of and concerned with his brother and with the choices they each made, as poets, as men, as sons, and as Christians. Throughout their dual careers, Gherardo’s professional and spiritual choices provoked Petrarch to examine his own, all the time concerned with how best he could pursue the path to salvation.

Witt’s introduction thus provides an overview of the historical circumstances of the work’s composition and the role of Gherardo in Petrarch’s life and thought. He notes that Petrarch’s Lyric #91, “the beautiful woman whom you so much love” was likely written to console Gherardo at the death of his lady and may have inspired Gherardo to change his life and enter the monastery, compelling “Petrarch to examine more intensely his own singular way of life” (xi). Witt compares De otio to De vita solitaria, which, as Witt sees it, finally defends Petrarch’s Humanist pursuits and way of life. The De otio, by contrast, is an “unrelieved tirade against the world” closer to, but not restricted to the de miseria hominis tradition (xvi-xvii). Petrarch’s originality, says Witt, lies in his personal treatment of the topics and his use of dramatic internal dialogues as he depicts a battle between pagan and Christian cultures (xvii). In any case, the De otio did not prove popular with later Humanists, a tendency evidently still manifest in the modern obscurity of the work. The introduction also provides an overview of the concept of otium as Petrarch would have understood it from Classical sources and in relation to 14th-century Italian thought. Witt also discusses the MSS. and the status of existing printed editions. The introduction is clear, informative, and provocative.

The translation is based on the version of the work in De otio religioso di Francesco Petrarca, edited by Giuseppe Rotondi, Studi e Testi 195 (Vatican City: Apostolica Vaticana, 1958). Witt discusses Rotondi’s edition and his collation of two MSS. of the De otio, noting, though, that “we are still lacking a critical edition of the work” (xxii) since the text exists in both a shorter and longer MS. version and Rotondi based his edition on the two extant MSS. of the longer. I had no access to Rotondi, but checked the translation against one of the other printed editions listed in the bibliography, Librorum Francisci Petrarche Impressorum Annotatio, Venice, 1503. Schearer’s translation is natural, clear, idiomatic and literal, capturing the personal passion and directness of the prose, which Witt describes as “less classicizing than in most of [Petrarch’s] other work, apparently designed to be read aloud in a refectory.” He continues that “the sentence structure is essentially paratactic with almost no clausal subordination” (xvi). Shearer’s translation reproduces this pace and rhythm well, as we hear in this passage where Petrarch addresses the monks, whom he now calls his brothers, remarking that as he thought to visit one brother, he found he had ultimately made many:

...the eternal bliss of an immortal wedding is promised to you who serve God. Serve him eagerly. He grazed a large and foreign flock among the thickets of humanity. You graze your sheep; that is, each person grazes his own soul in the happy, abundant pastures of Jesus Christ. Serve Him free from care. You do not have a deceitful master such as Laban, whom Jacob endured, who envies your goods and your profits, but One Who may be delighted by your profits and your progress, One Who aids you in your need and sustains you in your weakness. (5-6)

In the text proper, the first chapter expounds upon the Psalm text, “take time and know God,” as Petrarch, mixing Biblical and Classical learning, explores the tension between the demands of worldly labor and clean, sacred space of contemplation. This theme of taking time and knowing God is emblematic of the entire letter and is certainly consonant with Petrarch’s other meditations on solitude, which he explicitly references as the letter begins. As Witt points out by way of contrast to De vita solitaria, the De otio does not end with any definitive resolution or a defense of any final position on Petrarch’s part. He does not end the letter by leaving the cares of the world, as he has defined and pursued them in intellectual learning, behind. But, Witt theorizes, Petrarch’s thinking here may have inspired the dialogues with St. Augustine in the Secretum, which he composed soon after the De otio.

The notes to each chapter (Shearer’s own editorial device) cite Biblical, patristic, and Classical sources employed by Petrarch. The volume includes a bibliography of editions, translations, related works, and recommended secondary readings, followed by an index of citations, divided into Biblical and Non-Biblical, and then a general index. The entire apparatus is clear, measured, and thorough, allowing for advanced work to be done on Petrarch’s sources and on his modes of composition through allusion and explication of Christian and pagan authority.

The translation begins with a very personal preface, wholly appropriate to this very personal, introspective medieval work, recounting Shearer’s experiences in a NEH seminar on Petrarch in Avignon in 1992. Shearer taught Latin in the Virginia high school system for 30 years and worked on the translation for 8 years, finding in it a refuge and satisfaction in accord with the work’s original intention. Thus, both for author and translator, this is a very personal text, a feature that adds both meaning and old fashioned pleasure to the reader’s experience of the volume. As for the modern reader, to enter into Petrarch’s world, one needs the kind of leisure and carelessness that he himself envies the monks. Petrarch regrets that he himself could only briefly visit their angelic, spiritual community on earth, a world that the poet, so mired in ignorance and worldliness, longs wistfully for. His lament is likely to provoke the same introspection and longing in a modern reader, as it had in Shearer herself, who has made sure, however, that she followed her master’s will and “took time,” to know Petrarch.

Relatively speaking, we can conclude from Petrarch’s thoughts that the fourteenth century was just as chaotic and distracting as the twentieth, and academics have always struggled to find time to read and work and think without petty worldly affairs overwhelming them. We have to be grateful for Shearer’s labor, for we now have in English an important meditation on the tension between the two types of dedication, the two types of knowledge that at times tore Petrarch apart and formed one of the central conflicts in his thought and in the careers of many medieval, Christian humanist authors.

This translation can be integrated into courses in medieval intellectual history and literary theory and could also be taught along other works of Petrarch, Dante, and Boccaccio. It is ideal for classroom use and for non-specialist pleasure reading. It provides an excellent introduction to the inner workings of the mind of a poet and a lover of learning, as he is shaken quite personally by his brother’s wish to take a different and perhaps more secure path to the truth.

The Journal of Medieval Latin 13 (2003): 286-90.
Reviewed by Richard Morton, McMaster University.

AT THE CONCLUSION of The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, Edward Gibbon pokes ironic, Enlightenment fun at Petrarch's conflicted personality — melancholy love-poet and public philosopher, disciple of both Cicero and St. Augustine, extravagant laureate of a decrepit Rome. Gibbon had scant patience with the Rime sparse and with Petrarch's religious treatises, which he characterized as “much idle rhetoric and morality.” Of a proposed new edition of the Latin works, he had “much doubt whether it would redound to the profit of the bookseller or the amusement of the public.”

However, led by the splendid translation of Africa by Thomas Bergin and Alice S. Wilson (1977), modern publishers and readers have been rediscovering and, one hopes, profiting from Petrarch’s Latin writings. 2002 was a banner year. Susan S. Schearer translated the little-known De otio religioso, the University of Notre Dame Press published an elaborate facsimile and translation of Itinerarium ad sepulchrum by Theodore J. Cachey, Jr., and the distinguished poet J.G. Nichols, in a handy little pocket book introduced by Germaine Greer, translated Secretum, Posteritati, and the celebrated letter to Dionisi da Borgo San Sepolcro about the ascent of Mount Ventoux (Hesperus Press, 2002.)

The inner conflict which had seemed so amusing to Gibbon is what most intrigues us today. One of Petrarch's most acute eighteenth-century readers, Susanna Dobson, wrote in 1775:

His tender and ardent passion for Laura... entirely unsettled him for twenty years, and produced a restlessness in his mind (not formed perhaps by nature in the calmest mould) through every succeeding period of life.

And post-modern readers find restlessness more appealing than consistency. Petrarch acknowledges his fidgets at the end of Posteritati (“stare nescius loci”) but even as he admits to a character flaw, his skewed quotation from Vergil’s glamorous description of an eager war horse (“stare loco nescit” [Georgics, 3.84]) suggests the ambiguity and indeterminacy in what at first looks like a rueful confession. Similarly, his cheerful self-congratulatory account of the way various courts competed to award him the laureateship plays against De otio's grave warnings against love of honour and praise:

So leave others to rejoice in their purple robes, marble palaces, fleeting power, empty honours, pleasant amusements, and all the trappings over which the citizens of Babylon gloat. [On Religious Leisure, 84]

De otio praises the spiritual values of the monastic life, written after a brief visit to his brother Gherado in the Carthusian monastery at Montrieux in 1347. The Itinerary is a guidebook for a pilgrimage from Genoa to Jerusalem and Alexandria planned by Petrarch’s friend Giovanni Mandelli in early 1358. Both texts have a characteristic inconsistency which Gibbon would find disabling — they are manuals of advice which the author is not prepared to accept. He will not follow the monastic life and he will not venture on the journey. De otio lectures Gherado and the monks on tranquil virtues which seem foreign to Petrarch’s career. While meditating on a key verse from Psalm 45, “Take time and see...” (“vacate et videte”), his narrative sub-text admits his own unseemly hurry:

Never was a day shorter, a night faster. While I was contemplating your most holy hermitage and shrine... the whole brief time fled by me without my realizing it.

His subsequent act of writing is a tardy recognition of what the visit had meant:

At this point I remember what I overlooked in the rush while I was there. Here now I mean to make good my intention and to express in writing what I was not able to do in person. [4]

Following his learned disquisition on Christian contemplation, Petrarch recognizes his distance from the monastic ideal and asks for the monks' prayers:

Therefore, be quiet, take time, make good use of your leisure, see, rejoice, weep for me, and fare well, ever mindful of me. [148]
“Quiescite ergo, vacate, otium agite, videte, gaudete, pro me flete, et mei memores valete.”

…In both De otio and Itinerary, Petrarch’s script must serve as the substitute for his voice and his presence. And so each poses the elementary question, why should it be read? Why should the monks value a commentary based on a fleeting visit?…

For Petrarch, the writing is what matters. His imagination, indeed his very identity, is text-based, as his strongest Latin prose work, on the ascent of Mount Ventoux, shows clearly and with deliberate irony. The account is not in any real sense about climbing a mountain. His brother Gherado is the better mountaineer, getting to the peak more efficiently and amused at Petrarch’s bumbling. The old shepherd at the foot of the mountain shows good common sense about the difficulty of the enterprise. The servants they kept with them dutifully plod along, saying nothing. In this little drama of various personalities, Petrarch is the impractical scholar. He initiates the climb because Livy had written about a mountain. He limits his pleasure in the view from the top because he reads St. Augustine's comment on the triviality of worldly things. Ignoring his companions, he hastens to write his experience down — it will only be real on paper:

hec tibi, raptim et ex tempore, scripturus: ne, si distulissem, pro varietate locorum mutatis forsan affectibus, scribendi propositum deferveret.

Granted his personal restlessness and his liminal moment in history — younger than Dante and older than Boccaccio — Petrarch’s sensibility is regularly pulled in three directions: to pagan antiquity (as with Livy), to Christian theology (as with St. Augustine), and to his own self-obsessed record, not spoken in his native tongue, but created in the script-centred Latin language.

He was surely well aware of the intellectual, and sometimes comic stress of these incongruities. A major theme in St. Augustine’s Confessions was his gradual, unwilling rejection of the pagan poets. Boethius told of a more violent, sudden revolt — Lady Philosophy appears to him in a vision driving away the muses of poetry and ancient learning. Petrarch's conversion, outlined in Secretum, is an ambiguous parody. When he dreams of Lady Truth, he greets her, inappropriately and presumptuously, with Aeneas’s greeting to Venus — “O quam te memorem, virgo ?” St. Augustine comes to tutor him, but their theological dialogue, which Petrarch interrogates even as he writes it (“Tuque ideo libelle”), is modelled on Cicero, whose De amicitia he quotes:

Ego enim ne, ut ait Tullius, “inquam et inquit sepius interponerentur, atque ut coram res agi velut a presentibus videretur”... sed sola propriorum nominum prescriptione discrevi.

And to make sure we recognize the pagan source of this technique, he notes “ipse prius Platone didicerat.”

De otio is a hard text to find. The only editions since 1610 are those of Giuseppe Rotondi (1958) and A. Bufano (1975), neither of which is easily accessible. Critics have not responded warmly to it. In 1902, Henri Cochin noted severely that “à nos oreilles, [De otio] sonne un peu comme l’oeuvre d’un sermonnaire.” Ronald G. Witt, in his Introduction to the present volume, shrewdly positions it against Petrarch’s other work and Salutati's similar humanist tract, but observes that his “otium” is identified essentially by negatives — avoidance of the temptations as well as the manifold horrors of the everyday world — and that the “welter of heterogeneous examples” makes any definition problematic.

Yet, as Schearer’s elegant and welcome translation shows us, De otio has its subtleties. Restless and insecure as the White Rabbit in his visit to the monastery and in his jumble of erudition, Petrarch nonetheless defines the central issue precisely enough. There are some conventional purple passages on the squalor of city life and some passing comments on the sweet world of the monastery, but the focus — the problematic tension between pagan and Christian text — is based on literary and philosophical evidence. Aristotle’s praise of ethical time-management, “Non vacamus ut vacemus” [Nic. Eth. 1177b], and the psalmist’s prompting, “vos vero vacate ut vacetis in eternum,” identify the thesis, which is not so much to praise the monastic life and condemn worldliness (a didactic end) as to locate an ideal “leisure/otium” between classical and Christian possibilities (a hermeneutic project).

Aristotle’s preparatory labour in the service of future happiness and tranquillity is like Jacob’s fourteen-year servitude to win Rachel. But Christian “otium” is also a service, and a better one — “servire modicum, non ut diu regnes, sed ut semper.” Pagan and Christian “leisures” are not static virtues; they are equally dynamic, sharing a motive — the search for the good. But only Christians uniformly recognize that “the greatest blessing is eternal life.” However, the pagan philosophers, especially Cicero, are essential guides, even as they fail to reach the truth. The monks may practice an appropriate “otium,” but the restless Petrarch’s wide book learning is what validates it. The interconnectedness of pagan and Christian, and their necessary mutuality, is summarized in a noble passage, finely translated by Schearer:

O great philosophers and hard-working men whose natural intelligence overwhelms us, look at how we have overtaken you in grace and free blessings. You have labored, but look at how we now rest. You have planted, but look at how we now harvest. You have sought, but look at how we now find. It is neither your fault nor our merit, but only the favor of God which has done this [130].…

Quaderni d’Italianistica, Vol. 24, No. 2, 2003, 111–12
Reviewed by
Milton Kooistra, Centre for Medieval Studies,
University of Toronto

THIS IS THE FIRST English translation of Petrarch’s De otio religioso, an exordium to the life of religious leisure and contemplation which offers the reader a fresh view into the spiritual world of fourteenth-century humanism. Composed some time during Lent 1347 (11 February to 29 March), Petrarch continued to add to the text as late as 1356 before dispatching the final treatise to his brother, Gherardo, in 1357. In his introduction to the translation, Ronald Witt outlines the changing attitudes towards otium (leisure) from pagan to medieval times in order to contextualize Petrarch’s treatise on religious leisure. As in his De vita solitaria (1346), Petrarch sought to legitimate his manner of life by envisioning the otium practised in Vaucluse as continuous with the otium first identified with the monastic life by Augustine. Witt writes: “[Petrarch] seems to have felt compelled to set pagan otium, which envisioned the life of retirement as a means of reaching moral perfection, within a Christian context where it became the way of salvation” (xiv). In De otio, Petrarch contrasts pagan and Christian cultures, aiming to affirm the absolute condemnation of the pagans, regardless of the virtues they possessed, because of the incapacity of pagan learning “to contribute to moral reformation intrinsic to the salvific process” (xvii).

The treatise begins by praising the life of religious leisure, for only in religious leisure is the soul most receptive to God’s word (3–12). After providing an extensive series of biblical quotations designed to furnish guidance and comfort to Christians (15–19), Petrarch launches into the body of the work. This he formally divides into three parts according to the three major enemies of the soul, demons (24–78), the world (81–91), and the flesh (94–112). Given that these sources of sin are so interconnected, however, there is much overlap between these three parts. The remainder of the work is devoted to a comparison of ancient pagan religion with Christianity (115–148).

Understandably the De otio religioso, with its all-embracing condemnation of the life in the world and a glorification of withdrawal from it, was not popular with later humanists. As well, stylistically, Petrarch’s Latin is less classical than most of his other works. It is no wonder, then, as Witt points out, that the treatise has aroused little interest on the part of scholars. There is still no critical edition of it. The present translation is based on the edition by Giuseppe Rotondi (Vatican City, 1958).

Susan S. Schearer has produced a very good translation of the text into modern English, the result of eight years of work. Petrarch’s treatise, divided into two books, has now been further subdivided into chapters by the translator. Schearer’s translation, On Religious Leisure, along with Witt’s introduction, which provides the historical context to the treatise, will be an excellent resource for scholars and, as her stated aim, will help “amplify our understanding of Petrarch’s humanism.” The translation comes at a welcome time as 2004 marks the 700th anniversary of Petrarch’s birth.

Speculum, Vol. 80, no. 2, April 2005, 654–56
Reviewed by Angelo Mazzocco, Mount Holyoke College

AN IMPORTANT ASPECT of Petrarch’s corpus of writings is the concern for his spirituality. Two of the works that best reflect this preoccupation are the De otio religioso (On Religious Leisure) and the Secretum (The Secret). The De otio was written between February 11 and March 29, 1347, shortly after the poet visited his brother Gherardo in the Carthusian monastery of Montrieux. The visit to Montrieux prompted Petrarch to reflect on the hallowed lifestyle of the Carthusian monks and on the human misery of those who are not so blessed. These reflections are at the basis of the De otio, a two-book work that explores how to fight demonic temptations and how to reject the enticements of the world and the flesh. The argument, which is sustained by numerous quotations from the Scriptures, the church fathers, and classical authors, is conveyed in a paratactic, unmethodical fashion. Though it enjoyed much popularity during Petrarch’s own lifetime, the De otio has been largely overlooked by modern scholarship.…

Susan Schearer’s translation of the De otio religioso, the first English version of the work, is based on the sound edition of Giuseppe Rotondi (1958) and is equipped with a general index, an index of citations of biblical and nonbiblical sources, and numerous explanatory notes, many of which are taken from Rotondi’s edition. Most important, the translation is enriched with an erudite and illuminating introduction by Ronald Witt. Witt explores the rapport between Petrarch and his brother Gherardo and the events that led to Gherardo’s entering the monastery of Montrieux. He examines the relationship between the De vita solitaria (1346) and the De otio and, in so doing, considers the meaning of onion in the context of classical culture, in the writings of the church fathers, in the monastic life of the Middle Ages, and in the works of Petrarch himself. Above all, however, he studies the various facets of the De otio: its style, its ascetic implications, its contrast of pagan and Christian cultures with its condemnation of the former, and its strong personal intent.

Witt concludes, correctly I believe, that the De otio “is among Petrarch’s least humanistic writings” (p. xvi). In translating the De otio, Schearer abandons the two-book structure of the Latin text and chooses instead to divide her translation into chapters (p. viii). However, she gives no rationale for such a division. Her translation captures effectively the meaning and tone of the Latin text. Indeed, in Schearer’s translation, Petrarch’s effusive argumentation and paratactic Latin style evolve into a readable, if solemn, English prose. This translation constitutes an important contribution to Petrarchan scholarship in that it makes available to the English-speaking world for the first time a version of a Petrarchan work that addresses key features (asceticism, monasticism, preference for Christian literature) of the medieval facet of Petrarch’s thought.

Mediaevistik 19 (2006): 462-63.
Reviewed by Albrecht Classen, University of Arizona

THE CURRENT ENGLISH TRANSLATION of Petrarch’s De olio religioso is the result of Susan S. Schearer’s participation as a high-school Latin teacher in a seminar sponsored by the National Endowment for the Humanities (USA) in Avignon, 1992. Whereas she is responsible for the translation of Petrarch’s Latin text into English, her erstwhile seminar leader, Ronald Witt of Duke University, offers an introduction to Petrarch’s life (1304-1374) and puts his De otio religioso (1357) in its literary-historical context. However, neither Schearer nor Witt deserve the credit for having edited Petrarch’s text, as the cover and title page claim, instead they rely on Giuseppe Rotondi’s edition, published in 1958, who in turn had based it on the Vatican ms. (Urbinate lat. 333) and collated it with the MS. in National Library, Paris, Lat. 6502, and the ms. in British Library, Harley 6348. Schearer presents only the English translation, so this is not a bilingual edition with the original text facing the translation.

De otio religioso has been translated into Italian and French before, but the present book seems to be the first English translation. Two major features make this to a successful effort with this fairly neglected text. First, Schearer is very concerned with identifying the relevant sources from which Petrarch had quoted or to which he referred in his treatise. These are then listed in the notes to each chapter, included right after the respective chapter (not, as is often the case, published at the end). She has also put together an index of citations, both biblical and non-biblical, followed by an exhaustive general index. The translation itself stays close to the original and yet reads smoothly. Whereas the early chapters present Petrarch as a deeply religious man steeped in medieval traditions, the latter half of his treatise allows general philosophical observations, which are not narrowly defined by Christian concepts, come to the surface. Overall, however, this text seems much more medieval than most other works by Petrarch the humanist. Obviously, as Schearer’s notes make clear, Petrarch culled much of his insights from the Bible, the Church Fathers, and from Roman philosophers. I am not certain whether this treatise would lend itself very easily for use in an academic classroom, but the translator has made this text available in a solid, highly readable, and trustworthy rendering into modern English. The low price of $15. adds an additional selling point. One can easily agree with Schearer that Petrarch’s voice touches a certain cord in us, particularly in the 21st century, and this affordable paperback translation might achieve the desired goal of appealing to its readers to reconsider some aspects of their lives.

The introduction nicely steers us through the major aspects of Petrarch’s treatise, highlighting the key concerns and comparing his text with related essays. Overall, this is a highly useful translation, meeting almost all pedagogical goals, though the absence of the original Latin is truly deplorable. This, however, translates into a reasonable pricing of this book.

— Albrecht Classen,

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