Francesco Petrarch
Letters on Familiar Matters
(Rerum familiarium libri)

Translated by
Aldo S. Bernardo

Seventeenth-Century News (Spring/Summer 1985)

Seventeenth-Century News (Fall 1986)

Manuscripta (1987)

Seventeenth-Century News (Spring/Summer 1985): 27-28

This second volume of Aldo Bernardo’s translation Petrarch’s Familiares (the third and final volume has recently appeared and will be reviewed in a subsequent issue of NLN) contains 104 letters dating in the main from 1348 to 1354, with a few of those in Books IX and X having been written outside this six-year time period. When Petrarch began to collect the Familiares, he planned to arrange them in twelve books on the model of Virgil’s Aeneid and Statius’ Thebaid, for he regarded the epistles as, like Cicero’s, composing a work of literary art. Eventually, however, he took the Homeric model “as the ideal length” and gathered then into 24 books.

Among recurring topics of especial interest in this middle third of the Familiares are friendship, discussions of rhetoric and literature, the decline of Rome and Petrarch’s zeal for restoration of its sometime eminence, the desire for the Emperor Charles IV to come to “rescue” Italy, advice offered to political figures, the poet’s desire for glory, and since many of the letters are from the author’s beloved retreat at Vaucluse, praise of, or when away from the place, longing for the vita solitaria. Petrarch’s gift for friendship remarked by Paul Oskar Kristeller in his Eight Philosophers of the Italian Renaissance, shines through the correspondence: to men of virtue, such as the humanistically educated merchant Niccolò da Lucca (IX.11) he was attracted “by sweetness unto friendship,” and whenever he found a good friend, he was eager to share him with others whom he loved (IX.9). Among the letters on literary art, perhaps the most interesting are those apologizing for his “laziness” in completing his epic Africa, and also one of Petrarch’s addresses to his brother Gherardo (X.4), the Carthusian monk, in which he defends poetry, calls theology “almost…the poetry of God,” and sends along with Carmen bucolicum an exposition of the first eclogue therein.

Naturally several of the epistles deal with his yearning for the restoration of Rome, particularly those written after his visit to the city in the Jubilee year of 1350, for he longed to see rising again on its ruins “the city which almighty God” had decreed “to be the see of the true faith, the foundation of the church and the supreme empire of the world” (XI.16). In a long letter to Francesco da Napoli (XIII.4), he lauds those ancient Romans who, through severe toil and hardship, has achieved the glory of which he confessed that he too was “very desirous,” and that he had “so shaped my mind with study that I would be happy to attain it if possible,” and though he preferred his life of solitary leisure for study and writing “at the source of the Sorgue,” he used that leisure more than once to urge readers to seek true paths of glory — the emperor by coming down from the Germanies to neglected Italy, the states of Venice and Genoa by giving up their mercantile wars for the greater glory of peace (XIV.5).

This “century” and more of epistles gives many insights into Petrarch’s remarkable and complex personality (even his great admiration for dogs [XIII.11]), and in Bernardo’s version they make delightful reading. Although he writes modestly in his preface (pp. xiii-xiv) that he has “sacrificed” idiomatic translation “whenever such expression seemed to interfere with Petrarch’s desired meaning,” even in such instances there is nothing infelicitous or labored in the rendering from the definitive Latin edition by V. Rossi and U. Bosco. The only apparatus are brief footnotes identifying correspondents not named in the first volume of Bernardo’s translation (Books I-VIII). Readers, therefore, who seek further notes or identifications, must still turn to the Rossi-Bosco edition, or to earlier Italian and English versions of all or portions of the Familiares (LVR).

Seventeenth-Century News (Fall 1986): 56.

Ten years after publishing his version of the first eight books of the Familiares, Aldo Bernardo has brought to completion his fine translation of these fascinating epistles of Petrarch. Of the 122 letters in these final eight books, most were written between 1353 and 1361, two-thirds of them during the sojourn in Milan that ended in 1360 with Petrarch’s removal to Padua and Venice. The epistles are arranged more or less chronologically, their author explains, so that readers may “follow my progress and the course of my life” (XXIV.13).

With Petrarch’s arrival in Milan came a number of patriotic letters concerned with the plight of contemporary Italy. To Neri Morando of the imperial suite he complains about the indifference of both the pope and Charles IV toward the peninsula’s need for the emperor’s ruling presence (XX. 2). Along with an epistle recommending friends to Charles appear others rebuking him for his neglect of ill-governed Italy (e.g., XIX.2, and especially XXIII.2 and 21). The wars between the Genoese and Venetians provoke efforts by Petrarch to shame the two republics into settling their differences peacefully in order to prevent foreigners from seizing the opportunity caused by such disruptions to prey upon Italy (XVIII.6).

Several epistles, particularly in the latter books, are really moral essays: on the advantages of rural solitude, on the discommodities in one’s later life or fame achieved too early, on sons as seldom living up to the accomplishments of their fathers, on the reaping by others of the benefits of one’s labors, and (in the only letter Petrarch ever addressed to a women, praises of famous virgins and matrons (to Charles IV’s empress, Anna, XXI.8).

Petrarch’s humanistic interests are the subject of several epistles. He writes to Boccaccio about the pleasure he takes in truly imitating ancient authors, but explains why he tries to avoid imitating Dante — because Dante was not distinguished in Latin verse, only in the vernacular, and Petrarch claims that his own Italian rime are mere pastimes for him, not a “principle” literary occupation (XXII.2 and XXI.15). He exults in having received a copy of Plato in Greek (mentioned in his De sua ignorantia) and the “inestimable gift” of a Homer that stimulated his desire to learn Greek. He continues to delight in the correspondence of Cicero and defends his Roman model’s writings as not antithetical to the spirit of Christian writing, though he has recently been “wounded” by Cicero — when the manuscript fell from its shelf upon his leg (XXI.10).

His enthusiasm for antique authors is especially keen in the letters of the twenty-forth and last book. Between about 1340 and 1360 Petrarch composed epistles to Homer, Cicero, Seneca, Varro, Quintilian, Livy, Asinius Pollio, Horace, and Virgil (the last two of these, appropriately, in verse). These he undertook “for the sake of variety and as a diversion from my labors” (XXIV.2). He soothes Homer for any complaints that he might register, were he alive, about his denigrators and his inept imitators; he also expresses the hope that, even though he possesses a Greek copy, he may soon have Homer’s epic in a Latin version (XXIV.12). He informs Varro that he is diligently searching for his lost books (XXIV.6), laments the loss of all but fragments of Quintilian (XXIV.7), and having discovered an additional portion of Ab urbe condita, praises Livy as a historian (XXIV.8). Not everything in these epistles is adulation, however. Petrarch censures Seneca for not living up to his philosophy and for attaching himself to Nero (XXIV.5) and, though he praises Cicero’s eloquence and longs to discover his lost books, deplores aspects of his personal life and upbraids him for his political follies (XXIV.3, 4).

This final third of the Familiares, then, illuminates many of Petrarch’s mature political and humanistic interests, and a number of the letters relate to his other literary works — to the Secretum, the Africa, De sua ignorantia, even the Canzoniere. One, thanking Boccaccio for a copy of St. Augustine’s commentary on the Psalter, underscores Petrarch’s devotion to, and dependence upon, the Bishop of Hippo as a guide for his studies and his way of life. In Bernardo’s translation in this final volume as in the two earlier published, the style and the personality of Petrarch are made effectively to come through. (LVR)

Manuscripta 31.1 (1987): 47-48

The third volume of Aldo S. Bernardo’s translation of Petrarch’s Letters on Familiar Matters (Rerum familiarium libri) completes one of the most important projects in Renaissance studies in recent years. The inception of the project, as Professor Bernardo reports in the introduction to the first volume, goes back to 1968.…

The importance of a good English translation of this collection of letters, in an age when even specialists have difficulty with the original Latin, can hardly be exaggerated. The now completed three-volume collection makes available the most important extensive collection of letters in European culture since ancient times, and enables a reader with no access to the original to hear for himself the voice of a Petrarch quite different from the persona who speaks in the Italian poems, the Rime sparse.

In the introduction to the first volume Professor Bernardo detailed the results of the research by Rossi, Billanovich and himself which demonstrated that a substantial number of letters, including some of the most famous in the early part of the collection, are fictitious, written by Petrarch long after their supposed date of composition to fill out the overall form of the collection and to give a more rounded and nuanced picture of the “Petrarch” that the author wished the world to see. In a certain sense, then, the collection is a work, with fictional overtones, at times even a work of fiction, an imaginative reconstruction rather than an actual reporting. One must be as cautious therefore in evaluating the Rerum familiarium libri as an approach to the historical Petrarch as one must be in using the sentiments expressed so effectively in the Rime sparse.

The letters in this last of three volumes, many of them written during his residence in Milan in the 1350s, show us a Petrarch perhaps wearier and more discouraged, yet philosophical about the effects of advancing age: an aging that does not diminish the vigor of his expression. We read of the difficulties he has with his shiftless son, never directly named but addressed simply as an unknown correspondent. More of this problematic relationship can be gathered from remarks made in passing letters on other subjects. He speaks, for instance, of “letters, where it is rare for the son of a great man to equal his father…” (p. 286). Another fascinating letter is the one to Boccaccio (XXI.15) in which he explains his complicated attitude toward a figure clearly a problem for Petrarch whom he also prefers not to name, Dante. Related to this letter and enormously important for Petrarch’s attitude towards his own art are letters touching on the theme of imitation (XXII.2 and XXIII.9), both also addressed to Boccaccio. His long stay in Milan leads him to evoke at a number of points that earlier resident of the city so central to Petrarch’s development of his own moral sense, St. Augustine.

Certain perennial Petrarchan themes are in the foreground here as well: his ambivalent attitude towards his own fame, his incessant preoccupation with the rapid movement of time and the associated themes of mortality and mutability, the enormous and very conscious importance he gave to friendship. The incessant wearisomeness of copying in this age before print finds eloquent expression here, as do complaints about the shortcomings of copyists. And the political sphere, so important to Petrarch’s sense of the world he is in, is evoked by numerous letters to rulers and high officials, especially to Emperor Charles IV and his court, these being especially noteworthy as examples of tactfully worded harangues. These letters create a world for us and, as commentators have often noted, give us a sharp sense of what it was like to live in an age when moral concerns and rhetoric had a relationship to each other so different from that found in our own world.

Those familiar with the first two volumes of the work will not be surprised to hear that Professor Bernardo’s high standard of accuracy and readability is maintained in this final volume. Comparison of a number of Latin texts of letters with the translation yields only one place I would translate differently, “Que hanc non modo Italie sed totius orbis pulcherimum atque optimam partem tenent,” seems to me to mean, “who inhabit this most beautiful and striking part not only of Italy but of all the world,” rather than, “who inhabit not only this region of Italy — the most beautiful and striking of all — but the entire world” (XIX.18, p. 117). On the other hand there are numerous passages where the choice of words seems unerringly accurate and where the translation reproduces effects in English that one would have thought very difficult except in Latin.

I might conclude that this volume, like its companions, cries out for more copious annotation. These translations open up for an English-speaking reader a whole new world, but one that is unfamiliar to all but specialists. The correspondents are identified, but one regrets in particular the absence of any indication of the year in which the letter was composed. It would also be very helpful if quotations were identified. The prefaces refer the reader to more compendious Italian editions for further annotation, but for many readers these Italian volumes are as likely to be hard to use as the Italian texts.…

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