Francesco Petrarch
Letters of Old Age
(Rerum senilium libri)

Translated by
Aldo S. Bernardo,
Saul Levin &
Reta A. Bernardo

Annali d’italianistica

Bibliotheque d’Humanisme et Renaissance. Chronique

Classical Bulletin

Classical World

Neo-Latin News


Annali d’italianistica 11 (1993): 298-300
Reviewed by Stephen Murphy, Wake State University

Italianists and all students of the Renaissance owe a great debt of gratitude to Aldo Bernardo and his collaborators. Until now, the Seniles have not been given the attention bestowed on the Familiares, that other monument of Petrarch’s epistolatory activity. While the Familiares are readily available in Vittorio Rossi’s magnificent edition, there is no critical text for the entirety of the latter collection. The 1501 edition of Petrarch’s Opera offers the best text of the Seniles, but is hardly on everyone’s bookshelf; on the other hand the 16th-century edition available in a modem reprint (the 1554 edition reprinted by Gregg Press in 1965) does not offer the full text of the Seniles. The lack of a critical edition is a great shame, but as we hope for that hole to be filled we have here the next best thing: a translation from the most dependable text which is both accurate and readable.

The Seniles are not simply those letters which belong chronologically to the late part of Petrarch’s life. Although the date 1361 can be taken to mark the beginning of the new collection, the author included in the Familiares letters written after that date, and in the Seniles, other letters written before that date. What this fact suggests is Petrarch’s concern with the overall design; his sense of structural architecture is as evident in the epistolary collection as in the Canzoniere. Among the more obvious examples: the manner of ending each collection. Most letters of Book 24 of the Familiares are addressed to ancient literary figures, while Book l of the Seniles was to comprise the Letter to Posterity, which is as close as Petrarch came to an autobiographical narrative. The symmetry of the two conclusions — address to the past, address to the future — encapsulates the time travel which was Petrarch’s literary passion. It also implies the concomitant of that love for past and future, namely, a distaste and even loathing for the present. The Seniles gain their special pathos from the oscillation between such moments of praise and blame.

We can learn much from these letters about the details of Petrarch’s life. However, he was never concerned to simply reveal himself to his correspondents The model of Seneca’s treatise-like epistles was always at least as important as that of Cicero’s familiar letters. And indeed, Petrarch’s tendency to let a letter swell into a treatise informs the structure of the Seniles. There are a number of letters on single topics which occupy an entire book, alternating with books composed of numerous shorter letters. For example, Book 7 comprises Petrarch’s exhortation to Pope Urban V to return the Holy See to Rome; Book 9 consists of complementary letters to the Pope and his secretary Francesco Bruni, congratulating them on the accomplishment of that move; the two letters of Book 12 to Giovanni Dondi (really a single epistle split in two) carry on a polemic against physicians; in Book 14 Petrarch instructs Francesco da Carrara on the qualities of a good prince. From this point of view too, the Letter to Posterity acquires a special importance as one last epistolatory treatise to culminate the pattern: a treatise on the self.

The topics treated in such texts are representative of the more important concerns of Petrarch’s later years. His quarrel with physicians, for example, amounts to an obsession. It was the basis of his most extensive invective, the Invective contra medicum, which dates back to the early 1350s, and runs throughout the Seniles, in Book 12 and elsewhere (3.5, 3.8, 5.3-4, 13.9. 15.14, 16.3, etc.).

At the opposite pole in what might be unkindly called his garrulousness, Petrarch increasingly expresses a resolve to be brief in his correspondence (404, 406-7, 424, 451, 671, etc.). This resolve to turn his mind toward eternal life creates an ongoing counterpoint with the earthly literary urge — an urge which is not only an opinionated old man’s inability to be silent, but lies more fundamentally in the sheer pleasure of reading and writing (653). At the same time, we obtain glimpses of the practical obstacles to correspondence, such as the interference of border guards (643, 670-71). So that, as we become aware of just how much Petrarch loves what he feels he must renounce, the final letter to a named correspondent (17.4 to Boccaccio) becomes truly moving in its valediction “Farewell, dear friends, Farewell, dear letters” (671).

Not the least of this translation’s merits is its index of names, including textual references. We can learn from it, for example, that in the Seniles Petrarch quotes Suetonius more often than Livy (although the “Crispus” on 656 is Sallust), and mentions Julius Caesar more often than Scipio Africanus. The index thus provides an illustration of the observed ideological shift in Petrarch’s attitude toward Roman history, from republican to imperial, such as we see in the passage from the Africa and Vita Scipionis to the De gestis Caesaris.

One might occasionally quibble with the translators’ choice of words which seems to get the tone wrong (‘hillbilly’ for montanus agricola [625]), or to weaken Petrarch’s thought (‘foreign lands’ for terras barbarorum and Barbariem [345, 347]; stiffness for taediis [679]). The translation of the verses included in Sen. 15.15 is a little old-fashioned. There are a few errors, some of which may be due to misprints (“deservedly” should be “undeservedly” [268]; “I fear you” should be “I fear to offend you” [453]; “either” should be “neither” [515]. “not that access to a fancy dinner requires such worry!” should probably be “I did not have the means which might have made fancy dinners a concern for me” [672]). According to the critical text of the Letter to Posterity (by P. G. Ricci), what is printed here as the first sentence of the second paragraph on p. 672 belongs at the beginning of the first full paragraph on p. 674. Although the rare emendations are usually prudent, I do not see the need to emend illam (representing virtutem) to illum on p. 480 (and the emendation is not even reflected in the translation). Finally, more annotation would help the reader curious about such things as a rare allusion to the daughter of Appius Caccus (166), or the subject of Sen. 13.2, probably Giacomo de Rossi.

But one could always desire more, and the achievement is already impressive enough. This translation is the culmination of Aldo Bernardo’s service to Petrarchan studies. With his books on the Triumphs and the Africa and his translation of the Familiares and now the Seniles, his has been probably the most powerful voice in this country insisting on the centrality of the humanist, mostly Latin Petrarch. If such an emphasis seems more and more natural today, it is in large part thanks to Professor Bernardo’s efforts.


Bibliotheque d’Humanisme et Renaissance. Chronique. 55.2 (1993): 371-72

Looking back to before the period of our principal emphasis (but to a writer of exceeding importance to Renaissance England), we note the two volumes of Francis Petrarch, Rerum Senilium Libri I-XVIII … ably translated by Aldo S. Bernardo and others. Bernardo is emeritus and Saul Levin is still teaching at SUNY Binghamton, while Reta A. Bernardo holds a doctorate in French and Italian studies and assisted with this work.

Volume I contains Petrarch’s Books I-IX and Volume II Petrarch’s Books X-XVIII. The style abounds in phrases such as “a sweet bitterness,” and “a bitter sweetness” and similar flourishes; but Petrarch’s real personality emerges for all the floridness. Actually, floridness is a significant part of him. Frankly, he is to be held responsible for some of the insincere and arabesque gestures in the subsequent Renaissance literature of both Italy and England (among other places where his poetry was revered and imitated).

Petrarch says somewhere he was not “one of the Parthian kings whom no one was allowed to greet without a gift,” but this translation is a great gift to him and his reputation. The letters contain much that is of value. They are now available to English readers. His elegant Latin (so different from the standard crabbed and sometimes incorrect Latin of his contemporaries) comes over into English pretty well despite the fact that tricks obtainable with case endings and such in the original cannot be duplicated in our tongue. Petrarch’s extensive reading in the classics, however, can easily be seen in the many times he quotes from their wisdom. The man he calls Comicus (Terence) is only one of the classical authors he favored whom the Renaissance was to pay the compliment of frequent imitation. In his style and in his favorite authors Petrarch, though writing before time, sounds very like the Renaissance indeed and is significantly responsible for many of its literary qualities and quirks.

Classical Bulletin 69 (1993): 110-11
Reviewed by Donald Gilman, Ball State University

In providing an accurate, readable translation of Petrarch’s Rerum Senilium Libri, Aldo S. Bernardo, Saul Levin, and Reta A. Bernardo offer an indispensable and reliable resource for studies on Petrarch, Petrarchism, and Renaissance humanism. This two-volume work complements A. Bernardo’s three-volume translation of the Rerum Familiariun Libri I-XXIV (Albany. N.Y., 1975; Baltimore, 1982, 1985) and, along with N.P. Zacour’s rendering of the Epistolae sine nomine (Toronto, 1973), affords access, in English, to almost all of Petrarch’s letters. The Epistolae variae must still be read in sixteenth-century Latin editions (Venice, 1501, 1516; Basel, 1554, 1581) or in C. Fracassetti’s Italian translation, Lettere di F. Petrarca delle cose familiari, vol. 5 (Florence: Le Monnier, 1865). This translation of the Seniles, then, is significant; for, aside from Fracassetti’s Lettere Senili (Florence: Le Monnier, 1869-70), no other vernacular version of the entire text is available. And, unlike the renderings of selected letters in English (Robinson and Rolfe, Bishop), Italian (Rossetti, Neri, Martellotti, et al.), French (Delevay), and German (Piur), it makes available, in modern edition, the complete translation of a work which, thematically and aesthetically, merits individual attention, and which advances appreciation of Petrarchan thought and early humanism.

The topics and themes treated in the 128 letters of the Seniles (1361-74) continue subjects explored earlier in the 350 letters of the Familiares (1325-66): the vicissitudes and vanities of life, poetic creativity, decay and death, regret, solitude, the necessary practice of virtue to attain wisdom and tranquillity. Shifts in perception and tone, however, distinguish the two collections. Whereas anxieties created by tensions between worldly attractions and spiritual ideals characterize many of the reflections in the Familares, a belief in redemption and a calm attained in meditation complete in the Seniles a journey that recalls Dante’s pilgrimage from secular concerns to sacred certainties. In Seniles X.1, for example, Petrarch praises Sagremur de Pommiers for resisting transitory temptations and for trusting in Christian absolutes; and his description of this spiritual struggle parallels his own doubts and pains recounted in his allegorical ascent of Mt. Ventoux (Fam. X.3). But instead of personal recriminations and tears of eternal damnation, Petrarch rejects, in Seniles X.1, earthly values and describes the peace of a friendship with the Virgin Mary and St. Bernard who, like their portrayals in Dante’s Paradiso, assure contentment and salvation. Although such subjects as impetuous youths (1 V.4, V.5. 6; IX .8,9), condolences (VIII.5; XI.10, 14; XIII, 2), and the irritations and inconveniences of illness (111.5, XI-1, 2. 17; XV.8, 14) serve as reasons for correspondence, these letters must not be viewed solely as communication. Rather, in probing the dimensions of human emotions and experiences, they reflect the development of a genre that evolves from Cicero’s and Seneca’s epistles, and that, thematically, looks forward to Montaigne’s Essais.

This translation of the Seniles rectifies deficiencies in Fracassetti’s version. Through his use of three different editions (Venice, 1516; Basel, 1554 and 1581), Fracassetti follows randomly and arbitrarily different formats of paragraphing and punctuation that disturb a smoothness of style. By selecting as their base text the Opera Omnia (Venice, 1501), A. Bernardo, Levin, and R. Bernardo adhere to a consistency that captures, in part, the elegance of expression conveyed in the original. The absence of a definitive edition complicated the task. Although Fracassetti clarifies confusions and corruptions, the present translators consulted manuscripts and, in noting emendations, invite the preparation of a definitive edition. Finally, Fracassetti details the circumstances of each letter, but he expects the reader to recognize Petrarch’s copious literary, theological, and historical allusions. This translation, unlike A. Bernardo’s version of the Familiares, identifies the sources of quotations, the presence of puns (e.g., annosa and Virgil’s Anna, p. 144), and the connotations inherent in linguistic similarities (e.g., rex and rego, p. 163); and it indicates inaccuracies in Petrarch’s use of names (e.g., Noah and Lot, p. 448), narratives (e.g., the myths of Diana and Leda, p. 223). and facts (e.g., Cicero’s divorce and second marriage, p. 566).

In spite of the very considerable value of this translation, its usefulness would have been appreciably enhanced with an interfacing Latin text (even facsimile, if necessary), more complete commentary notes that detail contrasts and comparisons with other Petrarchan and related works, and a bibliography. A. Bufano’s two-volume Italian translation of Petrarch’s Opere latine (Turin, 1975), which does not include the letters, contains such apparatuses, as do similar projects published by Budé and Droz. Typographical errors detract from a handsome printing. Nevertheless, these desires and cavils do not diminish the significance of this accomplishment and the seminal role that this translation will play in stimulating and facilitating studies in Petrarch and Renaissance cultural history.


Classical World 87.4 (1994): 322-23
Reviewed by Robert D. Sider, Dickinson College

The letters of Petrarch stand as an imposing monument to humanism in the fourteenth century. This, the first translation into English of the complete Epistolae seniles, gives us a fresh measure or the impressive vitality of Petrarch’s humanism in his later years. If these letters nowhere provide a vision quite so stunning as that offered by the description of the ascent of Mont Ventoux (Fam. IV.1), they reveal nevertheless, like the earlier Epistolae familiares, Petrarch’s ability to evoke through narrative powerful images of the world of his own inner life. Though old age has brought to the later letters a more profound interest in the significance of life seen in the light of approaching death, Petrarch continues to reflect on subjects of keen interest to him it his earlier years — on the nature of literary art, for example, and on the central political and ecclesiastical issues of his day. These letters also reflect Petrarch as a Christian humanist: he uses his literary skill both to call for reform in ecclesiastical life and to argue the importance of the Classics in the life of a Christian.

These two volumes continue the work of Aldo S. Bernardo, who published three volumes of the Letters on Familiar Matters between 1975 and 1985.… The editorial principles established there have been modified only slightly for the publication of the Letters of Old Age. Like the earlier volumes, these, too, are primarily a translation, and many readers will regret the very short supply of notes. Apart from the identification of the addressee of each letter, little is done no clarify the many allusions to contemporary persons, places and events mentioned or implied in the letters. Allusions to classical and biblical literature are sometimes identified, sometimes not. I have not had access to the editio princeps of 1501 used for the translation but the distinction of the translators inspires confidence in the accuracy of the translation. I should like to say that the translation is felicitous. Unfortunately, in spite of the attempt made to break up the long Latin sentences, the English remains Latinate, and at times difficult.


Neo-Latin News, Spring/Summer 1993

In these two volumes Aldo Bernardo and his collaborators extend the translation project begun with the Familiares to the letter collection of Petrarch’s old age, the Seniles. In these 128 letters, most of which appear for the first time here in English translation, we find Petrarch’s mature judgment on the central issues of early Italian humanism. With Boccaccio, to whom he addresses more letters than anyone else, Petrarch shares his ideas about the literary culture of the age. Two entire books on the structure and role of the Church are addressed to Pope Urban V and his secretary, Francesco Bruni, and another large block of letters on statecraft and political virtue are addressed to such powerful rulers as Pandolfo Malatesta, Francesco da Carrara, and [Emperor] Charles IV. More personal themes emerge as well, including Petrarch’s thoughts on the passage of time, the meaning of death, and the loss of friends; on faith, providence, and life after death; and on eating, drinking, and fashions in clothing. Petrarch’s Latin translation of the patient Griselda story from Boccaccio’s Decameron is also found here, and the collection closes with the famous Letter to Posterity, Petrarch’s final literary self-portrait.

In the absence of a definitive critical edition, the translators have wisely followed the collective edition of 1501, with questionable readings checked against four fifteenth-century manuscripts (Venice, BNM 17.11; Florence BML 78.3; Vatican City, BAV, Urb. lat. 331, and Naples, BN 8.G.7) and emended where necessary. The annotations are limited to the most indispensable details, such as identifying addressees, principal personages, and most of the passages cited in the text. To make the text readable, the translators have often broken up long Ciceronian sentences, but the translation perserves a remarkable sense of the classical precision and power of Petrarch’s Latin prose. All in all this is a distinguished achievement which should do a great deal to bring this letter collection the increased scholarly attention it deserves.




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