The Lives of the Popes and Emperors

Aldo S. Bernardo
and Reta A. Bernardo

Introduction by
Tania Zampini


Catholic Historical Review

Catholic Historical Review 102.1 (Spring 2016): 406–7

The anonymous Chronica de le vita de pontefici et imperadori romani is a narrative history of the pontiffs and emperors from the first century to 1526. The work was published in four editions — 1478, 1506, 1526, and 1536 — in the original Tuscan. The present translation is based on the fourth edition. The translation of the text by Aldo S. Bernardo and Reta A. Bernardo is excellent. In checking the Italian against forty pages of the English, this reviewer found only four errors or infelicities (p. 202, line 18: praestantia — “persistence” here should read “excellence”; p. 199, line 3: ovviare — “help” here should read “oppose”; p. 218, lines 4–5: constituzioni — “decisions” should read “decretals”; and universali studii —“appropriate offices” should read “studia generalia” [a note on these studia would be needed here]; and p. 222, line 19: ciascuno: “dukes” should read “each one”).

Although Tania Zampini makes it clear that the attribution of the whole narrative to Petrarch up to 1526 is impossible, her introduction fails to discuss the layers of texts that bring the narrative up to 1526. She footnotes the key passage that signals the end of what appears to have been the original text — that is, the passage, “Here end The Lives of Roman Pontiffs and Emperors composed by Messer Francesco Petrarch” (p. 222) — and concludes that the text ended in 1374. The final sentence before this passage, however, refers to Pope Gregory XI’s return to Rome early in 1377. Moreover, it would have been important to state clearly that the author of the passage was expressly adding his text to an already existing one. It was either this author or a later one who inserted a passage in the section on the pontificate of Alexander III (1159–81), observing that the text must be corrupted because Petrarch would not have omitted mention of the Venetian victory over the emperor in 1176. According to Zampini, the 1536 edition mirrors that of 1526, but what did the 1526 edition add to that of 1505, and what was the difference between the latter and the 1478 edition?

Zampini has indicated in her discussion and notes to the text a number of possible sources for the work, but it is almost certain that the structure interweaving papal and imperial biographies and much of the information used up to 1277 comes directly or indirectly from the widely circulated Chronicon pontificum et imperatorum of Martin of Poland, which covered the line of popes and emperors from the beginning to the ascension of Nicolas III. Martin’s Chronicon was innovative in that it presented tabular biographies of the popes by fifty-year periods on the verso of the manuscript page and on the recto those of the emperors corresponding to that period. Likely due to the complicated spatial arrangements of the original text, the papal and imperial biographies over time followed one another roughly in chronological order as they do in the Chronica.

In the case of the popes to 872/891, word-for-word passages might have been taken from the Liber pontificalis, another source on which Martin drew heavily, but borrowings of the Chronica for the subsequent centuries suggest dependence on Martin’s work up to 1277. However, especially for the thirteenth century, the author of the Chronica used other sources for the popes as well. The Italian text’s interest in miracles and prodigies stands in marked contrast to the Chronicon. This reviewer’s impression is that Martin was also much less influential in the case of the imperial biographies, particularly for the thirteenth century. Beginning in the second half of the thirteenth century, Zampini has rightly noted the influence of Italian sources, especially Giovanni Villani.

The belief of a later author that the text was corrupted because of the omission of a reference that Petrarch would have had to make suggests that he at least believed that the text up to 1377 was the work of the humanist. Whether or not the printers of the text believed in Petrarch’s authorship, they took advantage of the revival of interest in Petrarch’s writing — especially his Italian poetry — to make a profit. The importance of the Chronica is that it reflects the publishers’ understanding of the historical interests of a large group of readers with middling education.

Ronald G. Witt
Duke University (Emeritus)


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