Petrarch Again

While pursuing my own love of books at the city library, I came across the following in Morris Bishop’s biography of Petrarch, the Italian Christian humanist of the fourteenth century:

He was forever seeking manuscripts. He wrote a friend: “No matter how often I’ve been unsuccessful, I can’t give up book-hunting, so pleasant is it to hope for what one wants. I shall never renounce it from base indolence.”… He resented the ownership of books by ignorant collectors, who keep them prisoner and rob scholars of their use…. His library he called his daughter. A true bibliophile, he loved he physical beauty of books….

It’s not quite true that you “can’t judge a book by its cover.” Often a shabby exterior reflects shabby content. Certainly it makes sense to get the best editions one can; not necessarily the most expensive, but ones with good binding, paper and typesetting. (A poorly made book is hard to read. In that case, what’s the point?) But, as Bishop says of Petrarch

it was the content, not the clothing, of books that brought him his chief joy. The number of one’s books is unimportant, he said. The thing is to lodge their contents not in a bookcase, but in one’s head; otherwise one will always be inferior to a bookcase.

Petrarch is interesting to us because he was more than an antiquarian. He did not just read books, he wrote them. Unfortunately, his prose works—aside from the much reprinted “An Ascent of Mount Ventoux“—are hard to come by. His important philosophical essay “On His Own Ignorance and That of Many Others,” and a handful of others, can be found in The Renaissance Philosophy of Man. I am still trying to track down his De Vita Solitaria (“The Life of Solitude”) which is quite scarce.

A fascination with the power of nature was a relatively new thing to European literature. Petrarch was, in fact, one of the first to indulge this taste in his essay on Mount Ventoux: “Today I ascended the highest mountain in this region, which, not without cause, they call the Windy Peak. Nothing but the desire to see its conspicuous height was the reason for this undertaking.” Yet, as with Belloc’s travelogues, we discover an entirely Dante-esque allegory running throughout. The climb to the summit represents the virtuous man’s ascent to “the blessed life.” And as splendid and awe-inspiring as the scenery is, Petrarch remains a philosopher to the last, saying that Ventoux seems to him “hardly higher than a cubit compared to the height of human contemplation.” He concludes that if one is willing undergo “so much sweat and hard labor to lift the body a little nearer to heaven” then there is no excuse for not lifting the mind closer to God.

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