Francis Petrarch
Familiar Letters

From James Harvey Robinson, ed. and trans.
Petrarch: The First Modern Scholar and Man of Letters
(New York: G.P. Putnam, 1898)

Hanover Historical Texts Project
Scanned by Jason Boley and Jacob Miller in August, 1995.
Proofread by Monica Banas, Stephanie Hammett, and Heather Haralson in April, 1996.
Proofread and pages inserted by Jonathan Perry, March 2001.

On the Italian Language and Literature
To Boccaccio


[Page 197] "I have somewhat to say unto thee," if a poor sinner may use the words of his Saviour, and this something for which you are listening, what should it be but what I am wont to tell you? So prepare your mind for patience and your ears for reproaches. For, although nothing could be more alike than our two minds, I have often noticed with surprise that nothing could be more unlike than our acts and resolutions. I frequently ask myself how this happens, not only in your case but in that of certain others of my friends, in whom I note the same contrast. I find no other explanation than that our common mother, nature, made us the same, but that habit, which is said to be a second nature, has rendered us unlike. Would that we might have lived together, for then we should have been but one mind in two bodies.

You may imagine now that I have something really important to tell you, but you are mistaken; and, as you well know, a thing must be trivial indeed which the author himself declares to be unimportant, for our own utterances are so dear to us that scarcely anyone is a good judge of his own performances, so prone are we to be misled by partiality for ourselves and our works. You, among many thousands, are the only one to be betrayed into a false estimate of your compositions by aversion and contempt, [Page 198] instead of inordinate love,-unless, mayhap, I am myself deceived in this matter, and attribute to humility what is really due to pride. What I mean by all this you shall now hear.

You are familiar, no doubt, with that widely distributed and vulgar set of men who live by words, and those not their own, and who have increased to such an irritating extent among us. They are persons of no great ability, but of retentive memories; of great industry too, but of greater audacity. They haunt the antechambers of kings and potentates, naked if it were not for the poetic vesture that they have filched from others. Any especially good bit which this one or that one has turned off, they seize upon, more particularly if it be in the mother tongue, and recite it with huge gusto. In this way they strive to gain the favour of the nobility, and procure money, clothes, or other gifts. Their stock-in-trade is partly picked up here and there, partly obtained directly from the writers themselves, either by begging, or, where cupidity or poverty exists, for money. This last case is described by the Satirist : " He will die of hunger if he does not succeed in selling to Paris his yet unheard Agave."

You can easily imagine how often these fellows have pestered me, and I doubt not others, with their disgusting fawning. It is true I suffer less than formerly, owing to my altered studies, or to respect for my age, or to repulses already received; for, lest they should get in the habit of annoying me, I have [Page 199] often sharply refused to aid them, and have not allowed myself to be affected by any amount of insistence. Sometimes indeed, especially when I knew the applicant to be humble and needy, a certain benevolent instinct has led me to assist the poor fellow to a living, with such skill as I possessed. My aid might be of permanent use to the recipient, while it cost me only a short hour of work. Some of those whom I had been induced to assist, and who had left me with their wish fulfilled, but otherwise poor and ill-clad, returned shortly after arrayed in silks, with well-filled bellies and purses, to thank me for the assistance which had enabled them to cast off the- burden of poverty. On such occasions I have sometimes been led to vow that I would never refuse this peculiar kind of alms; but there always comes a moment, when, wearied by their importunities, I retract the resolve.

When I asked some of these beggars why they always came to me, and never applied to others, and in particular to you, for assistance, they replied that so far as you were concerned they had often done so, but never with success. While I was wondering that one who was so generous with his property should be so niggardly with his words, they added that you had burnt all the verses which you had ever written in the vulgar tongue. This, instead of satisfying me, only served to increase my astonishment. When I asked the reason of your doing this, they all confessed ignorance and held their tongues, except one. He said that he believed--whether he had actually heard it somewhere or [Page 200] other, I do not know--that you intended to revise all the things which you had written both in your earlier days, and, later, in your prime, in order to give your works, in this revision, the advantage of a mature, I am tempted to say hoary, mind. Such confidence in the prolongation of our most uncertain existence, especially at your age, seemed to both of us exaggerated. Although I have the greatest confidence in your discretion and vigour of mind, my surprise was only increased by what I had heard. What a perverted idea, I said, to burn up what you wished to revise, so as to have nothing left for revision!

My astonishment continued until at last, on coming to this city, I became intimate with our Donato, who is so faithful and devoted a friend of yours. It was from him that I learned recently, in the course of our daily conversation, not only the fact which I had already heard, but also the explanation of it, which had so long puzzled me. He said that in your earlier years you had been especially fond of writing in the vulgar tongue, and had devoted much time and pains to it, until in the course of your researches and reading you had happened upon my youthful compositions in the vernacular. Then your enthusiasm for writing similar things suddenly cooled. Not content simply to refrain from analogous work in the future, you conceived a great dislike to what you had already done and burned everything, not with the idea of correcting but of destroying. In this way you deprived both yourself and posterity of the fruits of your labours [Page 201] in this field of literature, and for no better reason than that you thought what you had written was inferior to my productions. But your dislike was illfounded and the sacrifice inexpedient. As for your motive, that is doubtful. Was it humility, which despised itself, or pride, which would be second to none ? You who can see your own heart must judge. I can only wander among the various possible conjectures, writing to you, as usual, as if I were talking to myself.

I congratulate you, then, on regarding yourself as inferior to those whose superior you really are. I would far rather share that error than his who, being really inferior, believes himself to be on a higher plane. This reminds me of Lucan of Cordova, a man of the ardent spirit and the genius which pave the way alike to great eminence and to an abyss of failure. Finding himself far advanced in his studies while still young, he became, upon turning over in his mind his age and the successful beginnings of his career, so puffed up that he ventured to compare himself with Virgil. In reciting a portion of a work on the Civil War, which was interrupted by his death, he said in his introductory remarks, " Do I in any way fall short of the Culex? " Whether this arrogant speech was noticed by any friend of the poet, or what answer he received, I do not know; for myself, I have often, since I read the passage, inwardly replied indignantly to this braggart: My fine fellow, thy performance may indeed [Page 202] equal the Culex, but what a gulf between it and the Aeneid! " But why, then, do I not praise your humility, who judge me to be your superior, and praise it the more highly in contrast with the boast of this upstart, who would believe himself superior, or at least equal, to Virgil ?

But there is something else here which I would gladly discover, but which is of so obscure a nature that it is not easily cleared up with the pen. I will, however, do the best I can. I fear that your remarkable humility may after all be only pride. This will doubtless seem to many a novel and even surprising name for humility, and if it should prove offensive I will use some other term. I only fear that this signal exhibition of humility is not altogether free from some admixture of haughtiness. I have seen men at a banquet, or some other assembly, rise and voluntarily take the lowest place, because they had not been assigned the head of the table, and this under cover of humility, although pride was the real motive. I have seen another so weak as even to leave the room. Thus anger sometimes, and sometimes pride, leads men to act as though one who did not enjoy the highest seat, which in the nature of things cannot be assigned to more than a single individual, was necessarily unworthy of any place except perhaps the lowest. But there are degrees of glory as well as of merit.

As for you, you show your humility in not assuming the first place. Some, inferior to you both in talents and style, have laid claim to it, and have aroused our indignation, not unmixed with merriment, [Page 203] by their absurd aspirations. Would that the support of the vulgar, which they sometimes enjoy, weighed no more in the market-place than with the dwellers on Parnassus. But not to be able to take the second or third rank, does not that smack of genuine pride? Suppose for the moment that I surpass you, I, who would so gladly be your equal; suppose that you are surpassed by the great master of our mother tongue; beware lest there be more pride in refusing to see yourself distanced by one or the other, especially by your fellow-citizen, or, at most, by a very few, than in soliciting the distinction of the first place for yourself. To long for supremacy may be regarded as the sign of a great mind, but to despise what only approaches supremacy is a certain indication of arrogance.

I have heard that our Old Man of Ravenna, who is by no means a bad judge in such matters, is accustomed, whenever the conversation turns on these matters, to assign you the third place. If this displeases you, and if you think that I prevent your attaining to the first rank--though I am really no obstacle--I willingly renounce all pretensions to precedence, and leave you the second place. If you refuse this I do not think that you ought to be pardoned. If the very first alone are illustrious, it is easy to see how innumerable are the obscure, and how few enjoy the radiance of glory. Consider, moreover, how much safer, and even higher, is the [Page 204] second place. There is someone to receive the first attacks of envy, and, at the risk of his own reputation, to indicate your path; for by watching his course, you will learn when to follow it, and when to avoid it. You have someone to aid you to throw off all slothful habits through your effort to overtake him. You are spurred on to equal him, and not be forever second. Such a one serves as a goad to noble minds and often accomplishes wonders. He who knows how to put up with the second place will ere long deserve the first, while he who scorns the second place has already begun to be unworthy even of that. If you will but consult your memory, you will scarcely find a first-rate commander, philosopher, or poet, who did not reach the top through the aid of just such stimulus.

Furthermore, if the first place is to most persons a source of complacent satisfaction with themselves, and of envy on the part of others, it is certainly also liable to produce inertia. The student as well as the lover is spurred on by jealousy: love without rivalry, and merit without emulation are equally prone to languish. industrious poverty is much to be preferred to idle opulence. It is better to struggle up a steep declivity with watchful care than to lie sunk in shameful ease; better and safer to trust to the aid of active virtue than to rely upon the distinction of an idle reputation.

These are good reasons, it seems to me, for cheerfully accepting the second place. But what if you are assigned to the third or the fourth ? Will this rouse your anger ? or have you forgotten the [Page 205] passage where Seneca defends Fabianus Papirius against Lucilius ? After assigning Cicero a higher rank, he remarked : "It is no slight thing to be second only to the highest." Then, naming Asinius Pollio next to Cicero, he added, " Nor in such a case is the third place to be despised.'' Lastly, placing Livy in the fourth rank, he concluded, " What a vast number of writers does he excel who is vanquished by three only, and these three the most gifted! " Does not this apply very well to you, my dear friend ? Only, whatever place you occupy, or whomsoever you may seem to see ahead of you, it cannot, in my judgment, be I who precede you. So, eschew the flames, and have mercy on your verses.

If, however, you and others are, in spite of what I say, thoroughly convinced that I must, willy-nilly, be your superior in literary rank, do you really feel aggrieved, and regard it as a shameful thing to be ranked next to me ? If this be true, permit me to say that I have long been deceived in you, and that neither your natural modesty nor your love of me is what I had hoped. True friends place those whom they love above themselves. They not only wish to be excelled, but experience an extreme pleasure in being outstripped, just as no fond father would deny that his greatest pleasure consisted in being surpassed by his son. I hoped and hope still that I am inferior to you. I do not claim to be like a dear son to you, or to believe that my reputation is dearer to you than your own. I remember, though, that you, in a moment of friendly anger, once reproached [Page 206] me for this. If you were really sincere, you ought to grant me the right of way with joy. Instead of giving up the race, you should press after me with all your might, and so prevent any other competitor from thrusting himself between us and stealing your place. He who sits in the chariot or runs by his friend's side does not ask who is first, but is only anxious that they two shall be as near as possible. Nothing is sweeter than the longed-for closeness of companionship. Love is everything, precedence next to nothing, among friends. The first are last and the last first, for all are really one in friendship.

So much for the case against you. Let us now turn to the excuses for your conduct. In spite of your own explanation and that which comes to me through such a very good friend of yours, I have tried to discover some higher motive for your action than that which you mention; for the same act may be good or bad according to the motives which dictate it. I will tell you, then, what has occurred to me.

You did not destroy your productions, in a manner so unfair both to you and to them, through false pride, which is quite foreign to your gentle character; nor because you were jealous of someone else, or dissatisfied with your own lot. You were actuated by a noble indignation against the emptiness and vanity of our age, which in its crass ignorance corrupts or, far worse, despises everything good. You wished to withdraw your productions from the judgment of the men of to-day, and, [Page 207] as Virginius once slew his own daughter to save her from shame, so you have committed to the flames your beautiful inventions, the children of your intellect, to prevent their becoming the prey of such a rabble. And now, my dear friend, how near the truth have I guessed ? I have indeed often thought of doing the same for my own compositions in the vulgar tongue, few as they are; and it was my own experience which suggested this explanation of your conduct. I should perhaps have done so, had they not been so widely circulated as to have long ago escaped my control. And yet, on the other hand, I have sometimes harboured quite the opposite design, and thought of devoting my whole attention to the vernacular.

To be sure, the Latin, in both prose and poetry, is undoubtedly the nobler language, but for that very reason it has been so thoroughly developed by earlier writers that neither we nor anyone else may expect to add very much to it. The vernacular, on the other hand, has but recently been discovered, and, though it has been ravaged by many, it still remains uncultivated, in spite of a few earnest labourers, and still shows itself capable of much improvement and enrichment. Stimulated by this thought, and by the enterprise of youth, I began an extensive work in that language. I laid the foundations of the structure, and got together my lime and stones and wood. And then I began to consider a little more carefully the times in which we live, the fact that our age is the mother of pride and indolence, and that the ability of the vainglorious fellows [Page 208] who would be my judges, and their peculiar grace of delivery is such that they can hardly be said to recite the writings of others, but rather to mangle them. Hearing their performances again and again, and turning the matter over in my mind, I concluded at length that I was building upon unstable earth and shifting sand, and should simply waste my labours and see the work of my hands levelled by the common herd. Like one who finds a great serpent across his track, I stopped and changed my route,--for a higher and more direct one, I hope. Although the short things I once wrote in the vulgar tongue are, as I have said, so scattered that they now belong to the public rather than to me, I shall take precautions against having my more important works torn to pieces in the same way.

And yet why should I find fault with the unenlightenment of the common people, when those who call themselves learned afford so much more just and serious a ground for complaint? Besides many other ridiculous peculiarities, these people add to their gross ignorance an exaggerated and most disgusting pride. It is this that leads them to carp at the reputation of those whose most trivial sayings they were once proud to comprehend, in even the most fragmentary fashion. O inglorious age! that scorns antiquity, its mother, to whom it owes every noble art,--that dares to declare itself not only equal but superior to the glorious past. I say nothing of the vulgar, the dregs of mankind, whose sayings and opinions may raise a laugh but hardly merit serious censure. I will say nothing of the military class [Page 209] and the leaders in war, who do not blush to assert that their time has beheld the culmination and perfection of military art, when there is no doubt that this art has degenerated and is utterly going to ruin in their hands. They have neither skill nor intelligence, but rely entirely upon indolence and chance. They go to war decked out as if for a wedding, bent on meat and drink and the gratification of their lust. They think much more of flight than they do of victory. Their skill lies not in striking the adversary, but in holding out the hand of submission; not in terrifying the enemy, but in pleasing the eyes of their mistresses. But even these false notions may be excused in view of the utter ignorance and want of instruction on the part of those who hold them.

I will pass over the kings, who act as if they thought that their office consisted in purple and gold, in sceptre and diadem, and that, excelling their predecessors in these things, they must excel them likewise in prowess and glory. Although they were put upon the throne for the single purpose of ruling (whence their title, rex, is derived), they do not in reality govern the people over whom they are placed, but, as their conduct shows, are themselves governed by their passions. They are rulers of men, but, at the same time, slaves of sloth and luxury. Still ignorance of the past, the ephemeral glory that fortune bestows and the vanity that always attends undue prosperity, may serve to excuse in some [Page 210] measure even these. But what can be said in defence of men of education who ought not to be ignorant of antiquity and yet are plunged in this same darkness and delusion ?

You see that I cannot speak of these matters without the greatest irritation and indignation. There has arisen of late a set of dialecticians, who are not only ignorant but demented. Like a black army of ants from some old rotten oak, they swarm forth from their hiding-places and devastate the fields of sound learning. They condemn Plato and Aristotle, and laugh at Socrates and Pythagoras. And, good God! under what silly and incompetent leaders these opinions are put forth! I should prefer not to give a name to this group of men. They have done nothing to merit one, though their folly has made them famous. I do not wish to place among the greatest of mankind those whom I see consorting with the most abject. These fellows have deserted all trustworthy leaders, and glory in the name of those who, whatever they may learn after death, exhibited in this world no trace of power, or knowledge, or reputation for knowledge. What shall we say of men who scorn Marcus Tullius Cicero, the bright sun of eloquence ? Of those who scoff at Varro and Seneca, and are scandalised at what they choose to call the crude, unfinished style of Livy and Sallust ? And all this in obedience to leaders of whom no one has ever heard, and for whom their followers ought to blush! Once I happened to be present when Virgil's style was the subject of their scornful criticism. Astonished at their crazy outbreak, [Page 211] I turned to a person of some cultivation and asked what he had detected in this famous man to rouse such a storm of reproach. Listen to the reply he gave me, with a contemptuous shrug of the shoulders : " He is too fond of conjunctions." Arise, 0 Virgil, and polish the verses that, with the aid of the Muses, thou didst snatch from heaven, in order that they may be fit to deliver into hands like these!

How shall I deal with that other monstrous kind of pedant, who wears a religious garb, but is most profane in heart arid conduct; who would have us believe that Ambrose, Augustine, and Jerome were ignoramuses, for all their elaborate treatises ? I do not know the origin of these new theologians, who do not spare the great teachers, and will not much longer spare the Apostles and the Gospel itself. They will soon turn their impudent tongues even against Christ, unless he, whose cause is at stake, interferes and curbs the raging beasts. It has already become a well-established habit with these fellows to express their scorn by a mute gesture or by some impious observation, whenever revered and sacred names are mentioned. "Augustine," they will say, " saw much, but understood little." Nor do they speak less insultingly of other great men.

Recently one of these philosophers of the modern stamp happened to be in my library. He did not, like the others, wear a religious habit, but, after all, Christianity is not a matter of clothes. He was one of those who think they live in vain unless they are constantly snarling at Christ or his divine teachings. [Page 212] When I cited some passage or other from the Holy Scriptures, he exploded with wrath, and with his face, naturally ugly, still further disfigured by anger and contempt, lie exclaimed: " You are welcome to your two-penny church fathers; as for me, I know the man for me to follow, for I know him whom I have believed.'' " You,'' I replied, " use the words of the Apostle. I would that you would take them to heart! " " Your Apostle," he answered, " was a sower of words and a lunatic." "You reply like a good philosopher," I said. " The first of your accusations was brought against him by other philosophers, and the second to his face by Festus, Governor of Syria. He did indeed sow the word, and with such success that, cultivated by the beneficent plough of his successors and watered by the holy blood of the martyrs, it has borne such an abundant harvest of faith as we all behold." At this he burst forth into a sickening roar of laughter. " Well, be a ' good Christian '! As for me, I put no faith in all that stuff. Your Paul and your Augustine and all the rest of the crowd you preach about were a set of babblers. If you could but stomach Averroes you would quickly see how much superior he was to these empty-headed fellows of yours. ' I was very angry, I must confess, and could scarcely keep from striking his filthy, blasphemous mouth. " It is the old feud between me and other heretics of your class. You can go," I cried, " you and your heresy, and never return." [Page 213] With this I plucked him by the gown, and, with a want of ceremony less consonant with my habits than his own, hustled him out of the house.

There are thousands of instances of this kind, where nothing will prevail,--not even the majesty of the Christian name nor reverence for Christ himself (whom the angels fall down and worship, though weak and depraved mortals may insult him), nor yet the fear of punishment or the armed inquisitors of heresy. The prison and stake are alike impotent to restrain the impudence of ignorance or the audacity of heresy.

Such are the times, my friend, upon which we have fallen; such is the period in which we live and are growing old. Such are the critics of to-day, as I so often have occasion to lament and complain,--men who are innocent of knowledge or virtue, and yet harbour the most exalted opinion of themselves. Not content with losing the words of the ancients, they must attack their genius and their ashes. They rejoice in their ignorance, as if what they did not know were not worth knowing. They give full rein to their licence and conceit, and freely introduce among us new authors and outlandish teachings.

If you, having no other means of defence, have resorted to the fire to save your works from the criticism of such despotic judges, I cannot disapprove the act and must commend your motives. I have done the same with many of my own productions, and almost repent me that I did not include all, while it was yet in my power; for we have no prospect of fairer judges, while the number and audacity [Page 214] of the existing ones grow from day to day. They are no longer confined to the schools, but fill the largest towns, choking up the streets and public squares. We are come to such a pass that I am sometimes angry at myself for having been so vexed by the recent warlike and destructive years, and having bemoaned the depopulation of the earth. It is perhaps depopulated of true men, but was never more densely crowded with vices and the creatures of vice. In short, had I been among the Aediles, and felt as I do now, I should have acquitted the daughter of Appius Claudius.--But now farewell, as I have nothing more to write to you at present.

VENICE, August 28.

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