Friday, April 17, 2015


Petrarch, or Francesco Petrarca (1304-74), is famous in at least 2 different worlds. He's definitely most widely famous as a poet. He's the 2nd world-famous Italian poet, chronologically and perhaps 2nd in prestige as well, after Dante.

But he's also quoted and praised effusively in a less densely populated world in which his poems are seldom mentioned. That smaller world is the world of Classical studies, of the preservation and restoration of pre-Christian Greek and Latin literature, especially of Latin authors, and what's being quoted are Petrarch's notes, and his discoveries of manuscripts are exclaimed over. Reading the prefaces and inspecting the critical apparatus of many an ancient author, over and over Petrarch seems to have done more to have preserved and restored the ancient text than any other single person.

Some of the best manuscripts of Livy which we possess today were copied out by Petrarch himself; others have copious notes by Petrarch between the lines or in the margins, comparing their readings to those of other manuscripts, suggesting alternatives when no manuscript seems to have the correct text. The latter is known today as emendation, and it didn't have a name when Petrarch was doing it. The thought of writing something today on a manuscript of a classical text would horrify scholars; nevertheless, Petrarch's single-handed improvements on the ways of re-creating, as far as possible, an ancient text as it originally was, were huge. Although Petrarch wrote between the lines and in the margins of manuscripts which were already old in his time, and we don't do that today, Petrarch didn't destroy any of the manuscripts, or impede anyone's ability to read what was on them, whether he thought that what was on them was a good version of the text, or not. And in his time it was still not uncommon for old manuscripts to be thrown away or used as fuel in ovens. Petrarch, by contrast, scoured the many libraries to which he was allowed access, mostly in monasteries and cathedrals, and built up his own highly-organized library of the Latin Classics. Sometimes he did this by rescuing manuscripts from librarians who had no idea of their worth; other times, when the librarians themselves were competent Classical scholars and cared well for their manuscripts, Petrarch would make his own copies. The Classical library which Petrarch put together was unique in his time apart from the better libraries in monasteries, cathedrals, and those owned by the more literate among princes and bishops. He left instructions for his library to be kept together and well-cared for after his death; nevertheless, it was not. Still, his example, combined with the respect and influence he had gained as an extremely popular poet, was not lost at all, and his methods and innovations were carried forward and improved upon by later Classical scholars.

Some of whom haven't cared much one way or another about his poems.

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