The great intellectual movement of Renaissance Italy was humanism, which has been defined too simplistically as the seeking the wisdom of the ancient scholars of the Greek and Roman world. While there is the beginning of truth in this description, the particular way that the authors of humanism and the Renaissance attempted to achieve this possessed some distinctive approaches.
Some members of the Order of Saint Augustine in Italy supported and guided its growth. The humanists believed that the Greek and Latin classics contained both all the lessons one needed to lead a moral and effective life and the best models for a powerful Latin style. In the early 14th century there was in the Augustinian convento in Florence a group of influential Augustinians who developed strong Classical interests and searched for old manuscripts. The group included Dionigi (Denis) de Borgo S. Sepolchro O.S.A. (died 1342), Bartolomeo de Urbino O.S.A. (died 1352), Jean Coci O.S.A. (died 1364) and Luigi Marsigli O.S.A. (died 1394). They were among the first to participate in a new movement that later became known as the Renaissance.
If the Augustinian Order was not the cradle of Italian humanism, then certainly it provided some of its very first allies, men such as those named above who eagerly explored new scholarly vistas for the study of Saint Augustine. The one most attributed for introducing humanism to the Middle Ages was Petrarch. He was born Francesco Petrarca (1304-1374). He is called the father of humanism, and therefore probably merits to be called the father of the Renaissance as well. He was an Italian who accepted minor orders in the Church, but never became a priest (taking only this first step was common in persons then moving in ecclesiastical circles).
He had connections with the Order of Saint Augustine all his life. The rising wave of humanism found a first love in the thought and writings of Saint Augustine of Hippo. It was a member of the Order of Saint Augustine, Denis de Borgo San Sepolcro O.S.A., who met Petrarch at Avignon in 1333 and directed him to the works of Augustine. Augustine then cast a spell on Petrarch, such that the way of thinking of Petrarch was "Augustinian," although it was based on Petrarch's view of a very humanistic Augustine, i.e., the "Augustine the humanist" that Petrarch wanted to see. Denis de Borgo San Sepolcro became the spiritual director of Petrarch, and other Augustinians became his friends.
Petrarch was born in 1304 at Arezzo, northern Italy. He spent his early childhood in the village near Florence, and the rest of his early life at Avignon in France, where Popes dwelt in 1309-1378. He studied at Montpelier (1316-1320) and Bologna (1320-1326), where he was primarily interested in writing and Latin literature. In 1326, Petrarch returned to Avignon, where he worked in numerous clerical offices. This work gave him much time to devote to his writing.There be began - but never finished - his first large scale work, Africa, an epic in Latin about the great Roman general Scipio Africanus. Disturbed by the transfer of the papal residence from Rome to Avignon, Petrarch came to view the Pope in Avignon as the Antichrist, and the Avignon Papacy as being the Babolyonian Captivity of the Church. Petrarch saw avarice as the culprit, the tool of Satan that had infected the Church.
Petrarch soon became famous among the educated people of Europe. In 1341 he was appointed poet laureate by the King of Naples, and was the first person since Roman antiquity to be given that title. Petrarch had the most brilliant intellect of his day, and as a scholar possessed encyclopedic knowledge. There is much evidence of a close relationship between Petrarch and a group of distinguished Italian Augustinians who lived near the Pope in Avignon, France.
His Augustinian connections
As already stated, the most intimate friend of Petrarch in this group was Denis de Borgo San Sepolcro O.S.A., whom Petrarch first met in Avignon in 1333. Denis himself was the author of commentaries upon some of the Classical works of Cicero, Aristotle, Virgil, Ovid and Seneca. Denis who gave Petrarch his copy of the Confessions of Augustine.
Why was Petrarch, an inaugurator of humanism in Italy and later called "the Prince of Humanism," bound by such strong ties of friendship to a group of Augustinian friars? There is no doubt that the thought of St Augustine, by means of some of his spiritual sons of fourteenth-century Italy, decisively influenced Petrarch's intellectual and spiritual development. "Perhaps the time will come," the poet wrote to Denis of Borgo San Sepolcro O.S.A., “when I shall review all the events of my life as they happened, using the words of your Augustine: 'I will now call to mind past wickedness and the carnal corruptions of my soul, nor because I love them, but that I may love Thee, my God.'
A deeply religious man and, in spite of the moral shortcomings of his life, a devout Catholic, the great poet found himself on common ground with Augustine. Like him, Petrarch was convinced that there is no schism between nobility of form and depth of thought, as revealed in so many masterpieces of classical antiquity, and in the message of Christ and His Church. In a letter to Giacomo Colonna he appealed to St Augustine, whose Confessions were among his favourite books, to justify his love for the ancient philosophers: "Such a great Doctor of the Church was not ashamed to let himself be guided by the man of Arpinum (Cicero), although the latter pursued a different end. Why, indeed, should he be ashamed? No leader is to be despised, who points out the way to salvation. How then can Plato or Cicero obstruct the search for truth?” It was for this reason that Petrarch showed such great devotion to St Augustine, and it was to him as to a friend, that he poured forth his soul in the dialogue De secreto conflictu curarum suarum (“On the secret conflict of self care”), describing the contrast existing between his weaknesses and the Christian ideal. He had a similar devotion to Augustine's mother, St Monica.
Petrarch (Francesco Petrarca:1304-1374) travelled widely in Europe and served as an ambassador. He was a prolific letter writer, and counted his fellow author, Giovanni Boccaccio, among his notable friends. Petrarch is credited with creating the concept of the Dark Ages which was later adopted, and exaggerated, by later uent writers. He had meant it as a dearth of Classical learning, and not of all learning as others later used the term.
On 26th April 1336 Petrarch together with his brother and two other companions allegedly climbed to the top of Mont Ventoux (1,909 m; 6,263 feet) in southern France. Eevn today scholars debate the relative portions of fact and fiction that Petrarch wrote about this "incident." He wrote (whether he wrote soon afterwards or years later is unknown) that, having reached its summit, he produced his pocket copy of the Confessions, to help interpret this experience of natural beauty surrounding him. In imitation of Augustine in the garden at Milan, he opened the “small but charming” volume at random and read the first words that came to his eyes.
As it happened, he hit upon this passage from Confessions X.viii (15): "People are moved to wonder by mountain peaks, by vast waves of the sea, by broad waterfalls on rivers, by the all-embracing extent of the ocean, by the revolutions of the stars. But in themselves they are uninterested." He immediately concluded that attention to the beauty of nature is misplaced.He thought that nothing was really worthy in comparison with philosophy and interior beauty - akin to Augustine's youthful experience in Carthage of first coming across the Hortensius of Cicero. And so Petrarch resolved to attend to the inner self, and no longer to neglect the natural nobility of the soul. As had been Augustine's opening of himself to the influence of Cicero, was the reported experience of Petrarch on Mont Ventoux more of a philosophical conversion than primarily a moral one?
The Confessions has long been a template of spiritual experience in the Latin West. Above all it has been an archetype for the inward journey of the soul to God. As the Christian tradition developed, Augustine’s theology of contemplation became authoritative in the Catholic articulation of the relation between the soul and God. In scaling Mont Ventoux, Petrarch's only motive had been the climb itself, or so he claimed in a famous letter that he says that he composed on the evening of the same day to Denis da Borgo San Sepolcro O.S.A.. Petrarch made it clear, however, that he wrote the letter not only to describe the joy of the excursion, but also because he was feeling guilty about the "enjoyment on earth" that the view from the summit had given him. In retrospect he decides that, like Augustine (whose Confessions he carried with him to the summit), he should have had his mind on questions that were more spiritual - at least in the broadest sense of the word - than on his own selfish experience, and criticises himself for this lapse. He wrote, "How earnestly we should strive, not to stand on the top of mountains, but to trample beneath us those appetites which spring from impulses of this earth."
Petrarch here seems to have been torn between a Renaissance desire to explore and know the world, and a medieval view that such knowledge is irrelevant. He observed that what he should have understood from the start was that "nothing is wonderful but the soul, which, when great itself, finds nothing great outside itself. Then, in truth, I was satisfied that I had seen enough of the mountain; I turned my inward eye upon myself, and from that time not a syllable fell from my lips until we reached the bottom again." The encounter of Petrarch with the mountain convinced him that what is most worth contemplating is not what he has seen from the summit, but rather what lies within his own soul. Such thoughts are very familiar to anyone who has even the slightest knowledge of the Confessions of Saint Augustine. The content of the above thoughts of Petrarch need to be separated from whatever might be the historical circumstances portrayed. He may indeed have ascended Mt Ventoux in 1336 as described, or done so as late as 1352 when his Secretum was nearing completion, or never even have climbed it at all. His expounding positively about Augustine is genuine, however, even if the scene he built around it contained poetic licence, or even if it was fictional.
The more so as his life progressed, Petrarch came to know well those specific texts of Augustine that he encountered. For example, Petrarch included in his own listing of his "favourite books" Augustine's Confessiones (“Confessions”), De civitate dei (“City of God ”), Soliloquium (“Soliloquies”), and De vera religione (“About True Religion”).
What Petrarch learned from Augustine
The history of medieval and early Christian heritage is often deficient in the summary of humanism that is given. It is therefore helpful to focus on what Petrarch learned from Augustine. The Augustinian tradition was a strong and vital tradition all throughout Europe in the Middle Ages. Even so, it was eclipsed in the schools by Scholasticism, i.e., the philosophy coming mainly from the work of the Dominican, Thomas Aquinas (1224 - 1274). From Augustine, Petrarch learned that the only proper study for a human being to engage in was to study oneself, to look within oneself and work within oneself to guarantee eternal salvation. This idea would eventually develop into the hallmark of humanist belief, the dignity of humanity. For the humanists, humanity is something special in creation and has a special relationship to God.
This relationship is expressed in salvation and the principle concern of every human being should be precisely this salvation. The humanists saw such studies as Scholastic logic, arithmetic, theology (the study of divinity) and natural science as completely unrelated to this most important mission of life. Petrarch was scathing of vice in the high offices of the Church. The descriptions of the papacy and Curia by Petrarch are so frightful that one would suppose them exaggerations of hatred, were they not confirmed by all his contemporaries. There are long discredited caricatures of the humanists as pagans, but such an accusation was generally untrue. Humanists from Petrarch onward were deeply Augustinian in their anthropology and attacked ecclesiastics not for their religion but for their lack of it. Petrarch spent a few refreshing summers with the Augustinians at Pavia. He even requested that, should he die there, he be buried in the Church of San Pietro Ciel d’Oro ("Saint Peter's with the gold ceiling"), the site of the mortal remains of Augustine and the sixth-century Christian Classical statesman and philosopher, Boethius.
In his schema of the life of Augustine, Petrarch included the saint’s fictitious journey to the Tuscan woods of Monte Pisano, where supposedly he delivered the inspirational sermons (now definitely known to be spurious), Sermones ad Fratres in Eremo ("Sermons of Augustine to the Brothers in the hermitage') to any of a number of early hermitages. Gently but accurately, Petrarch himself suggested that it might not be genuine. Petrarch did not, however, go so far as to repeat the myth that Augustine handed over his Rule to hermits there, nor that he visited Centocelle (Centumcellae) in the Roman or Tuscan countryside, supposedly to hand over a second version of his Rule there, as reported by some early historians within the Augustinian Order. He resonated with Augustine’s desire for solitude, and was not interested in the political identification and bonding of the Order of St Augustine with the life of Augustine eight centuries before the Order’s Grand Union in 1256.
In 1343 Petrarch wrote his Secretum. It was a "secret" book, intended for his own private meditation. Petrarch kept it by him for the rest of his life. It is composed of three imaginary dialogues between Petrarch and Saint Augustine, who speak in the presence of Lady Truth (Signora Verita). Lady Truth then turned and addressed Augustine thus: “Augustine, dear to me above a thousand others, you know how devoted this man here is to you. You know that he is stricken with a dangerous and persistent sickness, and that the farther he retreats from understanding his disease, the nearer he gets to death. This half-dead man needs care at once, and no one is better suited for this pious work than you. Your name has always been most dear to him, and lessons more easily enter the mind of a student who already loves the teacher.”
The Secretum reflected his sense of inner crisis and depression. He saw his depression being resolved by the wise counsel of Augustine, and by his own recollection of his readings of particularly Virgil, Ovid, and the Confessions of Augustine. Although vowed to be celibate by accepting the minor orders of the Church, Petrarch was the father of two children by two different women. These gave him two grandchildren, who gave him much delight. They died in infancy in 1362 and 1368, one of them from the plague when with Petrarch in Venice.
Petrarch had left Avignon for Milan and Padua in 1353, where he made a friendship with Bonaventura Baduario of Padua O.S.A., who in 1377 was elected Prior General of the Order of Saint Augustine. In 1360 he wrote his best-remembered poetry, Sonnets to Laura, and chose to do so in the Italian language, rather than in Latin. At some time he also provided two poetic embellishments in Latin for the Milleloquium Sancti Augustini of his friend, Bartholomew of Urbino O.S.A., in the form of sets of alternate verses. Bartholomew of Urbino's famous Milleloquium S. Augustini is a monumental collection of sententiae (quotations) from the writings of St Augustine, arranged in alphabetical order according to subject matter.
When Bartholomew asked Petrarch for a set of Latin verses for this work, he complied. Petrarch sent him the verses together with a letter which shows how kindly disposed he was towards this Augustinian friar: "But I return to your Augustine and to you. You have asked me to send you some verses to be added to the end of that great work which with great labour you have put together from the stones and mortar of that most noble paterfamilias, and which you have prepared for the present Pope but even more for posterity. I have obeyed you to whom I can refuse nothing. Though for a long time the Muses were indignant and other cares kept me away, now your request has called back my mind which had been drawn away from that kind of study. I send you, then, a few elegiacs and if you prefer, as many hexameters of the same sentence, use either or both of them."
Petrarch's verses for the Milleloquium are extant in MS 647 of the Bibliotheque Mazarine of Paris and were reprinted in the catalogue of that collection in 1885, and in another publication in 1907. Of the printed editions of the Milleloqium only a few seem to contain Petrarch's verses, for instance, those of Lyons in 1555 and Brescia in 1934. Petrarch departed Padua in 1369, and retired to the small Augustinian community of Arqua in the Euganean hills. During his life he spent a few refreshing summers with the Augustinians at Pavia, in the community of the Augustinian church of San Pietro in Ciel d'Oro, where Augustine's tomb was situated. He even requested that, should he die there, he be buried in that same church where Augustine lay. He died, however, in Padua on 18th July 1374, and Bonaventura of Padua O.S.A. preached at his funeral.
Whatever the scruples that Petrarch may have been later in life regarding the challenges of reconciling his Christian faith with his love of classical literature, his early followers latched on to the educational vision Petrarch had first articulated. This was that training in grammar, rhetoric, history, and moral philosophy would instil eloquence and wisdom. He and his early admirers made their own a maxim drawn from the work by Cicero called On oratory. There it said, 'For eloquence is nothing else than wisdom speaking copiously.'
While all this had been happening in Avignon and Padua and Arqua, the Augustinians in the community at the Church of Santo Spirito, Florence were gaining a wonderful influence over the local humanists, who were making Florence the intellectual capital of Italy. The goal of the Augustinian community at Santo Spirito in Florence with the Christian humanists was to draw them into its circle. The intention was to teach them that a revival of the Classics should consist in imitating a truly Latin style and the absorption of their great ideals without also adopting their pagan spirit.
One of these Augustinians in Florence was Luigi Marsigli O.S.A.* He had taught theology at the studium generale (international house of study) of the Order in Paris, and had exchanged letters with the aged Petrarch at Arqua. (* This Augustinian is not to be confused with Count Luigi Marsigli 1685-1730) Petrarch and Marsigli agreed on the decadence that was obvious in high places in the Church. The descriptions of the papacy and Curia by Petrarch are so frightful that one would suppose them exaggerations of hatred, were they not also confirmed by all his contemporaries.
Luigi Marsigli O.S.A. said the Papal court no longer ruled through hypocrisy — so openly did it flaunt its vices — but only though the dread inspired by its interdicts and excommunications. Another great humanist, whom in earlier years the more senior Petrarch had assisted, was Giovanni Boccaccio (1313 - 1375). Like Petrarch, he also had friends in the Order of Saint Augustine, which was a patron of secular learning and humanism in the Renaissance. In his struggle to overcome the more sensual side of his nature, Boccacio was in touch with the Augustinians at Santo Spirito.
It was there that Boccacio had wished to be buried. He died in 1375, weary of the world and having remorse about much of what he had written. In his last will and testament of 28th August 1374, he left his many costly manuscripts to the Convento Santo Spirito of the Order of Saint Augustine in Florence. These manuscripts were lost during the presence of French military forces in Florence in the early nineteenth century.
Petrarch. A timeless journey of Liszt and Petrarch. How Petrarch inspired Franz Liszt. Includes a painting of Petrarch and Laura in the Ashmolean Museum of Art and Archaeology, Oxford University. http://www.interlude.hk/front/timeless-journeyliszt-petrarch AN4361