Luigi Silvano

title.none: Lokaj, Petrach's Ascent (Luigi Silvano)

identifier.other: baj9928.0803.020 08.03.20

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

description.statementofresponsibility: Luigi Silvano, Università degli Studi di Torino,

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 2008

identifier.citation: Petrarch. With Commentaries by Rodney Lokaj. Petrarch's Ascent of Mount Ventoux: The Familiaris IV, 1; New Commented Edition. Scriptores Latini, vol. 23. Rome: Edizioni dell'Ateneo, 2006. Pp. 213. ISBN: 88-8476-028-3 (pb).

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: The Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 08.03.20

Petrarch. With Commentaries by Rodney Lokaj. Petrarch's Ascent of Mount Ventoux: The Familiaris IV, 1; New Commented Edition. Scriptores Latini, vol. 23. Rome: Edizioni dell'Ateneo, 2006. Pp. 213. ISBN: 88-8476-028-3 (pb).

Reviewed by:

Luigi Silvano
Università degli Studi di Torino

It is a matter of fact that Petrarch's Familiaris IV, 1 is "arguably his most famous and most often cited work in Latin" (13): it has been published, translated, commented, anthologized many times in all major languages. Given this premise, a question arises spontaneously: was it worth another annotated edition of this text? To give an answer, I would borrow the words of Italo Calvino: "D'un classico ogni rilettura è una lettura di scoperta come la prima". [1] This statement particularly fits Rodney Lokaj's book, which provides us with a fresh, and from a certain point of view, innovative, reading of the epistle, underlining some aspects which are still less considered, or even ignored--such as the remarkable influence of Franciscan literature.

A well-documented introduction furnishes useful elements for the interpretation of the letter--but we would have appreciated a more orderly distribution of the contents: sometimes we have the impression that Lokaj jumps from one thing to another. The first section (15-24) sketches the tradition of epistolography, focusing in particular on the two models mainly echoed by Petrarch, namely Cicero and Seneca: the former as the first to use the epistula familiaris as a literary genre, the latter because his Epistulae ad Lucilium were one of the paradigms for medieval writers. Then Lokaj analyses the structure of Petrarch's epistolarium (24-28), dealing with the history of its composition and stressing how it must be regarded as something new for the Middle Ages, because of the introduction of personal experience and description of the self as a central topic, together with constant references to the classical inheritance: it is known that this struggle between antiquity and modernity is one of the main features of Petrarch's literary production, and that he himself may be defined as "the last mediaeval man and the first modern man at the same time" (28).

The ensuing paragraphs are dedicated to the dating of the epistle (which, as noticed by a previous critic, seems to have been composed around 1353-55, rather than in 1336, as stated by Petrarch: 29; see also 156-157), to a brief outline of the climb of Mount Ventoux as narrated by Petrarch, and to a biographical sketch of Dionigi da Borgo Sansepolcro. He was probably chosen as the addressee of this letter because he was an Augustinian friar--and Augustine is indeed one of the main models of the epistle--and because he may be regarded as the ideal reader, the doctus, one who can read texts with a deeper scholarly insight (30-33). Afterwards Lokaj examines the literary precedents for the topos of mountain-climbing, quoting several examples from the Bible (Moses on Mt. Sinai, Christ's transfiguration on Mt. Tabor) onwards, through the Greek-Roman Antiquity and the Middle Ages (the most famous ones being those concerning St. Francis from Assisi and St. Bonaventure): it is likely that Petrarch knew all of them, although he did not strictly follow one in particular (33-36).

Another paragraph (36-43) deals with the personality of Gherardo, Petrarch's younger brother: did he really take part to the ascent of Mount Ventoux, as Petrarch tells? Probably not, if we accept that the epistle was written at least ten years after his entrance into the Carthusian order in 1342. Thus, Gherardo may be considered a symbol of a different way of life: in the fiction of this letter, Gherardo chooses a direct footpath to the top of the mountain, while Petrarch often stops, turns back, goes down, then climbs again; as an allegory, by taking the monastic habit Gherardo has chosen a straightforward way to the top (the vita beata? salvation?), which might appear to be more difficult, whilst indeed it is easier: it is much harder to reach that same goal by descending in the torturous ways of the everyday life, and then ascending one step after another the ladder of virtues. This path of knowledge resembles the ideal of peregrinatio as formulated, among others, by the Augustinian Hugh of St. Victor. This interpretation is intriguing, although not shared by most commentators, who simply see Gherardo as the good example who Petrarch, the slothful man, tries to emulate with difficulty. [2]

If Gherardo is to be considered a symbol of the wrong way to climb, what then about the historical figures explicitly mentioned or referred to in the epistle? The first to occur is Philip V of Macedon (about whom Petrarch quotes an anecdote from the historian Livy), who could represent an alter ego of Petrarch: as Philip went to the top of Mount Haemus in Thrace because he wanted to look towards the Adriatic Sea, planning his invasion of the Italian peninsula, so Francesco ascended the Ventoux, wanting to reconquer (i.e. to come back to) Italy after sad events such as Laura's death, his brother's departure and tonsure and the deterioration of his relationship with the papal court (45-46). The explicit quotation of a verse from Ovid's epistulae ex Ponto leads Lokaj to state that Petrarch wanted his ideal reader to figure a parallel between him and the ancient Latin poet, both being relegated far from their homeland, the Romanitas (46-47). One can agree on such readings. Less plausible is Lokaj's interpretation of Petrarch's quotation of a famous page from Livy about Hannibal ordering the use of vinegar to break some rocks obstructing his passage through the Alps: according to Lokaj acetum could be taken allegorically as "mordacity, incisiveness, firmness" (47), all features which Francesco should add to his rhetorical skills in order to fulfill his own trip over the mountains/obstacles which divide him from Italy/Romanitas, i.e. perfection and politeness of style. I'd rather think that this is a mere allusion to a popular anecdote, made in order to embellish the letter with a learned reminiscence, and to ennoble the author's enterprise by means of a reference to a famous Alps-crosser.

After the analysis of the classical patterns of the epistle, Lokaj discusses its two most influent Christian models. One paragraph is dedicated to the "unfinished Augustinian paradigm" (48-59), starting with a comparison between Augustine's conversion as presented in the Confessions and Petrarch's choice to ascend the mountain as a journey towards God. By pointing out the distinction between otium and negotium, through an examination of ancient and medieval authorities, Lokaj convincingly argues that for both Augustine and Petrarch the vita contemplativa represented the bad otium, which could resemble acedia/sloth: while reproving this way of life, the former looked at contemporary monks, the latter at the Carthusians, who separated him from his younger brother. Furthermore, Petrarch shares with Augustine the view of conversion not as a straightforward course, but as a progress made of falls, doubts and moments of discouragement; moreover, for both writers conversion signifies also an intellectual process, which requires doctrina, not only cor and divine grace.

The concluding section of the introduction (59-85) aims at demonstrating that the most important inspiration source for this epistle lies in the Franciscan tradition, and in particular in the Legenda maior by St. Bonaventure. In fact, there are many common features and similarities between the two texts: like Franciscus Petrarca in Mount Ventoux's letter, Franciscus the Saint tries an experiment of bibliomancy, by opening the Bible (which is not unique in ancient and medieval literature, as explained in the paragraph "Sortes Apostolorum" [3]); he climbs a mountain where he fulfills his conversion; he chooses the vita activa and not the vita contemplativa (in his ascending towards God he often looks back and turns down to help his fellow man, such as Petrarch during his climbing stops and descends in order to try other paths); he is guided by divine Will (which corresponds to Petrarch's Fatum). Other parallels are less convincing. For instance, Lokaj suggests that the fact that Petrarch does not describe in detail what really occurred to his conscience on the top of Mt. Ventoux, could be due to the influence of St. Francis' legend, according to which the saint did not tell anyone about his own stigmata. Thus Petrarch, following Francis' example, may have adopted a sort of mystical silence about the "transfiguration in his intellectual relationship with Godhead." But the fact that Petrarch does not give a full account of all his thoughts at that moment is not the same as saying that he is reticent about his personal experience. I would say that he gives enough details about his interior conversion, as he is referring to the very beginning of it, and not to its development and completion.

A brief note (87-88) devoted to the manuscript tradition outlines the codices of the redaction "a" (the definitive one of Petrarch's Familiares) containing the epistle IV,1. It follows a list of abbreviations of former editions of the text and of other ancient and medieval sources quoted in the Commentary (88-93).

The translation, with parallel Latin text, occupies pages 94-107. The Latin text is based on V. Rossi's edition (Firenze, 1933), and is accompanied by an essential critical apparatus. As far as I am concerned, Lokaj's version is both fluent and faithful, without being literal.

The main merit of this book lies undoubtedly in the rich Commentary (109-182), which fully explains the text, almost word by word, by means of references to other works by Petrarch and to a vast secondary literature. It also provides the reader with lots of comparanda from ancient and medieval writers (mostly Latin and Italian): those passages are always quoted in extenso and then translated into English. It is laudable that most of these translations are made by Lokaj himself. These materials, even if in some cases neither strictly pertinent to the text nor essential for its comprehension, are indeed an added value to Lokaj's work.

I have been able to find only few minor points with which to quibble:

Misprintings occur sporadically within the Latin texts: publicarumque instead of publicaremque (Plin. epist. 1, 1, quoted p. 18, note 2); postulet da deo instead of postulet a Deo (Vulg. Iac. 1, 5 apud Aug. grat. 24, quoted p. 58-59, note 8).

At page 70 Lokaj notices that Petrarch does not use the adverb seorsum to characterize his own ascension to the mountain, while on the contrary it is found in two of his main models, Matthew's gospel and Bonaventure's Legenda maior; according to Lokaj "the omission of seorsum might have been based on the fact that this adverb does not appear in Caesar, Vergil or Horace. That is, Petrarch might have felt it to be anti-classical. The question deserves, however, some further inquiry etc." I would remark that this adverb, although not frequent, can be found in classical authors from the "aurea Latinitas," such as Livy, whom Petrarch often quotes (Liv. 4, 26, 3; 22, 52, 3; see also Cic. rep. 6, 1; Sall. Iug. 70, 2; Bell. Afr. 48, 2).

Once Giuseppe Billanovich (quoted here, 14) said that the real meaning of the Ventoux letter might not have been yet fully discovered; I do not know if he was right, but I would conclude that, given that this text may admit several different interpretations, Lokaj's reading is surely convincing and reliable, even if one may not agree with every single point of it. To sum up, this book provides a valuable service to both specialists and non-specialists: scholars may want to add to their library this handy, accurate, up-to-date edition; neo-Latin teachers can refer to it as an helpful tool for a course focused on one of the most famous pages ever of the Latinitas; students and learned readers (in particular, but not exclusively, English speaking ones) will appreciate the translation and the detailed notes.


1. I.e. "Every rereading of a classic is in fact a new reading, as if it was the first one." I quote from Italo Calvino, "Perché leggere i classici", in Id., Perché leggere i classici, Milano: Arnoldo Mondadori Editore [Oscar Mondadori], 1995, p. 7 (originally published with the title "Italiani, vi esorto ai classici" in L'Espresso, 28/6/1981, p. 58-68).

2. See, for instance, the recent article by F. P. Botti, "L'epistola del Ventoso e le misure della rappresentazione petrarchesca della realtà", in Quaderns d'Italià, 11, 2006, p. 291-311: 295, with a partial reconsideration of the issue at p. 304.

3. As to this paragraph, and in particular on the topic of the sortes Vergilianae, for which Lokaj (65, n. 1) depends on an old study by Comparetti, it could be useful to refer to P.W. van der Horst, "Sortes: Sacred Books as Instant Oracles in Late Antiquity", in L. V. Rutgers et alii (ed.), The Use of Sacred Books in the Ancient World, Leuven: Peeters Publishers, 1998, p. 143-173, which provides an up-to-date bibliography on this subject.