contributor.author: Michael Calabrese

title.none: Petrarch, Petrarch on Religious Leisure (Michael Calabrese)

identifier.other: baj9928.0402.043 04.02.43

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

description.statementofresponsibility: Michael Calabrese, California State University, petrusa@pacbell.net

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 2004

identifier.citation: Petrarch, Francesco. Schearer, Susan S., ed. and trans. Petrarch on Religious Leisure. New York: Italica Press, Inc., 2002. Pp. xxv, 168. ISBN: $15.00 0-934977-11-9.

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: The Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 04.02.43

Petrarch, Francesco. Schearer, Susan S., ed. and trans. Petrarch on Religious Leisure. New York: Italica Press, Inc., 2002. Pp. xxv, 168. ISBN: $15.00 0-934977-11-9.

Reviewed by:

Michael Calabrese
California State University
petrusa@pacbell.net

This handy paperback volume offers the first English translation of Petrarch's discourse "On Religious Leisure," a letter he wrote to his brother Gherardo after visiting him in the Carthusian monastery at Montrieux in 1347. The text expounds upon the very concept of leisure and Petrarch's own feelings of attachment to the world that made his visit to the angelic monks all the more poignant and made his involvement in the affairs of the world and in his own literary and intellectual pursuits all the more regrettable and shameful. As Ronald G. Witt's introduction argues, the work is significant particularly in its homage to Petrarch's personal relationship with his brother, explored also in letters (Fam. 1.4) and in the Bucolics. Petrarch was aware of and concerned with his brother and with the choices they each made, as poets, as men, as sons, and as Christians. Throughout their dual careers, Ghererdo's professional and spiritual choices provoked Petrarch to examine his own, all the time concerned with how best he could pursue the path to salvation. Witt's introduction thus provides an overview of the historical circumstances of the work's composition and the role of Gherardo in Petrarch's life and thought. He notes that Petrarch's Lyric #91, "the beautiful woman whom you so much love" was likely written to console Gherardo at the death of his lady and may have inspired Gherardo to change his life and enter the monastery, compelling "Petrarch to examine more intensely his own singular way of life" (xi). Witt compares De otio to De vita solitaria, which, as Witt sees it, finally defends Petrarch's Humanist pursuits and way of life. The De otio, by contrast, is an "unrelieved tirade against the world" closer to, but not restricted to the de miseria hominis tradition (xvi-xvii). Petrarch's originality, says Witt, lies in his personal treatment of the topics and his use of dramatic internal dialogues as he depicts a battle between pagan and Christian cultures (xvii). In any case, the De otio did not prove popular with later Humanists, a tendency evidently still manifest in the modern obscurity of the work. The introduction also provides an overview of the concept of otium as Petrarch would have understood it from Classical sources and in relation to 14th-century Italian thought. Witt also discusses the MSS. and the status of existing printed editions. The introduction is clear, informative, and provocative.

The translation is based on the version of the work in De otio religioso di Francesco Petrarca, edited by Guiseppe Rotondi, Studi e Testi 195 (Vatican City: Apostolica Vaticana, 1958). Witt discusses Rotondi's edition and his collation of two MSS. of the De otio, noting, though, that "we are still lacking a critical edition of the work" (xxii) since the text exists in both a shorter and longer MS. version and Rotondi based his edition on the two extant MSS. of the longer. I had no access to Rotondi, but checked the translation against one of the other printed editions listed in the bibliography, Librorum Francisci Petrarche Impressorum Annotatio, Venice, 1503. Schearer's translation is natural, clear, idiomatic and literal, capturing the personal passion and directness of the prose, which Witt describes as "less classicizing than in most of [Petrarch's] other work, apparently designed to be read aloud in a refectory." He continues that "the sentence structure is essentially paratactic with almost no clausal subordination" (xvi). Shearer's translation reproduces this pace and rhythm well, as we hear in this passage where Petrarch addresses the monks, whom he now calls his brothers, remarking that as he thought to visit one brother, he found he had ultimately made many:

...the eternal bliss of an immortal wedding is promised to you who serve God. Serve him eagerly. He grazed a large and foreign flock among the thickets of humanity. You graze your sheep; that is, each person grazes his own soul in the happy, abundant pastures of Jesus Christ. Serve Him free from care. You do not have a deceitful master such as Laban, whom Jacob endured, who envies your goods and your profits, but One Who may be delighted by your profits and your progress, One Who aids you in your need and sustains you in your weakness. (5-6)

In the text proper, the first chapter expounds upon the Psalm text, "take time and know God," as Petrarch, mixing Biblical and Classical learning, explores the tension between the demands of worldly labor and clean, sacred space of contemplation. This theme of taking time and knowing God is emblematic of the entire letter and is certainly consonant with Petrarch's other meditations on solitude, which he explicitly references as the letter begins. As Witt points out by way of contrast to De vita solitaria, the De otio does not end with any definitive resolution or a defense of any final position on Petrarch's part. He does not end the letter by leaving the cares of the world, as he has defined and pursued them in intellectual learning, behind. But, Witt theorizes, Petrarch's thinking here may have inspired the dialogues with St. Augustine in the Secretum, which he composed soon after the De otio.

The notes to each chapter (Shearer's own editorial device) cite Biblical, patristic, and Classical sources employed by Petrarch. The volume includes a bibliography of editions, translations, related works, and recommended secondary readings, followed by an index of citations, divided into Biblical and Non-Biblical, and then a general index. The entire apparatus is clear, measured, and thorough, allowing for advanced work to be done on Petrarch's sources and on his modes of composition through allusion and explication of Christian and pagan authority.

The translation begins with a very personal preface, wholly appropriate to this very personal, introspective medieval work, recounting Shearer's experiences in a NEH seminar on Petrarch in Avignon in 1992. Shearer taught Latin in the Virginia high school system for 30 years and worked on the translation for 8 years, finding in it a refuge and satisfaction in accord with the work's original intention. Thus, both for author and translator, this is a very personal text, a feature that adds both meaning and old fashioned pleasure to the reader's experience of the volume. As for the modern reader, to enter into Petrarch's world, one needs the kind of leisure and carelessness that he himself envies the monks. Petrarch regrets that he himself could only briefly visit their angelic, spiritual community on earth, a world that the poet, so mired in ignorance and worldliness, longs wistfully for. His lament is likely to provoke the same introspection and longing in a modern reader, as it had in Shearer herself, who has made sure, however, that she followed her master's will and "took time," to know Petrarch.

Relatively speaking, we can conclude from Petrarch's thoughts that the fourteenth century was just as chaotic and distracting as the twentieth, and academics have always struggled to find time to read and work and think without petty worldly affairs overwhelming them. We have to be grateful for Shearer's labor, for we now have in English an important meditation on the tension between the two types of dedication, the two types of knowledge that at times tore Petrarch apart and formed one of the central conflicts in his thought and in the careers of many medieval, Christian humanist authors. This translation can be integrated into courses in medieval intellectual history and literary theory and could also be taught along other works of Petrarch, Dante, and Boccaccio. It is ideal for classroom use and for non-specialist pleasure reading. It provides an excellent introduction to the inner workings of the mind of a poet and a lover of learning, as he is shaken quite personally by his brother's wish to take a different and perhaps more secure path to the truth.