Selected Letters: Volumes I & II
by Francesco Petrarca,
translated and edited by Elaine Fantham.
Harvard University Press, 2017.
Hardcover, 800 + 816 pages, $30 + $30.

Contemporary readers of poetry tend to underestimate the power and influence of the Canzoniere of Francesco Petrarca, a humanist commonly known as Petrarch who lived from 1304–1374. The main reason for this lack of appreciation is that the book’s 366 love poems (mostly sonnets) have thwarted every effort at translation. Versions written in prose, blank verse, and free verse all lie limp on the page without the gorgeous music that comes from Petrarch’s meter, rhythms, and densely packed rhymes.

A few formal poets (most recently Morris Bishop, Joseph Auslander, Thomas Bergin, and I) have arguably produced a handful of persuasive translations of individual poems, but no one has come close to producing a satisfactory complete translation. Moreover, the Canzoniere often seems clichéd to the modern ear because readers do not understand how frequently poets have imitated its tropes—which were fresh and striking in the fourteenth century.

Petrarch not only popularized the sonnet, he revolutionized love poetry. Classical Latin love poetry paralleled epic poetry in its glorification of pursuit and conquest, rather than glorification of the beloved, so Petrarch’s lifelong celebration of his unrequited love for a married woman as a way of approaching God was extraordinarily radical. With that approach and his appropriation of the religious imagery of confession and adoration, he easily could have run afoul of the church authorities he so carefully cultivated.

Petrarch’s one great literary achievement relied on bold risk-taking. Poets of his era—and those of the following centuries—assumed that posterity would value mostly poems written in Latin. Dante had broken important ground with his use of rhyme and accentual meter in vernacular verse, but poets doubted the durability of such poetry at least until the time of Milton.

Except for the Canzoniere, Petrarch avoided risk and wallowed in prolific mediocrity. He went to his grave believing that his turgid Latin epic Africa would form the foundation of his legacy, but neither that poem nor his other Latin poetry approached the genius of his Italian love poems. In a time of excitement about classical learning, Petrarch seemed more trapped than liberated by the rediscovery of classical literature; he struggled to learn ancient Greek, and never did. His voluminous writings are long on pompous insistence and short on insight.

Irony abounds in Petrarch’s letters. For a man who took minor orders in the Church (largely to benefit financially from patronage known as “benefices”), who fathered a son and a daughter (probably by different women), and who seemed to cherish the image of his unattainable Laura, Petrarch’s views on marriage tend to be surprisingly ornery and selfish. For instance, when counseling a young man about marriage, Petrarch recommends the sacrament only grudgingly:

Although I would think nothing sweeter than being a bachelor and nothing more peaceful, your position and that of your family denies you this sweetness and peace. (I.461)

This exchange is not the only time in these volumes that self-centered thinking prevails over Christian impulses.

In his letters Petrarch’s Christianity also wars with his ardent Ciceronianism:

Christ is our God, but Cicero is the source of our power of speech. (I.307)

He sees no irony in his approval of crucifixion as a military penalty, and most of the time his lengthy doctrinal expositions come across as those of a second-rate scholar. He even refers to Greek philosophers in ways that give the misleading impression that he has mastered their works. I was particularly amused by his “sed ut sileam Graios” (“but let me pass over the Greeks.”). (I.251)

One could be forgiving of Petrarch’s scholarship if what he absorbed had stirred his creativity in the way it did for Dante, Boccaccio, Erasmus, and other humanists. However, only rarely in his letters does he use a vibrant phrase, as when he states that “friendship has the eyes of a lynx” (I.15), or flash some wit, as he did when he mocked his own laziness and ineptitude as a hiker:

I was again sent down to lower ground, and wandering again through the ravines as I pursued the easy extent of the tracks, I fell into an extended difficulty. I had postponed the strain of climbing, but nature is eased by human ingenuity, and it is impossible for any physical object to reach the heights by moving downhill. (I.51)

Little evidence of literary greatness or compassion emerges from Petrarch’s two collections of letters—they contain mostly pedantry, self-promotion, and toadying. It is transparent that he wrote all of them with one eye (or both) on posterity; some of his epistolae do not even have an actual addressee.

The best letters are those in which Petrarch argues for the two causes about which he is passionate: unification of Italy and return of the papacy from Avignon to Rome. In addition, while his “To Posterity” is pretentious, it does provide us with a wealth of biographical detail that we often lack with poets of the Renaissance.

These two volumes are part of the I Tatti Renaissance Library, one of the thoughtful renovations and expansions of the Loeb Classical Library by Harvard University Press. The translator, Elaine Fantham, made a judicious selection of the letters taken from two sources, the Epistolae Familares (“Intimate Letters”) and the Epistolae Seniles (“Letters of Old Age”). She organizes them by subject matter rather than chronologically, which makes sense, although I would have preferred to see an estimated or confirmed date at the start of each letter. Her introduction and notes are clear, concise, and accurate, and there is a helpful description of the major figures in the book.

The translation is generally competent, but it has problems, which fall into two categories. The first is its attention to detail. Sadly, Professor Fantham died before this book went to press, and the two volumes have some of the shortcomings that one expects to find when other people have to finish a writer’s work: grammatical errors (“there is a close kinships”), missing words (“received public funeral”), and puzzling vocabulary choices (“scrutineer”).

The broader problem is common in translations by philologists: they tend to look too mechanically at sentences in isolation and to overlook the way that the rest of the text should cue the translation of words. Fantham’s translations are almost always technically “correct,” but the tone regularly wobbles between the high and the low. For instance, on the same page we have the overly casual “really” for valde instead of “very” and the overly stiff “decease” for transitu, which would be better rendered as “the passing.” Petrarch had both legal and religious training, but querimoniis as used by Petrarch should be rendered as “complaints” instead of the unintentionally funny “lamentations.”

Petrarch’s poetry still touches millions of people, but his letters never will. They are properly the province of scholars of literature and history, who will benefit from these carefully edited 1,500 pages. 

[An earlier version of this review criticized one line of the translation; upon further consideration the author has decided that Professor Fantham was correct about that line.]

A. M. Juster’s seven books include Longing for Laura (Birch Brook Press, 2001) and Tibullus’ Elegies (Oxford University Press 2012). The University of Pennsylvania Press will publish his The Elegies of Maximianus later this year.