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Petrarch's Rome: The History of the Africa and the Renaissance Project

From: MLN
Volume 124, Number 1, January 2009 (Italian Issue)
pp. 86-102 | 10.1353/mln.0.0086

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On Easter Sunday 1341, in a ceremony that took place on Rome's Capitoline Hill, Francesco Petrarca (1304–1374) was crowned with the laurel wreath. Petrarch owed this realization of a longstanding dream to a large network of friends, but also to the favor of King Robert of Naples. Robert submitted the poet to a three-day examen privatum in his residence, then formally declared him worthy to be crowned poet laureate. The powerful Roman Colonna dynasty also provided active support. As capellanus continuus, Petrarch (who had been ordained in the lower ranks of the Catholic priesthood) had been a familiar figure at the court of Cardinal Giovanni Colonna in Avignon since 1330. The examination by King Robert as well as the legal document containing the privilegium laureationis show that the Roman ceremony was clearly modeled on medieval academic protocol. Its intentions, however, point in an entirely different direction. The poet's coronation speech, traditionally known as the Collatio laureationis, as well as the other pertinent documents clearly indicate that Petrarch intended to fashion the Capitoline honors into the grandiose inauguration of the new age he was hoping for—regardless of the medieval traditions to which these honors were indebted. Petrarch claimed that the ceremony was reviving a classical tradition that had been forgotten and neglected for more than twelve hundred years. At the same time, it was to signal the impending reformation of an exhausted culture by means of a return to the spirit of the ancients. This spirit, according to Petrarch, was accessible in the litterae of pre-Christian Rome—given that they were understood correctly. The reformation that Petrarch had in mind was thus intimately related to his concept of classical Rome.1

Choosing this particular time and place for the coronation charged the procedures with an intense symbolism, for the renovation of culture was staged in loco ipso, in the ruins of classical Rome, hence in the midst of decay—on Resurrection Day. The reappropriation of antiquity was thus at the same time an act of secularization: Christian resurrection was converted into cultural renovation. This, in turn, was linked to the development of a new conception of history. The figure of thought which characterizes the medieval approach to the world of the ancients is that of continuity. Its most succinct expression is the translatio imperii, the northward shift of imperial power, which Dante (1265–1321) in his Divine Comedy had still described in terms of the history of salvation. The translatio imperii was complemented by the translatio studii, the relocation of knowledge. The University of Paris, the foundation of which the Middle Ages liked to ascribe to Charles the Great, the bearer of the translatio imperii,2 became the new center of studies. If Petrarch mentions in his coronation speech that the laurel crown was offered him not only by the city of Rome, but also by the University of Paris, it is in order to convey a programmatic message. By deciding not to accept the medieval, academic honors offered in Paris, opting instead for a coronation by the Senate and the people of Rome, he breaks with the genuinely medieval figure of translatio—and quite ostentatiously so. If, moreover, he emphasizes that the decision against Paris and in favor of Rome is an expression of patriotism, then it is more than clear just how constitutive the focus on Rome is for Petrarch's renaissance. The consequences of this reach far beyond the field of art and literature. For litterae are the site where the remembrance of Rome's past greatness can extend into the present and induce a renovation of Italy in the spirit of romanitas. It was only a few years later that a young Capitoline notary attempted to make this a reality. In 1347, fashioning himself on the classical model of a tribunus augustus, Cola di Rienzo seized power in Rome, enthusiastically supported by Petrarch from afar—at least initially.

The ceremony on the Capitoline Hill honored Petrarch as a writer on romanitas, not as the author of the Italian love poetry that to this day makes him an author of world-wide renown. The coronation privilege (privilegium laureationis) refers to Petrarch...

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