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MLQ: Modern Language Quarterly 62.3 (2001) 296-199
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Petrarchan Love and the Continental Renaissance
Petrarchan Love and the Continental Renaissance. By Gordon Braden. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1999. xvi + 198 pp.
Canonical authors, however defined, generate new readings, conservative or radically innovative, confirmatory or disruptive, variously timely and variously successful. Gordon Braden undertakes this task for Petrarch, with a modesty--"I did not read Petrarch . . . until I in effect had to" (xi)--and a confidence that honor both his author and a line of scholars beginning with E. R. Curtius, perhaps his most authoritative critical forebear.
Digestion is key in the first chapter, perhaps the best summary introduction to Petrarch that I have read in this generation. Psychoanalytic drives come forth focused on the poet's tendency to speak from beyond death--his own or Laura's (I would add Colonna's)--and the complex of medieval misogyny; Freud subserves historical and typological reading. Thus eros and inarcissism trump Curtius's divine analogy as the root postclassical figure of medieval and early modern poetics. Ovid and Virgil here receive their due, and Braden takes command of romance vernacular traditions out of which Petrarch's diction and rhetoric arise to earn such claims as "Occitan lyric, I [End Page 296] think, . . . is more responsible than any classical precedent for Petrarch's insistent paralleling of Caesars and poets" (50). This chapter gives a fine résumé of the biography, nicely acknowledging the Latin works, and pursues a creative, precise reading of the Canzoniere for a readership attuned to recent early modern scholarship. Braden thus establishes an origin. This opening historicizing argument, Burckhardtian and otherwise, extends settled conventions while reshuffling the relations of classical and medieval, vernacular and humanist-Latin, and engaging Petrarch's hefty contribution to changes in the social role and the cultural status of the writer.
In chapter 2 Braden opens with Bruni's ambivalence and Erasmus's typically wild enthusiasm for Petrarch's contribution to the humanists' classicizing eloquence. Petrarch, the first new Ciceronian, now fails to meet the standards he had renewed. Against this purism, and in a way that splits Petrarch's lyric from his prose, vernacular from Latin, Braden balances Bembo's alternative classicism, seeing the enthroning of Petrarchan diction as linguistic and stylistic norm accomplished in a gesture inextricable from the material history of editing and publication. Braden's goal is to remedy the "piecemeal" study of more than a dozen regional-linguistic histories of generally "continental" imitation and reaction and so find a coherent tradition of early modern lyric for English readers. As in his discussion of the rime, Braden here quotes widely to exemplify his claims, from Boccaccio's complex eroticizations or desublimations and Chaucer's echoes, through Poliziano and the Boiardo-Ariosto-Cervantes romance-epic line, into Spanish lyric, the anti-Petrarchists Cariteo and Serafino dell'Aquila, and the Platonizing Castiglione. The recurrent thread remains Bembo the exemplary editor, commentator, critic, theorizer, arbiter. At the end of chapter 1 Braden accepts Petrarch's concluding poem, "Vergine bella," as a figural resolution of stresses between fundamental emotion and sinful idolatry in loving Laura, against the predominant critical opinion that the poem is a loose appendage or even an empty gesture of religious conventions; at the midpoint of chapter 2 Braden's broad arc of survey and argument concludes that Bembo speaks "a redeemed Petrarchism," fulfilling what he takes to be Petrarch's hopes. In that moment Petrarch becomes a classic and literary neoclassicism is born, recovered, purified, and monumentalized for a Continental tradition of Renaissance erotic lyric.
On that hinge the book turns briefly to trattati d'amore as derivations from Bembo's prose dialogues and Castiglione's fully Neoplatonized Bembo, while alluding to the inquisitorial challenges to idolatrous sin already shadowing Bembo's own works. Braden does not fully acknowledge how much it is a Counter Reformation obsession that Petrarch was "a madman fit to be chained," as Bruno's preface to the Eroici furori has it, nor does he indicate why he might take Bruno as...