- “Di pensier in pensier, di monte in monte”: Petrarch’s ‘Modern Curiosity’ in the Familiares
I am a wanderer and a mountain climber […]. And whatever may yet come to me as fate and experience—a wandering and a mountain-climbing will be in it—Nietzsche.1
In the influential Legitimacy of the Modern Age, Hans Blumenberg asserts that Petrarch cannot be considered modern insofar as he renounces curiosity in the first letter of the fourth book of the Familiares. For Blumenberg, Petrarch in this passage seemingly sheds his curiosity—the ascent of the mountain, motivated by his lust for outward wonders and novelty—in favor of an Augustinian moment of inwardness. Blumenberg explains:
entirely within the schema set up by Augustine, memoria prevails over curiositas, inwardness over affectedness by the world, concern for salvation over the passion for theory, but also the temporal reference over the spatial situation. The competition between outside and inside, between the world and the soul, ends when Petrarch opens the pocket edition of Augustine’s Confessions.2 [End Page S54]
Blumenberg is playing upon the many interpretations of this passage, which, following Jacob Burckhardt, has been considered to be a pivotal point of modernity. By focusing on curiositas as the privileged paradigm for modernity Blumenberg aims to refute the argument in favor of the modernity of Petrarch, considered by many the first ‘modern man.’ While Blumenberg’s suggestion that curiosity plays a central role in Petrarch’s thought is interesting, his reading of Petrarch’s letter rests on the simplistic assumption that curiosity ceases with reading, opposing the outward-turned curiosity of the voyager to that of the reader. Moreover, by reading this passage as depicting a simple triumph of memory over curiosity, the inner over the outer, Blumenberg tends to oversimplify and obfuscate the prismatic complexity of Petrarchan thought.
If there is a sense in which, as Blumenberg argues, there are some passages where “curiositas is definitively entered by Augustine into the catalog of vices”, the one chosen by Petrarch in this particular instance cannot be classified as one of them.3 Indeed many of the contradictions inherent in a distinction between inner and outer, faith and curiosity, metaphysical and empirical realms in Petrarch’s letter are already present in the passage of Saint Augustine’s Confessions, which the Italian poet is quoting as the culmination of his own conversion on Mount Ventoux. The passage that Petrarch quotes is located at the end of the eighth chapter, at paragraph 15. The whole chapter is a reflection on the necessary role of memory for subjectivity. In the beginning of the preceding section, Saint Augustine had begun by affirming the necessity of memory to subjectivity:
Intus haec ago, in aula ingenti memoriae meae. Ibi enim mihi caelum et terra et mare praesto sunt cum omnibus, quae in eis sentire potui, praeter illa, quae oblitus sum. Ibi mihi et ipse occurro meque recolo, quid, quando et ubi egerim quoque modo, cum agerem, affectus fuerim(Conf. 10:8).
And the fourteenth section then concludes by predicating memory upon the imagination: “dico apud me ista et, cum dico, praesto sunt imagines omnium quae dico ex eodem thesauro memoriae, nec omnino aliquid eorum dicerem, si defuissent” (Conf. 10:8). Thus when Saint Augustine begins the fifteenth section with a praise of memory there is also an implicit praise of the imagination:
Magna ista vis est memoriae […]. Numquid extra ipsum ac non in ipso? Quomodo ergo non capit? Multa mihi super hoc oboritur admiratio, stupore [End Page S55] adprehendit me. Et eunt homines mirari alta montium et ingentes fluctus maris et latissimos lapsus fluminum et Oceani ambitum et gyros siderum et relinquunt se ipsos nec mirantur, quod haec omnia cum dicerem, non ea videbam oculis, nec tamen dicerem, nisi montes et fluctus et flumina et sidera, quae vidi, et Oceanum, quem credidi, intus in memoria mea viderem spatiis tam ingentibus, quasi foris viderem(Conf. 10:8, emphasis added).
By not citing the entire passage, nor the entire sentence, but only the part of the sentence that I have put in italics, Petrarch simulates a contrast between inside and outside precisely in a moment where Saint Augustine is...