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  • Francesco Petrarca: Selected Letters trans. by Elaine Fantham
  • Andrew R. Dyck
Elaine Fantham (tr.). Francesco Petrarca: Selected Letters. 2 vols. The I Tatti Renaissance Library 76, 77. Cambridge, MA, and London, 2017. Pp. xlvi, 747; viii, 808. $29.95 each. ISBN 978-0-674-05834-7; 978-0-674-97162-2.

The late Giger Professor of Latin emerita at Princeton, Elaine Fantham (1933–2016), was remarkable both for her learning and for the breadth of her interests, but nothing in her previous scholarship had prepared one for this final legacy: a two-volume set providing a generous selection of the Latin correspondence of the founder of Italian humanism, Francesco Petrarca, often Anglicized as Petrarch (1304–1374). There is an introduction providing helpful orientation, a clear and elegant en face translation, ample explanatory notes, appendices comprising a chronology of events of Petrarch’s life, a summary of his oeuvre, and brief profiles of his correspondents, as well as a detailed index.

The author explains on xxv–xxvi how, in consultation with the board of The I Tatti Renaissance Library, she developed the plan of arranging the letters not chronologically but grouped under nine headings, such as “On His Letters” or “His Life and His World.” This was a good idea, given that the series caters primarily for students and general readers, who should thus be readily able to locate whatever particular matter they are interested in (and there is a concordance enabling readers to move back and forth between Fantham’s numeration of the letters and the ones standardly used). [End Page 599]

In these volumes, classicists will probably find greatest interest in parts III (“The Scholar and Man of Letters”) and VIII (“Letters to the Ancients”). As a scholar and book collector, Petrarch was famous above all for the discovery of the archetype of Cicero’s Letters to Atticus, Brutus, and Quintus in the chapter library of the Verona Cathedral in 1345, an event with an enormous impact on the view of Cicero taken by Petrarch and the modern world in general. The discovery is reflected in the first of Petrarch’s two letters to Cicero, reporting the discovery but also expressing disappointment that his hero was found to be all too human (VIII 2). The event also had a tragicomic sequel when the large tome that Petrarch copied out by hand from the archetype and kept at the doorpost of his library repeatedly fell on him in such a way that he finally had to seek medical treatment (III 15.16–20). One tantalizing tidbit is Petrarch’s report that he had the two books of Cicero’s De gloria, which were, however, borrowed and pawned by his teacher Convenevole da Prato and subsequently lost (II 6.27–29); they have never been seen again. A poignant episode in Petrarch’s engagement with the classics is documented by his letter thanking Nicolas Sigeros for the gift of a copy of Homer (in Greek) but lamenting that since the death of his Greek teacher, the Calabrian Barlaam of Seminara, as far as Homer is concerned, “I am deaf to his presence” (apud eum surdus sum: III 12.10).

Perhaps the greatest prize in Petrarch’s library was a collection within two covers of Vergil with Servius’ commentary, Horace, and Statius’ Achilleid, a book that we know as the “Ambrosian Vergil,” which he annotated carefully, including noting on the flyleaf the deaths of the persons closest to him. One of the letters included here shows how Petrarch understood his Vergil—very much in an allegorical mode (III 23).

In these pages, we find not only Petrarch the zealous book collector and student of ancient texts, but also many interesting details about Petrarch the man, including the correspondence relating to his appointment to, and acceptance of, the poet laureateship (III 2–6) and his comments on topics of the times, such as the Black Death or the state of the Church and the papacy and his desire to see the latter return to Rome from Avignon (“the Babylon of the West,” as he called it).

As the foregoing dates show, the author died prior to publication. The series editor James...


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