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Petrarch the Mountain Climber

The Italian poet Petrarch, who is often credited as the father of Humanism (and as such, the Renaissance), was, when he wasn’t inventing sonnets and writing poetry about his unrequited love for Laura, also was an extensive traveler.  In fact, in addition to being the father  of the Renaissance, he is often called the first tourist, in that he traveled extensively for pleasure.  He was a hugely busy fellow.  I don’t really know when he slept.  If he slept.  But his sleep habits aren’t the purpose of this post.

In 1336 he climbed a mountain, Mt. Ventoux (6273 feet), in France (Provence).  Simply, as the saying goes, because it was there.  Actually, he cited the reason why he climbed it in a letter he wrote to his confessor, where he claimed to have been the first person since antiquity to climb a mountain purely for the view.  His letter is one of the first writings about nature.

Francesco_Petrarca00He took with him his brother (though in his letter he says he thought long and hard about who he should invite, and finally settled on his brother) and two servants.  Along the way they met a shepherd who warned them against trying to summit the mountain.  He had tried fifty years ago, in his youth, and he couldn’t do it.  They shouldn’t even try, he told them.  But they went on, and so he followed for a bit, trying to show them a good way to ascend.

Petrarch got lost trying to find an easier path than the one his brother was on, which was so steep.  He went around and around, and wound up in a valley, thinking about how he tried to take a shortcut and not have to exert himself that much.  This happened to him three times, and he wrote of it, “I was simply trying to avoid the exertion of the ascent; but no human ingenuity can alter the nature of things, or cause anything to reach a height by going down.”  Yep, you can’t go up by going down.

When he got to the top, he wrote, “At first, owing to the unaccustomed quality of the air and the effect of the great sweep of view spread out before me, I stood like one dazed. I beheld the clouds under our feet, and what I had read of Athos and Olympus seemed less incredible as I myself witnessed the same things from a mountain of less fame.”  He could make out the Alps, he could see the mountains around Lyons, and the bay of Marseilles, and he sat for a while, thinking about the love of his life, Laura, with whom he had already been obsessed for ten years.  He looked out at the vastness of the view, and did a lot of thinking about life, as one is wont to do when one is at high altitude looking out at the world.

But here’s where it gets interesting.  He brought with him a volume of St. Augustine to read for fun, and he opened it, turned to a 250px-Mont_ventoux_from_mirabelpage, and saw this:  “And men go about to wonder at the heights of the mountains, and the mighty waves of the sea, and the wide sweep of rivers, and the circuit of the ocean, and the revolution of the stars, but themselves they consider not.”

He suddenly felt himself chastised.  He shouldn’t be going around trying to climb mountains just for fun.  He should be looking inward, at his own soul.  “With every downward step I asked myself this: If we are ready to endure so much sweat and labour in order that we may bring our bodies a little nearer heaven, how can a soul struggling toward God, up the steeps of human pride and human destiny, fear any cross or prison or sting of fortune? How few, I thought, but are diverted from their path by the fear of difficulties or the love of ease”

Interestingly, Petrarch was also the first to come up with the idea of the Dark Ages, which is partially why the Renaissance is dated from about his time:

From http://www.princeton.edu/~achaney/tmve/wiki100k/docs/Dark_Ages.html
“The concept of a Dark Age… was originally intended as a sweeping criticism of the character of Late Latin literature.  Petrarch regarded the post-Roman centuries as “dark” compared to the light of classical antiquity. Later historians expanded the term to refer to the transitional period between Roman times and the High Middle Ages (ca.11th – 13th C.), including not only the lack of Latin literature, but also a lack of contemporary written history, general demographic decline, limited building activity and material cultural achievements in general. Popular culture has further expanded on the term as a vehicle to depict the Middle Ages as a time of backwardness, extending its pejorative use and expanding its scope.”

Some people say Da Vinci was the first Renaissance Man, and he certainly was, but I think Petrarch had him beat by a century.