Professors from universities around the world gathered at Yale this weekend to commemorate the 700th anniversary of the 14th century poet Petrarch’s birth and discuss his work and legacy.
“Petrarch: The Power of the Word” was held in the Whitney Humanities Center Sept. 23, 24 and 25. The conference featured a keynote address by Rosanna Warren of Boston University, four panels on aspects of Petrarch’s work and a concert by the Yale Collegium Musicum. Sponsors of the conference included the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, the Whitney Humanities Center and the Department of Italian.
Petrarch is recognized as the founder of humanism. In the late Middle Ages, he spearheaded a renaissance in the study of ancient culture and literature. He also produced writings in a variety of genres, including sonnets, epic poetry, political tracts and moral and theological meditations.
On Friday morning, the conference offered a panel discussion on “The Cult of Antiquities: Manuscripts and History.” Angelo Mazzocco, professor of Spanish and Italian at Mount Holyoke College, presented a paper on “Petrarca’s Renovatio in its Historical Context.” He analyzed differences in the response of contemporary humanists and modern scholars to Petrarch’s humanism.
While Petrarch’s contemporaries regarded him as the leader of the humanist movement, modern scholars have argued that he was less influenced by the classical tradition. Mazzocco said this difference can be explained by different criteria used for evaluation.
Modern scholars focus on the stylistic influence that classical literature had on Petrarch’s writing. Contemporaries were more likely to consider ideology, the degree to which Petrarch “assimilated the values and ideas” of classical culture, Mazzocco said, when they attributed the origins of humanism to Petrarch. The conference reflected the fact that Petrarch was not concerned solely with the classical tradition.
Also on Friday morning, Dennis Dutschke, professor of French and Italian at the University of California, Davis, presented “Petrarch Manuscript Itineraries: The Beinecke Library Collection.” The Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library is a major collector of Petrarch manuscripts in the United States.
Dutschke’s presentation concentrated on the Babylon Sonnets, which are contained in Petrarch’s “Canzoniere.” The Babylon Sonnets, which criticized the papacy seated at Avignon, were “at best an annoyance to the papal court” when they were written, Dutschke said. But in 1599 they were banned by the Catholic Church. The church’s edict meant that the sonnets were supposed to be expurgated from the “Canzoniere.”
“There was a multifarious response to the papal ban on Petrarch’s Babylon Sonnets,” Dutschke said.
While some copies were “clean as the day the scribe wrote it,” he said, others had been fully expurgated.
“The power of Petrarch’s words confronted papal authority, and sometimes prevailed,” Dutschke said.
Aida Sykes ’07 attended the presentation, which included images of manuscripts in the Beinecke Library collection, as a part of her “Elementary Italian” class. Sykes said that she recognized Petrarch primarily as the creator of the Petrarchan sonnet form. Because of the importance of his achievements in literature, it “feels good to be here,” she said.