Friday, November 2, 2007
Philippe de Vitry (1291-1361)
Letter from Petrarch (1304-1374) to Philippe de Vitry
My friendly words will strike friendly ears as true rather than flattering, as sincere rather than elegant. Great is the frankness of friendship, great its security. Whoever loves much fears nothing; or rather great love fears and notices everything, especially what it suspects might offend the loved one. Indeed Seneca observed about his own friend that "I do not love him, lest I offend him."
Nothing less do I wish than to offend you. But never let it be said that you may be offended by the truth, you who have always been a very dedicated and eager seeker of the truth. I hope you will rather take delight in it, and with the strength of your virtue find a remedy for the frailty of your mind, so that, as a great philosopher of our age who rejects the prejudices of the raving multitude, you may at length speak not only as a man but as a true philosopher. What, I ask, remains to man that might be called not eternal, but lasting, when old age penetrates even the mind? With reason and with experience as my teacher, with even a famous historian as witness, I have learned that "all that is born dies, all that grows ages." But I considered the human spirit exempt from the inevitable fate of mortal things, as something not earthly but celestial and as something formed of eternal substance that rises on high by its own strength and by the wings of its own nature, so to speak, and despises death, which creeps and rages along the ground. What I had read in the poet about some ancient peoples in Italy whose "sluggish old age does not weaken their strength of mind" I once applied more extensively to the entire human race.
You compel me to doubt this opinion. For you seem, O distinguished sir - I shall state clearly what I mean - you seem to me, I say, to have aged not so much in body as in mind. But if this could happen to you amidst such wealth of learning and virtues, what are we to think will happen to those naked and defenseless ones with no consolation in their virtue and no assistance from letters, suited to nothing other than increasing the numbers of the multitude, born only to eat food, as Horace so aptly said? You will not deny that the mind can also die if it can grow old, since without doubt old age is the last part of life and a descent, as it were, to death.
Once we concede this, you see what follows: both the sweetness of life as a whole and the hope of immortality are snatched away. It was this hope alone that kept me from grieving at being a man, subject on the one hand to temporal death and on the other to a more noble destiny, and, as faith teaches us as well as nature, destined ultimately to live with both the eternal and blessed life. I am well aware that you are wondering where my words are leading with such long digressions.
If I really know you and your mind, you already understand what I am saying, or am about to say, since by this time your conscience is taunting you. As you know,the famous clergyman Gui, bishop of Porto, apostolic legate to the Holy See, is here. Already I can picture your expression; a modest blush spreading over your face. You did not realize that I would examine your letter, which is in his possession. Had you suspected this, you would never have spoken so weakly, so humbly and, forgive my strong words, so effeminately, if not out of respect for me, at least out of respect for the Muses who are my guests.
If these do not now arm themselves with their verses, the reason is not patience but rather lack of time. I ask you, what do you say to this? Examine the meaning of your words with me; I am dealing with you, as they say, with evidence in hand. You make accusations against this common lord of ours; you sting and you blame, you deplore with an excessively intolerable irresolution, not his absence but - as you call it - his exile, and you disgrace with an unfortunate word his truly sacred pilgrimage, which could not be more glorious. Surely this is that old age which I lament in you, my friend, you would never have spoken that way when I first knew you. Your extraordinary passion and ardor for examining secrets and mysteries, in which you seemed second to none, has, cooled. Is there, then, no middle path between restless curiosity and extreme sluggishness? Once India used to appear not too distant to you. At one time with eager mind, you used to take measure of Thoprobanes and whatever unknown places exist in the Eastern Ocean. At other times, you used to sigh for Ultima Thule hidden on unknown shores, after the Orkneys, Ireland, and whatever lands the Mediterranean washes lost their appeal for you because of their very proximity.
Why, indeed, is it surprising if the earth seemed too small for the mind of a very learned man who turns with indefatigable eagerness toward that celestial pole continually rotating above us guided by an icy rudder, or toward that other pole which - if the Antipodes exist - men dearly behold in the southern region, or finally toward the oblique path of the sun and toward the fixed and wandering stars? Is there anything that passage of time does not destroy? To be in Italy may seem to you a wretched exile, whereas to be far from it might more likely resemble an exile but for the fact that any soil is a strong man’s fatherland, with your permission, I would like to suggest that the Parisian Petit-Pont and its arch, not quite in the shape of a tortoise shell, is too appealing to you; the murmur of the Seine flowing under it delights your hearing too much; finally the dust of France lies too heavily on your shoes. In my opinion, you seem to have forgotten that man who, when asked where he was from, answered that he was a citizen of the world. You are so thoroughly French that you call leaving France for any reason whatsoever an exile. I do not deny that the appeal of our native land is implanted in us, and I do know that illustrious men were by no means destitute of this feeling. I read in Livy, the historian, that Camillus, restorer of Rome and of the empire, equal to any of the most powerful leaders, was silent in his Ardean exile, confessing that he was tormented by the memory of, and by the desire for, his native land; I read in the poetry of Virgil that Diomedes attributed to the gods’ envy the fact that he would not again see his Calydon; I read that at Ovid deplored his absence from his native land, not in a few words but in a complete volume; and I read that Cicero endured his exile with so little manliness that the eloquence of Cicero seemed to lack Ciceronian talent. Besides all this, I know that characteristic of irresolute and weak souls, when honorable reasons are lacking, is an inability to break their fetters and rise above them, or to subordinate the pleasures of the eyes to virtue, which is pleasure of the mind. There are a great number of foreign and Roman generals and philosophers who spent their lives in constant travels to increase either their military or intellectual reputation; but because I recall more willingly what is closer to my profession, I shall mention some of the philosophers.
When Plato left Athens - where, if it is proper to say so, he was worshiped as a terrestrial god - he first went to Egypt, then to Italy, How great a hardship for a man accustomed to a sedentary life! But through all the difficulties of his journey, he used his desire for learning as a vehicle. Then there is the famous trip of Democritus, and the more famous one of Pythagoras, who never returned home once he had left, being more inflamed with the love of truth than of country; accordingly he traveled throughout Egypt, as Cicero narrates, visited the Persian magi, traversed countless foreign lands on foot, and crossed many seas, If you wish to know the ultimate destination of his travels, it was Italy herself where he lived the last twenty years of his life in the very place where you lament a single year's stay by our friend as a tearful exile and truly wasted time. Rouse yourself, rouse yourself, I beg you, awaken your sleeping mind and lift your fallen spirit! You will see the extent to which you are victimized by a cloud of vulgar opinions, when you say those things which I wish I had not read. His is not an exile, as you think, but an honorable sojourn, praiseworthy and dignified, an occasion for everlasting fame with minimal effort.
At present, it is difficult to persuade you of this since you think nothing splendid or agreeable, as I see it, except Paris and those few clods of your small field to which you have devoted your mind. But when you become once again your old self and with the multitude excluded, begin to judge for yourself and have confidence in yourself, I shall renew my confidence in you. Give me back my old companion and the old Philippe. By my being silent, truth will do the pleading. Now this quarrel of mine is not with you but with another Philippe, your enemy. Therefore, be forgiving if you perhaps read something said more freely than the contemporary custom for flattery allows. As Brutus says in a letter to Cicero: "To speak eloquently is indeed beneficial to those who know not what is or is not to be feared.''
Let us return to your exiled friend, about whom you are so disturbed and anxious. I wish you could see him, more magnificent than usual, advancing with head held high through Italian cities. I wish you could see the concourse of people and rulers attending him with honor; I wish you could hear the joyful voices of those who everywhere applaud and support him. You would be ashamed of your cowardly words, and would not call him an exile, but more accurately the author of peace and tranquility and the savior of the state. Since the causes of war between the kingdoms of Hungary and Sicily gushed from deep wells of hatred, dragging a large portion of Europe into danger, and since deadly insurrections had to be suppressed by timely assistance in order to be quelled, no one else could be found for so important a task. If you consider this judgment of the pope, this opinion of the College of Cardinals, this public hope and this joy to be wretched and painful for him, I know not what you would call happy and fortunate. But I beg you, tell me in the name of reason, which ought to control your feelings, what leisure can you compare to this task, what pleasures to these causes, what repose to these labors? Let the epicurean multitude proclaim what it will; I prefer such a noble mission to all delights and pleasures which sleep or food, ambition or passion might offer. For all virtue, all glory, all noble delights are difficult to attain; by descending, a person arrives at obscene pleasures, by ascending, at honorable ones. Therefore, do not deplore the truly enviable fortune of this man; instead, consider yourself an exile and lament it, since you have so distanced yourself from the contemplation of his glory. Even now I might mourn and pity in equal measure your misfortune and your exile, were it not that in pitying him you silently judged your own situation to be happy.
On the other hand, I fear to pity one who is happy lest this be useless compassion, unless perhaps it is in fact the greatest mercy to have compassion on someone who is falsely joyful. What is more, if you have become sedentary before your time, nonetheless be just and allow this man, whom I know for certain you love with your entire mind, to have preferred to an inert immobility this magnificent journey. He is at the prime of life, possessing a strong body, a famous lineage, a lofty talent, and a burning desire for knowledge. Driven by these goads, he left the Seine and the Rhone, and even visited unknown regions. Daring to spurn his teacher, his playmate and his nurse, he attempted manly pursuits, following the distinguished, although difficult, path of unbending virtue.
Lest you think that only philosophers undertook such journeys and that, therefore, this man born of royal blood must be distinguished from their humble condition, I shall cite examples which are even more illustrious. Scipio was twenty-four when his courage belied his age and he set out for Spain against four strong Carthaginian armies and against an equal number of outstanding commanders. After his return laden with countless victories and happy in the praises he had earned, he could have been content to remain at home as a famous private citizen. But since Hannibal was thundering through Italy, he preferred to cross over into Africa against the will of the Senate - which might amaze you - and against the judgment of Fabius Maximus, both tremendous obstacles. As victor in the midst of extremely difficult circumstances, he followed his own calling to greater glory in order to return with security rather than riches for his country, and with a surname for himself; for he went as Cornelius and returned as Africanus. Hannibal himself, whose journey was troublesome and almost fatal for us, left home as a boy in his eagerness to acquire fame and to extend his empire, and returned an old man. What of Alexander of Macedonia, who never did return home? What of Pompey the Great, whose travels throughout his entire life left scarcely a corner of the world unexplored?
What of Julius Caesar and his ten-year journey through Gaul, Germany, and Britain? You know from histories, as your ancestors knew from their defeats, how glorious it was for him, how frightful for you. It is well known that his next march lasting four years, briefer in time but greater in importance and extensiveness, led him to the height of power in the midst of innumerable worldwide upheavals, so that even after the fall of the empire its name still lives on. Neoptolemus went to Troy, scorning the entreaties and tears of his grandfather. Had he obeyed them, his father and his country would have remained unavenged. Ulysses too went to Troy, and even further, crossing lands and seas; nor did he stop before he had founded a city bearing his name on a most distant western shore. At home he had an aged father, a young son, a youthful wife beset by suitors, while he fought with Circe's poisonous cups, the sirens' song, the violent Cyclops, sea monsters, and tempests. This man, famous for his wanderings, put aside his affections, neglected his throne, and scorned his responsibilities. Rather than grow old at home, he preferred to age between Scylla and Charybdis, among the black whirlpools of Avemus and in the midst of such difficult circumstances and locations as to weary even the reader's mind. He did all this for no other reason than to return one day to his country more learned in his old age. And truly, if experience makes men learned, if it is the mother of the arts, what skill or what praiseworthy achievement might a person expect who remained the perpetual keeper of his paternal home? It is proper for the good peasant to remain in his own country, to understand the quality of his land, the behavior of his cattle, the quality of his waters and his trees, the success of his crops, the advantages of the seasons, the changes in the weather, and finally his rakes, hoes, and ploughs.
But it is characteristic of a noble spirit that aspires to lofty goals to have seen many lands and the customs of many men, and to have assimilated them. What you have read in Apuleius is very true: "Not unjustly did the divine father of ancient Greek poetry, wishing to present a man of utmost wisdom, sing that the greatest virtues were achieved by the person who had witnessed the downfall of many cities and known many peoples." In imitation of this, you know the many cities and shores to which our poet led his Aeneas.
You who are now the sole French poet, have pity on this Ulysses or Aeneas of yours, who has been a testing ground for your talent and material for your pen, because he has seen something other than Paris. You do not realize what a pleasing spectacle it was, and will be, for him to see with his own eyes what he imagined in his mind. We know what the Emperor Hadrian used to do.
Those places that through reading or reputation he considered famous, he quite eagerly wished to see personally; nor did the weight of empire hinder him from doing so. As Cicero says in the Tusculans, "If those men who have seen the mouth of the Pontus and the narrows through which passed that ship named 'Argo, because in it sailed the glorious Argives seeking the golden fleece of a ram,' or if those who saw the ocean's mouth 'where the greedy water divides Europe and Libya' think they have accomplished something,'' what must our bishop think who has seen the Italian Alps, once shattered by Phoenician fire and vinegar?
With unimpeded vision, he took measure of the broad, smiling fields of Cisalpine Gaul and of Milan, a city illustrious and flourishing and founded by your ancestors, as writings through many centuries prove; he took measure of Brescia and Verona and in their midst Lake Garda - the former being extraordinary creations of men, the latter of nature. From there he went on to Padua, founded by the Trojan Antenor. He next visited that wonderful, beautiful, and greatest city of all on the Venetian shores, then little Treviso girded by rivers and pleasant with summer delights, which he chose as his residence, not so much for his own convenience as to provide for the comfort and needs of foreign visitors. Next he went beyond Aquileia to quell northern insurrections; crossing the Noric Alps he traveled far and wide throughout Germany and reached the Danube, once the boundary of the empire, equal to the Nile, proud with its thousand springs and seething with dreadful whirlpools. Having recently returned amidst great praise, he has this very day transferred the body of St. Anthony the Minor amid the devotion of an immense throng that was the sole reason for his somewhat protracted sojourn in Padua. Tomorrow he will resume his journey so that, just as he saw the roaring of the Adriatic, he will witness the Tyrrhenian tempests.
First he will cross the Po, king of rivers - unless he views the Seine as such; he will then proceed to Ravenna, said to be the most ancient of cities, then to Rimini and Perugia, a most powerful city; and passing through others on the way he will finally arrive at the capital and mistress of the world, Rome. Whoever as not seen it admires others thoughtlessly. If the good fortune of the Romans at times rendered the appearance of the city more splendid, the year of the Jubilee will render it more sacred than ever before. Even though you call him an exile, he appears to me a most fortunate traveler. He will cross the thresholds of the apostolic churches and he will tread upon ground dark with the holy blood of martyrs; or he will view a likeness of the Lord's face preserved on a woman's veil or depicted on the walls of the mother of churches; he will gaze at the spot where Christ appeared to the fugitive Peter and see on the hard stone his footsteps which all nations will worship eternally; he will enter the Holy of Holies, a shrine filled with heavenly grace; he will admire the Vatican and the cave of Calixtus built from saints' bones; he will look at the Savior's cradle and a relic of His circumcision, and a wonderfully shining vessel of the virgin's milk; he will see Agnes's ring and meditate upon the miracle of conquered lust; he will contemplate the maimed head of the Baptist, Lawrence's grill, and Stephen's remains, which were brought from elsewhere so that both of them might rest peacefully in a single tomb; he will behold where Peter was crucified, where from Paul’s spilt blood sprang forth fountains of pure water, where a stream of olive oil emptied into the Tiber when the Lord was born, where the foundations of a magnificent church were laid on the traces of a summer snowfall, where mighty temples collapsed at the Virgin Birth, where Simon in a fall from heaven disgraced the innocent rock; and he will be shown Silvester's hiding place and the site of Constantine's vision as well as the divinely prescribed cure for his incurable malady, and countless other things. A part of these I once included in two lengthy letters to a friend, and later rendered in verse.
If ever his mind descends to the earthly from the heavenly, he will notice the palaces, although in ruins, of Roman leaders and emperors, the palaces of the Scipios, Caesars, Fabii, and the remains of others which have no limit or number; he will marvel at the Seven Hills, enclosed by a single wall and once the ruler of all the earth, the mountains and the seas, and the broad highways once too narrow for lines of prisoners; he will see the triumphal arches laden with plunder from subjugated kings and people; he will climb the Capitoline, head and citadel of all lands, where once existed a shrine to Jove; now it is Ara Coeli where, as they say, the Christ child appeared to Caesar Augustus. Indeed this is what he will see; but you, every time you contemplate the fields of St-Germain and the hill of Ste-Geneviève, will think you have seen all that the sun shines upon from its rising to its setting, happy in your illusion, if indeed there can be any happiness in error. Upon his departure from Rome - to tell you all - he intends to visit the Etruscan cities - Viterbo, which lies in a green valley surrounded by icy and tepid springs; Orvieto, remarkable because of its recent monument and located on the summit of a wide, steep plateau; Siena too, emulous of Rome because of its nursing she-wolf and seven hills, whose beauty exceeds that of any city built on high (nor in my judgment does the charm of any French city rival hers); nearby Florence, the work of Roman generals, about which I shall say nothing for now so that love of country will not make you mistrustful of me, or me of you. From there, after crossing the Apennines once again, he intends to return here, passing through learned Bologna in order to convene a solemn council of the prelates in his legation; and so he will at last arrive in Milan and bearing left will cross the Apennines for the third time to see Genoa, truly deserving a visit, for no city is more fearless, and could today more rightfully be called a city of kings, if civil harmony existed there; then around the Gulf of Liguria, sunnier than all others, through forests of cedar and palm, over the fragrant and resounding shore he will reach the borders of Italy in order to return to France. These are not signs of a hurried mind affected by boredom. You can see how he is traveling in a circuitous manner, how delight at his arrival is obvious in many places, how his noble mind is refreshed by the sight of a variety of things. Thus, your exiled friend has reason for great joy in having seen many great and memorable things, in having everywhere exalted his illustrious name with his presence, something which usually diminishes fame. In this too Italy has cause for rejoicing since in the midst of the clouds of our age she has been calmed by him as though by a lucky star. This land which, from the beginning of history, as you yourself well know, was always praised above other lands according to the testimony of every author, has now found in our day a great supporter where it was not expecting one. Believe me, upon his return you will marvel at his discussions of Italian affairs. For this reason if you long impatiently for such a father, if you lament your loneliness and the rust growing on your mind because of excessive neglect, I can forgive human weakness. If because of him, however, you envy us, or because of us you envy him, then indeed you deserve to be gnawed by a satirist's tooth, since another's joy torments you. Accordingly, whatever is, is short-lived. Next summer will bring you victory, restoring to you the one it will take away from us. Nonetheless no amount of time will eradicate his image from our hearts. And consider how much more happily and more worldly he will be upon his return, how much more eminent not only to others but even to himself, since he will have seen so much with his own eyes and will have seasoned French urbanity with Italian dignity! Ashamed of your childish complaints, you will turn that elegant eloquence of yours into applause. There was no excuse for them except that they were written in the vernacular, showing that you followed not your own judgment but that of the rabble whose opinion was always blind and base. Farewell, enjoy good health, and remember me.
The physician Marco, compatriot of Virgil, sends greetings. - Letter from Petrarch: to Philippe de Vitry, musician, rebuking the ineptness of those persons so restricted to one corner of the world as to consider even a glorious absence undesirable. From a thesis, “HUMANISM, PHILIPPE DE VITRY, AND THE ARS NOVA” by G. VICTOR PENNIMAN, 1997
Sheet music: Medieval Music