Before "Antiquity"

Petrarch and Boccaccio

The Landscape of Ancient Rome

The Landscape of Antiquity

The Inhabitants of Antiquity






Petrarch and Boccaccio


Trionfi e canzoniere

Francesco Petrarca, Trionfi e canzoniere

Geneologiae deorum

Giovanni Boccaccio, Geneologiae deorum

Tomb of Petrarch

Tomb of Petrarch


If it were necessary to name "the inventor of antiquity," one could make a good case for the Italian poet Francesco Petrarca (1304-1374), known to English speakers simply as "Petrarch." As a youth Petrarch became devoted to the works of Cicero, and as a young man he wrote a poem, the Africa, with a Roman general as its hero and the works of Virgil and Cicero as its explicit models.

Thus Petrarch had begun to value the ancient over the modern. In 1337 he made his first trip to Rome. He spent long days strolling about the city with his friend Giovanni Colonna, a Dominican friar. As Petrarch later recalled in a letter to Colonna, they spent much of their time identifying the sites of Roman myth and history:

Here was the castle of Evander, there the temple to Carmenta; here the cave where Cacus dwelt, there the She-Wolf nursing her twins.... Here the spot where Remus crossed over, there the site of the circus races and the rape of the Sabine women....

By comparing the landscape of Rome with the texts of her poets and historians, Petrarch had revived a city that had long lain neglected: "Who today are more ignorant of Roman history than are the citizens of Rome?... Nowhere is Rome less known than in Rome." He gave this forgotten city a name: ancient Rome. It was necessary to define the adjective: "Let us call 'ancient' whatever preceded the celebration and veneration of Christ's name in Rome, 'modern' everything from then to our own time."

Petrarch's admiration for antiquity had contemporary political relevance. He was a supporter of the Roman populist Cola di Rienzo (d. 1354), who attempted a revival of the glories of ancient Rome. Petrarch's Trionfi, shown here in a 15th-century edition, were based upon the triumphs of ancient Rome. This was not "mere antiquarianism." Cola had staged actual revivals of the triumphs during his revolution of 1347.

Petrarch was venerated long after his death, and his tomb, shown here in a 16th-century engraving, became an object of pilgrimage. More importantly, his studies of antiquity were continued by a legion of followers. One of the earliest and most important was Giovanni Boccaccio (1313-1375). In his Geneologiae deorum, Boccaccio compiled a vast store of tales concerning the lives and loves of the Greco-Roman gods. Although Boccaccio was hindered by his ignorance of Greek, his genealogy, which became a standard reference for artists and poets, may be considered one of the first works of modern classical scholarship.


[Bryn Mawr College Library Special Collections]