Petrarch and Boccaccio Recover Classical Texts

Petrarch and Boccaccio brought humanist ideals to the forefront of European education through the preservation and circulation of neglected manuscripts from the classical age.

Summary of Event

In 1350, Petrarch stopped over in Florence on his way to Rome for the mid-century papal Jubilee. There, he met Giovanni Boccaccio who, like Petrarch, had already established himself as an innovative literary figure in Europe. Petrarch’s reputation was reinforced by Rerum vulgarium fragmenta (1470, also known as Canzoniere; Canzoniere (Petrarch)
Rhymes, 1976), which had been largely completed by 1335. This collection of 366 poems (317 sonnets, 29 canzoni, 9 sestine, 7 ballates, and 4 madrigals) represents a fusion of classical and Christian values. More important, it continued the enterprise, begun by Dante Dante , of writing in the vernacular—in this case, the refined Tuscan dialect of northern Italy. Poetry;Italy
[kw]Petrarch and Boccaccio Recover Classical Texts (c. 1350-1400)
[kw]Boccaccio Recover Classical Texts, Petrarch and (c. 1350-1400)
Boccaccio, Giovanni
Italy;c. 1350-1400: Petrarch and Boccaccio Recover Classical Texts[2850]
France;c. 1350-1400: Petrarch and Boccaccio Recover Classical Texts[2850]
Cultural and intellectual history;c. 1350-1400: Petrarch and Boccaccio Recover Classical Texts[2850]
Boccaccio, Giovanni

Petrarch drew from numerous sources, chiefly the influential poets of Roman antiquity—Vergil, Horace, Catullus, Propertius, and especially Ovid. Saint Augustine’s moral precepts added a formidable coloring, as did Dante’s La vita nuova (c. 1292; Vita nuova, 1861; better known as The New Life). The sprightly lyrical quality derives some of its vigor from the Provençal troubadours—notably Arnaut Daniel and Bernart de Ventadorn. In addition, courtly love resonances from Guido Cavalcanti’s late thirteenth century poems are discernible. This extraordinary synthesis of biblical and classical themes inspired the humanist movement and contributed to Petrarch’s moment of recognition on April 8, 1341, when he was crowned Poet Laureate of the Holy Roman Empire. This event was orchestrated by King Robert of Naples, perhaps the most dynamic patron of the arts during the formative years of Petrarch and Boccaccio.

Boccaccio’s Decameron: O, Prencipe Galeotto (1349-1351; The Decameron, Decameron (Boccacio) 1620) also relied on classical sources and fourteenth century prose works. Among the latter, the Gesta Romanorum—a popular collection of tales and fables from antiquity that reached its final form during Boccaccio’s lifetime—and the French fabliaux tradition represent noticeable influences. Boccaccio’s Italian writings leading up to the Decameron reveal tendencies that clearly suggest the revival of classical literary modes. Early prose works from his Naples period of the 1330’, Il filocolo (c. 1336; Labor of Love, 1566) and Il filostrato (c. 1335; The Filostrato, 1873), derive their energy from historical parallels. Il ninfale d’Ameto, also known as Commedia delle ninfe (1341-1342; comedy of the nymphs), the Elegia di Madonna Fiammetta (1343-1344; Amorous Fiammetta, 1587, better known as The Elegy of Lady Fiammetta), and Il ninfale fiesolano (1344-1346; The Nymph of Fiesole, 1597) from his Florentine period of the 1340’s continue this pattern as Boccaccio added psychological and mythological elements to pastoral idylls.

The sensuality of these works can be traced to the Angevin court at Naples, where the chivalric codes of northern France were deeply embedded. Boccaccio’s prose style, a mixture of classical decorum and robust local Italian color, became the model for Renaissance realists who admired the broad spectrum of his imagination, by which characters and social setting are vividly conveyed and at times viciously satirized.

Francesco Petrarch.

(Library of Congress)

Petrarch had a profound effect on Boccaccio’s appreciation for classical writers. As Petrarch used his papal connections in Avignon to move around Europe visiting cathedrals and monasteries in search of ancient manuscripts, he developed a lively correspondence with Boccaccio. The two met regularly—in Milan (1359), Venice (1363 and 1367), and Padua (1368)—planning projects and trading books. Boccaccio translated into Italian the works of the Roman historian Livy, studied the Thebais (c. 90; Thebaid, 1767) of Statius, restored the reputation of Ovid, and wrote “eclogues” in imitation of Vergil. To Petrarch, he sent Dante’s La divina commedia (c. 1320; The Divine Comedy, 1802), Augustine’s “Commentary on the Psalms of David,” and excerpts from Cicero and Marcus Terentius Varro. Furthermore, Boccaccio popularized one of his favorite works, Metamorphoses (second century; The Golden Ass, 1566) by Lucius Apuleius, and galvanized European interest in classical mythology in a series of Latin books written between 1350 and 1360.

Petrarch elevated Seneca, Sappho, Cicero, Horace, and Quintilian to celebrated positions of esteem and contributed to new considerations of historical documentation by praising the accomplishments of Julius Caesar, Sallust, and Livy. Petrarch wrote a philological commentary on portions of Livy’s Decades from a manuscript retrieved by Landolfo Coronna, one of his patrons. Many of the ideals of the Humanist tradition concerning civic duty, eloquence, and moderation derive from Petrarch’s study of lost manuscripts of Cicero’s works—the Pro archia and fragments of his letters—uncovered by Petrarch at Liège (1333) and at Verona (1345), respectively.


Petrarch and Boccaccio owned copies of Vitruvius’s De architectura, which they circulated. Developments in Renaissance architecture can be attributed to this effort. They supervised the translations of Homer and Plato into Latin, along with annotations to the ecclesiastical chronicles of Eusebius of Caesarea. Petrarch continued to explore classical literature and history in several Latin books, notably De viris illustribus (1351-1353; reorganized as Quorundam virorum illustrium epithoma)—an unfinished biography of famous Romans. Boccaccio concentrated on Trattatello in laude di Dante (1351, 1360, 1373; Life of Dante, 1898), which led to his appointment as a lecturer on Dante in Florence (1373). The scope and depth of the Latin writings of Petrarch and Boccaccio perhaps outweigh their contributions to the European vernacular traditions because they provided the essential materials for the blossoming of Humanism in the fifteenth century.

Giovanni Boccaccio.

(Library of Congress)

As Latinists and Italian lyric poets, Petrarch and Boccaccio paved the way for the secular spirit that imbues the work of Geoffrey Chaucer Chaucer, Geoffrey and a host of Renaissance vernacular writers. These authors attempted to capture, for the first time since classical antiquity, the complex world of human emotions seen freely from all sides, without class bias or religious restriction. They added a wealth of nuances and perspectives to the predetermined framework of Christian culture that houses their ideas. Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales (c. 1387-1400), Boccaccio’s Decameron, and, to a lesser extent, Petrarch’s Canzoniere present a series of vignettes rooted in middle-class competitive practicality. Eroticism is equally as powerful as Christian morality, and the metaphysical dimensions of life are mirrors of worldliness.

The Humanism Humanism articulated by Petrarch and Boccaccio introduced impulses at odds with Scholastic thought, and thus it may be viewed as the mentality of a transitional phase, between the medieval and the modern. While discovering, editing, and restoring classical texts, Petrarch and Boccaccio also contributed to an imaginative understanding of ages past; this understanding gave classical literature a pedigree that it had not yet attained. Moreover, Petrarch and Boccaccio offered their contemporaries a new appreciation for the literary qualities of Greek, Roman, and early Christian authors, with a deeper sense of how they achieved their effects. As a result, humanist scholars were endowed with a finer vision of their own turbulent era.

Further Reading

  • Fubini, Riccardo. Humanism and Secularization: From Petrarch to Valla. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 2003. An examination of Humanism and its relationship with Petrarch, Bracciolini, and Poggio. Bibliography and index.
  • Jones, Frederic J. The Structure of Petrarch’s “Canzionere”: A Chronological, Psychological, and Stylistic Analysis. Rochester, N.Y.: Boydell and Brewer, 1995. An analysis of Petrarch’s poetry, particularly his Canzionere. Bibliography and indexes.
  • Koff, Leonard Michael, and Brenda Deen Schildgen, eds. “The Decameron” and the “Canterbury Tales”: New Essays on an Old Question. Cranbury, N.J.: Associated University Presses, 2000. A collection of essays on the relationship between the two works. Bibliography and index.
  • Mazzotta, Giuseppe. The World at Play in Boccaccio’s “Decameron.” Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1986. Connects the stories of the Decameron to commercial, legal, and political events in early fourteenth century culture.
  • Quillen, Carol E. Rereading the Renaissance: Petrarch, Augustine, and the Language of Humanism. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1998. Examines Petrarch as a reader and writer as well as his correspondence in relation to Humanism. Also looks at Saint Augustine. Bibliography and index.
  • Serafini-Sauli, Judith Powers. Giovanni Boccaccio. Boston: Twayne, 1982. A very useful introduction to Boccaccio’s works. Introductory chapters deal with the writer’s background and the early years in Naples. Each section is preceded by biographical information as a preface to the commentary. Contains a good bibliography, with details of the works in Italian, Latin, and English translations.
  • Staples, Max. The Ideology of the “Decameron.” Lewiston, N.Y.: Edwin Mellen Press, 1993. This wide-ranging study offers a fairly comprehensive account of Boccaccio’s sources and demonstrates the classical depth established early in his writings.