Tuesday, November 20, 2007


Petrarch and Greek

Dear Mr.Gilleland,

Thanks for the entertaining snatch of dialogue from Petrarch. Christopher Robinson's Lucian does happen to be among my librorum copia so I can confirm what the top of your head told you; the first Latin translations of Lucian didn't appear until a decade or two after Petrarch's death. The last section you quote ("Multos in vinculis tenes, qui si forsan erumperent ...") reminds me of the library of Petrarch himself — a very reluctantly ignorant book-collector where Greek was concerned. His manuscripts of Plato and Homer were among his most treasured possessions but unintelligible to him — literally "in vinculis", the litterae, those deltas, thetas, rhos and omegas like so many links in a chain. He had the Hellenophone Calabrian monk Leontius Pilatus translate some of the Homer for him. Petrarch must have had just a smattering of Greek himself. How much can you learn in a summer (he had an intensive course in Avignon in 1342)?

He begins his letter to Homer (1360): "I have long desired to address you in writing, and would have done so without hesitation if I had had a ready command of your language. But alas! Fortune was unkind to me in my study of Greek." There's also a letter to Boccaccio (August 18th 1360) on the subject of the Homer translation: "Had Fate smiled more kindly upon me when I entered upon the student's career, and had not death so untimely overtaken my illustrious teacher, I should today, perhaps, have something more than a rudimentary knowledge of Greek." His teacher, another Italo-Greek, Barlaam of Calabria died of the plague, and Pilatus was killed by a bolt of lightning on his way back from Constantinople to Venice, where Petrarch was eagerly awaiting the arrival of more manuscripts he'd no hope of being able to read. Bad luck all round.

Best Regards,

Peter Watson

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