Francesco Petrarch (1304–1374) and Giovanni Boccaccio (1313–1375) are foremost among the early Humanists at the very outset of what would later become known as the Renaissance. These two great literary geniuses stood with one foot in the medieval world and one foot in the modern one, the great watershed between the two being what they would have called the Great Morality — the Black Death. The Renaissance itself was born out of the aftermath of this international tragedy, coupled with the pragmatism of the Franciscan movement and an interest in the Classics. Petrarch and Boccaccio, along with Dante Alighieri, are referred to as the ‘Three Crowns of Italian Literature.’ They popularized use of the vernacular as well as pursued a course toward improving Latin through reading the Classics. They begun the intellectual foundation of Renaissance Humanism through their sheer curiosity and creativity. These two men lived and wrote of one of the worst catastrophes ever to befall any civilization in recorded history and their experiences influenced their perspectives as they continued to create. Both survived the disease and lived to see the beginnings of recovery, though this process would take decades, even centuries. The legacies of Petrarch and Boccaccio are as the founts of both Humanism and modernity — the two are inextricably linked.
The Great Mortality — Bubonic Plague — spread throughout Europe between 1347 and 1351, killing anywhere from 75,000,000–200,000,000 people across the Eurasian continent. The Europeans at the time knew the plague was contagious but there was no notion of germ theory of disease before the nineteenth century. The Europeans were left with the medieval medical theories. The spread of the disease was, thus, associated with miasma, or bad air. Petrarch and Boccaccio both experienced the plague on the Italian Peninsula. This was the first area the plague reached in Europe. The plague followed European trade routes, thus the vast networks of trade routes associated with Italian merchants helped spread the disease quickly to major population centers.
In the 1330s and 1340s, Petrarch began exploring a philosophy of modernity — one heavily influenced by his interests in ancient authors (most notably Cicero). He also coined the term ‘Dark Ages’ in the 1330s to refer to the centuries since the fall of Rome when the relative quality of civilization had declined precipitously. He begun to formulate these major aspects of proto-Renaissance thought before the coming of the Great Mortality in 1347.
The devastation of the plague is recorded several times by Petrarch in his letters. In a long letter, addressed to ‘his Socrates [Lodewijk Heyligen],’ Petrarch lamented the widespread death caused by the outbreak of plague. The year 1348 was particularly bad for Italy. Cities like Siena and San Gimignano were hit hard. Both are believed to have lost about half their populations to plague.
“The one thousand three hundred and forty eighth year of the sixth age that I am mourning, which has not only stripped us of our friends, but the whole world of its peoples; and if that year passed over anything, then the next one harvests its gleanings and pursues with its death-dealing scythe whatever had survived that storm. When will posterity believe that there was an age without a flood, or a conflagration of heaven and earth, without warfare or other visible disaster, in which neither this region nor that of earth, but the whole globe will be left without an inhabitant? When was any such woe seen or heard reported? In what annals has it been read that homes were empty, cities, abandoned, the countryside neglected, the fields chocked with corpses, and a dreadful and violent desert created all over the world.” -Francesco Petrarch, from Selected Letters Vol. I (I Tatti Renaissance Library) p.79–81.
Petrarch commented on the unprecedented nature of the disease he was living through. His letter goes on stating how happy other generations, such as that of the great-grandsons of those at the time, would would not know the disasters which were devastating the continent at the time. Petrarch turned his thought to his god and, ultimately, to the loss of so many people.
“Where are now our sweet friends, where their beloved faces, their soothing words, their mild and pleasing company? What thunderbolt has devoured these joys, what earthquake overthrown them, what storm submerged them, what abyss opened to swallow them? We were close together; now we are almost alone.” — Francesco Petrarch, from Selected Letters Vol. I (I Tatti Renaissance Library) p.85
Petrarch took solace in contemplating the works of Cicero but even his intellectual passions could not shake the devastation. Think about losing half of all people you know, and in such a short time — what impact would that have on you? Among those whom Petrarch communicated at this time was Giovanni Boccaccio. The dark years of the plague had brought these two great minds together, in person as well as in letters.
“While I am lamenting in vain and unburdening my spirit of these sorrows, I am accusing men who cannot reply: if only, dear friend, they had followed you in physical action as they always did in purpose, and had been willing to lie low with us in our trusty home and retreat from the plague, which was so conspicuously laying waste to Rome and Naples. I rejoice that you did so and thank you for thinking my roof worthy to shelter in while our country was suffering from these same evils…We have mourned the year one thousand three hundred and forty-eight of this age. But now we realize it was only the beginning of mourning and this strange force of evil, unheard of through the ages, has not ceased since then, ready to strike on all sides, to the right and left like a most skilled fighter. So after sweeping across the whole world several times, now that no part is left unharmed, it has struck some regions twice, thrice and four times, and ruined some with annual sickness.” — Francesco Petrarch, from Selected Letters Vol. I (I Tatti Renaissance Library) p.93–99.
Giovanni Boccaccio set his famous Decameron in his own time, against the backdrop of the plague. A group of young people flee the city of Florence and go into the countryside to escape the ravages of the plague.
The Decameron is one of the greatest literary masterpieces in Italian. Boccaccio has the story unfold across ten days with each of the ten characters telling ten stories each. For Boccaccio, this group of storytellers constitute a kind of order amid the chaos of plague raging in the nearby city of Florence. Though a work of fiction, the description of plague in the beginning of the work was influenced by Boccaccio’s own experiences.
“I say, then, that the years of the beatific incarnation of the Son of God had reached the tale of one thousand three hundred and forty-eight when in the illustrious city of Florence, the fairest of all the cities of Italy, there made its appearance that deadly pestilence, which, whether disseminated by the influence of the celestial bodies, or sent upon us mortals by God in His just wrath by way of retribution for our iniquities, had had its origin some years before in the East, whence, after destroying an innumerable multitude of living beings, it had propagated itself without respite from place to place, and so, calamitously, had spread into the West.
In Florence, despite all that human wisdom and forethought could devise to avert it, as the cleansing of the city from many impurities by officials appointed for the purpose, the refusal of entrance to all sick folk, and the adoption of many precautions for the preservation of health; despite also humble supplications addressed to God, and often repeated both in public procession and otherwise, by the devout; towards the beginning of the spring of the said year the doleful effects of the pestilence began to be horribly apparent by symptoms that shewed as if miraculous…
Moreover, the virulence of the pest was the greater by reason that intercourse was apt to convey it from the sick to the whole, just as fire devours things dry or greasy when they are brought close to it. Nay, the evil went yet further, for not merely by speech or association with the sick was the malady communicated to the healthy with consequent peril of common death; but any that touched the cloth of the sick or aught else that had been touched or used by them, seemed thereby to contract the disease.” -Giovanni Boccaccio, ‘Decameron’ (1353, 1903 Rigg translation)
Giovanni Boccaccio was effectively the ‘second Humanist,’ after Petrarch. He was the first Humanist to known Greek and the first to directly quote Greek writings in his work. His devotion to the Classics was not limited to interest in copying antiquity (neither was it for Petrarch or most other Humanists). As one can see from the Decameron, Boccaccio was a man of his time, looking to breathe new life into Italian literature.
These two Humanists not only survived the Black Death, they created literary masterpieces in its immediate aftermath. Both men lived into their 60s, dying in the mid-1370s. Among the countless bodies that piled up in mid-fourteenth century Europe, Petrarch and Boccaccio managed to survive and have an astonishing impact on the development of literature and philosophy for generations to come. Living through the worst epidemic disease in recorded history, Petrarch and Boccaccio laid the foundations of a modernity and Humanist philosophy which was to prove vital in the development of the Renaissance. In short, Francesco Petrarch and Giovanni Boccaccio were the first of the moderns.