Letters addressed to a ghost

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The beginning of Petrarch’s letter to Homer in Vatican, BAV, Urb.lat.330

When we think of Renaissance humanism, several things leap to mind: the rediscovery of the classics, the discovery of manuscripts and works previously thought lost, a taste for antiquity, Cicero’s eloquence, classical ideas, imitation of the ancient masters. But we rarely, if ever, think about imaginary friends. And we rarely think about the novelty of writing and addressing letters to figures of classical antiquity.

And that’s exactly what Petrarch did.

When we think of Petrarch, we think love, roses, whispers, sighs and Lauras. Of course, Petrarch was much more than that, he was one of the fathers of humanism. But even like this, we don’t remember him as the first European author to surround himself with imaginary friends who’ve been dead for over 1,300 years.

You can tell something was astir in Western European culture when one of its most prominent members had the idea to write letters to Cicero, Vergil, Homer and other giants of classical letters. When he was no longer satisfied with the present and the people therein, and turned his pen to bringing up the past from the ashes of oblivion. No, Cicero hadn’t been lost, and neither had Virgil. As for Homer, he was known by reputation, even if his works had been ‘out of print’. But all of these authors were, well, authors, abstracts names written in red ink on animal skins. Their humanity, which is to say their proximity, their influence, their cultural kinship had been forgotten.

Petrarch begins his letter to Homer thus: ”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 tongue. But alas! Fortune was unkind to me in my study of Greek.”

Through his letters to classical authors, Petrarch taught us that to (re)discover the past is to enter into dialogue with it, hoping to be changed by it and through it.

The humanist authors of the late Middle Ages started walking in the ‘veterum vestigia vatum’, in the footsteps of the ancient poets. But they also surrounded themselves with the ghosts of the ancient poets, ghosts who began speaking to them loudly in voices which would change the course of European history and culture.

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