Francesco Petrarca (July 20, 1304 – July 19, 1374), commonly anglicized as Petrarch, was an Italian scholar and poet in Renaissance Italy, and one of the earliest humanists.
Petrarch recounts that on April 26, 1336, with his brother and two servants, he climbed to the top of Mont Ventoux (1,912 meters (6,273 ft)), a feat which he undertook for recreation rather than necessity. The exploit is described in a celebrated letter addressed to his friend and confessor, the monk Dionigi di Borgo San Sepolcro, composed some time after the fact. In it Petrarch claimed to have been inspired by Philip V of Macedon’s ascent of Mount Haemo and that an aged peasant had told him that nobody had ascended Ventoux before or after himself, 50 years before, and warned him against attempting to do so. The nineteenth-century Swiss historian Jacob Burckhardt noted that Jean Buridan had climbed the same mountain a few years before, and ascents accomplished during the Middle Ages have been recorded, including that of Anno II, Archbishop of Cologne.
Scholars note that Petrarch’s letter to Dionigi displays a strikingly “modern” attitude of aesthetic gratification in the grandeur of the scenery and is still often cited in books and journals devoted to the sport of mountaineering. In Petrarch, this attitude is coupled with an aspiration for a virtuous Christian life, and on reaching the summit, he took from his pocket a volume by his beloved mentor, Saint Augustine, that he always carried with him.
For pleasure alone he climbed Mount Ventoux, which rises to more than six thousand feet, beyond Vaucluse. It was no great feat, of course; but he was the first recorded Alpinist of modern times, the first to climb a mountain merely for the delight of looking from its top. (Or almost the first; for in a high pasture he met an old shepherd, who said that fifty years before he had attained the summit, and had got nothing from it save toil and repentance and torn clothing.) Petrarch was dazed and stirred by the view of the Alps, the mountains around Lyons, the Rhone, the Bay of Marseilles. He took St. Augustine’s Confessions from his pocket and reflected that his climb was merely an allegory of aspiration towards a better life.
As the book fell open, Petrarch’s eyes were immediately drawn to the following words:
And men go about to wonder at the heights of the mountains, and the mighty waves of the sea, and the wide sweep of rivers, and the circuit of the ocean, and the revolution of the stars, but themselves they consider not.
Petrarch’s response was to turn from the outer world of nature to the inner world of “soul”:
I closed the book, angry with myself that I should still be admiring earthly things who might long ago have learned from even the pagan philosophers that nothing is wonderful but the soul, which, when great itself, finds nothing great outside itself. Then, in truth, I was satisfied that I had seen enough of the mountain; I turned my inward eye upon myself, and from that time not a syllable fell from my lips until we reached the bottom again. […] [W]e look about us for what is to be found only within. […] How many times, think you, did I turn back that day, to glance at the summit of the mountain which seemed scarcely a cubit high compared with the range of human contemplation […]
James Hillman argues that this rediscovery of the inner world is the real significance of the Ventoux event. The Renaissance begins not with the ascent of Mont Ventoux but with the subsequent descent—the “return […] to the valley of soul”, as Hillman puts it. Arguing against such a singular and hyperbolic periodization, Paul James suggests a different reading:
In the alternative argument that I want to make, these emotional responses, marked by the changing senses of space and time in Petrarch’s writing, suggest a person caught in unsettled tension between two different but contemporaneous ontological formations: the traditional and the modern.