Ascent of Mont Ventoux

The Italian poet Petrarch wrote a well-known letter about his "Ascent of Mont Ventoux" on April 26 1336, written around 1350, which he published as one of his "Epistolae familiares" (IV, 1). In this letter, Petrarch claimed to be the first since antiquity to have climbed a mountain for the view, and this originality is often a part of depictions of the Renaissance. Twentieth-century historiography doubts that he even did climb Mont Ventoux.


Petrarch's letter is addressed to his former confessor, Dionigi di Borgo San Sepolcro. It says he ascended the mountain with his brother Gherardo, exactly ten years after they had left Bologna. They began at the village of Malaucène at the foot of the mountain. On the way up they met an old shepherd, who said he had climbed the mountain fifty years before, finding only rocks and brambles, and that no-one else had done it before or since. The brothers continued, Gherardo continuing up the ridge they were following, Petrarch ever trying for an easier, if longer, path. [Petrarch himself applies this to his spiritual failures; this passage is one of the reasons the whole letter is regarded as allegory.] At the top, they found a peak called "Filiolus", "Little Son"; Petrarch reflected on the past ten years, and the waste of his earthly love for Laura. They looked out from here, seeing the Rhone and the Cévennes, but not the Pyrenees (which are 200 miles away). At this point, Petrarch sat down and opened his Augustine, and immediately came upon "Men go to admire the high mountains and the great flood of the seas and the wide-rolling rivers and the ring of Ocean and the movement of the stars; and they forget themselves." Petrarch fell silent on this trip down, reflecting on the vanity of human wishes and the nobility of uncorrupted human thought. When they arrived back in the village in the middle of the night, Petrarch wrote this letter "hastily and extemporaneously" - or so he says. [Bishop, pp.102-112; quotes and translation from Bishop, as are the choice of points to summarize and the comment on the Pyrenees.]

Historic doubts

It is often claimed that Petrarch was the first to climb Mont Ventoux, but Jean Buridan had made an ascent earlier in the 14th century, and German writers of the 10th and 11th centuries left records of mountain ascents. [Michael Kimmelman, [ "NOT Because it's There"] , "New York Times", June 6, 1999. See also Lynn Thorndike, [ Renaissance or Prenaissance] , "Journal of the History of Ideas", Vol. 4, No. 1. (Jan., 1943), pp. 69-74. ] It is certainly implausible that Petrarch sat down and wrote the six thousand words we have, in elegant Latin with correct quotations from the classical poets, before dinner after an eighteen-hour hike up and down a mountain. [So Bishop, p. 112] In fact, whether Petrarch himself climbed the mountain has been doubted by modern scholars; according to Pierre Courcelle and Giuseppe Billanovich, the letter is essentially a fiction written almost fifteen years after its supposed date, and almost a decade after the death of its addressee, Francesco Dionigi da Borgo San Sepulcro. [O'Connell, Michael, "Authority and the Truth of Experience in Petrarch's 'Ascent of Mount Ventoux,'" "Philological Quarterly", 62 (1983), p.507, citing Billanovich, Giuseppe. "Petrarca e il Ventuso," "Italia medioevale e umanisrica" 9 (1966), pp. 389-401, and Courcelle, Pierre, "Petrarque entre Saint Augustin et les Augustins du XIVe siecle," "Studipetrarcheschi" 7 (1961), pp. 51-71.] Lyell Asher argued, indeed, that the ascent of the mountain was a figurative account of writing the letter itself. [Asher, Lyell, " Petrarch at the Peak of Fame"; PMLA, Vol. 108, No. 5. (Oct., 1993), pp. 1050-1063.]

Modern reception

Jakob Burckhardt, in "The Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy" declared Petrarch "a truly modern man", because of the significance of nature for his "receptive spirit"; even if he did not yet have the skill to describe nature. [Burckhardt, "Civilization", Part IV §3, beginning. [ convenience link] .] Petrarch's implication that he was the first to climb mountains for pleasure, [E.g. Bishop, p.104:"the first recorded Alpinist, the first to climb a mountain because it is there." ] and Burckhardt's insistence on Petrarch's sensitivity to nature ,have been often repeated since. [E.g. Kimmelman, who sees Petrarch's letter as early environmental writing.] There are also numerous references to Petrarch as an "alpinist", [E.g. Ernst Cassirer: "The Renaissance Philosophy of Man", tr. Hans Nachod, p.28:"The colorful description of this enterprise has startled many readers who have been amazed to see a man of his epoch venturing to climb a mountain for a view like a modern alpinist"] although Mont Ventoux is not a hard climb, and is not in the Alps. [Bishop, p.102,104] This implicit claim of Petrarch and Burckhardt, that Petrarch was the first to climb a mountain for pleasure since antiquity, was disproven by Lynn Thorndike in 1943. [Thorndike, "op cit."]

"The Legitimacy of the Modern Age" by Hans Blumenberg describes Petrarch's ascent of Ventoux as "one of the great moments that oscillate indecisively between the epochs," namely between the medieval period and modernity. He also uses it to illustrate his theory of intellectual history: "The description of the ascent of Mont Ventoux exemplifies graphically what is meant by the 'reality' of history as the reoccupation of formal systems of positions." [Blumenberg, pp. 341, 342]

"Soul is the marvel"

James Hillman, in his seminal work, "Re-Visioning Psychology", argues that it is not the ascent of Mont Ventoux that initiated the Renaissance but the subsequent "descent", wherein Petrarch finds the solution to Augustine's dilemma. Here is how Hillman puts it:

Petrarch's experience is called the Ascent of Mont Ventoux. But the crucial event is the "descent", the return down to the valley of soul. He deliberately refused the spiritual path (represented to him by Saint Augustine), remaining loyal to his attachments to writing, the image of Laura, and his reputation among men -- unable to "lift up", as he says, "the inferior parts of my soul". This is further confirmation, I believe, of our reconstruction of the psychology of the passage, of Petrarch's experience on the mountain, and of the root metaphor of the Renaissance.cite book | first=James | last=Hillman | authorlink=James Hillman | year=1977 | title=Re-Visioning Psychology | ISBN=0-06-090563-8 | publisher=Harper & Row | pages=197]

Hillman rejects the humanistic fallacy, which conflates soul with man and nature:

Augustine and Petrarch imply three distinct terms: man, nature, and soul. Man may turn outward to the mountains and plains and seas or inward to images corresponding with these, but neither those out there nor those in here are mine, or human. Renaissance psychology begins with a revelation of the independent reality of soul -- the revelation to Petrarch on Mont Ventoux of psychic reality. .... [T] he humanistic fallacy fails to acknowledge what Petrarch actually wrote: Soul is the marvel. "It is not the return to nature from man that starts the Renaissance going, but the return to soul."

Hillman insists that the outer world of nature is mirrored by an equally vast inner world of images. The latter is what he calls "soul" or "psyche". Both worlds exist apart from the human being. The outer world may have motivated Petrarch to climb Mont Ventoux, but the inner world is what he discovered when he reached the top and read the passage from Augustine's "Confessions".

Hillman distinguishes between ascending spirit (the transcendent) and the descending soul (the immanent). Augustine pursues the former; Petrarch, the latter.



*Bishop, Morris "Petrarch and His World". ; Bloomington, Indiana. Indiana University Press 1963
*Blumenberg, Hans, "The Legitimacy of the Modern Age" (tr. Robert M. Wallace). Cambridge, Massachusetts: MIT Press, 1983.
*Burckhardt, Jacob. "The Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy", (1868) tr. Middlemore; New York, Macmillan 1890.
*Michael Kimmelman, [ "NOT Because it's There"] , "New York Times, June 6, 1999.
*O'Connell, Michael, "Authority and the Truth of Experience in Petrarch's 'Ascent of Mount Ventoux,'" "Philological Quarterly", 62 (1983),
*Lynn Thorndike, [ Renaissance or Prenaissance] , "Journal of the History of Ideas", Vol. 4, No. 1. (Jan., 1943), pp. 69-74. (The JSTOR link is to a collection of several letters in the same issue.)

ee also

*Edmund Burke

External links

* [ English translation of "Ep. Fam." IV 1]

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