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Sarcophagus containing the remains of Francesco Petrarca in the main square of Arquà

From the Euganean Hills, October 11, 1797

“The sacrifice of our fatherland has been consummated: everything is lost, and life, if it will be granted us, will be left only to cry on our misfortunes, our infamy. My name is on the proscription list. I know it; but do you expect me to surrender to those who betrayed me in order to save myself from the people who oppress me? Do console my mother. Overwhelmed by her tears, I obeyed her and left Venice to avoid the first and fiercest persecutions.”
Ugo Foscolo, The Last Letters of Jacopo Ortis, in Three Italian Epistolary Novels, Translated by Vincenzo Traversa

View of Arquà Petrarca, surrounded by the Euganean Hills

The Veneto region, the former territory of the Republic of Venice, has been in many parts ruined by real estate speculation and industrialization. However, some areas are still intact, like in the case of Arquà Petrarca, a small village in the Euganean Hills (Colli Euganei) not far from Padua (Padova). The name Arquà derives from the latin Arquatum or Arquata (made as an arch), and the village became home to Petrarch in 1370. This is how the Italian poet depicted it in one of his letters: “Wide chestunt, walnut, beech, ash, oak trees covered the hills of Arquà, but it was mainly the grapevines, the olive trees and almond trees that contributed to create the striking Arquatean landscape” (my translation). The travellers who have also visited Tuscany, will find a certain resemblance with the landscape of this area, and it would be fascinating to think that one of the reasons why Petrarch chose this place to spend the last years of his life, was just the fact that it reminded him of Tuscany, as the poet was born in Arezzo.

This resemblance with Tuscany was also noticed by Percy Shelley, even though in his opinion Bagni di Lucca was more beautiful. In a letter to Peacock, dated Este, 8th October, 1818, Shelley in fact wrote:

“We have been living this last month near the little town from which I date this letter, in a very pleasant villa which has been lent to us. . . . Behind us here are the Euganean hills, not so beautiful as those of the Bagni di Lucca, with Arquà, where Petrarch’s house and tomb are religiously preserved and visited.”

Shelley was writing this letter from Este, another town in the Euganean Hills, not far from Arquà Petrarca, which will deserve a separate blog article in order to be covered extensively.

Arquà Petrarca from a different perspective


Byron’s first visit in 1817: Where They Real Ruins?

It was not until 1817 that Byron had a chance to visit this village, as we can see from his letter to John Cam Hobhouse, written from Florence on 22nd April, 1817:

From Padova I diverged to Arquà to Petrarch’s present & former habitation – the present is in the best repair – but both are rather ragged & somewhat poetical.

The main square in Arquà, with Petrarch’s sarcophagus on the left

The “former habitation” was Petrarch’s House, where the poet lived from 1370 to 1374, the year of his death, while the “present” one was Petrarch’s tomb, a sarcophagus erected in the main square of the village and that still contains the remains of the poet. Ugo Foscolo had a similar opinion regarding the state of Petrarch’s house, as proved by the words of the protagonist, Jacopo, in The Last Letters of Jacopo Ortis:

“We continued on our brief pilgrimage until we noticed, white in the distance, the little house that one time welcomed

That Great man, whose fame the world cannot contain,
From whom, on earth, Laura received celestial pride.

I approached it as if I was going to render homage to the graves of my forefathers, like those priests who, silent and reverent, wander in the woods where the gods dwelt. The sacred house of that great Italian is crumbling down because of the impiety of those who possess such a great treasure. In a futile attempt, the traveler will come from a distant lands looking in respectful wonder, for the room still resounding of Petrarch’s noble songs. He will sob, instead, over a pile of ruins covered with nettles and weeds where the solitary fox has dug its hole.
Ugo Foscolo, The Last Letters of Jacopo Ortis, in Three Italian Epistolary Novels, Translated by Vincenzo Traversa

Actually Foscolo did not merely complain about the current state of the house, as he seemed to take this occasion to also reprimand his countrymen for how they treated historical buildings, a behaviour that unfortunately went on in the following centuries:

Oh Italy! Placate the shades of your great men. I do remember, with anguish in my soul, the last words of Torquato Tasso. After living forty-seven years in the midst of courtiers’ derision, the boring prattle of the sophists and the pride of the rulers, now in prison and now wandering about, always dejected, sick and poor, he finally rested on his death bed and wrote with his last breath: “I am not complaining of my destiny’s wickedness, which, apart from mankind’s ingratitude, prevailed and led me to my grave in poverty.” Oh Lorenzo… These words always echo in my heart. Always!”
Ugo Foscolo, The Last Letters of Jacopo Ortis, in Three Italian Epistolary Novels, Translated by Vincenzo Traversa


The Romantic Iconography of Arquà

Petrarch’s House as it is now (my pics)

Byron’s and Foscolo’s descriptions seem to fit well Samuel Prout’s (1783-1852) engravings that were often used in travel guides for the visitors of Italy during the Grand Tour. These kind of descriptions represented in fact more the fashion of the period than the actual state of the building at the time:

Samuel Prout and Carles Heath, Petrarch’s House at Arquà, 1829, Engravings, Ed. Fenner

Samuel Prout, Engraver: Wallis (1830), Source: Samuel Rogers, Italy, a Poem, p. 88. Source: The Internet Archive and the University of California (http://www.victorianweb.org/painting/prout/drawings/11.html)

As I said above, it is possible that Foscolo’s and Byron’s descriptions, as well as Prout’s engravings, merely showed a romantic interest for Italian ruins (see here), as Petrarch’s House had in fact been restored at the end of the eighteenth century and therefore was in good condition at the time of Byron’s, the Shelleys’, Prout’s and Foscolo’s visits.


Byron’s Second Visit in 1817

Byron visited Arquà Petrarca again in 1817, even though that visit was not planned and he seemed to have been forced to divert to that town because there were no horses to be had in Padua. All those available had in fact been requisitioned by the Austrian troops, as we can read in his letter to Richard Belgrave Hoppner from La Mira on 12th September, 1817:

“I set out yesterday morning with the intention of paying my respects, and availing myself of your permission to walk over the premises. On arriving at Padua, I found that the march of the Austrian troops had engrossed so many horses, that those I could procure were hardly able to crawl; and their weakness, together with the prospect of finding none at all at the post-house of Monselice, and consequently either not arriving that day at Este, or so late as to be unable to return home the same evening, induced me to turn aside in a second visit to Arqua, instead of proceeding onwards; and even thus I hardly got back in time.”


Byron’s Visit in 1818

During the period in which he stayed in Venice (see here), spending his time among the various salons of the Republic, Byron had a chance to visit Arquà again, as proved from a letter to Rogers of 3rd March, 1818:

“The villa you speak of is one at Este which Mr. Hoppner (Consul-General here) has transferred to me. I have taken it for two years as a place of villeggiatura. The situation is very beautiful indeed, among the Euganean hills, and the house is very fair. The vines are luxuriant to a great degree, and all the fruits of the earth abundant. It is close to the old castle of the Estes or Guelphs, and within a few miles of Arquà, which I have visited twice and hope to visit often.”


A Love for Petrarch or a Love for the Beauties of Italy?

Detail of Francesco Petrarca’s head in the sarcophagus that contains the remains of the poet

From all these visits we may be induced to think that Byron travelled to Arquà because he admired Petrarch or because he was inspired by him, but this was not the case. Lord Byron was certainly not a fan of the Italian poet, nor a follower of platonic love and of the pedantic poetry that derived from it. He seemed in fact to be more interested in the Devil (in any sense) than in daydreaming or reveries, as shown from the following entry in his journal, written some years before he visited Arquà, between 17th and 18th December, 1813:

I have lately written a wild, rambling, unfinished rhapsody, called “The Devil’s Drive” the notion of which I took from Person’s “Devil’s Walk.” Redde some Italian, and wrote two Sonnets on ——. I never wrote but one sonnet before, and that was not in earnest, and many years ago, as an exercise—and I will never write another. They are the most puling, petrifying, stupidly platonic compositions. I detest the Petrarch so much, that I would not be the man even to have obtained his Laura, which the metaphysical, whining dotard never could.

And the following verses from Don Juan make it clear once for all what Byron thought of the Italian poet:

When amatory poets sing their loves
In liquid lines mellifluously bland,
And pair their rhymes as Venus yokes her doves,
They little think what mischief is in hand;
The greater their success the worse it proves,
As Ovid’s verse may give to understand;
Even Petrarch’s self, if judged with due severity,
Is the Platonic pimp of all posterity

Lord Byron, Don Juan


Lord Byron’s Last Visit with Teresa Guiccioli in 1819

In spite of those viewpoints, I think we can say quite safely that the fame of Petrarch brought Byron there, not merely curiosity or his attraction for landscapes. In his last visit of 1819 in fact, this time together with Teresa Guiccioli, Byron seemed to show his high respect for the Italian poet, but that episode would need a separate blog article as the story reported by Teresa is really fascinating.

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Letters from the Exile by Massimo Vangelista is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.
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