bonæ litteræ: occasional writing from David Rundle, Renaissance scholar

The Cult of Petrarch and the Art of Graffiti

Posted in Grand Tour by bonaelitterae on 13 April, 2010

Speaking last week in Padua at a conference expertly organised by the excellent Alessandra Petrina, I took the opportunity in the following days to follow where previous secular pilgrims have done: for the first time, I visited Arquà Petrarca, which sits in the embrace of the Euganean Hills. The village — or, as the tourist information would have it, borgo — only took its double-barrelled name in 1868, when it added the reference to its most famous former inhabitant, Francesco Petrarca, who lived out his final years here.

Petrarch’s tomb stands in front of the parochial church, and the house in which he lived is now a small museum. Its display bears witness to the cult of the poet, in particular in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. For instance, there is a print depicting the opening of Petrarch’s tomb in 1834, when his remains were checked and a rib removed for separate burial (one example of a fashion for exhumations which could, in itself, be a topic worthy of an historian). The house also contains an example of the ‘Codici di Arquà’, begun in 1787 as visitors’ books. The purpose, the museum explains, was to end the previous practice of etching one’s name into the walls of the small villa. Now there remain examples of these graffiti (the most legible being by Austrian students from 1564) on the fireplaces and on the baroque wall-monument to what is supposed to be Petrarch’s mummified cat.

This history of graffiti interests me. Their presence demonstrate that, while the casa was in various private hands, it was also open to visitors. ‘Pilgrims’ would, presumably, turn off the road from Padua to Ferrara at Monsélice, and climb into the hills purposely to visit the village. Some would then wish to record their visit — they did not attempt to leave their mark on the marble of the tomb but thought it appropriate to etch their name in the stonework or plaster of the house. The owners, for their part, must either have been continually unobservant or (more likely) have been tolerant, if not welcoming, of such graffiti. In other words, such inscriptions were, until the late eighteenth century, an accepted activity for at least some tourists. If this is so, it puts in a different light the graffiti found so often elsewhere — in churches, for example, cut into alabaster figures or marked on frescoes. It has struck me before that these could rarely have been acts of a moment but must have been more deliberate and painstaking. In that situation, such graffiti must have had a resonance different from those with which we would associate the activity: not akin to vandalism, it was an act that lay somewhere between the desire to commemorate one’s own presence and a wish to pay homage to the place or the long-gone person in whose presence you were. Petrarch, perhaps, would have understood.