Lives of Famous Men: The Lost Frescoes

By Galvin, Rachel | Humanities, January/February 2003 | Go to article overview

Lives of Famous Men: The Lost Frescoes


Galvin, Rachel, Humanities


SCHOLAR ON THE TRAIL OF Petrarch has discovered two rare books containing hand-drawn images that offer a glimpse of the lost fourteenth-century frescoes from the Hall of Famous Men.

The frescoes, destroyed by fire, were commissioned to accompany Petrarch's book of Roman heroes, Lives of Famous Men.

The discovery by art historian Lilian Armstrong is detailed in her new book of essays, Studies of Renaissance Miniatures in Venice, forthcoming this spring. While doing research funded by an NEH fellowship, she unearthed two copies of the 1476 edition of Petrarch's Lives-one in the British Library and one in the Bibliotheque Nationale de France. The edition is

a curiosity because of its layout: opposite each hero's biography is an empty page framed by an interlaced woodcut border. The framed pages are still blank in most extant copies of this edition, awaiting the heroes' portraits. But each of the copies Armstrong located contains more than two dozen images of heroes.

The Hall of Famous Men frescoes have artistic significance as the grandest Petrarchan work of art begun in the author's lifetime, and for their focus on subjects of Roman antiquity. The hall has been the object of much scholarly speculation, but until now there were no known images that would provide a vision of the frescoes.

In the late 1360s the Lord of Padua, Francesco da Carrara, encouraged Petrarch to complete his book in praise of Roman heroes; at the same time he commissioned large-scale mural paintings of those heroes for his palace. In the fire of 1500, the frescoes were destroyed and only Portrait of Petrarch in His Study survived. The murals were repainted in 1540 with the addition of more Roman emperors, reflecting the later Renaissance interest in imperial imagery-but there are no copies to suggest what the original hall may have looked like.

The coats of arms in the Paris and London copies of Lives suggest that the volumes were destined for patrician clients in Padua or Venice. "In 1476 the model would have been the Trecento frescoes still visible in the Hall of Famous Men," she says. "I believe that the miniatures in London and Paris are based on workshop drawings of the frescoes."

Petrarch was a scholar, humanist, and poet whose writings were central to European thought in the transition from the medieval to the modern era. In a letter he addressed "To Posterity," he describes himself, saying, "I was, in truth, a poor mortal like yourself, neither very exalted in my origin, nor, on the other hand, of the most humble birth, but belonging, as Augustus Caeser says of himself, to an ancient family." He was instrumental in reviving interest in classical Greek and Roman culture, which he saw as possessing essential knowledge for the transformation and improvement of humanity. He himself rediscovered several of Cicero's manuscripts.

"Among the many subjects which interested me, I dwelt especially upon antiquity," he writes, "for our own age has always repelled me, so that had it not been for the love of those dear to me, I should have preferred to have been born in any other period than our own.

Petrarch was a close friend of Boccaccio, a younger writer who would go on to write the Decameron, one of the masterpieces of Italian prose.

Together they formulated humanism and set about resuscitating the use of vernacular Italian, at a time when Latin was the accepted language of literary composition. "The vernacular... has but recently been discovered," Petrarch writes in a letter to Boccacio, "and though it has been ravaged by many, it still remains uncultivated.... I began an extensive work in that language. I laid the foundations of the structure, and got together my lime and stones and wood."

"Petrarch's innovation in Lives is that his heroes strictly adhere to one historical culture-Rome before the imperial period," says Armstrong. "And that he defines exemplary heroism as military and statesmanlike, to the exclusion of literary

accomplishment.

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