Petrarch, the Stay-at-Home Tour Guide

In 1358 the Italian poet Francesco Petrarca, better known in English as Petrarch, was invited by his friend Giovanni Mandelli to go on a pilgrimage to the Holy Land. From this invitation a book was born: Petrarch’s Guide to the Holy Land (Itinerary to the Sepulchre of Our Lord Jesus Christ).

“Slow Death and Nausea Worse than Death”

Not that Petrarch went on the pilgrimage. Although he was quite a keen traveller, an early kind of medieval tourist (he climbed Mont Ventoux just for the fun of it, which in those times was an idea unheard of), he had a horror of the sea and upon reflection, he prudently decided that he was much less likely to get seasick if he stayed on terra firma. Declining the invitation however didn’t deter him from writing about all the places he wasn’t going to see:

…I shall be with you in spirit, and since you have requested it, I will accompany  you with this writing, which will be for  you like a brief itinerary.

Presumably, Petrarch was reasonably authoritative regarding Italy but thereafter? You have to wonder.

Although the book is ostensibly a pilgrim’s guide to the Holy Land, the Holy Land  itself features in it somewhat scantily and Mandelli’s journey instead was to take in all the classical sites of Italy to finish by visiting the tomb of Alexander the Great in Alexandria. I don’t know what became of Mandelli, whose only claim to fame seems to be that he was the recipient of Petrarch’s Itinerary, although it’s safe to assume that since we’ve got the text, he escaped the “slow death” Petrarch feared so much (maybe even the “nausea worse than death”). In any case, Petrarch’s loss is our gain – he might have missed out on the Holy Land but as a consequence we’ve got a little pamphlet that promises to be an interesting read. I mean, can you think of anything better than visiting Italy with a guide book* written 650 years ago by an eminent humanist? Beat that!

*Unfortunately, Petrarch's Itinerary is not an easy book to get your hands on. As far as I could ascertain, the only English translation - by Theodore Cachey - was published by one of the more obscure publishing houses you could just think of: The University of Notre Dame!

You may also like:Petrarch on the Ascent of Mont VentouxA Petrarch Sonnet (Venice Balcony at Night)

2 thoughts on “Petrarch, the Stay-at-Home Tour Guide

    1. Glad you enjoyed it! 🙂

      Did you go on to read Petrarch’s recounting of his ascent on Mont Ventoux? It’s a letter to his confessor and it makes for an interesting read not just on account of the description of his ascent but what he writes about the thoughts it awoke in him. I particularly like the bit when he opened up St Augustine’s Confessions… it’s a great quote and the comment about his brother annoying him is priceless: you can just see and hear them squabbling on top of the mountain! Suddenly Petrarch is not this famous personality from history, just another ordinary human being like ourselves.


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