In this essay, I will first define two different variations of imitation through a close study of two letters by Angelo Poliziano and Paolo Cortesi in the mid-1480s. In the light of these definitions, I will explain Petrarch’s idea of imitating antiquity by taking a look at his speech from his self-coronation in 1341. Furthermore, I will explain the idea of using imitation to influence politician Cola di Rienzo during his revolution in 1347. Finally, I will end my essay by summarizing my findings in order to answer the question of what was meant by the idea of imitating antiquity during the Renaissance.
Before I can begin to answer this question, I will have to account for two different variations of imitation based on the debate of Poliziano and Cortesi: imitation and emulation. According to Poliziano’s description of compositions by men, a man will have to be original in his ideas, because it is a sin to imitate. He directly states that “To me the face of a bull or lion seems far more honourable than that of an ape, which nonetheless is more like a man that they are” (Duvick in Dellaneva, 2007). Men should always stay true to themselves, claim originality and emulate rather than imitate. In response, Cortesi brings strong arguments regarding the use of both imitation and emulation. He states that when imitating, writers should not simply replicate the work of other men, but rather emulate it and further already accumulated knowledge, in the same sense that a son can grow to rival his father:
“The son, however, reproduces the appearance, walk, posture, motion, form, voice and finally the shape of his father’s body, but still has something of his own in this likeness, something natural, something different.” (Duvick in Dellaneva, 2007).
A person who acknowledge the wisdom of other men and uses it to draw inspiration will, therefore, by this definition, have a lot more to gain by emulating rather than imitating. In opposition to Poliziano’s negative perception of complete imitation, however, Cortesi believes that no man is ever starting from scratch because he will always have been influenced by some earlier writer. He believes that if a man had to be completely original, the product would truly result in a faulty type of writing and that if it came to the bitter result where he would have to choose between imitating Cicero or not sharing the same opinions, he would imitate him just as the ape imitates man (Duvick in Dellaneva, 2007). Through this debate, I have now defined two different types of imitation: The complete imitation and the emulation, or rivalry, of ideas from other men. Because of this, I can now begin to answer the question of what was meant by the idea of imitating antiquity during the Renaissance.
At the beginning of the Renaissance, Petrarch, originally named Francesco Petrarca, preached about humanistic values found in antiquity and he is by many historians regarded as the restorer of ancient Roman poetry. He wished, for both Rome and Italy as a whole, to flourish in wisdom and ancient values by following his example in imitating the old Republic. His arguments and visions can best be found within his speech Petrarch’s Coronation Oration and in his correspondence to Cola di Rienzo and the Roman people. I will begin by looking for an answer to my question by the examination of the first of two texts.
Self-coronation was by tradition a normal thing to do in the antiquity and therefore on April the 8th 1341 Petrarch declared himself Poet Laureate, one of the first since the classical age. In his coronation speech, he firmly addressed different questions about how men should act and live, and one of these questions was whether or not it was okay to claim glory for yourself. In answering, he imitates Cicero’s opinion on multiple occasions by claiming that it is perfectly normal to want glory if you have done hard labour, but that in this sense it must be based on wise decisions and virtues, otherwise the term does not apply. Furthermore, he explains that glory awards the receiver with wisdom, virtues, and fame, and this should be extended to the entire Italian population. Petrarch used Cicero’s description of Rome as the capital of the world and states that he was eager to help the citizens of Rome become equals to those of antiquity (Wilkins, 1953). The idea behind exposing some of the most honourable and moralistic ideas of the classical age tells us that Petrarch’s goal behind imitating this specific period during the Renaissance originated from a desire to show, in this context the people of Rome, how civilized and noble such ideas were. It, therefore, stands to reason, that what he tried to achieve by preaching these ideas was to create a revival or continuation of what he saw as the world’s most civilized and democratic society, the old Roman Republic. This, however, raises an interesting question. When Petrarch asks for the citizens of Rome to follow his example and imitates antiquity, he goes against the arguments of Cortesi and Poliziano. They argue, that imitation should only be done if the goal is not to become equals of ancient Roman society, but to emulate its strengths and virtues to evolve into something greater. As they state, there is no honour in simply imitating, and therefore it stands in direct opposition to Petrarch’s wish of imitating antiquity. This does, however, serve as a brilliant example of the difference between the two terms and by differentiation, it becomes clearer what the idea behind imitating antiquity was. Petrarch saw the old Roman republic as the pinnacle of civilization and he desired by all his heart to return Italy to its former glory through the use of imitation.
Through Cortesi and Poliziano’s statements, this explains the idea behind imitating other people, but to explain the idea of imitating antiquity in light of the Renaissance, I will have to take a look at Petrarch’s correspondence to Cola di Rienzo and the Roman people during the Revolution of Cola in 1347. Just as Petrarch had preached the imitation of antiquity to the people of Rome during his coronation, he also sent a letter to Cola where in which he imitated Cicero’s desire for liberty (Cosenza, 1913). The idea behind this imitation was that he tried to convince Cola to keep on reading ancient roman texts, so that he, through his newly attained political power, could reform Italy into an imitation of the old Roman republic. Petrarch used Cicero’s philosophy of liberty to challenge the Italians and their idea about how true Romans should be. He tried to show them their ancient heritage and the fact that true Roman virtues resided in embracing liberty. Furthermore, he brings direct suggestions to what Cola should do next and makes use of ancient names such as calling Cola the new Brutus, the great liberator. He also presented him as a tribune of the people, thereby reinstating old titles and names of antiquity (Cosenza, 1913). This tells us that the idea behind the use of imitation during the Renaissance was to revive the old Roman republic, for and by the people, and to bring back humanistic ideas and virtues, especially in order to overthrow the few who controlled the many. As Petrarch described it, even though the Italian people had been lying dormant throughout the middle ages, they were actually just waiting for a time to return to their true heritage and claim their long-lost republic (Cosenza, 1913). If Poliziano and Cortesio had lived at the same time as Petrarch, they must have strongly disagreed on this attempt to completely imitate antiquity, as it completely goes against their arguments of how imitation should not be used to replicate but rather to emulate.
To conclude, the idea of imitating antiquity during the Renaissance was to revive the ancient Roman spirit and values which Petrarch believed to reside in all Italians. Petrarch used different key-figures and names from antiquity to achieve this goal. He attempted to convince the strong political revolutionist Cola di Rienzo to follow in the steps of the old Roman republic by asking him to read up on ancient texts in the hope of convincing him to adopt the values of antiquity and bring glory to the rest of Italy. Furthermore, Petrarch attempted to establish himself as a guide for the people of Rome to imitate and thereby claim their ancient heritage that was the democratic and civilized republic of antiquity.
Written by Frederik Roland Andersen, University College Cork, Cork, Ireland, 2016.
- – Cosenza, Mario Emilio. Francesco Petrarca and the Revolution of Cola di Rienzo, Chicago (1913), print.
- – Duvick, Brian in Joann Dellaneva. Ciceronian Controversies, Cambridge, MA (2007), print.
- – Wilkins, Ernest H. Petrarch’s Coronation Oration, PMLA, 68/5 (1953), print.