Finally finished My Secret Book by Francesco Petrarch. It’s a slim volume - about 120 pages - but reading it was a hard and brutal slog. It’s a record of what Petrarch calls “the private conflicts of my soul,” and it has now been translated by Nicholas Mann as part of Harvard’s I Tatti Renaissance Library. It turns out that Petrarch had a rather dull soul. Or, to be more accurate, he couldn’t write about himself without suffocating his personality (which was large) under the stodgy and stultifying conventions of medieval literature (which were larger).
One day, in a dark mood, Petrarch has a waking vision of a radiant woman approaching him. She is the personification of Truth. Sensing his anguish she summons up the spirit of St. Augustine. For the next three days Petrarch and Augustine engage in a scholastic disputation over the author’s misery, replete with homilies, intellectual jousting (with concessions politely granted to an opponent’s logical agility), gentle rebukes, calls to piety, and incessant citation of Latin authors. Truth sits by and says nothing, though I imagine she too had to stifle many a yawn.
Composed between the mid-1340s and 50s and never published during the author’s lifetime, this book was written too soon. It’s nothing like the great Renaissance autobiographies that would follow; works such as Girolamo Cardano’s The Book of My Life (1576), or Cellini’s Autobiography (1563), or Montaigne’s Essays (1570-92). In those books the personality of the author, his struggles, failures, quirks, victories, daily habits, et al. appear before us simply and directly. There is no need to resort to medieval allegory. Some time between the mid 14th-century and the mid 16th-century people learned how to express themselves as individuals, how to tell the story of their own lives, how to put forth their own opinions and thoughts. But Petrarch was too early for this change, and this disappointing book makes that painfully clear.