Gateway to the Classics: European Hero Stories by Eva March Tappan
European Hero Stories by  Eva March Tappan

Francesco Petrarch

Hundreds of thousands of men returned from the crusades with their minds full of new ideas. They had seen the distant countries of the East with their mountains, rivers, plains, and seas. In the great cities they had gazed upon hundreds of handsome buildings different from anything in their own lands. Many of the French, German, and English crusaders had gone to Venice to take ship to cross the Mediterranean, and there they had seen most superb structures of colored marble. The outside of the Venetian palaces was generally adorned with bas-relief, and the groundwork was often colored a deep, rich blue, while the sculpture was covered with gold leaf. Moreover, the crusaders had learned that their own ways of living were not always the best and most comfortable. They had found that there were kinds of food and materials for clothing better than those to which they had been accustomed; that there were beautiful furnishings for houses of which they had never dreamed. Having seen such things or heard of them, people wished to buy them. The cities about the Adriatic Sea, especially Venice and Genoa, were ready to supply all these new discovered needs. Long before this, the Venetians had driven the pirates from the Adriatic and had claimed the sea as their own. To symbolize this victory, they had a poetical custom. Every Ascension Day the doge, or ruler of the city, sailed out in a vessel most magnificently decorated, and with a vast amount of ceremony dropped a golden ring into the water to indicate that the city had become the bride of the sea. Venice had built ships and carried the armies of crusaders across the water. She had gained stations on the eastern shore of the Adriatic, and might fairly claim to rule the whole sea. She had used her ships for other purposes, however, than carrying armies, for she had an enormous trade, as we have said, in the beautiful things that were made in the distant lands of the East. She brought home cargoes of rich tapestries and silks, jewels, glassware, and most exquisite pieces of work in iron and gold and enamel. Her workmen copied them and found in them hints and suggestions for other work. These things were carried over Europe, and even in far-away England it was taken for granted that any particularly handsome article had been brought from Italy. Macaroni was the best-known food of the Italians, and the English began to call anything dainty and delicate and graceful "macaroni," or even anything dandified and foppish, as our "Yankee Doodle" shows in the lines,

"Stuck a feather in his hat,

And called it macaroni."

The crusades not only taught people about other lands and other customs, but they taught them to wish to see more of the world, to know what men of other countries were doing and thinking. People began to have more interest in what was written in books. They had thought that a man encased in armor, carrying a sword and a lance, and set upon a horse, was the greatest hero on earth. Now they began to have a glimmering idea that the man who had noble thoughts and could put them into noble words was greater than the man with the sword.


The Ceremony of Making Venice the "Bride of the Sea."

The most famous scholar of the age was an Italian poet called Pe'trarch. Even as a boy he loved the writings of the early Latin and Greek authors. His father wished him to become a lawyer, and the boy listened to some lectures on law; but all the while he was saving his money to buy the works of Cic'e-ro and Vir'gil. His father threw the precious manuscripts into the fire; but when he saw the grief of the boy, he snatched them out again. Thus Petrarch slowly won his way to being a poet and scholar. He became a great collector of manuscripts, especially of the Greek and Roman writers; and, moreover, he showed people how to study them. Before his day, even students had felt that if two copies of an author's work did not agree, one was as likely to be correct as the other. Petrarch taught people to compare manuscripts, to study them, and so learn whether one was copied from another, or whether those in hand had all been copied from some older writing that was lost.

Princes and other great men of Italy admired his poetry and showed him much respect, but there were two special honors for which he longed. One was to be crowned as poet laureate by the Roman senate; the other was to wear a similar crown in Paris. On one happy September day invitations to receive both these crowns came to him. He had always taught that it was wrong for a man not to make the most of himself, and even when he was seventy, he did not think of giving up work. His physicians said, "You must rest"; but, instead of resting, he engaged five or six secretaries and worked as hard as ever. One morning he was found in his library, his head lying on an open book. He was dead.


(From an old painting)

His influence, however, did not die. Others, too, began to collect the long-forgotten manuscripts of the Greek and Roman authors. They searched monasteries and churches and made many copies of the precious writings. Italy was all alive with interest in the great works of the ancient writers. The Italian students thought wistfully of the manuscripts that must be stored away in Greece. They did not know how soon they would be able to read them for themselves and without leaving their own country.

Thus it was that, although the crusaders did not win Jerusalem and though the Holy City is even to-day in the hands of the Mohammedans, yet the crusades did much to encourage commerce, to give people new ideas on many subjects, and to prepare them to receive the knowledge that was coming to them swiftly from the East.


What the crusaders had seen and learned. — The wedding of the Adriatic Sea. — The wealth and power gained by Venice. — "Macaroni."—Increased interest in books. — Petrarch's early life. — He teaches how to study manuscripts. — The two honors that were bestowed upon him. — His death. — His influence.

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