Conundrum Press

Petrarch’s Heirs

November 4th, 2013  |  Published in Blog

by Debbie Vance

David Rothman’s collection of ski essays, Living the Life, releases tomorrow! In honor of the occasion, let’s take a quick look at Petrarch, shall we?

Francesco Petrarca-known as Petrarch to us English folk-was born on July 20, 1304, in Arezzo, Italy, just south of Florence. He is most notably known for popularizing a form of poetry called the sonnet, “a form based on rules established by the 13th-century Italian poet Guittone of Arezzo,” through his 317 love sonnets to a certain Laura de Noves. Thus we have the Petrarchan sonnet…AND a extensive exploration of unrequited love. As the poet J.D. McClatchy said:


True love—or rather, the truest—is always obsessive and unrequited. No one has better dramatized how it scorches the heart and fires the imagination than Petrarch did, centuries ago. He dipped his pen in tears and wrote the poems that have shaped our sense of love—its extremes of longing and loss—ever since.

But Petrarch has done far more than establish the Italian sonnet and define our emotional sense of love-as if that weren’t enough. He is also known as the “father of humanism,” as he believed humans had been given a vast intellectual capacity by God that could (and should) be developed to its fullest degree. His writings shaped early humanist philosophy, which emphasized the value and agency of human beings, and ultimately led to the Renaissance.

For Petrarch-a devout Catholic and a budding humanist-there was a constant conflict between enjoying the tangible, given life around him and contemplating the significance of his own human soul, a tension which David Rothman explores beautifully in his essay, “The Year of the Thunderbolt”:

But no, we say, perhaps a bit testily, wait a minute, to love the world’s wild garden, especially its ragged, magnificent edges, its roaring green waves, its craggy peaks, is a good in itself. Here in the modern world, perhaps especially in America, we have an outdoors made available to us in philosophy and in reality as a transcendent vision. Our encounters with it can be a communion with the sources of creation, part of life rather than an escape from it.

But perhaps we protest too much. Maybe the anxiety we feel between wildness and polis is productive, even useful, an achievement, not a problem. Petrarch might not have had his vision of God that day unless he had climbed Ventoux. The complexity of drawing these two things together—our purposeless joy in nature on one hand, our purposeful obligations on the other—shows how much we remain Petrarch’s ambivalent heirs.

As writers, as mountain lovers, as children of the Renaissance with all its humanist leanings, we do remain-in a sense-Petrarch’s heirs. Which, given this little history lesson, isn’t such a bad thing after all. If only we could be the “father” (or “mother”) of a movement that shaped the world and all its consequent generations…We should be so lucky.

Check out Rothman’s book, Living the Life, for a more in-depth (and artful) look at this, that, and the other philosopher. Among other things.

Poet, powderhound, musician, ex-racer, teacher, philosopher–all sides of Renaissance man David Rothman are on display in this collection, which ranges from satire to whimsy to the profoundly grateful and the essential questioning. Emerson? Check. Thoreau? Check. Petrarch? Only David Rothman would put Petrarch in a story about skiing’s “earthly enjoyment.” In a voice that sparkles with intelligence, he is capable, in the end, of deep sincerity. So spake “The Dude in the Parking Lot,” who says of a late-season epiphany at Arapaho Basin: “All that really matters is being there.” David Rothman is a writer who skis and a skier who writes, very well.

—Peter Shelton, author of Climb to Conquer and The Snow Skier’s Bible 


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