Ascent of Mont Ventoux
The Italian poet Petrarch wrote about his ascent of Mont Ventoux (in Provence; elevation 1912 meters) on 26 April 1336 in a well-known letter published as one of his Epistolae familiares (IV, 1). In this letter, written around 1350, Petrarch claimed to be the first person since antiquity to have climbed a mountain for the view. Although the historical accuracy of his account has been questioned by modern scholars, it is often cited in discussions of the new spirit of the Renaissance.
Petrarch's letter is addressed to his former confessor, Dionigi di Borgo San Sepolcro. It says he ascended the mountain with his brother Gherardo and two servants, exactly ten years after they had left Bologna. They began at the village of Malaucène at the foot of the mountain. On the way up they met an old shepherd, who said he had climbed the mountain some fifty years before, finding only rocks and brambles, and that no-one else had done it before or since. The brothers continued, Gherardo continuing up the ridge they were following, Petrarch ever trying for an easier, if longer, path. At the top, they found a peak called Filiolus, "Little Son"; Petrarch reflected on the past ten years, and the waste of his earthly love for Laura. They looked out from here, seeing the Rhone and the Cévennes, but not the Pyrenees (which are 200 miles away). At this point, Petrarch sat down and opened his Augustine, and immediately came upon "People are moved to wonder by mountain peaks, by vast waves of the sea, by broad waterfalls on rivers, by the all-embracing extent of the ocean, by the revolutions of the stars. But in themselves they are uninterested." Petrarch fell silent on this trip down, reflecting on the vanity of human wishes and the nobility of uncorrupted human thought. When they arrived back in the village in the middle of the night, Petrarch wrote this letter "hastily and extemporaneously" - or so he says.
It is often claimed that Petrarch was the first to climb Mont Ventoux, although he did not suggest so himself. The mountain was likely already climbed in prehistoric times and there is even a slightly older written account of an ascent, by Jean Buridan, who on his way to the papal court in Avignon before the year 1334 climbed Mt. Ventoux "in order to make some meteorological observations". It further seems implausible that Petrarch sat down and wrote the six thousand words we have, in elegant Latin with correct quotations from the classical poets, before dinner after an eighteen-hour hike up and down a mountain. In fact, whether Petrarch himself climbed the mountain has been doubted by modern scholars; according to Pierre Courcelle and Giuseppe Billanovich, the letter is essentially a fiction written almost fifteen years after its supposed date, and almost a decade after the death of its addressee, Francesco Dionigi da Borgo San Sepulcro. Lyell Asher argued, indeed, that the ascent of the mountain was a figurative account of writing the letter itself.
Jakob Burckhardt, in The Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy declared Petrarch "a truly modern man", because of the significance of nature for his "receptive spirit"; even if he did not yet have the skill to describe nature. Petrarch's implication that he was the first to climb mountains for pleasure, and Burckhardt's insistence on Petrarch's sensitivity to nature have been often repeated since. There are also numerous references to Petrarch as an "alpinist", although Mont Ventoux is not a hard climb, and is not usually considered part of the Alps. This implicit claim of Petrarch and Burckhardt, that Petrarch was the first to climb a mountain for pleasure since antiquity, was disproven by Lynn Thorndike in 1943.
The Legitimacy of the Modern Age by Hans Blumenberg describes Petrarch's ascent of Ventoux as "one of the great moments that oscillate indecisively between the epochs," namely between the medieval period and modernity. He also uses it to illustrate his theory of intellectual history: "The description of the ascent of Mont Ventoux exemplifies graphically what is meant by the 'reality' of history as the reoccupation of formal systems of positions."
James Hillman, in Re-Visioning Psychology, uses the story of Petrarch's ascent to illustrate his argument that the outer world of nature is mirrored by an equally vast inner world of images. Both worlds exist apart from the human being. The outer world may have motivated Petrarch to climb Mont Ventoux, but the inner world is what he discovered when he reached the top and read the passage from Augustine's Confessions. 
Notes and references
- Petrarch himself applies this to his spiritual failures; this passage is one of the reasons the whole letter is regarded as allegory.
- Confessions X.8.15
- Bishop, pp.102-112; quotes and translation from Bishop, as are the choice of points to summarize and the comment on the Pyrenees.
- Ernest A. Moody Jean Buridan in the Dictionary of Scientific Biography
- Michael Kimmelman, "NOT Because it's There", New York Times, June 6, 1999. See also Lynn Thorndike, pp. 69-74.
- So Bishop, p. 112
- O'Connell, Michael, "Authority and the Truth of Experience in Petrarch's 'Ascent of Mount Ventoux,'" Philological Quarterly, 62 (1983), p.507, citing Billanovich, Giuseppe. "Petrarca e il Ventuso," Italia medioevale e umanisrica 9 (1966), pp. 389-401, and Courcelle, Pierre, "Petrarque entre Saint Augustin et les Augustins du XIVe siecle," Studipetrarcheschi 7 (1961), pp. 51-71.
- Asher, Lyell, Petrarch at the Peak of Fame; PMLA, Vol. 108, No. 5. (Oct., 1993), pp. 1050-1063.
- Burckhardt, Civilization, Part IV §3, beginning. convenience link Archived February 3, 2007, at the Wayback Machine..
- E.g. Bishop, p.104:"the first recorded Alpinist, the first to climb a mountain because it is there."
- E.g. Kimmelman, who sees Petrarch's letter as early environmental writing.
- E.g. Ernst Cassirer: The Renaissance Philosophy of Man, tr. Hans Nachod, p.28:"The colorful description of this enterprise has startled many readers who have been amazed to see a man of his epoch venturing to climb a mountain for a view like a modern alpinist"
- Bishop, p.102,104
- Thorndike, pp. 69-74
- Blumenberg, pp. 341, 342
- Hillman, James (1977). Re-Visioning Psychology. Harper & Row. p. 197. ISBN 0-06-090563-8.
- Bishop, Morris Petrarch and His World. ; Bloomington, Indiana. Indiana University Press 1963
- Blumenberg, Hans, The Legitimacy of the Modern Age (tr. Robert M. Wallace). Cambridge, Massachusetts: MIT Press, 1983.
- Burckhardt, Jacob. The Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy, (1868) tr. Middlemore; New York, Macmillan 1890.
- Michael Kimmelman, "NOT Because it's There", New York Times, June 6, 1999.
- O'Connell, Michael, "Authority and the Truth of Experience in Petrarch's 'Ascent of Mount Ventoux,'" Philological Quarterly, 62 (1983),
- Thorndike, Lynn; Johnson, Francis R; Kristeller, Paul Oskar; Lockwood, Dean P; Thorndike, Lynn (January 1943). "Renaissance or Prenaissance?". Journal of the History of Ideas. University of Pennsylvania Press. 4 (1): 65–74. ISSN 0022-5037. JSTOR 2707236.