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Lives of Famous Men

The Lost Frescoes

By Rachel Galvin | HUMANITIES, January/February 2003 | Volume 24, Number 1

A scholar on the trail of Petrarch has discovered two rare books containing hand-drawn images that offer a glimpse of the lost fourteenth-century frescoes from the Hall of Famous Men. The frescoes, destroyed by fire, were commissioned to accompany Petrarch’s book of Roman heroes, Lives of Famous Men.

The discovery by art historian Lilian Armstrong is detailed in her new book of essays, Studies of Renaissance Miniatures in Venice, forthcoming this spring. While doing research funded by an NEH fellowship, she unearthed two copies of the 1476 edition of Petrarch’s Lives--one in the British Library and one in the Bibliothèque Nationale de France. The edition is a curiosity because of its layout: opposite each hero’s biography is an empty page framed by an interlaced woodcut border. The framed pages are still blank in most extant copies of this edition, awaiting the heroes’ portraits. But each of the copies Armstrong located contains more than two dozen images of heroes.

The Hall of Famous Men frescoes have artistic significance as the grandest Petrarchan work of art begun in the author’s lifetime, and for their focus on subjects of Roman antiquity. The hall has been the object of much scholarly speculation, but until now there were no known images that would provide a vision of the frescoes.

In the late 1360s the Lord of Padua, Francesco da Carrara, encouraged Petrarch to complete his book in praise of Roman heroes; at the same time he commissioned large-scale mural paintings of those heroes for his palace. In the fire of 1500, the frescoes were destroyed and only Portrait of Petrarch in His Study survived. The murals were repainted in 1540 with the addition of more Roman emperors, reflecting the later Renaissance interest in imperial imagery--but there are no copies to suggest what the original hall may have looked like.

The coats of arms in the Paris and London copies of Lives suggest that the volumes were destined for patrician clients in Padua or Venice. “In 1476 the model would have been the Trecento frescoes still visible in the Hall of Famous Men,” she says. “I believe that the miniatures in London and Paris are based on workshop drawings of the frescoes.”

Petrarch was a scholar, humanist, and poet whose writings were central to European thought in the transition from the medieval to the modern era. In a letter he addressed “To Posterity,” he describes himself, saying, “I was, in truth, a poor mortal like yourself, neither very exalted in my origin, nor, on the other hand, of the most humble birth, but belonging, as Augustus Caeser says of himself, to an ancient family.” He was instrumental in reviving interest in classical Greek and Roman culture, which he saw as possessing essential knowledge for the transformation and improvement of humanity. He himself rediscovered several of Cicero’s manuscripts.

“Among the many subjects which interested me, I dwelt especially upon antiquity,” he writes, “for our own age has always repelled me, so that had it not been for the love of those dear to me, I should have preferred to have been born in any other period than our own.”

Petrarch was a close friend of Boccaccio, a younger writer who would go on to write the Decameron, one of the masterpieces of Italian prose. Together they formulated humanism and set about resuscitating the use of vernacular Italian, at a time when Latin was the accepted language of literary composition. “The vernacular. . . has but recently been discovered,” Petrarch writes in a letter to Boccacio, “and though it has been ravaged by many, it still remains uncultivated. . . . I began an extensive work in that language. I laid the foundations of the structure, and got together my lime and stones and wood.”

“Petrarch’s innovation in Lives is that his heroes strictly adhere to one historical culture--Rome before the imperial period,” says Armstrong. “And that he defines exemplary heroism as military and statesmanlike, to the exclusion of literary accomplishment.” Legendary Romans of the early Republic such as Horatius Cocles, who was said to have defended the Sublician Bridge against the entire Etruscan army, are arrayed next to historical figures from the later Republic such as Scipio Africanus, Cato, and Pompey.

According to Armstrong, although Petrarch greatly admired Cicero, he did not include him in his Lives because Cicero’s fame depended more on his writings than on his valorous deeds. “It was your life that I criticized; not your mind, nor your tongue; for the one fills me with admiration, the other with amazement,” Petrarch wrote in a letter he addressed to Cicero.

Petrarch drew heavily from the Roman author Livy for his twenty-three biographies. He later added a Life of Julius Caesar and planned twelve more biographies, which his follower, Lombardo della Seta, composed after Petrarch’s death. Together, the thirty-six biographies make up De Viris Illustribus, or Lives of Famous Men.

The painted heroes, like other late medieval and Renaissance cycles of famous men, were intended as models of moral and political virtues, Armstrong explains. “Painted cycles of famous men became increasingly popular during Petrarch’s time, which may have been a result of his book.”

Humanists such as the Florentine Coluccio Salutati eagerly awaited their copies of Lives. By the early 1390s Salutati had inspired a cycle in the Palazzo della Signoria. But Armstrong adds that the frescoes introduced other literary heroes. “Other private palaces and civic buildings of the early fifteenth century added heroes from other traditions to Petrarch’s Romans--contemporary writers and political leaders, and biblical or mythological characters,” she says.

The heroes’ allegorical poses communicate the virtues they represent, such as the piety of King Ancus Marcius, who kneels by an altar, and the courage of Horatius Cocles, who stands in defense of the bridge.

“A curious aspect of the drawings in London are the reversals of letters, such as the backward SPQR of Fabius Maximus and Hannibal,” says Armstrong. “In any case, the banner of Hannibal should refer to Carthage, not to Rome.” Such reversals suggest that the designs were intended as models for woodcuts, in which all the elements would be oriented properly when printed.

A few of the heroes in the Parisian volume do not match the London version, offering a different interpretation of the scene portrayed. M. Curius Dentatus shows his loyalty by eating turnips and refusing to accept a bribe--a platter of gold coins--from a Samnian emissary. Alexander sits on a globe marked Asia, Europa, and Africa, and holds three crowns, indicating his dominion over the world.

“The original destination of the Paris volume is a fascinating and unsolved problem,” says Armstrong. “The official nature of the Paris text is suggested by the Lion of St. Mark, and the Lily of France. More perplexing are the eighteen additional coats of arms accompanying the various heroes.” Many Venetian families traced their ancestry to great Roman families, so it might be imagined that the coats of arms were meant to flatter particular associations. If that were correct, Amstrong says, then one would expect the Marcello arms to be painted with M. Claudius Marcellus, and the Cornaro arms to appear with one of the Cornelii--but this is not the case.

Armstrong has, however, identified the artists who illustrated the volumes. She believes that although the miniatures were made by two different artists, their depictions are taken from the same archetype. The heroes’ poses, attributes, and settings resemble each other--most are standing heroes in armor--and the compositions are nearly identical.

“Although the works are not signed, it is possible to attribute them to two renowned miniaturists,” she says. “The attenuated architecture, the fragile, swaying putti, and the narrow-shouldered author portrait of the Paris copy are characteristic of the Master of the Pico Pliny.” The Pico Master was a Venetian who painted prolifically from about 1469 until 1495. Armstrong says that the London copy’s frontispiece, with large beads dangling from sturdy columns and the rounded beard and long hair of the author portraits, signals the work of the Master of the Rimini Ovid, who illuminated Venetian books from about 1475 into the early 1490s.

Still, many questions remain regarding the two incunables, and Armstrong continues to formulate her own theories, recreating a vision of Italy on the verge of the Renaissance, and answering Petrarch’s appeal to Boccaccio in 1366.

“O inglorious age!” he writes, “that scorns antiquity, its mother, to whom it owes every noble art, that dares to declare itself not only equal but superior to the glorious past.”