In June 1345, in the Chapter Library at Verona, Petrarch discovered a manuscript containing the letters written by Cicero to his friend Atticus (‘Ad Atticum’), his brother Quintus (‘Ad Quintum Fratrem’) and Caesar’s assassin, Marcus Brutus (‘Ad M. Brutum’). Lost for centuries, the letters enraptured Petrarch, providing him with a moment of first contact not unlike that of Howard Carter peering through the hole into Tutankhamun’s tomb and murmuring that he could see ‘wonderful things’. Petrarch reacted passionately to the Cicero he met in these letters, writing a letter to his long-dead hero in which he recorded his impression of having suddenly been given access to his actual voice: ‘I heard you saying many things, lamenting many things.’ Yet the ‘many things’ Petrarch heard were also a shock to him and to the received view of Cicero. Instead of the high-minded sage that Petrarch thought he knew, occupied in transcribing Greek philosophy during his last years of retirement, he discovered in this mass of diverse correspondence a desperately engaged politician, trimming and adjusting under the pressure of rapidly shifting circumstances.
LRB 22 September 2011 | PDF Download