In the labyrinth of the library: Petrarch's Cicero, Dante's Virgil, and the historiography of the Renaissance

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Petrarch's 1345 discovery of Cicero's personal letters in Verona has long been regarded as a foundational moment in the historiography of the Renaissance. In the traditional view, Petrarch's discovery engenders a new historical self-consciousness that has frequently been described, since the middle of the twentieth century, in terms of a contrast between a medieval Dante and a Renaissance Petrarch. In keeping with recent work rethinking periodization, this essay revisits Petrarch's letters on his discovery to reconsider the distance between Dante and Petrarch and to reveal how Petrarch constructs his new relationship with Cicero through Dante's characterization of Virgil. While some critics have noted this Dantean presence, they have not examined its meaning. This study argues that Petrarch's borrowing from Dante is significant because it shows how Dante's complex relationship to the past embodied in the figure of Virgil shaped Petrarch's construction of his Cicero and informed Renaissance ideas of history.






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Eisner, M (2014). In the labyrinth of the library: Petrarch's Cicero, Dante's Virgil, and the historiography of the Renaissance. Renaissance Quarterly, 67(3). pp. 755–790. 10.1086/678774 Retrieved from

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Martin Eisner

Professor of Romance Studies

Martin Eisner is Chair of Romance Studies and Professor of Italian at Duke University. He is the author of  Dante's New Life of the Book: A Philology of World Literature (Oxford UP, 2021), which won the Howard R. Marraro Prize from the Modern Language Association. His first book Boccaccio and the Invention of Italian Literature: Dante, Petrarch, Cavalcanti, and the Authority of the Vernacular (Cambridge UP, 2013) has recently been published in Italian as Boccaccio e l'invenzione della letteratura italiana (Salerno, 2022). He is currently working on a biography of Boccaccio for Reaktion Books's Renaissance Lives series. He continues to develop the online research project Dante’s Library. His articles on Dante, Boccaccio, Petrarch, and Machiavelli have appeared in PMLA, Renaissance Quarterly, Dante Studies, Mediaevalia, California Italian Studies, Quaderni d’Italianistica, Annali d’Italianistica and Le Tre Corone. His research has been supported by the Mellon Foundation, the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton, the American Academy in Rome, the American Philosophical Association, and the Fulbright Foundation.

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