13 May Fortuna is Constantly Turning the Wheel of Fortune
Francesco Petrarch, De remediis utriusque fortunae (Remedies against Fortune)
Published in Frankfurt, 1572
Bad luck is our own fault. This is what Italian Renaissance poet Francesco Petrarch (1304-1374) believed. Such blunt words are hardly used by any writer of the so-called “help-yourself” literature on the subject of “happiness” – in just five minutes, without any effort, with money-back guarantee … Fortunately, Petrarch does not offer superficial light fare such as this. But in 1366 he also wrote a guide to happiness. The work of his later years was written in Latin and bore the somewhat cumbersome title “De remediis utriusque fortunae”, which roughly translates as “remedies against fortune”.
Written in the language of the educated, it originally targeted an intellectual elite that was well acquainted with the ancient models Petrarch drew upon. But then this text turned out to appeal to everybody. Until 1756, the Latin original of this bestseller alone was published in 28 editions, and was translated into more than 50 languages. It also saw 13 German versions, bearing catchy titles that translate as “book of happiness” and “mirror of comfort”. The illustrations of the so-called Master of Petrarch contributed to the success of the German translation. The congenial woodcuts prove him to be one of the greatest illustrators of his time.
But what is this book, which inspired the whole of Europe and established Petrarch’s reputation as the most important poet in Italy, all about? Adhering to the ancient style, it features personifications who engage in dialogues and use concrete everyday problems to discuss luck, both good and bad. Reason, joy and pain are also present in the intellectual boxing ring. The readers have to prepare themselves for some hooks to the chin. While many may still bear a severe strike of fate such as poverty or illness comparatively calmly, to Petrarch, the real danger is actually lurking somewhere else – in happiness! In the face of his wealth and success, who would not be carried away by his joy? Fortuna, however, is constantly turning the wheel of fortune, and whoever is up today will be crushed under the wheel tomorrow. And so we should consider temporal possessions and achievements only transitory and accept them gratefully, but we should not cling to them, nor do everything to get them. This provides the background for Petrarch’s withering exclamation: “The love of money bears witness to a miserable spirit.”
The author could well consider himself an expert in his field. He experienced the sharpness of exile early in his life. For a long time, Petrarch led a life of financial insecurity because he had abandoned the study of jurisprudence for his true passion, literature. Thus the young poet was forced to switch between wealthy patrons and families. He moved from southern France to Rome, and from Milan to Venice. Petrarch saw friends dying from the plague and had to accept that the love of his life was already married to another man. His conclusion: “I find hardly anything more fragile and more restless than human life.”
In this day and age, we firmly believe that the state protects us and our insurances relieve us from most of our other worries for a small monthly fee. 650 years ago, people much more relied on themselves. With the ‘literal remedies’, as Petrarch himself calls the instructions, he wanted to help his contemporaries like a modern coach. Back then, people fought mainly against external dangers, whereas we try to improve our behavior patterns and attitudes nowadays. Reason enough to check Petrarch’s worldly wisdom for its present-day value. He does not have a comfortable recipe for happiness, but many a promising suggestion of not being unhappy. And that is more than many of its modern competitors have to offer.
You can browse through the 1572 edition here – it’s already worth it for the many great engravings.