Mary Anne Myers
With Petrarch in Romantic England, Edoardo Zuccato refines and updates the meaning of “Italian influences” in British literature from the late eighteenth to the early nineteenth century, tilling rich ground for additional study from several critical and cultural perspectives. While Dante’s influence on the “Canonic Six” has long been duly noted, Zuccato’s historical approach demonstrates that Petrarch was actually more popular among the period’s writers, particularly among those women and men who have more recently been included in the field of Romantic studies. Not only does Zuccato’s enterprise dovetail with the expansion of the Romantic canon, it also illustrates how a central question in the period’s debates over Petrarch is keyed to the larger English Romantic movement and its subsequent critical reception. As the author positions the apparent paradox: “Petrarch was recognised simultaneously as one of the masters of love poetry and an extremely skilled rhetorician who exhibited his technical devices with unashamed pride. How could exalted passion and extreme artificiality coexist?” (15). Then as now, disagreements hinged on the issue of sincerity and the connections among feeling, truth, art, and action.
Zuccato, a professor of English Literature at the University of IULM in Milan, evaluates British Romantic responses to fourteenth-century Italian literature from a deep appreciation for both traditions. In asserting that scholarship has heretofore privileged Dante’s influence at Petrarch’s expense, he ascribes causality not only to an earlier focus on an elite group of English poets, but also to the fundamental differences between the two Italian writers’ politics and poetics:
Dante was a major model of the prophet-poet; Petrarch was a model of the scholar-poet and melancholy lover. Dante was a politician and an exile, a man of ideological certainties and unshakable principles; Petrarch was a friend of many princes, a well-to-do scholar who knew how to arrive at a reasonable compromise with political power. It is easy to understand why, after the French Revolution, male Romantics identified with Dante and denigrated Petrarch. On the other hand, it is natural that most women poets preferred Petrarch to a masculine, muscular figure like Dante (ix-x).
In other words, Dante may have been more attractive to the liberal humanist defending the rights of man, while Petrarch appealed to the Burkean conservative favoring revision over revolution. This provocatively clear-cut distinction invites complication. Zuccato is not without his own hypotheses, but the book is perhaps most impressive for its collection of textual evidence that takes Petrarch’s influence beyond the revival of the sonnet form and into the meanings of art, history and morality in the period.