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Exemplarity in Petrarch’s Africa

Annette M. Baertschi

Bryn Mawr College

Exemplarity was a longstanding cultural practice in antiquity, directed toward transmitting and perpetuating ethical norms and values as well as establishing historical consciousness and identity. From early on, poetry played an important role in the process of educating by verbal example and inspiring younger generations to emulation. In this paper, I would like to explore the use of exemplarity in Petrarch’s unfinished Latin epic Africa (published posthumously in 1397). Conceived as a response to the more traditional medieval heroic poems, the Africa was designed to introduce a new kind of classicism and to promote Petrarch as the leading intellectual and scholar-poet of his era.

For Petrarch, classical literature provided invaluable models that he could productively appropriate and re-interpret according to his own vision, choosing from a variety of sources what was useful for his composition. His selection was based on an intimate familiarity with the Roman (and indirectly Greek) writers as well as an appreciation of – and respect for – the exemplary nature of their work.
In this paper, I will focus particularly on the unhappy love story of Sophonisba and Massinissa that Petrarch recounts in the fifth book of the Africa and that is a prime example of his notion of creative imitation as a fusion of multiple models and generic traditions. I will show that he draws on Livy for the historical facts of the episode, but models the poetic design on Vergil, Aeneid IV, thus not only recreating Sophonisba as a new Dido, but also illustrating his successful re-appropriation and amalgamation of key texts from antiquity. In addition, I will argue that Petrarch reworks important themes and imagery from Roman elegy, especially Ovid’s Amores and Heroides, in his portrayal of Massinissa. By combining epic and elegiac elements, Petrarch expertly manipulates the reader’s sympathies and adapts the morally problematic story for a
Christian context.

Finally, I will demonstrate that Petrarch uses the love story of Sophonisba and Massinissa to showcase exemplary behavior and paradigmatic actions, both positive and negative. The episode thus also sheds light on the construction and function of exemplarity in the Africa, a work that itself exemplified a new type of literature, and the standards – poetic, didactic, and ethical – it aimed to set.

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Neo-Latin in the Old and New World: Current Scholarship

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