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I'm reading an article about Italian poet Petrarch. The article says that he enjoyed solitary life and quotes his sentences as follow:

I flee men’s traces, follow the birds, love the shadows, enjoy the mossy caves and the greening fields, curse the cares of the Curia, avoid the city’s tumult, refuse to cross the thresholds of the mighty, mock the concerns of the mob.

There are two parts of this quote I don't understand. Firstly, does "Curia" refer to a church? If so, why would he "curse the cares of the Curia"?

Secondly, what does "the mighty" refer to? What does "cross the thresholds of the mighty" mean?

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Your guesses are probably as good as any native speaker's. These expressions draw only a little bit upon English idioms; to understand their meaning mostly requires knowledge of Petrarch and his situation, along with some common knowledge regarding medieval Europe.

I'm just learning Latin, though, so I did a little searching to see if I could find enough context to determine the meaning precisely. Be warned that I'm only a beginner with Latin, and this is the first time I've ever tried to read Petrarch, so there are likely to be mistakes here, but here's what I found.

The passage is from a letter, dated May 30, 1342, to Johannes Columna, a friend of Petrarch's and a cardinal in the Catholic Church. Petrarch is advising Columna not to complain so much about his troubles. He spends pages trying to inspire Columna with stories of the sufferings of famous people from antiquity and how they found equanimity despite old age, poverty, and gout. Near the end of the letter, Petrarch describes at length his modest living situation in France, saying "If you come visit me, here's what you'll see." Here is the full sentence your passage is taken from. I quote it in Latin so you can see how much fun Petrarch is having with the sound and grammar of the language. I'm pretty sure he made up some of these words:

Videbis a mane ad vesperam solivagum, herbivagum, montivagum, fontivagum, silvicolam, ruricolam, hominum vestigia fugientem, avia sectantem, amantem umbras, gaudantem antris roscidis pratisque virentibus, execrantem curas curiæ, tumultus urbium vitantem, abstinentem liminibus superborum; vulgi studia ridentem, a lætitia mœstitiaque pari spatio distantem; totis diebus ac noctibus ociosum, gloriantem musarum consortio, cantibus volucrum et lympharum murmure, paucis servis sed multis comitatum libris; et nunc domi esse, nunc ire, nunc subsistere, nunc querula in ripa, nunc tenero in gramine lassatum caput et fessa membra proiicere; et (quae non ultima solatii pars est) neminem accedere nisi perraro, qui vel millesimam vaticinari possit suarum particulam curarum.

Yes, that's one sentence. Here's my attempt at a literal translation:

You'll see from morning 'til evening a solitary wanderer, a grass-wanderer, a mountain-wanderer, a spring-wanderer, a woodsman, a rustic—fleeing the footprints of humans, attending to daisies, loving the shadows, delighting in dewy caves and green meadows, cursing the cares of the curia, shunning the bustle of the cities, keeping off the thresholds of the haughty, laughing at the preoccupations of the crowd, standing at equal distance from joy and sorrow, idle all the days and nights, glorying in communion with the Muses, in the songs of birds and the murmur of waters—accompanied by few servants but many books—now at home, now going, now pausing, now on the bank of the warbling river, now laying his wearied head and tired limbs on the soft grass; and (which is not the least part of the relief) approaching no one except rarely—who could foretell even a thousandth part of his troubles?

A curia, as I understand it, is like the board of directors of a church. They meet and make decisions about finances, hiring, upkeep of the building, etc. Petrarch lived here, not far from Avignon, which at that time was where popes held court. So, the nearby curia was probably very busy, filled with politics and social climbers. Saying "cursing" is a playfully naughty way to describe disdain for those things, since they're at the very center of the Catholic Church. Here's an article about the modern version of that curia (which is now in Rome).

A threshold is the horizontal strip of wood in the floor beneath a door, which you step across when you enter. So, in context, avoiding crossing the thresholds of the mighty or haughty means avoiding visiting the important and powerful people of the city. As I understand the Latin word superbus, it connotes that they're arrogant and unpleasant. "The mighty" doesn't necessarily suggest that in English, but here, just after expressing disdain for life in Avignon, it might. Compare "Oh, how the mighty have fallen!" "Cross the thresholds of the mighty" suggests to me either invading their space (entering uninvited) or obeying them (entering because you were told to). "Crossing a threshold" in English is usually meant metaphorically, to describe an important transition (explained a little more here). I don't think the translator intended that, but the phrase suggests it. "Thresholds" here should be taken completely literally. I understand the Latin abstinere here to mean "keep off" (or "hold back from", "abstain from") their thresholds, which to me suggests not even asking permission to enter, because you're not visiting them at all.

In other words, the two phrases you asked about paint the busy life of a cardinal in the worst possible light. Petrarch is saying by implication, "Come visit me and get away from all that!"


By the way, it's not completely clear to me that Petrarch was describing himself. As I read it, the third-person description might be a way of saying "This is how your days would be while visiting me." The previous sentence is "You'll see what you desire: good health, [etc.]" "See" in Latin, as in English, can mean "achieve this result".

  • Thanks a lot for all the hard work. I really appreciate it. – memoir reader May 26 '15 at 9:30
  • @memoirreader It was a pleasure! So far, I've been learning Latin entirely from context, using only elementary reading materials, without translation or dictionaries. This was my first attempt at translation. It sent me to the dictionary several times—normally an approach to language-learning that I'm skeptical of, but I got quite a lot out of this. Thanks for leading me to such an extraordinary piece of writing! – Ben Kovitz May 26 '15 at 12:56
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As always, you should try to do some research on your own before asking a question. Googling "Curia" produces a wiki link http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Curia, which tells you that

In ancient Rome, the entire populace was divided into thirty curiae, which met in order to confirm the election of magistrates, witness the installation of priests, the making of wills, and adoptions.

So the cares of the curia are the civic functions which the curia dealt with.

To "cross the thresholds of the mighty" is less clear, but would seem to encompass either socially visiting with the powerful or to deal with them in their capacities as the powerful (such as applying to a senator for a favor). Given the ill-defined limits to political power, the two possibilities may be one and the same.

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    It could also refer to the Papal Curia. – Tᴚoɯɐuo May 25 '15 at 11:14
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    I have to say, as an ESL learner, trying to explain what my question is in English is certainly not easier or more convenient than doing research on my own. And doing some research on my own is something I always do before I ask anybody my questions. But I often got such replies as “look up the dictionary” and “try google”. As long as my questions are solved, I’d choose to ignore such replies. After all, I’m here to have a better understanding of English and the whole lot of culture behind it. But as it happens so often, I feel obliged to speak for myself and probably some other learners. – memoir reader May 26 '15 at 10:30
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    I’d also like to point out, for native English speakers who like to tell ESL learners to do research on their own, have you tried to understand what blind spots the learner might have before you offer such a suggestion? Have you learned any second language and encountered questions that you just can’t figure out on your own? And when you try to ask your question, you also find it difficult to get it across to people whose first language is the second language you’re learning? – memoir reader May 26 '15 at 10:31
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    The answer might be so obvious to you that you think I should understand it by just doing some research on my own. But it is not so. – memoir reader May 26 '15 at 10:31
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    @memoirreader Would you please add a note to your profile saying where you're from and/or your native language? Your writing here is of such high quality, I had thought you might be a native. About the condescending suggestions to do research and having good questions closed, I concur. It's often hard for answerers to empathize with people learning English; most people have no idea how much subtle, undocumented, untaught common knowledge they draw upon just to parse a sentence. – Ben Kovitz May 26 '15 at 20:11

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