Francesco Petrarch and the Ascent of Mont Ventoux

The story of the world's first alpinist

Portrait of Francesco Petrarca (1304-1374)

Francesco Petrarch, accompanied by his brother Gherardo, made an ascent of 6,263-foot (1,912-meters) Mont Ventoux on April 26 in 1336, a towering rounded mountain that overlooks the Provence region of southern France. Mont Ventoux translated "Windy Peak" for the ferocious Mistral winds which rake its summit with gales exceeding 180 miles per hour, is not a difficult mountain to surmount by modern standards.

Mont Ventoux: a Provence Landmark

Indeed, three paved roads, originating in Sault, Bedouin, and Malaucène, and several trails now lace its wooded and rocky slopes. Numerous hikers, including whole families, trek up the mountain in summer to Ventoux's limestone summit, sipping local wine and munching baguette and brie while enjoying wide-ranging views from the Calanques along the Mediterranean coast to the Rhone Valley to the west to the Haute Alpes to the east. Cars and bicycles strain up the steep roads, some with gradients as steep as 10 percent since the first road was built to the summit in the 1930s. Even the famed Tour de France bicycle race occasionally schedules a brutal stage over the mountain.

The Ascent of Mount Ventoux

For the modern mountaineer, Mont Ventoux offers a sturdy workout but little in the way of actual climbing. It was different, however, for the Italian humanist and poet Francesco Petrarch (July 20, 1304 - July 19, 1374), who climbed the mountain simply because, as British mountaineer George Mallory described Mount Everest in the 1920s, it is there. Petrarch, while certainly not the first human to climb a mountain for fun and to reach its summit, instead became the spiritual "father" of alpinism while slogging up to Ventoux's summit, meditating on his experience, and then writing a celebrated 6,000-word essay-The Ascent of Mount Ventoux-after his descent (scholars now say it was written about 1350). As Petrarch wrote in the essay, actually a letter to his former confessor, "My only motive was the wish to see what so great an elevation had to offer."

Petrarch: the First Modern Alpinist

Because of this sensibility, many climbers consider Francesco Petrarch to be the first modern alpinist while travelers call him the first modern tourist. The great psychotherapist Carl Gustav Jung said that Petrarch's ascent marked the start of a new age, The Renaissance because it was with the documentation of his climbing experience that men began to see the world in a new way. In 1860 Jacob Burkhardt wrote in his book The Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy, that "The ascent of a mountain for its own sake was unheard of." He also links Petrarch's impractical ascent, a climb for fun and views rather than hunting or gathering plants or military purposes, as the start of a shift in attitudes toward nature, leisure, and the place and purpose of humans in the world.

Climbing and the Renaissance

Petrarch then was poised at the end of the medieval age and the start of The Renaissance―enlightenment that saw nature in a new and enlarged view of the earth and the universe. Mountains, approached with a combination of exultation, terror, fear, joy, and awe, became physical metaphors for the wild asymmetrical world and our treks and climbs through them and to their lofty summits became metaphors for the journey of human life from the cradle to the grave. This enlarged view, reinforced by science, explored both the chaotic outer world of mountains, cliffs, pinnacles, and canyons and the satisfying inner world of climbing experience, of finding pleasure in our fears and personal growth in our conquests.

Our Search for Genuine Experience

And, of course, the smallness of our shrinking world, aided and abetted by technology, has created an illusion that we know everywhere, that we've been everywhere. We see photographs and videos from around the world of ancient cities once imbued with mystery like Timbuktu or soaring mountain peaks in the Himalayas or Greenland. The world's magic and mystery are temporarily abated. We moderns don't feel the sublime feeling that Petrarch probably felt as he sat atop Mont Ventoux with a whole unknown world unfurled below his boot soles. Instead, we are disappointed because nothing and nowhere feels strange, foreign, and forbidding. We demand to be shocked, to be jolted into knowing the dangers of the world, to having an epiphany of genuine experience on the sheer heights of mountain and cliff.

Petrarch's Ascent of Mont Ventoux

Francesco Petrarch and brother Gherardo began their ascent on an April morning in 1336 from the village of Malaucène at the northern foot of Mont Ventoux. They hiked upwards, accompanied by two servants, along what is today the GR4 footpath. Along the way, the pair met up with an old shepherd who had climbed the peak some fifty years previous. The grizzled man advised them to abandon their ascent, telling them that he had "brought home nothing but regret and pains, and his body as well as his clothes torn by rocks and thorny underbrush." The old man's warnings, however, only spurred their desire to climb the mountain "for young people's minds do not give credence to advisers."

Reading St. Augustine on the Summit

They continued upward, Gherardo following a steep ridge while Francesco contoured back and forth across the slopes, looking futilely for the path of least resistance. Eventually, they reached the rocky summit and sat back to enjoy a hard-earned view as clouds filled the valleys below. Petrarch opened a pocket-sized copy of Confessions of Saint Augustine and read the first page that his eyes landed upon: "Men go to admire the high mountains and the great flood of the seas and the wide-rolling rivers and the ring of Ocean and the movement of the stars, and they forget themselves."

Petrarch's Tale Is a Modern Climbing Story

Reading Francesco Petrarch's The Ascent of Mont Ventoux now is like reading a modern climbing story, but in a somewhat stilted style since the original Latin is translated into English. Petrarch looks at all the reasons why he climbed the mountain; the style of his ascent; and his meditations on the metaphorical journey. Along the way are funny stories like the one about the old shepherd trying to dissuade the young men from their arduous path and one section about how to pick the right climbing partner, a paragraph that still rings true today, almost 700 years later.

How to Choose Your Climbing Partner

Petrarch notes that he put a lot of thought into "whom to choose as a companion." He continues, "It will sound strange to you that hardly a single one of all my friends seemed to me suitable in every respect, so rare a thing is an absolute congeniality in every attitude and habit even among dear friends. One was too sluggish, the other too vivacious; one too slow, the other too quick; this one too gloomy of temper, that one too gay. One was duller, the other brighter than I should have liked. This man's taciturnity, that man's flippancy; the heavy weight and obesity of the next, the thinness and weakness of still another were reasons to deter me. The cool lack of curiosity of one, like another, 's too eager interest, dissuaded me from choosing either. All such qualities, however difficult they are to bear, can be borne at home: loving friendship is able to endure everything; it refuses no burden. But on a journey they become intolerable." So true Francesco, so true. He finally decides that the best climbing partner is his brother, who "was happy to fill the place o a friend as well as brother."