Petrarca F (14th century)

Letter to Boccaccio. Print: Senilium Liber V Epistola iii in: Annotatio nonnullorum librorum seu epistolarum Francisci Petrarche. Venetiis: Torresanus de Asula (1501). Manuscript: Key passage in the late 14th / early 15th century manuscript Biblioteca Marciana Lat. XI 17 / Francesco Petrarca; fol. 28r, second column, lines 9 – 22. (Facsimile of MS: Petrarca F (2003). Seniles, (eds Stocchi MP, Marcon S). Venice: Marsilio.)
In 1364, in a letter to his fellow poet Bocaccio, the Italian Francesco Petrarca proposed an experiment to assess whether people would be better off avoiding rather than seeking medical treatment.

Key passage(s)

Figure 1. The passage is in the manuscript in Biblioteca Marciana Lat. XI 17; fol. 28r, second column, lines 9 – 22.


“Petrarch speaks first, followed by the reported direct speech of the physician:

… I give God and my own memory as witness that I once heard a Physician of great reputation among them [other doctors] speaking thus: ‘I’, he declared, ‘am not unaware that I may be said to be ungrateful in denigrating that art from which I have sought wealth and friendship; but truth is to be preferred to all affections. Therefore, this is my opinion and thus do I affirm: if one hundred or one thousand men, of the same age and character and [eating] the same diet, one and all affected by the same disease, one half shall turn to the advice of Doctors of the kind that there are in our time, and the other [half] without any Doctors shall follow natural instinct and their own discernment then I have no doubt that of the former [half] many shall die and of the latter [half] many shall escape.”

The passage in the first printed edition containing the Seniles; Venetiis, Torresanus de Asula, 1501. (Petrarca, F., 1501).

Figure 2 The passage is in the first printed edition containing the Seniles; Venetiis, Torresanus de Asula, 1501. (Petrarca F, 1501).

Translation by IML Donaldson


  Francesco Petrarca (1304-1374)



The editors are grateful to:

Marina Davoli at the Department of Epidemiology Italian National Health Service, Local Health Unit, Rome E, and Gaetana Cognetti at the Regina Elena National Cancer Research Institute Library for initiating the search;

Paolo Flores D’Arcais, philosopher, and Director of “MicroMega”, an Italian cultural, political, scientific and philosophical magazine, for identifying the document;

Franco Nasella of the biomedical library at the University of Tor Vergata, Rome for locating a copy of the document;

Dott.ssa Daniela Scialanga, of the Biblioteca Angelica, Rome, for providing a photocopy of the text.