Petrarch's two contemplative works, De vita solitaria and De otio religioso, are often regarded as different, and even opposed visions of life that reveal the different existential choices of the sons of ser Petracco: Francesco's withdrawal to the pastoral scenery of Vaucluse and Gherardo's retreat to the Carthusian monastery of Montrieux. As in many other texts by Petrarch, the two books restage the fork in the road at which the brothers went their separate ways. Nevertheless, the two paths share the same terrain. In both cases, the human being is figured as a guest (hospis) on earth. With reference to Prosper of Aquitaine, the Late Antique poet who, not unlike Petrarch himself, ardently took part in the theological and political controversies of his time, Petrarch writes in the second book of De otio: “I live my life as a guest for a limited period of time.” The image is a both a warning and an encouragement. The many appearances entice the guest during his journey, but his status as stranger may also fortify him in confronting the secret plays of power that continuously surround him. Against a background of solitude, the guest may turn his mind toward the cacophony of life, while raising his voice against the many dangers he discovers. We must bear in mind that the Avignon papacy, which Petrarch so profoundly despised, was the historical context that nourished the two treatises. In other words, by celebrating otium – an active leisure, or a life spent on studies, writing, contemplation, and friendship – De vita and De otio offer strong critiques of the contemporary political situation in Europe.
Both texts were first composed during Lent, a period particularly suitable for contemplative activities (Sen. VI.5 and X.1). De vita was written in 1346, and De otio the year after, in 1347. But according to Petrarch's usual habit, the texts were subsequently edited and elaborated; hence, Gherardo and the monks in Montrieux did not receive De otio until 1357, and De vita reached its recipient even later. It was not until 1366 that Philippe de Cabassoles, the bishop of Cavaillon and one of Petrarch's closest friends, could read the invitation to come and stay with him in Vaucluse, which by that point Petrarch had already left for good.
Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2015. 111-119 p.