Having previously written three separate entries on cats, I reluctantly post this for fear of becoming identified as a cat blog.1 My first cat post concerned identifying the strange woodcut on William Griffith’s 1570 edition of William Baldwin’s Beware the Cat, which, although presenting original research, sadly remains the least viewed of my cat trilogy. The second and third, however, silly and meme-related gained some level of popularity as they both paid homage to the ubiquitous Grumpy Cat. In this post, I turn from the world of Internet meme to discuss a very different famous cat that, at least lately, has received little attention, Petrarch’s mummified cat.

Over a month ago, my wife and I were fortunate enough to take a late Honeymoon in Italy. When we planned our trip, prioritizing our desired sites and attractions, I placed Padova’s (Padua) the Cappella degli Scrovegni (Scrovegni Chapel) near the top, but I also wanted to visit Padova to make a pilgrimage to Arquà Petrarca, where that great Italian poet, Francesco Petrarca spent his last days and where he was buried. Though Rick Steves’ Italy was the Bible of our Honeymoon travel plans, its lack of Arquà  Petrarca in his list of sights to see near Padova disturbed, and the absence of Petrarch in Steves’ index horrified me.2 While nothing can explain Petrarch’s absence from a guidebook on Italy, I learned the Casa del Petrarca was probably left out for good reason as it is still difficult to reach without renting a car. As I discovered, although Arquà Petrarca has been a destination for literary tourists at least since the sixteenth century and, presumably, since Petrarch’s death in the fourteenth century, the methods to travel there from Padova require more planning than one might expect.3 Despite these difficulties, I wanted to make a literary pilgrimage to the house where Petrarch, sometimes referred to as the father of the Renaissance4, lived for his last few years and where he died, as well as to his grave in Arquà Petrarca’s city center.

My wife indulged my wish even though my pilgrimage entailed renting a Fiat 500 and absorbing most of our twenty-four hours in Padova. We braved the fifteen minute drive out of town to the sleepy Arquà Petrarca nestled in the Euganean Hills through hordes crazy Italian drivers and bicyclists. I am glad I insisted on this literary pilgrimage even, as I go on to discuss, it would ultimately call into question my very notion of the value of literary pilgrimage altogether. The Scrovegni alone would have made our brief, out-of-the-way trip to Padua worth it, but the journey to Arquà Petrarca solidified Padova as my favorite Italian destination.

Excited to visit Petrarch's Grave in Arqua Petrarca.

@senseshaper excited to visit Petrarch’s Grave in Arqua Petrarca.

Two motives drove my desire for this pilgrimage, both of which are, self-admittedly, highly problematic. First, I was particularly taken by the idea of venturing to a site I thought more authentic both in terms of an off-the-tourist-path “authentic” Italy and as the type of sightseeing destinations that most American tourists skip in favor of the tourist traps of Roma (Rome) and Firenze (Florence). This type of motivation, I find, is the curse of NPR liberals like myself who imagine they can access the authentic kernel of some visited foreign destination. Second, I wanted to have a literary adventure, a journey to both express and constitute my identity as a student of the Late Medieval, the Renaissance, and the early modern. This type of motivation, I find, is a curse of fledgling students of history and literature who want to coordinate their impersonal mental landscapes, and abstract ideas of authors, sites, and locales with a physically experienced terrain. I wanted to express my own alterity by travelling to a unique destination through my trip to Padova and the nearby Arquà Petrarca, and, in so doing, encounter some material manifestation of the real Petrarch.

Though my desire to travel to Arquà Petrarca might have partially stemmed from my own desire for alterity, the numerous accounts written by others I unearthed subsequently reveal the banality of my previous pretensions. Many have taken the pilgrimage to Arquà Petrarca before me. And though I thought I was venturing to an “authentic” place far away from the tourist traps I despised, I discovered, in Arquà, a place that was just as crafted as those tourist traps from which I hoped to take refuge.

My desire for an authentic connection to the poet and my quest for alterity through their confluence in literary tourism is neither new, nor, as published travelers’ journals since the seventeenth century reveal, is the desire to venture to the Casa del Petrarca to satisfy both urges particularly unique. Teresa Guiccioli reports that Lord Byron visited the house at least twice, adding that “he was moved by the sight of the chair” upon which Petrarch died (Guiccioli 175). Not only did greats like Lord Byron trek to Arquà , but many others report their experience of an authentic Petrarchan experience while there.

In 1595, the English traveler, Fynes Moryson, ventured thirteen miles on foot because “it came in my minde to see the Monument not farre distant of the famous Poet Francis Petrarch” (Moryson 374). Moryson’s early dry though detailed account lacks a description of his motivations and feelings about what he saw there, but other pilgrims, like Byron, report finding traces of Petrarch himself in the village and house even as they question the house’s authenticity. William Dean Howells wonders if Petrarch walked the very roads he walked and if Petrarch meditated in the garden, and satisfies his skepticism about the house’s authenticity by asking a local “lout” if he knew of the poet. British writer Violet Paget (Vernon Lee) insists that because of the condition of the house and the surrounding bucolic Euganean hills and the village of Arquà , “one may say lives here,” and that Petrarch “might be living there now, trimming those box-hedges and pruning those vines” (Lee 184–185).The French composer, Gabriel Fauré, muses, “From this loggia, I see what Petrarch used to see. In its precision and intimacy, after a lapse of more than six centuries, it is one of the most moving literary souvenirs” (Fauré 227).English novelist, William Beckford, who, not showing the same deference as Byron, plopped himself down in the chair in which Petrarch supposedly died, was “assured” that the house was as Petrarch left it and reassures his readers of the same when he says, “everything I saw in it, save a few articles of the peasant’s furniture in the kitchen, has an authentic appearance” (Beckford 81). The accounts of these literary tourists are colored with the same desire for authenticity and an experiential connection to the dead Italian master.

I provide here only a smattering of the accounts offered by the literary pilgrims of the past. Many of them use their experience to reflect on the brilliance of Petrarch and have a tendency for self-aggrandizing prose as they recount their travels. During my visit, I was not immune to self-important grandiose pretension when I wrote of my experience of Petrarch’s house in my travel journal, describing the

power and presence in this place. The frescoes were certainly interesting, but to be in the house in which Petrarch resided and died has an almost magical property as if his presence adheres to the material of the place under the paint composing the later frescoes.

Like those illustrious pilgrims arriving before me, I was seduced by the relationship of the space and place to the Italian poet, basking in his presence as I strolled about his former place of residence. Instead of my abstract experience of Petrarch’s texts at a remove and often through translation, I now had a chance to encounter a real presence, one that offered a more genuine encounter with the real Petrarch.

But despite my musings, there was already some fracturing of my illusion of authenticity upon entering the house. Prior to making the journey I had thought the frescoes I mention above much older than they were. The beautiful yet somewhat amateurish frescoes that adorn the walls, were not, as I previously presumed, composed around the time of Petrarch’s death, but were, as the placards in the house informed me, additions from the early to mid-sixteenth century.

Paolo Valdezocco, who took possession of the house in 1546, commissioned the frescoes as part of his expansive renovation project. As Harald Hendrix notes, Valdezocco’s efforts “consciously turned the house into a commemorative place of worship, making it the oldest still existing museum to a poet we know of in Western culture,” but that, as such, the Casa del Petrarca “became something of a tourist attraction, and continued to attract especially foreigners” (Hendrix 23). Not only did the house attract foreigners like myself to Arquà, but it has been doing so for an incredibly long time. So much for my desired access to authenticity and quest for alterity.

Though somewhat challenging my notions of authenticity, I still admired the way in which they visualized Petrarch’s verse, and the portrait of Petrarch there will forever remain the mental image that his name will conjure in my imagination. The history of the frescoes might have caused me to question the authenticity of the space to a degree, and they might have subtly challenged my sense of alterity knowing that the paintings were possibly added to attract visitors, but both of these impulses would find their further complication and limit in a single object: the excremental remainder of literary tourism, the mummified remains of Petrarch’s cat.


Petrarch's Cat: The Excremental Remainder of Literary Tourism

Petrarch’s Cat: The Excremental Remainder of Literary Tourism


Long free of hair, the unassuming shriveled mass resembles dried shoe leather, retaining the form of a feline but looking more like trash than literary relic; the type of thing that would be discovered during a renovation concealed within a wall or tucked away in an attic and thrown out for fear of smell. Instead of ending up on the refuse pile, the mummified remains of this cat gets its own monument. The partially preserved feline rests within a glass case set into the inscribed marble, reminiscent of, though not as elaborate as, the reliquaries in the Italian churches my wife and I encountered elsewhere, reminding of the powerful grip Petrarch had on the Italian Renaissance and later imaginations. This shriveled lump of mummified remains would unsettle my rationales for visiting and make me wonder about the nature of literary tourism and the alterity one can achieve through literary tourism altogether. At the same time, though challenging my notions of authentic access to Petrarch, the cat conjured pleasures of its own. The cat was not only enshrined in Petrarch’s final house, but also within the cult of Petrarch itself.

I will return to these thoughts in a moment, but first want to question the authenticity of this powerful relic by exploring its history through two questions. Though few dispute the authenticity of the house itself, some concerns arise from the verifiability of the relics it contains. In his 1635 Petrarca redivivus, Jacobi Philippi Tomasini declared the cat and several other objects “vera obijcis,” but there are several reasons to doubt the cat is indeed Petrarch’s. First, was it Petrarch’s? And, second, who put it on display in Arquà’s Casa del Petrarca?

So was it Petrarch’s?

Probably not. First, it is unclear that Petrarch ever owned a cat. Second, it seems to be a hoax perpetrated by one of the later owners of the Casa del Petrarca. As J. B. Trapp notes, “in contrast to Zabot and other dogs … no cat is mentioned anywhere in Petrarch’s works” (Trapp 45). As Trapp brilliantly demonstrates, however, artists have historically depicted Petrarch with both animals. Like the earlier frescoes which became tourist attractions in their own right, the cat adds a dubious sense of authenticity to the space. This object, probably erected to amplify and mock the cult of Petrarch, allowed owners to capitalize on the fame it gained.

Literary pilgrims of times past not only felt its presence but also describe it in their travel journals. Like the frescoes covering the walls of the upper floor of the house that visually render Petrarch’s verses in paint, the cat functions similarly, drawing literary pilgrims by purporting to offer authenticity. Both function as a way to make the place of Petrarch’s death a shrine to the poet, but also as a way for its owners to draw larger crowds and to encourage the dubious sense authenticity the site offers its visitors.

Their gambit paid off, since, nearly every traveler’s account of Petrarch’s house published after the seventeenth century includes a passage on the mummified mouser. The cat, like the house itself, became a tourist attraction for those who wanted to make a seemingly personal connection with the great Italian poet. Trapp notes that “Orleanais traveller Nicholas Audebert was there on 1 June 1575,” who described in his travel journal that

in the house they show to those who have the curiousity to visit it the body of a cat, which is in Petrarch’s study; it is said that this cat was his and that he loved it and took pleasure in it, and it followed him in the fields or anywhere else he went. (Quoted in Trapp 45).

Another early reference to Petrarch’s cat, this time in print, is in the sixteenth-century travel journal of Fynes Moryson, first published in 1617. The English traveler describes a 1595 visit to Petrarch’s house where he describes seeing, along with a chair and desk supposedly belonging to the poet,

the very skinne of a Cat [Petrarch] loved, which they haue dried, and still keepe. (Moryson 373).

Not long after the publication of Moryson’s account, we find the first image of Petrarch’s cat in 1635 in Jacobi Philippi Tomasini’s Petrarca redivivus which includes this engraving of the shriveled feline:

Earliest image of Petrarch's Cat found in Tomasini, p. 144

Earliest image of Petrarch’s Cat found in Tomasini, p. 144

While on a pedestal rather than its contemporary placement in a finely carved marble niche, Tomasini popularizes it along with the other relics to be found at the Csa del Petrarca by not only describing it but also including this magnificent engraving in his text.

Subsequent accounts of the cat give it largely positive reviews. Lord Byron reportedly “was delighted to catch sight of Petrarch’s cat,” and “after cracking a few jokes, as his custom was, he said that the qualities of an animal’s heart put humans completely to shame, and that Petrarch’s love for his cat, which no doubt was mutual, must have shown up Laura’s coolness” (Guiccioli 175). Not everyone found the object satisfying. Fauré found the cat less amusing even as he declared it the “only well attested relic” within the house, condemning “the exhibition … as doubtful in taste as the verses of a certain Quarengo written below” (Fauré 227). Yet others like Violet Paget wonderfully described the cat as “a most mysterious figure, something between a naked wax-doll and a ferret” (Lee 186). No matter the reaction, the cat impresses itself upon these literary pilgrimages of times past.

Regardless of its authenticity and history, Petrarch’s mummified cat became a kind of literary meme, ingratiating itself in the cult of Petrarch as an object of delight and veneration, a relic to encourage literary pilgrimage and promote literary tourism. Even from the outset, as the verses inscribed upon its niche indicate, it was never fully to be taken seriously. The cat, Petrarch’s greatest love, like the Laura that inspired Petrarch’s verse, possesses a fantastical quality that captured and continues to capture the imagination to such an extent that the “truth” of his origins matter less than its ineffable phantasmic power.

Even if, as it appears, the cat was a sixteenth-century fabrication, its legacy stamps its influence on the cult of Petrarch. Look, for example at this eighteenth-century engraving of Petrarch expiring in his study from a 1756 Venetian edition of Petrarch’s collected works:

Petrarch dying in his study accompanied by his cat. Engraving from a 1756 Italian edition by Castelvetro after an earlier drawing by Gaetano Gherardo Zompini

Petrarch dying in his study accompanied by his cat. Engraving from a 1756 Italian edition by Castelvetro after an earlier drawing by Gaetano Gherardo Zompini

Clutching a quill and in the process of collapsing, Petrarch turns towards his Laura pictured upon the wall, but gestures towards a cat seated on a cabinet. Aloof even upon the dying of his master, the cat stares directly at the viewer. At least to this artist, Petrarch’s cat is real and demands a place of prominence by Petrarch’s side at the moment of his death.

Far more common, however, are depictions of Petrarch with a pet dog as found in the following image:

Petrarch working in study with dog (possibly Zabot)

Petrarch working in study with dog (possibly Zabot)

The image from Biblioteca Trivulziana MS 905, was even used as the basis for an Italian postage stamp in 1974.

Petrarch on an Italian postage stamp.

Petrarch on an Italian postage stamp.

While Petrarch, when depicted with some kind of animal, is much more commonly accompanied by a dog, a representation of him with a cat is not unprecedented. As J.B. Trapp notes, Petrarch’s cat makes a much earlier appearance than the references to its mummified corpse. In the Biblioteca Medicea-Laurenziana MS Strozzi 172 from around 1420, we see a white cat pursuing a mouse towards the back of the image and Petrarch’s study.

Petrarch in his study with cat in background.

Petrarch in his study with cat in background.

This miniature, attributed to Bartolomeo di Antonio Varnucci, predates any references to Petrarch’s stuffed cat, giving us pause when trying to discount Petrarch’s ownership of a cat. As Trapp shows, several other examples of Petrarch with a cat predate descriptions of Casa del Petrarca’s mummified mouser. Even if such images provide credibility to the story of Petrarch’s cat, the fact that we only begin to hear about its preservation in the later part of the seventeenth century renders the object itself dubious.

Without forensic testing, I suppose we will never know the authenticity of Petrarch’s cat, but as an unreliable object it has the ability to call into question the very notion of authenticity and the value of pilgrimage, literary or otherwise. This place, supposedly preserving and promoting Petrarch’s legacy and memory, challenges those notions even as it accomplishes them through the cat’s body. For some, like Fauré, the cat is the most authentic of the relics in the collection.

Like the fragmented pieces of Saints on display in reliquaries in Chieslas and Basilicas elsewhere in Italy, the objects possess their own power precisely because of their history as objects of veneration. The tongue and vocal cords displayed in Padova’s St. Anthony’s Basilica, like the cat in Arquà, remain interesting even to those skeptical of their authenticity because of their ability to draw crowds that may or may not have equally questioned their authenticity in the past.

So, if Petrarch’s cat is a hoax, who did it?

As far as I can tell, two possibilities have been suggested. The Arquà Petrarca’s website attributes it to Girolamo Gabrieli, but some argue that the house’s previous owners, Lucrezia Gabrielli and Francesco Zen, were the culprits.5 Both owners of the house sought to make the most of their ownership by cultivating a destination for literary pilgrimage, both through the addition of frescoes and in the later addition of literary relics including the cat.

The museum space begun by Paolo Valdezocco in the mid-sixteenth century and continued by the house’s later owners created a crafted space of cultural memory, simultaneously authentic and inauthentic, but which still drew visitors from afar. No matter who proclaimed the mummified cat Petrarch’s and put it on display, the late sixteenth century the owners of the house set out to make the site a place of literary pilgrimage, and the cat would play almost as important a role in this development as the sixteenth-century frescoes of Petrarch and Laura that were added to and still adorn its walls. What we encounter in the Casa del Petrarca is a crafted space of cultivated, faux authenticity, holding out the promise of a physical and genuine encounter with the absent-presence and present-absence of Petrarch.

Contributing to the legacy of Petrarch’s cat is the hilarious Epigram inscribed on the commemorative monument encasing the shriveled remains of Petrarch’s cat. Tomasini attributes the epigrams to the poet Antonius Quaerengus and the lines’ preservation in stone to Marcus Antony Gabrielli:

In quibus Poeta eximius Antonius Quaerengus bina paris elegantiae Epigrammata reliquit. Quae M. Antonii Gabrielli providentia saxo ibidem incisa haec extant. (Tomasini 142–143)

If Tomasini’s engraving of Petrarch’s cat upon a pedestal rather than encased within a niche is to be accepted, then the verses described were not only upon the marble niche still seen today, but also upon the pedestal which previously displayed the cat. While details are sketchy at best and the truth of the matter might forever remain a mystery, we can say with a fair degree of certainty that this mummified cat at the very latest dates from the late sixteenth century, and that was removed from an original pedestal and placed within its current enclosure in the early seventeenth.

The inscription reads:

Etruscus germino vates exarsit amore,
Maximus ignis ego, Laura secundus erat,
Quid rides? Divinae illam si gratia formae,
Me dignam eximio fecit amante fides;
Si numeros, geniumque sacris dedit illa libellis,
Causa ego, ne saevis muribus esca forent.
Arcebam sacro vivens a limine mures,
Ne domini exitio scripta diserta darent.
Incutio trepidis eadem defunct pavorem,
Et viget exanimi in corpore prisca fides.

My own very rough translation is as follows:

[The Etruscan poet flamed with twin loves,
I am the greater fire, Laura was the second.
Why do you laugh? If she had a divine form,
I was a superior faithful lover;
While she inspired his holy books in verse,6
I am the reason they were not eaten by mice.
Protect this threshold from the mice!
To prevent the destruction of my masters’ eloquent writings,
I still strike the same fear in the scuttling mice, even after my death,7
And this ancient duty thrives even in my lifeless body.]8

Though Petrarch’s cat and the monument in which he is entombed can now be found on the first floor of the Casa del Petrarca, it was originally housed near Petrarch’s study. In its original location on the second floor, the corpse perched near this literary site’s holiest of places, Petrarch’s supposed study, a place cordoned off from public access today. Still housing the chair and bookcase purportedly used by Petrarch, the Plexiglas dividers assure that no modern day pilgrim will disturb its sacred space.9 This was not the case for early visiting literati who carved their names on its walls just as they had in other rooms of the house. One visiting poet, Alfieri, penned verses on its very walls10.

But Petrarch’s cat, at least since the late sixteenth century, kept its ever-watchful hollow eye sockets on invading pilgrims, casting, I should think, a very peculiar light on their experience of the place. Its appearance near the study and frescoes of the second floor would most likely have had a very different, if not unsettling, effect.

As I later reflected in my own travel journal,

I could not help but smile while reflecting on its desiccated corpse, encouraging and mocking my earlier pretensions and feelings of false inspiration upon feeling Petrarch’s presence.

I can only imaginatively reconstruct the effect its original position just outside the study might have had on the impressions I quoted from my journal about feeling a Petrarchan presence on the Casa del Petrarca’s second floor. The object so positioned would function, quite self-consciously, to complicate any such feelings. It might have tempered my earlier reflections in a way similar to the way Harlad Hendrix suggests it operates between two different types of literary tourist. Hendrix claims,

Precisely because of the presence of this cat, the house in Arquà became a place where the ambiguity typical of early modern attitudes to memorial culture was turned into a tourist site that could satisfy both literary pilgrims and those critical of the phenomenon itself. (Hendrix 25).

Instead of the naïve feelings of personal experience of and connection to history and literary greatness, the preserved cat mocks those very feelings, showing guests the decaying and grotesque reality that such pretense is illusory. While Hendrix presents a clear demarcation between two discrete types of visitor, one naïve participant and another critical of the phenomenon of literary pilgrimage, the cat, especially in its original position just outside the study would have created a blended experience for me, simultaneously encouraging skepticism and belief.

The cat mocks the cult of Petrarch even as it embellishes and promotes it. Similar to products in the best and most effective modern advertisements, the cat, for me stands as a symbol of the inaccessible object a a literary pilgrimage offers its pilgrims, an empty signifier which produces absence through its fullness and fullness through its absence. A literary pilgrimage holds out the promise of some sort of genuine and authentic access to the presence of a beloved author, but the shrunken, shriveled remains of the cat mock those very pretentions, and I imagine it would have had even more of that effect for me had it still remained ensconced just above the door to Petrarch’s study. Much like an internet meme, the curiosity becomes a site for shaping meaning and [in]significance, taking on a life of its own well beyond the scope of its original.

Despite my subsequent reflections on my experience of the house, I still maintain that being in the Casa del Petrarca brought me closer to Petrarch. Having written and thought about Petrarca’s Secretum (here), I mused that the poet who coined and penned the phrase “the plague of phantasms” lived, read, and worked here from around 1370 until his death in 1374. The now closed-off study, where Petrarch contained his library, still contained what was reported to be his desk and chair, and I imagined (even if a fantastic vision) that he wrote that late work of theology upon it. As it was not circulated until after his death, I envisioned that this room once contained his own manuscript of the text, and might have been the very room in which Petrarch composed his Trionfi. And if the verses inscribed on the monument to Petrarch’s cat were true, I had him to thank for ensuring that those manuscripts survived.

The myth of Petrarch (like a cat) toys with our understanding of both the poet and of Laura and calls into question my initial desire for authenticity and alterity through literary pilgrimage. Petrarch’s imaginings of Laura stand more central to his Rime Sparse (Canzoniere) than the person of Laura herself, and it is only fitting that memories of Petrarch inspired by the house in Arquà are shaped by a third term, a shrunken, mummified cat.

The verses and its corpse remind us in this house of death that Petrarch’s body rots in its grave not far away, and beyond that that Petrarch’s inspiration and the source of his laurel, in part, depended upon Laura’s rotting corpse. Like Laura within Petrarch’s imagination, Petrarch’s cat thrives in the liminal space between life and death, and between presence and absence. It both is and is not there, it is both real and fake, it is both authentic and inauthentic, and it is both truth and fiction. Petrarch’s cat commemorates the powerful fictions that construct our sense of the real in much the same way as Petrarch’s own verse. The shriveled corpse, even if set in a marble niche like some sort of holy literary relic, is the excremental remainder in our pilgrimage through the desert of the Real.

Petrarch’s cat commemorates not just Petrarch but also the illusory Petrarchs we construct through our experience of his texts which serve as the basis for literary pilgrimage itself. As such, the cat shapes our sense of Petrarch just as Petrarch shapes his Laura. Just as while Petrarch’s Laura is not the real Laura yet maintains a presence both in Petrarch’s verse and in literary history, the real receding from our grasp and remaining enigmatic and unreachable beyond the veil of fiction, the questionable authenticity  of Petrarch’s cat does not diminish its power or presence. It is the power of fiction not only to commemorate but also to construct a reality that is even more inspiring, wonderful, and powerful than any “truth” could ever accomplish.11

The fiction of the cat encourages and mocks the pretentions of literary pilgrims, but also elevates its own position in the process. The cat, designed to support and promote the myth and cult of Petrarch, is, itself, an object that inspires pilgrimage, overwhelming the descriptions of travelers’ accounts with its questionable authenticity. Memory, both as private mental faculty and as its public codification in history, is always a recreation—a fiction—rather than a mimetic reflection of the inaccessible Real.

Far from emptying out the signifiers of Petrarch, Laura, and the cat, they are given fullness, each as a type of empty signifier filled with fullness by the phantastic free-play of signifiers they elicit. Only the cat, however, remains on display as a visible excremental remainder of the Real. The lump of preserved yet decayed flesh of dubious origins within its own shrine of marble constitutes the absent center of literary tourism and of this incredibly long post. In the cat, as Slavoj Zizek finds in Oedipus, “we encounter the ambiguous relationship … between the lowest and the highest, between the excremental scum and the sacred”(Žižek 182). The cat stands at the thresholds between authenticity and inauthenticity, life and death, sacred and scum, and truth and fiction.


Epilogue: As the Casa del Petrarca did not sell any T-shirts, I had to make my own. I consider this blog post and this shirt as my own form of excremental remainder paper.

 Petrarch’s Cat: The T-Shirt

Or, if you prefer, The Petrarch’s Cat tote bag (Creep out your friends!):

If you can’t wait to buy a T-Shirt, try this instead. It’s just as much of an empty signifier:



Beckford, William. Dreams, Waking Thoughts and Incidents. Kessinger Publishing, 2004.
Cavriani, Federico. Vita di Francesco Petrarca. Pazzoni, 1816.
Fauré, Gabriel. Wanderings in Italy. Houghton Mifflin, 1919.
Geale, Hamilton. Notes of a Two Year’s Residence in Italy. James McGlashan, 1848.
Guiccioli, Teresa. Lord Byron’s Life in Italy. University of Delaware Press, 2005.
Hendrix, Harald. Writers’ Houses and the Making of Memory. Routledge, 2012.
Howells, William Dean. Italian Journeys. Houghton, Mifflin, 1881.
Lee, Vernon. The Tower of the Mirrors: And Other Essays on the Spirit of Places. J. Lane, 1914.
Moryson, Fynes. An Itinerary Vvritten by Fynes Moryson Gent. Volume 1. London, Printed by J. Beale, 1617. Internet Archive. Web. 11 May 2013.
Steves, Rick. Rick Steves’ Italy 2013. Avalon Travel, 2013.
Tomasini, Jac Phil. Jacobi Philippi Tomasinni em Petrarcha Redivivus… typis Liuij Pasquali & Iacobi Bosteli, 1635.
Trapp, J. B. “Petrarchan Places. An Essay in the Iconography of Commemoration.” Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes 69 (2006): 1–50. JSTOR. Web. 6 June 2013.
White, William. Notes and Queries. Oxford University Press, 1852.
Žižek, Slavoj. The Ticklish Subject: The Absent Centre of Political Ontology. Verso Books, 2009.


  1. Which is funny considering that I have always been a dog person  (back)
  2. Steves’ book proved invaluable to our planning and our trip. Despite his overlooking Petrarch, I would unreservedly recommend it to anyone planning a trip to Italy. You can purchase a copy here.  (back)
  3. Anyone considering making their own literary pilgrimage to Petrarch’s House should do the same. We discovered that bus service would have gotten us close to the house, but does not pick up near the house and you would need to walk five miles or so to the closest bus stop when you are ready to leave. If we had more time in Padua, we might have tried to bike to the house. The drive (once you leave the bustling streets of Padova) is quite beautiful and there are plenty of wineries along the way.  (back)
  4. At least according to Petrarch scholar and my onetime teacher Gordon Braden  (back)
  5. Take a look at Federico Cavriani’s Life of Petrarch which lists the provenance of the house from 1556 to 1693: “Nel 1556 ne era possessore Andrea Barbarigo, e dopo di lui Francesco Zen. Nel 1603 passò a Girolamo Gabrielli, e nel 1677 a Cian Antonio ed Angelo Cassici. Tornò alla famiglia Gabrielli nel 1693” (Cavriani 75). Despite the problems which emerge from the earlier accounts only being published much later, I still think the cat must have appeared before Girolamo took possession in 1603.  (back)
  6. Special thanks to @moselmensch and @dulcivivens for helping me untangle this line  (back)
  7. With special thanks to @moselmensch, @Kaktus1981, and @dulcivivens who helped in translating the last two lines here.  (back)
  8. Though my translation is somewhat sketchy when it comes to the penultimate line in both poems/ stanzas, I still seem to understand more than the nineteenth century travel writer, William Dean Howells who misinterpreted the verse as saying the cat was Petrarch’s greatest love “second only to Laura” (Howells 226). Howells does, however, provide a much better description of the object itself which he describes as “quite hairless, and has the effect of a wash-leather invention in the likeness of a young lamb” (226).

    The difficulty and oddity of this poem or series of poems can be further noted by the various loose translations it/ they have produced. One J.O.B. puts it this way in the February 21, 1852 Notes and Queries:

    The Tuscan bard of deathless fame
    Nursed in the breast a double flame,
    Unequally divided;
    And when I say I had his heart,
    While Laura play’d the second part,
    I must not be derided.
    For my fidelity was such,
    It merited regard as much
    As Laura’s grace and beauty;
    She first inspired the poet’s lay,
    But since I drove the mice away,
    His love repaid my duty.
    Through all my exemplary life,
    So well did I in constant strife
    Employ my claws and curses,
    That even now, though I am dead,
    Those nibbling wretches dare not tread
    On one of Petrarch’s verses. (White 174).

    Hamilton Geale provides yet another free (although less free translation) in his Notes of a Two Year’s Residence in Italy:

    For Petrarch’s heart should e’er a contest rise,
    One half is mine, for th’ other Laura sighs—
    You smile, fair reader—pause, while I explain
    The several merits that we each can claim:
    Fair Laura’s beauty, and a form divine,
    Are hers,–a faithful term of service mine;
    While Petrarch’s books her learned hours engage,
    My watchful eye defends each hidden page—
    And drives marauding mice beyond the doors,
    A jealous guardian of my master’s stores;
    And still, though dead, my spectre lingers here,
    And still, my dreaded fangs and paws they fear. (Geale 188).  (back)

  9. Howells describes that even at the time of his visit, the room was protected by a heavy wire netting. (Howells 227).  (back)
  10. Petrarch’s mummified cat along with its hilarious accompanying verses have been moved from its original location on the second floor of the Casa del Petrarca to the first floor where it understandably sits high on the wall (I actually distorted my image to make it look like a more head on shot). While marks have been scratched away, the stamp of former pilgrims’ hands remain visible on its surface.

    The mummified cat is not the only place where one sees this type of inscription, the walls of the house are littered with the names of travelers past. As Howells put it, “People have thus written themselves down, to the contempt of sensible futurity, all over Petrarch’s house” (225). Such a tradition of inscribing one’s name upon the very material space goes hand-in-hand with the idea of early literary tourism as travelers desired to link their own names with greatness, but the owners of the house itself did all they could to encourage further literary tourism. Literary tourism, at least in times past, entailed not only acquiring an impression of the past but also in impressing oneself upon that past. In embracing the past, these previous travelers were both touched by and touched history. As those avenues are foreclosed to me by my sense of decency and with a respect of historical preservation, I, instead, leave my marks upon a virtual space, upon its virtual rather than physical walls.  (back)

  11. I do wish to note here that I am talking more about a contemporary and conventional understanding of the imagination and mental objects, and self-consciously avoid framing my discussion here through the theory of pre- and early modern “paramaterial Phantasy.” For more on that, please see my other posts where I argue that pre-Keplerian systems of optics and joint Aristotelian-Galenic models of the “sensitive soul” before the seventeenth century offered a space where Phantasy and external reality are linked through what I call paramaterial objects of the mind. In such a theoretical system, the mental object “Laura” would remain, to a very limited degree, attached to her material person even if it could, in turn, be manipulated and shaped by a private Phantasy. I will soon return from these silly posts to develop my theory even more.  (back)
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