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The Fiske Petrarch Collection

Francesco Petrarca. Trionfi, sonnetti e canzoni Italy (Florence), ca. 1465-70.

The Fiske Petrarch Collection, a bequest of Daniel Willard Fiske, Cornell’s first University Librarian, joined the Fiske Dante, Rhaeto-Romanic and Icelandic Collections in the Cornell University Library in 1905. Fiske, a talented linguist and remarkable book collector, died in Europe in the autumn of 1904. Unlike the Dante and Rhaeto-Romanic Collections, which he had donated to Cornell Library in the 1890s, the Petrarch and Icelandic Collections remained with him in Florence until his death.

Fiske’s Icelandic and Petrarch books may have been the two collections he treasured most: the Icelandic Collection because it represented a life-long bibliographical enterprise, from his youthful purchases in Scandinavia to his organization, in Florence, of thousands of titles with the assistance of young Icelanders; the Petrarch Collection because he commenced serious collecting just months before the death of his wife, Jennie McGraw Fiske. In fact, Jennie’s first (and only) anniversary gift to her husband was “a folio French translation of one of Petrarch’s works, the binding of which is as lovely as possible,” according to a letter Willard Fiske wrote on July 20, 1881.

Fiske’s gathering of such an extraordinary Petrarch collection is recorded in the Catalogue of the Petrarch Collection bequeathed by Willard Fiske (1916), compiled by Mary Fowler, then curator of the Dante and Petrarch Collections. As she acknowledged in her preface, Fiske’s own extensive Petrarch card catalogue, along with his plan for the Catalogue of the Dante Collection presented by Willard Fiske (compiled in two volumes by Theodore Wesley Koch, 1898-1900), provided the intellectual and organizational basis for the Petrarch catalogue, which is a closely detailed compilation with extensive references to Petrarch criticism before the twentieth century.

Like his other collections, Willard Fiske intended the Petrarch Collection to include both literary texts and literary criticism, and some sixty percent of the 1916 catalogue is devoted to work about rather than by the poet. Today, the Petrarch Collection contains more than 5,000 volumes spanning more than 500 years, from a rich gathering of nearly seventy Incunabula editions to a significant assemblage of critical and secondary works. The Petrarch Collection also features several manuscript volumes, including a remarkably beautiful codex of the Rime, copied circa 1465-1470 in Florence. (Medieval and Renaissance Illuminated Manuscripts in the Cornell Library, p. 27.)

By 1886 there was little Fiske could add to his Petrarch Collection, having acquired almost everything available on the poet. The Cornell University Library has continued to add selectively; for example, a notable manuscript compendium containing several of Petrarch’s Latin works, among them the dialogue between Petrarch and Saint Augustine of Hippo called the Secretum, was purchased later in the twentieth century.

A large gathering of printed editions of the Rime comprises the heart of the collection. These poems, one of the great legacies of the Renaissance, expressed the poet’s unrequited love for Laura, a married noblewoman of Avignon. The editions that preserve these works also illustrate the history of printing during the Renaissance and beyond.

Access note:

The Fiske Petrarch Collection is part of Cornell Library’s Division of Rare and Manuscript Collections (RMC). Books may be requested through the RMC reference desk and viewed in the RMC reading room.

The Fiske Petrarch Collection welcomes inquiries from scholars and interested readers, and actively solicits materials for contribution. Please contact

Patrick J. Stevens
Curator of the Fiske Collections and Selector for Jewish Studies, Cornell University Library
Division of Rare and Manuscript Collections
2B Carl A. Kroch Library
Cornell University Library
Ithaca, NY 14853-5302

Related Online Resources

The Passionate Collector: Willard Fiske and his Libraries

“Medieval and Renaissance Illuminated Manuscripts in the Cornell University Library,” compiled by Robert G. Calkins (with the revised foreword of 2003), in the Cornell Library Journal: