Petrarch’s Inkstand

Image of Petrach's inkstand.-  the lid decorate with a seated Cupid, inscribed to the underside ‘PETRARCH’S INKSTAND’ and with a ten-line poem beneath, ‘By beauty won from soft Italia’s land’, enclosing a gilt brass inkwell, the compressed spherical body applied with masks, on three paw supports, 17 cm highGold

Contributor: Nicola J. Watson

Location: Current whereabouts of object unknown

Description: In February 2008, this object came up for auction at a sale of selected contents of Clothall House, Hertfordshire and of items from The Savoy Hotel run by Bonham’s Auctioneers in London. The auction catalogue described it as ‘A 19th century gilt bronze European Tour souvenir model of ‘Petrarch’s inkstand.’ It sold for £60 to a private collector, a figure that registers its catastrophic decline in cultural import since the date of its manufacture, sometime between the first half of the nineteenth century when Petrarch’s reputation was running high on the tides of Romantic taste and the 1870s when such items were being mass-produced. At the outset of the century, such an item would have been made to special commission to describe an intellectual or sentimental affinity. In brokering and making visible an imaginary conversation between the dead and the living, ‘Petrarch’s inkstand’ was one of a number of inkstands that constructed a transnational notion of Romantic posterity.

Bonham’s full description notes further details: ‘the lid decorated with a seated Cupid, inscribed to the underside ‘PETRARCH’S INKSTAND’ and with a ten-line poem beneath, ‘By beauty won from soft Italia’s land’, enclosing a gilt brass inkwell, the compressed spherical body applied with masks, on three paw supports, 17 cm high.’ A catalogue for a previous auction, held at Christie’s in London in July 1996, describes a very similar item, suggesting that there were a number of these in circulation, although this one was mounted on a ‘ross lavento marble plinth.’

The first tourist to comment on having seen an inkstand on display in Petrarch’s house at Arquà is the poet Samuel Rogers (1763-1855), in his journal for 24 October 1814. Its late appearance in Petrarch’s study as a tourist sight bears witness to the increased celebrity of the writer’s desk, chair and desk furniture in the Romantic period. Taken together, they staged imaginative creation, collapsing past time into present place and so enabling a newly immediate intimacy between dead writer and live admirer. The celebrity of ‘Petrarch’s inkstand’ may therefore be set alongside that of ‘Ariosto’s inkstand’. A careful drawing of this appeared (along with an image of Ariosto’s chair) as the frontispiece to John Hoole’s translation of Orlando Furioso of 1783. This inkstand is a substantially more elaborate affair, but iconographically quite similar. Cupid sits on on top, carrying a bow and with his finger to his lips, and the inkstand is supported by a bevy of very bosomy sphinxes.

The object sold by Bonham’s is clearly a version of the model of the inkstand owned by the novelist Maria Edgeworth (1768-1849). This was one of 3 copies cast in bronze that Edgeworth commissioned after a drawing she made on her Italian travels in c. 1818. Two were given to ladies of her acquaintance, and the third was illustrated in the frontispiece to volume 3 of William Hone’s Everyday Book and Table-Book (1827), possibly at the instigation of Leigh Hunt, who apparently owned a (further) replica. It quotes the lines inscribed on its base by Edgeworth herself:

By beauty won from soft Italia’s land,
Here Cupid, Petrarch’s Cupid, takes his stand.
Arch suppliant, welcome to thy favourite isle,
Close thy spread wings, and rest thee here awhile;
Still the true heart with kindred strains inspire,
Breathe all a poet’s softness, all his fire;
But if the perjur’d knight approach this fount,
Forbid the words to come as they were wont,
Forbid the ink to flow, the pen to write,
And send the false one baffled from thy sight.

The lines assert that Petrarch’s Cupid has been persuaded to leave Italy for Ireland, outline some part of Petrarch’s appeal to contemporaries (the ‘softness’ and ‘fire’ of his love poetry), and imagine the inkwell as the fount of inspiration for the ‘kindred’ contemporary writer, even though what seems to be projected here is very domestic, the writing of private love-letters.

The logic of transnational transposition of inspiration materialised by the inkstand (whether authentic or replica), proved repeatable across other national borders, too, and generally in much grander mode. It was not accidental that in time Samuel Rogers would come to own a replica of Petrarch’s inkstand made in silver, a gift from Lord Grenville, which would join Joseph Addison’s desk and indeed Ariosto’s inkstand in Rogers’ famous collection. This too was supplemented by gift text, in this instance three sets of Latin verses by Grenville. A similarly ambitious statement of poetic transference would be made by the Romantic writers’ inkwells that eventually found a home on the desk of the American poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (1807-1882) in Brattle St, Cambridge, MA:

The old-fashioned folding desk on which the poet wrote is opened up on the table in front of his chair. There… is the quill pen which he used and three of his ink-stands. One is a green French china ink-well… Another bears the inscription ‘Saml Taylor Coleridge: his inkstand’, and beside it is a letter from Longfellow thanking his English friends for having presented him with this inkstand, from which Coleridge had written The Rime of the Ancient Mariner. The third ink-well belonged in succession to three poets: the English poet, George Crabbe, the Irish poet, Tom Moore, and the American poet, Longfellow.

Date: early to mid 19C

Creator: unknown

Subject: Francesco Petrarch

Object type: inkstand

Format: gilt bronze

Language: English

Publisher: Photograph published in Bonham’s online catalogue, 


Bonhams’ Auctioneers,
P.W.Clayden, Rogers and His Contemporaries 2 vols (London, 1889), I, pp.427-8.

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow Dana, The Longfellow House: History and Guide [1948] (2003), p. 7.

William Hone ed., The Everyday Book and Table-book, 3 vols, vol. 3 (London: for Thomas Tegg, 1827), frontispiece and opening article ‘Petrarch’s Inkstand in the possession of Miss Edgeworth, presented to her by a Lady’.

Illustrated London News 10 May 1856 ‘Marble Vase, the Chantrey Pedestal, Ariosto’s Inkstand, Addison’s Writing-Table, and Washington’s Coffee-cup, from the Rogers Collection’.

Martin Mcaughlin, ‘Nineteenth-century British Biographies of Petrarch’ in Petrarch in Britain: Interpreters, Imitators and Translators (London: British Academy, 2007), pp. 319-340.

Samuel Rogers, Journal, p. 181.*

Joseph Trapp, ‘Petrarchan Places: An Essay in the Iconography of Commemoration’ Journal of the Warburg and Cortauld Institutes 49 (2006), pp.1-50.

Joseph Trapp, ‘Petrarch’s Inkstand and his Cat’, Il ‘Passaggiere’ Italiano: Saggi sulle letturature di lingua inglese in onore di Sergio Rossi ed. R.S.Crivelli and L. Sampietro.