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Petrarch (1304-1374)

by William H. Fredlund

The great Italian poet and classical scholar Francesco Petrarca was
born in Arezzo, a central Italian city south of Florence, in 1304. “I
was born to this world in the Via dell’ Orto of the city of Arezzo,
just at dawn on Monday, July 20, in the thirteen hundred and fourth
year of this latest age which takes its name from Jesus Christ, fountain
and author of all my hope.” (See Photos for a picture of the family
house on Via dell’ Orto).

The family was temporarily living in Arezzo while Petrarch’s father
suffered the same exile from Florence that had forced Dante into exile.
Soon after his birth Petrarch’s family was on the move again. From the
beginning to the end, Petrarch lived his life in a curious tandem with
the life of his famous predecessor, Dante Alighieri. By the time Petrarch
achieved real literary fame he began to dream of being the most famous
and admired Italian writer – ever! And shadowing his every move
and every publication was the reputation of Dante. Always Dante! Petrarch
and Boccaccio spent many hours discussing their famous predecessor and
although Boccaccio never seemed to resent the unassailable fame of Dante,
Petrarch was annoyed by the idea that the greatest Italian poet was
named Dante and not Petrarch.

The two lives were inextricably bound together as both were from exiled
Florentine families whose fortunes might be improved by the arrival
of Emperor Henry VII in Italy in 1311. Thus both the Alighieri family
in the person of Dante, and the Petrarca family led by Francesco’s father
were present in Pisa for the visit of the Emperor. If the two famous
Italian writers ever met each other it had to be in Pisa in 1311, when
Petrarch’s father took the family to Pisa to meet the imperial hope
of his political party. We know Dante was there too. How interesting
it would be to know what Dante Alighieri said to the seven-year old
Francesco Petrarca: “Study your books well young man, and you too can
grow up to be a great poet!”

In 1312, Petrarch’s father took the family to France to live in the
city of Avignon where the Papal court was located temporarily (temporarily
for about sixty years!) while French popes dallied in the Provence sun
and delayed their return to Rome. This move of the Tuscan family of
Petrarch into the heart of southern French culture was one of the most
important experiences of Petrarch’s life. It gave him a whole new culture,
a new language, to add to his native Tuscan roots and this cultural
melting pot produced a complex and tension-filled set of loyalties that
ultimately provided him with insights that were at the heart of his
totally unique cultural vision that he formed in his writings. This
tension between his Tuscan Italian self and the new French Petrarch
of these youthful days was also one of the most important reasons that
Petrarch later made such extraordinary intellectual leaps. And it was
this unique personal story of Francesco Petrarch that lead directly
to the Renaissance itself.

Petrarchs’ youth was lived in France and in French. He went to school
in Avignon and to the University at Montpellier. And as a proud Tuscan
growing up in a family full of memories of a noble family lineage in
Tuscany, he resented the French and their ubiquitous cultural pride
that made fun of his accented French (how things change!) and chaffed
under the brunt of French cultural superiority. This experience led
directly to Petrarch’s later expression of Italian national pride both
political and linguistic (see his “Italia Mia”). And this Italian pride
was one of the most important factors in the origins of the Italian
Renaissance itself.

Much of the Italian Renaissance involved Italian pride annoyed by French
assumptions of cultural superiority. We must remember that when Dante
began writing in the late thirteenth century, any intellectual presuming
to international fame and success would choose to write in French. “Italian”
didn’t even exist. The Italian language was nothing more than a gathering
of noisy dialects. It is the work of Dante, Petrarch and Boccaccio who
together establish the Tuscan dialect as “Italian” and do so with great
pride and the conviction that this language is as good if not better
than French.

In 1320, Petrarch came “home.” He came to the University of Bologna,
one of the oldest and greatest of all the European universities. Petrarch
came to Bologna to study law. And he hated it. When his father died
in 1326, he and his brother Gherardo returned to southern France to
attend to the estate and for the next twenty five years, Petrarch lived
the life of the Italian exile enjoying the rich life of Avignon overrun
with money and papal politics.

In 1327, in the church of Santa Clara in Avignon Petrarch saw and
fell in love with Laura. This encounter inspired him to write a series
of small poems to her and about her and about love. These poems became
part of Petrarch’s most influential work, that which came to be called
Il Canzoniere
, the collection of hundreds of sonnets about love.
In Italian, Il Canzoniere is also called Le Rime Sparse
or The Dispersed Rhymes and then later all collected together into
Il Canzoniere
(The Songbook).

Petrarch never realized that Il Canzoniere would be his most
influential work. He was devoted to his Classical studies, to stories
and histories of Rome and therefore always assumed that his great work
was his imitation of Virgil in his Latin poem called Africa about
the struggle for power between Rome and Carthage. Africa is almost
never read now except by experts studying Petrarch whereas the poems
collected together in Il Canzoniere may be the most influential
collection of poetry written by any European after the fall of Rome.

The influence of Il Canzoniere derives from its power with
the form of the sonnet. Petrarch “invented” the sonnet for modern Europe.
The origins of the sonnet can be found in the twelfth century in the
world of Courtly Love and in the vast production of hundreds of Courtly
Love poets. But it is the work of Petrarch and the sheer power and influence
of his hundreds of sonnets collected in Il Canzoniere that established
the form of the sonnet which is then discovered and imitated by poets
who visited Italy and studied both the language and the sonnet form
and carried this form back to their own country. This process is especially
important for England. Sir Thomas Wyatt came to Italy in 1527 and studied
Petrarch, translated him into English and carried the sonnet back to
England. Henry Howard, Earl of Surrey, did the same thing and advanced
the sonnet and revised it into the English form which later became the
model for Shakespeare’s own sonnets.

The sonnet is a poem of fourteen lines. It is short and therefore seizes
on one mood or one thought or one person to talk softly and gently of
love and loving, love lost, love future, love past, love, love, love.
Sonnets usually are written about love. The sonnet consists of fourteen
lines that follow two rhyme patterns: a b b a a b b a called the Petrarchian
pattern, or a b a b c d c d e f e f g g called the Elizabethan (Shakespeare).
The sonnet usually has 10, 11, or 12 syllables per line. The sonnet
is so familiar to us that it hardly seems conceivable that there could
have been a time when it was not such a common poetic mode of expression.
But this is the case and the creation of the sonnet as the most popular
poetic form in the 15th and 16th and 17th centuries is due primarily
to the work of Petrarch. And therefore it is extremely interesting to
speculate about the unique quality of the sonnet that appeals to the
age of the Renaissance whereas the vast encyclopedic work like the Divine
Comedy falls out of fashion in this period.

The appeal of the sonnet may have to do with the growing power of individualism
in the Renaissance. In an age when individual character, individual
even eccentric thoughts, individual uniqueness and personal interior
feelings and thoughts, are of great interest to writers, the sonnet
allows the writer to concentrate on himself, his thoughts, his feelings,
to the exclusion of all else. It is a highly personal literary form.

In the twenty five years between Petrarch’s return to France and his
final move back to Italy, he traveled incessantly. He visited popes,
emperors, and kings. He went to Rome for the first time in 1337 and
was powerfully impressed with the meaning and majesty of Rome. He bought
a charming, small house in the Provence countryside in Vauclause near
Avignon and wrote beautiful sonnets filled with the sounds and aromas
of the country: of water and fountains and grasses and flowers. He extolled
the life of the country far from the noise and the filth of the city
and then he rushed back to the excitement of the city. It sounds all
very modern doesn’t it?

In 1353, Petrarch returned to Italy and for the last quarter of his
life he lived in Milan, Padua, Venice and other Italian cities, and
he became the most famous writer alive. His poetry, his scholarly writings,
his letters which were published, all established him as an international
celebrity. And when in 1361 he went to Paris to receive the accolades
of the King of France it is the mark of literary supremacy that suddenly
an Italian is being lauded in Paris as the greatest of living literary

Petrarch observed in his own life a complete reversal of international
linguistic fashion. When he was born, French was the premiere literary
language. When he died in 1374, Italian was now the equal if not the
superior of French. This reversal is due to the work of Dante, Petrarch,
and Boccaccio.

Petrarch’s last years were happy and contented. He built a charming
house in the hills south of Padua and his children joined him there
(children all born out of wedlock, but all acknowledged and supported
by Petrarch). His daughter Francesca joined him there with her own family
and his last years were filled with the happy noise of grandchildren
running around the garden and the laughter of friends who had dropped
in for yet another wonderful dinner. The dinners would last into the
late hours of the night with much wine and hilarious stories about Cicero
and Julius Caesar.

Above all Petarch was a writer. And here is Petrarch the writer recounting
to us a wonderful moment at his desk: “I had got this far, and was thinking
of what to say next, and as my habit is, I was pricking the paper idly
with my pen. And I thought how, between one dip of the pen and the next,
time goes on, and I hurry, drive myself, and speed toward death. We
are always dying. I while I write, you while you read, and others while
they listen or stop their ears, they are all dying.”

On a bright summer morning in 1374, on the nineteenth of July, Francesca
went into her father’s study and found him at his desk slumped over
dead with pen just dropped out of his hand as he wrote his Life of Julius