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 figures. 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 Caesar.



Selections from the Canzoniere,

translated by Mark Musa,

Oxford World's Classics,

ISBN 0199540691


Barbara Tuchman,

A Distant Mirror: The Calamitous 14th Century,

Random House Trade Paperbacks; Reissue edition (July 12, 1987),

ISBN 0345349571

This is the best book in English on the 14th Century and I can't imagine anyone will ever write a better one. Barbara Tuchman was a miracle in the history world. She had no special training; she was just a Manhattan housewife who loved history. One day she walked down Fifth Avenue to the New York Public Library. She began to read and soon began to write and was soon into a spectacular career as an international best-selling author. She wrote five of the best books ever written in the field. Her masterpiece is A Distant Mirror on the 14th Century. She takes one character, Enguerand de Coucy, a French noble whose life touched almost everyone important in the century, and then she takes us all through the stories of the incredible century. History has never been better. It is like a novel; only better. You can read it on paper, in Kindle, or on audible.

Amazon Comment:
In this sweeping historical narrative, Barbara Tuchman writes of the cataclysmic 14th century, when the energies of medieval Europe were devoted to fighting internecine wars and warding off the plague. Some medieval thinkers viewed these disasters as divine punishment for mortal wrongs; others, more practically, viewed them as opportunities to accumulate wealth and power. One of the latter, whose life informs much of Tuchman's book, was the French nobleman Enguerrand de Coucy, who enjoyed the opulence and elegance of the courtly tradition while ruthlessly exploiting the peasants under his thrall. Tuchman looks into such events as the Hundred Years War, the collapse of the medieval church, and the rise of various heresies, pogroms, and other events that caused medieval Europeans to wonder what they had done to deserve such horrors.

“Beautifully written, careful and thorough in its scholarship . . . What Ms. Tuchman does superbly is to tell how it was. . . . No one has ever done this better.”—The New York Review of Books

“A beautiful, extraordinary book . . . Tuchman at the top of her powers . . . She has done nothing finer.”—The Wall Street Journal

“Wise, witty, and wonderful . . . a great book, in a great historical tradition.”—Commentary

From the Publisher
Anyone who has read THE GUNS OF AUGUST or STILWELL AND THE AMERICAN EXPERIENCE IN CHINA, knows that Barbara Tuchman was one of the most gifted American writers of this century. Her subject was history, but her profiles of great men and great events are drawn with such power that reading Tuchman becomes a riveting experience. In A DISTANT MIRROR, Barbara Tuchman illuminates the Dark Ages. Her description of medieval daily life, the role of the church, the influence of the Great Plagues, and the social and political conventions that make this period of history so engrossing, are carefully woven into an integrated narrative that sweeps the reader along. I am a particular devotee of medieval and pre Renaissance music, so Barbara Tuchman's brilliant analysis of this period has special meaning for me - and I hope for many others. George Davidson, Director of Production, The Ballantine Publishing Group

About the Author
Barbara W. Tuchman (1912–1989) achieved prominence as a historian with The Zimmermann Telegram and international fame with The Guns of August—a huge bestseller and winner of the Pulitzer Prize. Her other works include Bible and Sword, The Proud Tower, Stilwell and the American Experience in China (for which Tuchman was awarded a second Pulitzer Prize), Notes from China, A Distant Mirror, Practicing History, The March of Folly, and The First Salute.