The humanist literature of Europe begins with Francesco Petrarca (1304-74), who was born in Arezzo but brought up in southeast France, his parents being exiled by the same Florentine decree as Dante a generation before. Petrarch spent much of his early life in Avignon, was educated in Montpellier and Bologna, but returned to work in various clerical offices in Avignon when his father died in 1326. His Latin poetry and scholarship made him famous, and in 1341 he was crowned as poet laureate in Rome, which brought various diplomatic duties.

Petrarch's best work was inspired by young love — of an unidentified Laura, met in Avignon on 6th April 1327 and immortalised long after her death from plague in 1348. Petrarch was better educated in the classics than Dante and more likeable, travelling happily between courts in Italy, France and the Rhineland. He consciously emulated the classics, assembling a large library and personally finding, publishing and popularizing the manuscripts that languished unread in cathedral libraries.

Most of Petrarch's writing was in Latin, and is now forgotten — not because Latin is a dead tongue, but because in rigidly following classical models in works like De Viris Illustribus, Africa, Eclogues, Secretum and De Remediis Utriusque Fortunae, Petrarch put too little of his own thoughts and times into their composition. What does survive are the works written in Italian: letters, Trionfi and Canzoniere. Triofi was an allegorical procession of figures: Love, Chastity, Death, Fame, Time and Divinity, with Divinity finally triumphant. The Canzoniere were his love lyrics to Laura. They drew on popular literature and folk song, but Petrarch gave them an entrancing form that evoked enthusiasm throughout Europe, and which still shapes western literature. Even in English, much of the poetry of Chaucer, Wyatt, Surrey Shakespeare and Donne is unthinkable without Petrarch — in the popularisation of the sonnet sequence, in the intimate reference to antiquity and in the adoration of a human body and the feelings it inspires. Did Laura exist? Probably, but like many poets, Petrarch loved her through the poetry he created: workaday matrimony was never an option for this most passionate of idealists.

Though romantic love begins with 11-13th century troubadour poetry in its adoration of a noble lady as the earthly representative of spiritual beauty — and was given unforgettable expression in Dante's Divine Comedy — it was Petrarch who developed the pangs of love into an extended series of poems: her dazzling beauty, angelic purity, the anguish of rejection versus desire for possession — restrictions that feminism struggles against. Petrarch introduced the catalogue of physical perfections and the extended metaphors that sees eyes as windows to the soul, etc., which feature so prominently in 300 years of Renaissance poetry, and which are only outdone (in range and ingenuity) by medieval Islamic poetry. Petrarch's influence was immediate and overwhelming: all the great figures of European literature draw on and extend his legacy: Chaucer, Ariosto, Tasso, Ronsard, de Vega, Gongora, Cam๕es, Shakespeare. Whatever their individual failings, Pope, Byron, Rossetti and even Ezra Pound continued the tradition, which is still much alive of course in popular literature.

Petrarch was so widely imitated that it's hardly necessary to read him in the original. Nonetheless, Italian is an attractive tongue and many internet sites will help you learn or brush up your skills. For books try L. Forster's The Icy Fire: Five Studies in European Poetry (1969), T.P. Roche's Petrarch and the English Sonnet Sequence, and G. Bradon's Petrarchan Love and the Continental Renaissance (1999).

Suggestion: The Poetry of Petrarch. Farrar, Straus and Giroux. 2005. $10.20

A new translation of Petrarch's poetry by David Young: straightforward, fresh and readable. Young is well known for his Rilke translations, and his new work on Petrarch conveys the structure and metrical patterns of the original.


C. John Holcombe   |  About the Author    | ©     2007 2012 2013 2015.   Material can be freely used for non-commercial purposes if properly referenced.