Petrarch’s importance for literature and culture is twofold. As one of the humanists, that group of thinkers influenced by classical literatures and intent on reinstating classical learning and values, Petrarch was most influential through his Latin writings: Africa, in which he painted a picture of a pagan and classical hero; De sui ipsius et multorum ignorantia (1367; On His Own Ignorance and That of Many, 1948), in which he defended classical poetry; and My Secret, wherein, through his development of an individual voice, he became a paradigm for later Renaissance writers, among them the French essayist Michel de Montaigne.

In truth, the critical trend to call the period of Petrarch (and stretching into the seventeenth century, in some parts of Europe) the Early Modern period rather than the Renaissance helps to understand his pivotal position. Petrarch anticipated modern sensibilities in his individualism, his emphasis on the experience of the poet rather than the nature of the object, and his constant self-analysis. Yet he was also as much someone who belonged to a “renaissance,” a rebirth, specifically of classical antiquity. The one work that endures as Petrarch’s most influential, the Canzoniere, displays many of those characteristics.

Composed of 366 poems, mostly sonnets—fourteen-line poems of iambic pentameter, usually with the abbaabba cdecde rhyme scheme that Petrarch perfected—the Canzoniere is a roughly narrative recounting of the influence that a woman named Laura had on Petrarch. The sequence was composed over a number of years, the entire collection being completed near the end of Petrarch’s life. The unique contribution of the sequence is that the lyrics in it are combined in such a way as to create a sense of narrative unity and to focus the reader’s attention on the voice of the poet, a presence at once unifying and individualizing. The sequence itself is divided into two main sections: poems 1 to 266 about Laura in life and 267 to 366 about Laura after death, the final poem taking the reader beyond human time and Laura’s death into heaven and eternity.

Besides its purely structural aspects, the Canzoniere is significant for the ways in which it ties together the three poetic strands that influenced Petrarch: classical Latin poetry, Romance (predominantly French) literature, and Augustinian meditation. From the classics Petrarch derived many of his conventional topoi (a topos is a type of recurrent poetic formula, such as the poet speaking outside his beloved’s door), his secularity, his pastoral vision of the landscape, and, above all, his urbane accommodation of much of Ovid’s language. From the Romance tradition, he assimilated the cultivated poetic and cultural sensibilities of Provence, the aristocratic worldview. Finally, from Augustinianism he developed his confessional and introspective voice. It is that voice—dignified and confessional, aristocratic and personal, tortured and inspired—that unites the Canzoniere.

Through that central persona, the Canzoniere develops three major themes, all interrelated—the meaning of Laura, the nature of the external landscape, and the question of time. For the speaker of the poem, the character of Laura goes well beyond any particular woman whom Petrarch may have seen in church on Good Friday, 1327. Through the Canzoniere her significance changes constantly. At times, she seems to be the historical person whom Petrarch saw, as in sonnet 3. Other times she becomes linked to the laurel crown of poetic fame, and as such she becomes suggestive of the poet’s own quest for glory and fame (which ended in his being crowned poet laureate). Again, she becomes linked to the idea of poetic inspiration and moral guidance (Petrarch often puns on Laura’s name, l’aura meaning “breeze,” a traditional symbol of poetic inspiration), much like Beatrice did for Dante. Another Laura in the Canzoniere allows Petrarch to investigate the theme of love, both secular and profane; this Laura causes Petrarch both pleasure and pain, joy and sorrow, hope and despair, and it...

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