(History of the World: The Middle Ages)
0111201570-Petrarch.jpg Petrarch (Library of Congress) Published by Salem Press, Inc.

Article abstract: Petrarch’s scholarship stimulated a revival of interest in classical studies, and his vernacular poetry created a veritable Petrarchan school of sonneteers.

Early Life

Petrarch’s father, Pietro di Parenzo—more commonly known as Ser Petracco—was, like Dante, a member of the White Guelph Party in Florence. Following the victory of the Black Guelphs, he was condemned to a heavy fine and the loss of a hand. He fled with his wife, Eletta Canigiani, to Arezzo in October of 1302, and there, on July 20, 1304, Francesco Petrarca was born. The following year, Petrarch and his mother moved to Incisa, where his brother, Gherardo, was born in 1307.

Because Incisa was under Florentine rule, Pietro could visit his wife and children only surreptitiously, so in 1311 the family moved again, this time to Pisa. There Petrarch saw for the first and only time that other famous Florentine exile, Dante. Apparently it was at Pisa, too, that Petrarch began his studies under yet another exile, Convenevole da Prato. In 1312, the family again relocated, settling in Carpentras, France, fifteen miles northeast of Avignon, to be close to the papal seat. Many years later, Petrarch wrote to Guido Sette, recalling his life in the French village: “Do you remember those four years? What happiness we had, what security, what peace at home, what freedom in the town, what quietness and silence in the country!” Sette, who became Archbishop of Genoa, was to be a lifelong friend and correspondent.

In 1316, Petrarch was sent to the University of Montpellier to study law, the family profession. He was already showing far more interest in the classics than in legal matters; according to his own account, his father discovered his Latin library and threw all but two books, one by Vergil and one by Cicero, into the fire, sparing this pair only because of his son’s pleas. Like so many other of Petrarch’s autobiographical accounts, this anecdote seems too pat to be true, for throughout his life Petrarch took Vergil and Cicero as his models, seeking to surpass the one in poetry, the other in prose. While Petrarch was still at Montpellier, his mother died; the event called forth his earliest surviving poem, a moving Latin elegy of thirty-eight hexameter lines, one for each year of her life.

To complete his legal studies, Petrarch was sent to the University of Bologna in 1320, the most celebrated law school in Europe. Again, Petrarch showed more interest in Latin literature than in law, recording in February, 1325, his purchase of Saint Augustine’s De civitate Dei (413-427; The City of God); this copy is now at the University of Padua. His father’s hostility to classical studies seems to have vanished, if it ever existed, for from Paris he brought his son that compendium of medieval learning, Saint Isidore of Seville’s Etymologiae (late sixth century to early seventh century). The acquisition of the volume by Augustine also belies Petrarch’s claim that in his youth he read only secular works.

The death of his father in April, 1326, freed Petrarch to pursue his own interests. He returned to Avignon and studied literature. In his Posteritati (1370-1372; Epistle to Posterity, 1966), he describes himself as having been a good-looking youth, with bright eyes and a medium complexion. He had two illegitimate children—a son, Giovanni, born in 1337, and a daughter, Francesca, born six years later—and sustained many enduring friendships throughout his life.

Life’s Work

About a year after his return from Bologna, Petrarch had one of the most important encounters of his life. As he wrote in 1348 in his copy of Vergil that served as a diary,

Laura, illustrious through her own virtues, and long famed through my verses, first appeared to my eyes in my youth, in the year of our Lord 1327, on the sixth day of April, in the church of St. Clare in Avignon, at matins.

Virtually all of his vernacular poetry was to revolve around this woman: The verses of the Rerum vulgarium fragmenta (1470, also known as Canzoniere; The Sonnets and Stanzas of Petrarch, 1879) celebrate his love for her both during her life and after her death; the various Trionfi (1470; Tryumphs, 1565, best known as Triumphs, 1962) reveal her power over Petrarch, Cupid, mortality, and even time itself.

Petrarch’s father had left his two sons enough money to free them from the need to work, but by 1330 the peculations of feckless executors and dishonest servants forced the young men to seek some occupation. Since Petrarch despised law and hated medicine, as he would make clear in a later diatribe against the profession (Invective contra medicum, 1352-1355), he took minor religious orders, and, in the autumn of 1330, he entered the household of Cardinal Giovanni Colonna. Subsequently, he received various benefices, among them the canonries of Lombez, Pisa, Parma, Padua, and Monselice. Neither pluralism nor nonresidency troubled him; he treated these posts as sinecures, though he was willing to trade them for less lucrative offices to oblige his friends. Though at various times throughout his life he was offered papal secretaryships and even bishoprics, he always refused, preferring the freedom to read and write over power and money.

During the early 1330’s, he traveled widely and added to his library. A list of his favorite books, compiled in 1333 (Libri mei peculiares), already contained some fifty entries, about twenty of them by Cicero and Seneca. A 1346 letter to Giovanni dell’ Incisa makes clear his sentiment: “I am possessed by one insatiable passion, which I cannot restrain—nor would I if I could. . . . I cannot get enough books.”

Among the Ciceronian works he may have owned was De gloria, of which no copy is now extant. He certainly owned the Pro Archia (62 b.c.e.), which he found in Liège in 1333; the discovery added an important speech to the known canon, and this defense of poetry treated a subject of lifelong interest to Petrarch himself. Sometime before 1337, his collecting led to his preparing the first scholarly edition of Livy’s history of Rome, Ab urbe condita (27 b.c.e.-17 c.e.; The Roman History). Originally composed of 142 books arranged in groups of ten (called decades), by the Middle Ages this monumental work had been scattered. During his travels, Petrarch had found manuscripts in Chartres and Verona, and he recognized that they belonged together. His own transcript, now in the British Museum, united the first, third, and fourth decades to create the most complete copy then known. Moreover, his philological knowledge allowed him to complete certain gaps and choose the best among various readings. His text served as the basis of subsequent editions, and his comments remain useful to scholars of the Roman historian.

In these years, he was writing lyrics, sonnets, and canzoni in Italian, as well as a comedy, Philologia, now lost. About one hundred of these vernacular poems were to be incorporated into the 366 that constitute the final version of the Canzoniere. His Latin works of the period are fewer, but he did address an appeal to Pope Benedict XII to return to Rome. Throughout his life, he regarded the Eternal City as the only fit place for the seat of the papacy and the Holy Roman Emperor, and he repeatedly urged popes and kings to return there.

His own visit to Rome in 1337 marked a milestone in his life, for thereafter he devoted an increasing amount of effort to Latin compositions. He began De viris illustribus (1351-1353; reorganized as Quorundam virorum...

(The entire section is 3189 words.)