Of the 366 poems included in the collection that Petrarch made of his poetry, 317 are sonnets, 29 are canzoni, 9 are sestine, 7 are ballate, and 4 are madrigals. In giving the work the title Rerum vulgarium fragmenta, Petrarch called attention to the fact that the brief poems were written not in Latin but in the vernacular. The work also became known as Rime (Rhymes) and Canzoniere.
In considering the sonnets and songs of Petrarch, scholars invariably compare the poet with Dante, who also wrote in the vernacular Italian instead of Latin. Both these giants of Italian literature centered their poetry on a gracious lady suddenly discovered, idealized, and then praised throughout a lifetime. Dante wrote his La vita nuova (c. 1292; Vita Nuova, 1861; better known as The New Life) about Beatrice Portinari, whom he met when he was nine years old and she eight; he never stopped worshiping her as the ideal woman, and he continued to celebrate her in his poetry even after her death in 1290. Petrarch’s ideal woman was Laura, possibly Laura de Noves, whom he first met on April 6, 1327, when he was in his twenty-second year. Laura died in 1348 from the plague.
Like Dante, Petrarch kept his passion at a distance—one might say at a poetic distance—from the woman who charmed him. In the works of both Dante and Petrarch, however, it is difficult to believe that the love was merely an excuse for the poetry; something of human passion, not just creative passion, burns in the poetry with a warmth that survives the centuries. It may be that this enduring emotion can be attributed to those distant ladies who set the poets to writing immortal poetry, but it is more reasonable to suppose that poetic genius worked in both cases to turn a sudden fancy into a lifelong poetic enterprise.
Critics have never ceased wondering who Laura may have been, and some question whether she actually existed. Even Petrarch’s contemporaries were not certain, and some of them contended that the Laura of the poems was an invention, an ideal based on no model whatsoever. Petrarch denied the charge, pointing out that it would be madness to spend years writing hundreds of poems about an entirely imaginary woman. More significantly, the poems too deny the charge by the force of their feeling and imagery.
For both Dante and Petrarch the idealization process took them beyond earth to heaven. That is, the poetic figures of Beatrice and Laura are not merely ideal mortal, physical women but also spiritually significant, by their person and manner representing beings who symbolize the highest values the human soul can hope to attain. Dante made Beatrice an inspiration even in Paradise and used her as the central guiding figure of the second half of La divina commedia (c. 1320; The Divine Comedy, 1802). In writing of the painter Simon, Petrarch comments in poem 77:
But certainly Simon saw paradiseWherein this gentle lady had her place;There he saw her and portrayed in such guiseThat is the witness here of her fair face.
Later, writing more explicitly of Laura after her death, Petrarch speaks of “Seeing her now on such intimate term/ With Him who in her life had her heart’s right,” and, in the same sonnet, 345, he concludes:
For fairer than before, my inner...
(The entire section is 1459 words.)