Francesco Petrarca—or Petrarch (PEE-trahrk), as he came to be known—was born in Arezzo, Tuscany (now in Italy), on July 20, 1304, to Pietro di Parenzo and Eletta Canigiani. He spent his early years in Incisa, near Florence, where, in 1307, his brother Gherardo was born. Around 1316, Petrarch began to study law at the University of Montpellier, a vocation for which he had little love. Still, under pressure from his father, he continued his studies there for four years and then studied for three years at Bologna, where he also came into contact with the vernacular (Tuscan) poetry of the region, literature that influenced the best of his poetry.
Upon his father’s death in 1326, Petrarch and his brother settled in Avignon. There, in the Church of St. Clare on April 6, 1327 (Good Friday, by Petrarch’s poetic re-creation), he spied and fell in love with a young woman whose identity is still somewhat uncertain. This lady, named Laura in his poetry, was to become for Petrarch what Beatrice was for Dante: the object of his love, the theme of his poetry, and his poetic inspiration, even after her death of the plague in 1348. Indeed, from among the poems that he wrote about Laura, Petrarch finally assembled his most famous work, the Rerum vulgarium fragmenta (1470, also known as Canzoniere; Rhymes, 1976). Composed mainly of sonnets and odes, the Canzoniere is one of only two major works, besides the Trionfi (1470; Tryumphs, 1565; best known as Triumphs, 1962), that Petrarch wrote in Italian. Ironically, it is this work upon which Petrarch’s poetic reputation primarily rests, even though he believed that his Latin work would secure for him the fame that he so deeply desired.
In 1330, Petrarch’s friend Giacomo Colonna was appointed bishop of Lombez. Petrarch accompanied him there, where he met several other young men who shared Petrarch’s literary and scholarly interests and who would be important colleagues in Petrarch’s attempts to revive interest in classical learning. These interests characterized Petrarch and his friends as Renaissance humanists. Also in Lombez, Petrarch received his first clerical appointment, chaplain to Cardinal Giovanni Colonna. That and future appointments provided Petrarch with an income that would support him while demanding few duties, thus allowing him important time for his own literary pursuits.
In 1333, Petrarch began a period of travel, ultimately establishing a residence in Vaucluse, a secluded town near Avignon and where he would reside, off and on, until 1353. During this period, he visited France, the Low Countries, and Germany. In 1336, he and his brother climbed Mt. Ventoux, the mountain that had been a real presence in Petrarch’s early childhood. His accounts of this ascent, describing the beauty that he encountered and the keen tension between...
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