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Petrarch 1304-1374

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(Born Francesco Petracco; changed to Petrarca; also referred to as Francis Petrarch) Italian poet, philosopher, and biographer.

One of the most prominent and influential poets in world literature, Petrarch is a major figure in humanist philosophy and the early Italian Renaissance. Through his Canzoniere (begun 1330s), a collection of poems expressing his unrequited love for a woman named Laura, he popularized the Italian, or Petrarchan, sonnet and influenced poets throughout Europe with his imagery, themes, and diction for more than three hundred years.

Biographical Information

Born in Arezzo, Italy, in 1304, Petrarch was the eldest son of a notary who had been banished from Florence two years earlier for his political activities. In 1312 the family moved to Avignon, France, where Petrarch's father established a successful law practice. Petrarch was privately educated by tutors, and in 1316 he began studying civil law in Montpellier. While there Petrarch's habit of spending his allowance on the works of classical poets led his father on one occasion to burn Petrarch's library except for copies of works by Vergil and Cicero. Around this time Petrarch's mother died, and he composed his earliest known poem as a tribute to her. Petrarch and his younger brother, Gherardo, who later became a monk, entered law school in Bologna, Italy, in 1320, where—except for interruptions caused by student riots—they remained until the death of their father in 1326. After abandoning his legal studies and exhausting his inheritance, Petrarch settled in Avignon and took the minor orders necessary to pursue an ecclesiastical career. While attending services on Good Friday, 1327, Petrarch purportedly saw and fell in love with a woman he called Laura. For the remainder of his life Petrarch wrote lyrics about his unrequited love for her, initially gathering them in a volume around 1336 and revising and expanding the collection thereafter. In 1330 Petrarch became a private chaplain to Cardinal Giovanni Colonna and remained in the service of the Colonna family for almost twenty years. During this time he composed or revised most of his major works, traveled on diplomatic missions, and maintained extensive correspondence with friends, scholars, and nobility throughout Europe. Because his works were widely distributed, Petrarch's passion for Laura and his talents as a lyric poet became well known and admired. In 1340 Petrarch received simultaneous invitations to be poet laureate in Paris and in Rome; after some deliberation he accepted the invitation to Rome. On Easter Sunday in 1341 an elaborate ceremony was held in the Palace of the Senate on Capitoline Hill to coronate Petrarch as poet laureate of Rome; the last ceremony of this magnitude is thought to have been held more than a thousand years earlier. Over the next three decades Petrarch continued to travel widely on diplomatic missions and personal business while continuing his literary endeavors. In 1370 he settled in the village of Arqua, Italy, and focused much of his efforts on revising and collecting his earlier works. Petrarch died on July 18, 1374.

Major Works

Although best known for his Italian poetry—Trionfi (The Triumphs; begun 1338) and Rerum vulgarium fragmenta (Canzoniere)—Petrarch composed most of his writings in Latin. His major poetic works include the Africa (begun 1338-39), The Triumphs, and Canzoniere. The Africa is an epic poem in Latin hexameter celebrating the victory of the Roman general Scipio Africanus over the Carthaginian general Hannibal in the Second Punic War. During the Renaissance, Petrarch's most popular work was The Triumphs, a long allegorical poem in six parts—Love, Chastity, Death, Fame, Time, and Eternity—that portrayed the spiritual journey of the soul from the temporal world to eternity. Written in Italian terza rima verse, The Triumphs was particularly esteemed for...

(The entire section contains 128227 words.)

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