Ugo Foscolo (essay date 1823)

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Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 8969

SOURCE: Ugo Foscolo, "A Parallel between Dante and Petrarach," in Essays on Petrarch, John Murray, 1823, pp. 163-208.

[In the following essay, Foscolo, a renowed Italian poet, compares the poetry and philosophy of Dante and Petrarch.]


The excess of erudition in the age of Leo the Tenth, carried the refinements of criticism so far as even to prefer elegance of taste to boldness of genius. The laws of the Italian language were thus deduced, and the models of poetry selected exclusively from the works of Petrarch; who being then proclaimed superior to Dante, the sentence remained, until our times, unreversed. Petrarch himself mingles Dante indiscriminately with others eclipsed by his own fame—

  Ma ben ti prego, che in la terza spera,
Guitton saluti, e Messer Cino, e Dante,
Franceschin nostro, e tutta quella shiera.

  Così or quinci, or quindi rimirando
Vidi in una fiorita e verde piaggia
Gente che d'Amor givan ragionando.

  Ecco Dante, e Beatrice: ecco Selvaggia,
Ecco Cin da Pistoja; Guitton d' Arezzo;
Ecco i due Guidi che giá furo in prezzo;
Onesto Bolognese, e i Siciliani.
—Trionf. c.4.

Salute, I pray thee, in the sphere of love,
   Guitton, my master Cino, Dante too,
Our Franceschin, all that blest band

Thus while my gazing eyes around me rove,
  I saw upon a slope of flowery green
Many that held their sweet discourse of
 Here Dante and his Beatrice, there were
Selvaggia and Cino of Pistoia; there
Guitton the Aretine; and the high-priz'd pair,
  The Guidi; and Onesto these among,
  And all the masters of Sicilian song.

Boccacio, discouraged by the reputation of these two great masters, determined to burn his own poetry. Petrarch diverted him from this purpose, writing with a tone of humility somewhat inconsistent with the character of a man who was not naturally a hypocrite. "You are a philosopher and a christian," says he, "and yet you are discontented with yourself for not being an illustrious poet! Since another has occupied the first place, be satisfied with the second, and I will take the third."1—Boccacio, perceiving the irony and the allusion, sent Dante's poem to Petrarch, and intreated that "he would not disdain to read the work of a great man, from whom exile and death, while he was still in the vigour of life, had snatched the laurel."2—"Read it, I conjure you; your genius reaches to the heavens, and your glory extends beyond the earth: but reflect that Dante is our fellow-citizen; that he has shewn all the force of our language; that his life was unfortunate; that he undertook and suffered every thing for glory; and that he is still pursued by calumny, and by envy, in the grave. If you praise him, you will do honour to him—you will do honour to yourself—you will do honour to Italy, of which you are the greatest glory and the only hope."

Petrarch, in his answer, is angry that he can be considered jealous of the celebrity of a poet "whose language is coarse, though his conceptions are lofty"— "You must hold him in veneration and in gratitude, as the first light of your education, whilst I never saw him but once, at a distance, or rather he was pointed out to me, while I was still in my childhood. He was exiled on the same day with my father, who submitted to his misfortunes, and devoted himself solely to the care of his children. The other, on the contrary, resisted, followed the path which he had chosen, thought only of glory, and neglected every thing else. If he were still alive, and if his character were as congenial to mine as his genius is, he would not have a better friend than me."3—This letter lengthened out by contradictions, ambiguities, and indirect apologies, points out the individual by circumlocutions, as if the name was withheld through caution or through awe. Some maintain that Dante is not referred to;4 but the authentic list5 still existing, of the Florentines banished on the 27th of January 1302, contains the names of Dante and the father of Petrarch, and that of no other individual to whom it is possible to apply any one of the circumstances mentioned in the letter, whilst each, and the whole of them, apply strictly to Dante.

These two founders of Italian literature, were gifted with a very different genius, pursued different plans, established two different languages and schools of poetry, and have exercised till the present time a very different influence. Instead of selecting, as Petrarch does, the most elegant and melodious words and phrases, Dante often creates a new language, and summons all the various dialects of Italy to furnish him with combinations that might represent, not only the sublime and beautiful, but even the commonest scenes of nature; all the wild conceptions of his fancy; the most abstract theories of philosophy, and the most abstract mysteries of religion. A simple idea, a vulgar idiom, takes a different colour and a different spirit from their pen. The conflict of opposite purposes thrills in the heart of Petrarch, and battles in the brain of Dante—

Nè sì nè no nel cor dentro mi suona.—Petr.
Che sì e no nel capo mi tenzona.—Dante.
At war 'twixt will and will not.—Shakspeare.

Tasso expressed it with that dignity from which he never departs—

In gran tempesta di pensieri ondeggia.

Yet not only does this betray an imitation of the magno curarum fluctuat œstu of Virgil; but Tasso, by dreading the energy of the idiom sì e no, lost, as he does too often, the graceful effect produced by ennobling a vulgar phrase—an artifice which, however, in the pastoral of Aminta he has most successfully employed. His notion of epic style ws so refined, that while he regarded Dante "as the greatest poet of Italy," he often asserted, "had he not sacrificed dignity and elegance, he would have been the first of the world."—No doubt Dante sometimes sacrificed even decorum and perspicuity; but it was always to impart more fidelity to his pictures, or more depth to his reflections. He says to himself—

    Parla, e sie breve e arguto.—
Speak; and be brief, be subtile in thy words.

He says to his reader—

    Or ti riman, lettor, sovra 'I tuo banco,
Dietro pensando a ciò, che is preliba,
S' esser vuoi lieto assai prima, che stanco.
   Messo t' ho innanzi; omai per te ti

Now rest thee, reader, on thy bench, and
Anticipative of the feast to come;
So shall delight make thee not feel thy toil.
Lo! I have set before thee; for thyself
Feed now.


As to their versification, Petrarch attained the main object of erotic poetry; which is, to produce a constant musical flow in strains inspired by the sweetest of human passions. Dante's harmony is less melodious, but is frequently the result of more powerful art—

 S' i' avessi le rime e aspre e chiocce,
Come si converebbe al tristo buco,
Sovra 'l qual pontan tutte l'altre rocce,
 I' premerei di mio concetto il suco
Più pienamente: ma perch' i' non l'abbo,
Non senza tema a dicer mi conduco:
 Che non è impresa da pigliare a gabbo,
Descriver fondo a tutto l'universo,
Nè da lingua, che chiami mamma o
 Ma quelle donne ajutino 'I mio verso,
Ch' ajutaro Anfione a chiuder Tebe,
Sì che dal fatto il dir non sia diverso.

 Oh! had I rough hoarse thunder in my
To match this gulph of woe on all sides
O'erbrow'd by rocks, then dreadfully should
The mighty torrent of my song: such
I boast not; but with shuddering awe
The solemn theme. The world's extremest
Requires no infant babbling, but the choir
Of tuneful virgins to assist my strain,
By whose symphonious aid Amphion raised
The Theban walls,—but truth shall guide my

Here the poet evidently hints that to give colour and strength to ideas by the sound of words, is one of the necessary requisites of the art. The six first lines are made rough by a succession of consonants. But when he describes a quite different subject, the words are more flowing with vowels—

      O anime affannate,
Venite a noi parlar, s'altri nol niega.
  Quali colombe dal desio chiamate,
Con l' ali aperte e ferme al dolce nido,
Volan per l'aer dal voler portate.

"O wearied spirits! come, and hold

With us, if by none else restrain'd." As
By fond desire invited, on wide wings
And firm, to their sweet nest returning
Cleave the air, wafted by their will along.

This translator frequently contravenes the position of his author, who, chiefly depending upon the effect of his versification, says, that "nothing harmonized by musical enchainment, can be transmuted from one tongue into another, without destroying all its sweetness and harmony."6—The plan of Dante's poem required that he should pass from picture to picture, from passion to passion. He varies the tone in the different scenes of his journey as rapidly as the crowd of spectres flitted before his eyes; and he adapts the syllables and the cadences of each line, in such an artful manner as to give energy, by the change of his numbers, to those images which he intended to represent. For in the most harmonious lines, there is no poetry, whenever they fail to excite that glow of rapture, that exquisite thrill of delight, which arises from the easy and simultaneous agitation of all our faculties—this the poet achieves by powerful use of imagery.

Images in poetry work upon the mind according to the process of nature herself;—first, they gain upon our senses—then, touch the heart—afterwards strike our imagination—and ultimately they imprint themselves upon our memory, and call forth the exertion of our reason, which consists mainly in the examination and comparison of our sensations. This process, indeed, goes on so rapidly as to be hardly perceived; yet all the gradations of it are visible to those who have the power of reflecting upon the operations of their own minds. Thoughts are in themselves only the raw material: they assume one form or another; they receive more or less brilliancy and warmth, more or less novelty and richness, according to the genius of the writer. It is by compressing them in an assemblage of melodious sounds, of warm feelings, of luminous metaphors, and of deep reasoning, that poets transform, into living and eloquent images, many ideas that lie dark and dumb in our mind; and it is by the magic presence of poetical images, that we are suddenly and at once taught to feel, to imagine, to reason, and to meditate, with all the gratification, and with none of the pain, which commonly attends every mental exertion. The notion, "that memory and the art of writing preserve all human knowledge"— the notion, "that hope forsakes not man even on the brink of the grave, and that the expectations of the dying man are still kept alive by the prospect of a life hereafter"—are truths most easy of comprehension, for they are forced upon us by every day's experience. Still the abstract terms in which every general maxim must inevitably be involved, are incapable of creating the simultaneous excitement by which all our faculties mutually aid each other: as when the poet addresses MEMORY—.

Ages and climes remote to thee impart
What charms in Genius, and refines in Art;
Thee, in whose hands the keys of Science
The pensive portress of her holy cell;
Whose constant vigils chase the chilling
Oblivion steals upon her vestal lamp—

With the metaphysical expressions of Genius, Art, Science, are interwoven objects proper to affect the senses, so that the reader sees the maxim set before him as in a picture.—By means of images only, poets can claim the merit of originality; for by the multiplied combination of very few notions, they produce novelty and form groupes, which, though differing in design and character, all exhibit the same truth. The following Italian passage on Memory has not the slightest resemblance to the English lines; yet the diversity lies only in the varied combination of images—"The Muses sit by the tomb, and when Time's icy wing sweeps away alike the marble, and the dust of man, with their song they heer the desert waste, and harmony overcomes the silence of a thousand generations"—

Siedon le Muse su le tombe, e quando
Il Tempo con sue fredde ali vi spazza
I marmi e l'ossa, quelle Dee fan lieti
Di lor canto i deserti, e l'armonia
Vince di mille e mille anni il silenzio.

And what could be said of our expectations of immortality, which is not all contained and unfolded in this invocation to HOPE?

Thou, undismay'd, shalt o'er the ruin smile,
And light thy torch at Nature's funeral pile.

Petrarch's images seem to be exquisitely finished by a very delicate pencil: they delight the eye rather by their colouring than by their forms. Those of Dante are the bold and prominent figures of an alto rilievo, which, it seems, we might almost touch, and of which the imagination readily supplies those parts that are hidden from the view. The commonplace thought of the vanity of human renown is thus expressed by Petrarch—

O cicchi, il tanto affaticar che giova?
Tutti tornate alla gran madre antica,
E il vostro nome appena si ritrova.

O blind of intellect! of what avail
Are your long toils in this sublunar vale?
Tell, ye benighted souls! what gains accrue
From the sad task, which ceaseless ye
Ye soon must mingle with the dust ye tread;
And scarce your name upon a stone be

and by Dante,

 La vostra nominanza è color d'erba,
Che viene e va; e quei la discolora
Per cui vien fuori della terra acerba.

Your mortal fame is like the grass whose
Doth come and go; by the same sun
From which it life, and health, and freshness

The three lines of Petrarch have the great merit of being more spirited, and of conveying more readily the image of the earth swallowing up the bodies and names of all men; but those of Dante, in spite of their stern profundity, have the still greater merit of leading us on to ideas to which we should not ourselves have reached. Whilst he reminds us, that time, which is necessary for the consummation of all human glory, ultimately destroys it, the changing colour of grass presents the revolutions of ages, as the natural occurrence of a few moments. It is by mentioning "the great periods of time" that an old English poet has lessened this very idea which he intended to magnify—

 I know that all beneath the moon decays;
And what by mortals in this world is
In time's great periods shall return to
  I know that all the muse's heavenly lays,
With toil of sprite which are so dearly
As idle sounds, of few or none are sought,
 That there is nothing lighter than mere

Again, instead of the agency of time, Dante employs the agency of the sun; because, conveying to us a less metaphysical idea, and being an object more palpable to the senses, it abounds with more glorious and evident images, and fills us with greater wonder and admiration. Its application is more logical also, since every notion which we have of time, consists in the measure of it, which is afforded by the periodical revolutions of the sun.

With respect to the different pleasure these two poets afford, it has been already remarked, that Petrarch calls forth the sweetest sympathies, and awakens the deepest emotions, of the heart: and whether they be of a sad, or of a lively cast, we eagerly wish for them, because, the more they agitate us, the more strongly they quicken our consciousness of existence. Still, as we are perpetually striving against pain, and hurried on in the constant pursuit of pleasure, our hearts would sink under their own agitations, were they abandoned by the dreams of imagination, with which we are providentially gifted to enlarge our stock of happiness, and to gild with bright illusions the sad realities of life. Great writers alone can so control the imagination, as to make it incapable of distinguishing these illusions from the reality. If, in a poem, the ideal and fanciful predominate, we may indeed be surprised for a moment, but can never be brought to feel for objects which either have no existence, or are too far removed from our common nature—and on the other hand, if poetry dwell too much on realities, we soon grow weary; for we see them wherever we turn; they sadden each minute of our existence; they disgust us ever, because we know them even to satiety:—again, if reality and fiction be not intimately blended into one whole, they mutually oppose and destroy one another. Petrarch does not afford many instances of so happy a combination of truth with fiction, as when he describes Laura's features immediately after expiring—

Pallida no, ma più che neve bianca—
Parea posar come persona stanca.

Quasi un dolce dormir ne' suoi begli
Sendo lo spirto già da lei diviso—
Morte bella parea nel suo bel viso.

No earthy hue her pallid cheek display'd,
But the pure snow—
Like one recumbent from her toils she lay,
Losing in sleep the labours of the day—
And from her parting soul an heavenly
Seem'd yet to play upon her lifeless face,
Where death enamour'd sate, and smiled
 with angel grace.

Had the translator kept closer in the last line to the original words, "Death seemed beautiful on the lovely features of Laura," he would have conveyed a higher and yet more credible notion of her beauty, and insensibly changed, into an agreeable sensation, the horror with which we regard a corpse. But "Death sitting enamour'd in Laura's face," exhibits no distinct image, unless it be that of the allegorical form of Death transmuted into an angel sitting upon the face of a woman—which affords a striking exemplification of the absurdities arising from the unskilful mixture of truth with fiction.

Petrarch often surrounds the reality with ideal decorations so luxuriantly, that while we gaze at his images they disappear—

Obscured and lost in flood of golden light.

And the poet by whom this line is suggested, justly remarks—that "True taste is an excellent economist, and delights in producing great effects by small means." Dante selects the beauties that lie scattered throughout created Nature, and embodies them in one single subject. The artists who combined in the Apollo of Belvidere, and the Venus de' Medicis, the various beauties observed in different individuals, produced forms, which, though strictly human, have an air of perfection not to be met with upon the earth: however, when contemplating them, we are led insensibly to indulge in the illusion, that mankind may possess such heavenly beauty—

  Stiamo, Amor, a veder 1a gloria nostra,
Cose sopra natura altere e nove:
Vedi ben quanta in lei dolcezza piove;
Vedi lume che 'l cielo in terra mostra;
 Vedi quant' arte indora, e imperla, e
L'abito eletto, e mai non visto altrove,
Che dolcemente i piedi, e gli occhi move
Per questa di bei colli ombrosa chiostra.
 L'erbetta verde, e i fior di color mille
Sparsi sotto quell' elce antiqua e negra,
Pregan pur che 'l bel pie' li prema o tocchi;
  E 'l ciel di vaghe e lucide faville
S'accende intorno, e'n vista si rallegra
D'esser fatto seren da sì begli occhi.

Here stand we, Love, our glory to behold—
  How, passing nature, lovely, high, and
  Behold! what showers of sweetness falling
What floods of light by heav'n to earth
How shine her robes, in purple, pearls, and
 So richly wrought, with skill beyond
 How glance her feet!—her beaming eyes
  how fair
Through the dark cloister which these hills
The verdant turf, and flowers of thousand
 Beneath yon oak's old canopy of state,
 Spring round her feet to pay their amorous
The heavens, in joyful reverence, cannot
 But light up all their fires, to celebrate
 Her praise, whose presence charms their
  awful beauty.

This description makes us long to find such a woman in the world; but while we admire the poet, and envy him the bliss of his amorous transports, we cannot but perceive that the flowers "that courted the tread of her foot," the sky "that grew more beautiful in her presence," the atmosphere "that borrowed new splendour from her eyes," are mere visions which tempt us to embark with him in the pursuit of an unattainable chimæra. We are induced to think, that Laura must have been endowed with more than human loveliness, since she was able to kindle her lover's imagination to such a degree of enthusiasm, as to cause him to adopt such fantastic illusions, and we conceive the extremity of his passion; but cannot share his amorous ecstasies for a beauty which we never beheld and never shall behold.

On the contrary, the beautiful maiden seen afar off by Dante, in a landscape of the terrestrial paradise, instead of appearing an imaginary being, seems to unite in herself all the attractions which are found in those lovely creatures we sometimes meet, whom we grieve to lose sight of, and to whom fancy is perpetually recurring—the poet's picture recals the original more distinctly to our memory, and enshrines it in our imagination—

Una donna soletta, che si gia
Cantando ed isciegliendo fior da fiore,
Ond' era pinta tutta la sua via.
 Deh bella donna, ch' a' raggi d'amore
Ti scaldi, s'io vo'credere a' sembianti,
Che soglion' esser testimon del cuore,
 Vengati voglia di trarreti avanti,
Diss'io a lei, verso questa riviera,
Tanto ch'io possa intender che tu
 Come si volge con le piante strette
A terra, e intra sè, donna che balli,
E piede innanzi piede a pena mette,
 Volsesi 'n su' yermigli ed in su' gialli
Fioretti, verso me, non altrimenti,
Che vergine, che gli occhi onesti avvalli;
 E fece i prieghi miei esser contenti,
Sì appressando sè, che 'l dolce suono
Veniva a me co' suoi intendimenti.

                                     I beheld
A lady all alone, who, singing, went,

And culling flower from flower, wherewith
 her way
Was all o'er painted. "Lady beautiful!
Thou, who (if looks, that use to speak the
Are worthy of our trust) with love's own
Dost warm thee," thus to her my speech, I
"Ah! please thee hither tow'rds the
 streamlet bend
Thy steps so near, that I may list thy
 As when a lady, turning in the dance,
Doth foot it featly, and advances scarce
One step before the other to the ground;
Over the yellow and vermillion flowers
Thus turn'd she at my suit, most maiden-
Veiling her sober eyes: and came so near,
That I distinctly caught the dulcet sound.

Such is the amazing power with which Dante mingles the realities of nature with ideal accessories, that he creates an illusion which no subsequent reflection is able to dissipate. All that grace and beauty, that warmth and light of love, that vivacity and cheerfulness of youth, that hallowed modesty of a virgin, which we observe, though separately and intermixed with defects, in different persons, are here concentrated into one alone; whilst her song, her dance, and her gathering of flowers, give life, and charm, and motion, to the picture.—To judge fairly between these two poets, it appears, that Petrarch excels in awakening the heart to a deep feeling of its existence; and Dante, in leading the imagination to add to the interest and novelty of nature. Probably a genius never existed, that enjoyed these two powers at once in a pre-eminent degree.

Having both worked upon plans suited to their respective talents, the result has been two kinds of poetry, productive of opposite moral effects. Petrarch makes us see every thing through the medium of one predominant passion, habituates us to indulge in those propensities which by keeping the heart in perpetual disquietude, paralize intellectual exertion—entice us into a morbid indulgence of our feelings, and withdraw us from active life. Dante, like all primitive poets, is the historian of the manners of his age, the prophet of his country, and the painter of mankind; and calls into action all the faculties of our soul to reflect on all the vicissitudes of the world. He describes all passions, all actions—the charm and the horror of the most different scenes. He places men in the despair of Hell, in the hope of Purgatory, and in the blessedness of Paradise. He observes them in youth, in manhood, and in old age. He has brought together those of both sexes, of all religions, of all occupations, of different nations, and ages; yet he never takes them in masses—he always presents them as individuals; speaks to every one of them, studies their words, and watches their countenances.—"I found," says he, in a letter to Can della Scala, "the original of my Hell, in the earth we inhabit." While describing the realms of death, he catches at every opportunity to bring us back to the occupations and affections of the living world. Perceiving the sun about to quit our hemisphere, he breaks out into—

  Era già l'ora, che volge'l desio
A'naviganti, e intenerisce il core
Lo dì, ch'han detto a'dolci amici Addio;
  E che lo nuovo peregrin d'amore
Punge, se ode squilla di lotano,
Che paja'l giorno pianger, che si muore.

'Twas now the hour when fond desire
 To him who wanders o'er the pathless
Raising unbidden tears, the last adieus
  Of tender friends, whom fancy shapes
When the late parted pilgrim thrills with
 Of his lov'd home, if o'er the distant
Perchance, his ears the village chimes have
 Seeming to mourn the close of dying day.

There is a passage very like this in Apollonius Rhodius, whose many beauties, so admired in the imitations of Virgil, are seldom sought for in the original.—

Night then brought darkness o'er the
   earth: at sea
The mariners their eyes from shipboard
Fix'd on the star Orion, and the Bear.
The traveller, and the keeper of the gate,
Rock'd with desire of sleep; and slumber
Fell heavy on some mother, who had wept
Her children in the grave.

By digressions similar to this, introduced without apparent art or effort, Dante interests us for all mankind; whilst Petrarch, being interested only about himself, alludes to men at sea at eventide, only to excite greater compassion for his own sufferings—

 E i naviganti in qualche chiusa valle
Gettan le membra, poi che'l sol s'asconde,

Sul duro legno e sotto l'aspre gonne:
Ma io; perchè s' attuffi in mezzo l'onde,
E lassi Ispagna dietro alle sue spalle,
E Granata e Marocco e le Colonne,
E gli uomini e le donne
E'l mondo, e gli animali
Acquetino i lor mali,
Fine non pongo al mio ostinato affanno:
E duolmi ch'ogni giorno arroge al danno;
Ch' i' son già pur crescendo in questa
Ben presso al decim' anno,
Nè poss' indovinar chi me ne scioglia.

And in some shelter'd bay, at evening's
The mariners their rude coats round them
Stretch'd on the rugged plank in deep
But I, though Phœbus sink into the main
And leave Granada wrapt in night, with
Morocco, and the Pillars famed of old,
Though all of human kind
And every creature blest
All hush their ills to rest,
No end to my unceasing sorrows find;
And still the sad account swells day by
For since these thoughts on my lorn spirit
I see the tenth year roll,
Nor hope of freedom springs in my
 desponding soul.

Hence Petrarch's poetry wraps us in an idle melancholy, in the softest and sweetest visions, in the error of depending upon others' affection, and leads us vainly to run after perfect happiness, until we plunge head-long into that despair which ensues,

When Hope has fled affrighted from thy
And giant Sorrow fills the empty place.

Still those who meet with this fate are comparatively very few, while far the greater number only learn from sentimental reading how to work more successfully upon impassioned minds, or to spread over vice a thicker cloak of hypocrisy. The number of Petrarch's imitators in Italy may be ascribed to the example of those Church dignitaries and learned men, who, to justify their commerce with the other sex, borrowed the language of Platonic love from his poetry. It is also admirably calculated for a Jesuits' college, since it inspires devotion, mysticism, and retirement, and enervates the minds of youth. But since the late revolutions have stirred up other passions, and a different system of education has been established, Petrarch's followers have rapidly diminished; and those of Dante have written poems more suited to rouse the public spirit of Italy. Dante applied his poetry to the vicissitudes of his own time, when liberty was making her dying struggle against tyranny; and he descended to the tomb with the last heroes of the middle age. Petrarch lived amongst those who prepared the inglorious heritage of servitude for the next fifteen generations.

It was about the decline of Dante's life that the constitutions of the Italian States underwent a total and almost universal change, in consequence of which a new character was suddenly assumed by men, manners, literature, and religion. It was then that the Popes and Emperors, by residing out of Italy, abandoned her to factions, which having fought for independence or for power, continued to tear themselves to pieces through animosity, until they reduced their country to such a state of exhaustion, as to make it an easy prey to demagogues, to despots, and to foreigners. The Guelphs were no longer sanctioned by the Church, in their struggle for popular rights against the feudatories of the empire. The Ghibellines no longer allied themselves to the Emperors to preserve their privileges as great proprietors. Florence, and other small republics, after extirpating their nobles, were governed by merchants, who, having neither ancestors to imitate, nor generosity of sentiment, nor a military education, carried on their intestine feuds by calumny and confiscation. Afraid of a domestic dictatorship, they opposed their external enemies by foreign leaders of mercenary troops, often composed of adventurers and vagabonds from every country, who plundered friends and foes alike, exasperated the discords, and polluted the morals, of the nation. French princes reigned at Naples; and to extend their influence over the south of Italy, destroyed the very shadow of the imperial authority there, by stimulating the Guelphs to all the extravagances of democracy. Meanwhile the nobles who upheld the Ghibelline faction in the north of Italy, being possessed of the wealth and strength of the country, continued to wage incessant civil wars, until they, with their towns and their vassals, were all subjected to the military sway of the victorious leaders, who were often murdered by their own soldiers, and oftener by the heirs apparent of their power. Venice alone, being surrounded by the sea, and consequently exempted from the danger of invasion, and from the necessity of confiding her armies to a single patrician, enjoyed an established form of government. Nevertheless, to preserve and extend her colonies and her commerce, she carried on, in the Mediterranean, a destructive contest with other maritime cities. The Genoese having lost their principal fleet, bartered their liberties with the tyrants of Lombardy, in exchange for assistance. They were thus enabled to gratify their hatred, and defeat the Venetians, who to repeat their attacks exhausted their resources; and both states now fought less for interest, than revenge. It was then that Petrarch's exhortations to peace were so haughtily answered by the Doge Andrea Dandolo.7 Thus the Italians, though then the arbiters of the seas, weakened themselves to such a degree, by their blind animosities, that, in the ensuing century, Columbus was compelled to beg the aid of foreign princes, to open that path of navigation which has since utterly destroyed the commercial grandeur of Italy.

Meanwhile the Popes and Cardinals, vigilantly watched at Avignon, were sometimes the forced, and often the voluntary, abettors of French policy. The German Princes, beginning to despise the Papal excommunication, refused either to elect Emperors patronized by the Holy See, or to lead forth their subjects to the conquest of the Holy Land, a device, by which from the beginning of the twelfth to the end of the thirteenth century, all the armies of Europe had actually been at the disposal of the Popes. The wild and enterprising fanaticism of religion having thus ceased with the crusades, dwindled into a gloomy and suspicious superstition: new articles of belief brought from the east, gave birth to new Christian sects: the circulation of the classics, the diffusion of a taste for Greek metaphysics, and the Aristotelian materialism, spread through Europe by the writings of Averroes, induced some of Dante's and Petrarch's contemporaries to doubt even the existence of God.8 It was then deemed expedient to maintain both the authority of the Gospel, and the temporal influence of the Church, by the arbitrary and mysterious laws of the Holy Inquisition. Several of the Popes who filled the chair of St. Peter during the life of Dante, had been originally friars of the order of St. Dominick, the founder of that tribunal; and their successors, in the age of Petrarch, were prelates of France, either corrupted by luxury, or devoted to the interest of their country. The terror which had been propagated by the Dominicans, was followed by the sale of indulgences, and the celebration of the jubilees, instituted about this time by Boniface VIII. As the sovereign pontiffs were no longer allowed to employ in political projects the riches which they derived from their religious ascendancy, ambition yielded to covetousness; and they compounded their declining right of bestowing crowns for subsidies to maintain a luxurious court, and to leave behind them a genealogy of wealthy heirs. The people, though exasperated by oppression, and eager for insurrection, were disunited, and not enlightened enough to bring about a lasting revolution. They revolted only to overturn their ancient laws, to change their masters, and to yield to a more arbitrary government. The monarchs, opposed by an ungovernable aristocracy, were unable to raise armies sufficient to establish their power at home, and their conquests abroad. States were aggrandized more by craft than by bravery; and their rulers became less violent, and more treacherous. The hardy crimes of the barbarous ages, gave place, by degrees, to the insidious vices of civilization. The cultivation of classical literature improved the general taste, and added to the stores of erudition; but at the same time, it enervated the boldness and originality of natural talent: and those who might have been inimitable writers in their maternal language, were satisfied to waste their powers in being the imitators of the Latins. Authors ceased to take any part in passing events, and remained distant spectators of them. Some detailed to their fellow-citizens the past glory, and warned them of the approaching ruin, of their country; and others repaid their patrons with flattery: for it was precisely in the fourteenth century that tyrannical governments began to teach their successors the policy of retaining men of letters in their pay to deceive the world. Such is the concise history of Italy, during the fifty-three years which elapsed from the death of Dante to the death of Petrarch.

Their endeavours to bring their country under the government of one sovereign, and to abolish the Pope's temporal power, forms the only point of resemblance between these two characters. Fortune seemed to have conspired with nature, in order to separate them by an irreconcilable diversity. Dante went through a more regular course of studies, and at a time when Aristotle and Thomas Aquinas reigned alone in universities. Their stern method and maxims taught him to write only after long meditation—to keep in view "a great practical end, which is that of human life"9—and to pursue it steadily with a predetermined plan. Poetical ornaments seem constantly employed by Dante, only to throw a light upon his subjects; and he never allows his fancy to violate the laws which he had previously imposed upon his own genius—

L'ingegno affreno,
Perchè non corra che virtù nol guidi.

Più non mi lascia gire il fren dell'arte.

      I rein and curb
The powers of nature in me, lest they run
Where virtue guide not—
      Mine art
With warning bridle checks me.—

The study of the classics, and the growing enthusiasm for Platonic speculations which Petrarch defended against the Aristotelians,10 coincided with his natural inclination, and formed his mind on the works of Cicero, Seneca, and St. Augustin. He caught their desultory manner, their ornamented diction, even when handling subjects the most unpoetical; and, above all, their mixture of individual feelings with the universal principles of philosophy and religion. His pen followed the incessant restlessness of his soul: every subject allured his thoughts, and seldom were all his thoughts devoted to one alone. Thus being more eager to undertake, than persevering to complete, the great number of his unfinished manuscripts at last impressed him with the idea, that the result of industry would be little more than that of absolute idleness.11—Dante avows that in his youth, he was sinking beneath a long and almost unconquerable despondence; and complains of that stillness of mind which enchains the faculties without destroying them.12 But his mind, in recovering its elasticity, never desisted until it had attained its pursuit; and no human power or interest could divert him from his meditations.13

The intellect of both could only act in unison with the organic and unalterable emotions of their hearts. Dante's fire was more deeply concentrated; it could burn with one passion only at a time: and if Boccacio does not overcharge the picture, Dante, during several months after the death of Beatrice, had the feelings and appearance of a savage.14 Petrarch was agitated at the same time by different passions: they roused, but they also counteracted, each other; and his fire was rather flashing than burning—expanding itself as it were from a soul unable to bear all its warmth, and yet anxious to attract through it the attention of every eye. Vanity made Petrarch ever eager and ever afraid of the opinion even of those individuals over whom he felt his natural superiority.—Pride was the prominent characteristic of Dante. He was pleased with his sufferings, as the means of exerting his fortitude,—and with his imperfections, as the necessary attendants of extraordinary qualities,—and with the consciousness of his internal worth, because it enabled him to look down with scorn upon other men and their opinions—

Che ti fa ciò che quivi si pispiglia?—
           Lascia dir le genti;
Sta come torre ferma che non crolla
Giammai la cima per soffiar de'venti.

Imports it thee what thing is whisper'd
           To their babblings leave
The crowd; be as a tower that firmly set,
Shakes not its top for any blast that blows.

The power of despising, which many boast, which very few really possess, and with which Dante was uncommonly gifted by nature, afforded him the highest delight of which a lofty mind is susceptible—

  Lo collo poi con le braccia mi cinse,
Baciommi in volto, e disse: Alma sdegnosa!
Benedetta colei che in te s'incinse.         Then with his arms my neck
Encircling, kiss'd my cheek and spake: O
Justly disdainful! blest was she in whom
Thou was conceived.

Dante's haughty demeanour towards the princes whose protection he solicited, was that of a republican by birth, an aristocrat by party, a statesman, and a warrior, who, after having lived in affluence and dignity, was proscribed in his thirty-seventh year, compelled to wander from town to town "as the man who stripping his visage of all shame, plants himself in the public way, and stretching out his hand, trembles through every vein."—"I will say no more: I know that my words are dark; but my countrymen shall help thee soon to a comment on the text, To tremble through every vein"15—Petrarch, born in exile, and brought up, and according to his own confession, in indigence,16 and as the intended servent of a court, was year after year enriched by the great, till enabled to decline new favours, he alluded to it with the complacency inevitable to all those who, whether by chance, or industry, or merit, have escaped from penury and humiliation.

Being formed to love, Petrarch courted the good-will of others, sighed for more friendship than human selfishness is willing to allow, and lowered himself in the eyes, and possibly in the affections, of the persons most devoted to him. His disappointments in this respect often embittered his soul, and extorted from him the confession, "that he feared those whom he loved."17 His enemies knowing that, if he readily gave vent to his anger, he was still more ready to forget injuries, found fair game for ridicule18 in his passionate temper, and provoked him to commit himself even in his old age with apologies.19—Dante, on the contrary, was one of those rare individuals who are above the reach of ridicule, and whose natural dignity is enhanced, even by the blows of malignity. In his friends he inspired less commiseration than awe; in his enemies, fear and hatred—but never contempt. His wrath was inexorable; with him vengeance was not only a natural impulse but a duty:20 and he enjoyed the certainty of that slow but everlasting revenge which "his wrath brooded over in secret silence"—

Fa dolce l'ira sua nel suo secreto—
   Taci e lascia volger gli anni:
Sì ch'io non posso dir se non che pianto
Giusto verrà di retro a'vostri danni.

     Let the destined years come round:
Nor may I tell thee more, save that the meed
Of sorrow well-deserved, shall quit your

One would easily imagine his portrait from these lines:

Egli non ci diceva alcuna cosa:
Ma lasciavane gir, solo guardando,
A guisa di Leon, quando si posa.

He spoke not aught, but let us onward
Eyeing us as a Lion on his watch.

As Petrarch without love would probably never have become a great poet—so had it not been for injustice and persecution which kindled his indignation, Dante, perhaps, would never have persevered to complete—

     Il poema sacro,
A cui han posto mano e cielo e terra,
Sì che mi ha fatto per molti anni macro.

    The sacred poem, that hath made
Both heaven and earth copartners in its toil,
And with lean abstinence, through many a
Faded my brow.

The gratification of knowing and asserting the truth, and of being able to make it resound even from their graves, is so keen as to outbalance all the vexations to which the life of men of genius is generally doomed, not so much by the coldness and envy of mankind, as by the burning passions of their own hearts. This sentiment was a more abundant source of comfort to Dante than to Petrarch—

 Mentre ch'i' era a Virgilio congiunto,
Su per lo monte, che l'anime cura,
E discendendo nel mondo defunto,
 Dette mi fur di mia vita futura
Parole gravi; avvegnach'io mi senta
Ben tetragono a i colpi di ventura.—

 Ben veggio, Padre mio, sì come sprona
Lo tempo verso me, per colpo darmi
Tal, ch'è più grave a chi più s'abbandona:
 Perchè di previdenza è buon ch'io

  O sacrosante Vergini! se fami,
Freddi, o vigilie, mai per voi soffersi,
Cagion mi sprona ch'io mercè ne chiami.
  Or convien ch'Elicona per me versi
Ed Urania m'ajuti col suo coro
Forti cose a pensar mettere in versi.—
    E s'io al vero son timido amico,
 Temo di perder vita tra coloro,
 Che questo tempo chiameranno antico.

         I, the whilst I scal'd
With Virgil, the soul-purifying mount,
And visited the nether world of woe,
Touching my future destiny have heard
Words grievous, though I feel me on all
Well squar'd to fortune's blows.—

  My father! well I mark how time spurs on
Toward me, ready to inflict the blow,
Which falls most heavily on him who most
Abandoneth himself. Therefore 'tis good
I should forecast.—

  O ye thrice holy Virgins! for your sakes
If e'er I suffer'd hunger, cold, and watching,
Occasion calls on me to crave your bounty.
Now through my breast let Helicon his
Pour copious, and Urania with her choir
Arise to aid me; while the verse unfolds
Things, that do almost mock the grasp of

  And, if I am a timid friend to truth,
I fear my life may perish among those
To whom these days shall be of ancient

And from a letter of Dante lately discovered,21 it appears that about the year 1316, his friends succeeded in obtaining his restoration to his country and his possessions, on condition that he compounded with his calumniators, avowed himself guilty, and asked pardon of commonwealth. The following was his answer on the occasion, to one of his kinsmen, whom he calls 'Father,' because, perhaps, he was an ecclesiastic; or, more probably, because he was older than the poet.

"From your letter, which I received with due respect and affection, I observe how much you have at heart my restoration to my country. I am bound to you the more gratefully, since an exile rarely finds a friend. But, after mature consideration, I must, by my answer, disappoint the wishes of some little minds; and I confide in the judgment to which your impartiality and prudence will lead you. Your nephew and mine has written to me, what indeed had been mentioned by many other friends, that, by a decree concerning the exiles, I am allowed to return to Florence, provided I pay a certain sum of money, and submit to the humiliation of asking and receiving absolution; wherein, father, I see two propositions that are ridiculous and impertinent. I speak of the impertinence of those who mention such conditions to me; for, in your letter, dictated by judgment and discretion, there is no such thing. Is such an invitation to return to his country glorious for Dante, after suffering in banishment almost fifteen years? Is it thus, then, they would recompence innocence which all the world knows, and the labour and fatigue of unremitting study? Far from the man who is familiar with philosophy, be the senseless baseness of a heart of earth, that could act like a little sciolist, and imitate the infamy of some others, by offering himself up as it were in chains. Far from the man who cries aloud for justice, be this compromise, for money, with his persecutors. No, father, this is not the way that shall lead me back to my country. But I shall return with hasty steps, if you or any other can open me a way that shall not derogate from the fame and honour of Dante; but if by no such way Florence can be entered, then Florence I will never enter. What! shall I not every where enjoy the sight of the sun and stars? and may I not seek and contemplate, in every corner of the earth under the canopy of heaven, consoling and delightful truth, without first rendering myself inglorious, nay infamous, to the people and republic of Florence? Bread, I hope, will not fail me."—Yet he continued to experience,

How salt the savour is of others' bread,
How hard the passage to descend and climb
By others' stairs.

His countrymen persecuted even his memory; he was excommunicated after death by the Pope, and his remains were threatened to be disinterred and burnt, and their ashes scattered to the wind.22 Petrarch closed his life with the reputation of a saint, for whom Heaven performed miracles;23 and the Venetian Senate made a law against those who purloined his bones, and sold them as relics.24

Indeed we might imagine that Petrarch by faithfully and generously discharging all the social duties towards every body about him, and by constantly endeavouring to subdue his passions, was esteemed virtuous and felt happy. Virtuous he was; but he was more unhappy than Dante, who never betrayed that restlessness and perplexity of soul which lowered Petrarch in his own estimation, and made him exclaim in his last days, "In my youth I despised all the world but myself; in my manhood I despised myself; now I despise both the world and myself."25 Had they lived in habits of intercourse, Dante would have possessed over his competitor that superiority, which all men, who act from predetermined and unalterable resolutions, have over those who yield to variable and momentary impulses.—Petrarch might have said, with Dante—

          Conscienza m'assicura
La buona compagnia, che l'uom
Sotto l'usbergo del sentirsi pura.           Conscience makes me firm,
The boon companion who her strong breast-  plate
Buckles on him who feels no guilt within,
And bids him on and fear not.

But his ardent aspirations after moral perfection, and the despair of attaining it, made Petrarch look forward "with trembling hope" to the day that should summon him to the presence of an inexorable Judge. Dante believed, that by his sufferings on earth he atoned for the errors of humanity—that

       So wide arms
Hath goodness infinite, that it receives
All who turn to it.

   Ma la bontà divina ha sì gran braccia
Che prende ciò che si rivolge a lei—

and he seems to address Heaven in the attitude of a worshipper rather than a suppliant. Being convinced "that Man is then truly happy when he freely exercises all his energies,"26 Dante walked through the world with an assured step "keeping his vigils"—

So that, nor night nor slumber with close
Convey'd from him a single step in all
The goings on of time.

He collected the opinions, the follies, the vicissitudes, the miseries and the passions that agitate mankind, and left behind him a monument, which while it humbles us by the representation of our own wretchedness, should make us glory that we partake of the same nature with such a man; and encourage us to make the best use of our fleeting existence. Petrarch was led by a wisdom rather contemplative than active, to think that our toils and exertions in behalf of mankind far exceed any benefit they derive from them; that each step after all but brings us nearer to the grave; that death is the best boon of Providence, and the world to come our only secure dwelling-place. He therefore faltered on through life with the conviction, "that a weariness and disgust of every thing were naturally inherent in his soul"27—and thus he paid the price of those favours, which nature, fortune, and the world, had heaped upon him, without the alloy even of ordinary reverses.


  1. Senil. Lib. 5. Ep. 2. et 3.
  2. Nec tibi sit durum versus vidisse poetæ Exsulis.—
  3. Petr. Epist. edit. Ginevr. an. 1601. p. 445.
  4. TIRABOSCHI, Storia della Let. Ital. vol. 9. lib. 3. cap. 2. sect, 10.
  5. MURATORI, Script. Rer. Ital. vol. 10. p. 501.
  6. DANTE, Convito.
  7. Essay on the Char, of Petr. Sect. IV.
  8. Guido Cavalcanti alcuna volta speculando, molto astratto dagli uomini diveniva; e perciò che egli alquanto teneva della opinione degli Epicurj, si diceva tra la gente volgare che queste sue speculazioni eran solo in cercare se trovar si potesse che Iddio non fosse. BOCCACIO, Giorn. vi. Nov. 9.—See also DANTE, Inf. cant. 10., and Petrarch, Senil, lib. 5. ep. 3.
  9. DANTE, Convito.
  10. This is the main object of his treatise, De sui ipsius et multorum ignorantiâ.
  11. Quicquid ferè opusculorum mihi excidit quœ tàm multa fuerunt, ut usque ad hanc œtatem, me exerceant, ac fatigent: fuit enim mihi ut corpus, sic ingenium magis pollens dexteritate, quam viribus. Itaque multa mihi facilia cogitatu, quœ executione difficilia prœtermisi.—Epist. ad Posterit.
  12. Dante, Vita nuova.
  13. POGGIO,—DANTE, Purg. cant. xvii.
  14. Egli era già, sì per lo lagrimare e sì per l'afflizione, che al cuore sentiva dentro, e sì per non aver di sè alcuna cura di fuori, divenuto quasi una cosa salvatica a riguardare, magro, barbuto, e quasi tutto trasformato da quello, che avanti esser soleva; in tanto che'l suo aspetto non che negli amici, ma eziandio in ciascun altro a forza di sè metteva compassione.—BOCCACIO, Vita di Dante.
  15. Purgat. cant. xi. towards the end.
  16. Honestis parentibus, fortuna (ut verum fatear) ad inopiam vergente, natus sum.—Epist. ad Post.
  17. Senil. Lib. 13. Ep. 7.
  18. Indignantissimi animi, sed offensarum obliviosissimiira mihi persœpe nocuit, aliis nunquam.—Epist. ad Post.
  19. AGOSTINI, Scritt. Venez, vol. 1. p. 5.
  20. Che bell' onor s'acquista in far vendetta. DANTE, Convito.—See also, Inferno, cant. xxix. vers. 31-36.
  21. APPENDIX, No. VI.
  22. BARTOLUS, Lex de rejudicandis reis, ad cod. 1.
  23. Ea res … miraculo ostendit divinum illum spiritum Deo familiarissimum.—VILLANI, Vit. Petr. sul fine.
  24. TOMASINI, Petrarcha Redivivus, pag. 30.
  25. Senil. Lib. 13. Ep. 7.
  26. Humanum genus, potissimè liberum, optimè se habet.—DANTE de Monarchia.
  27. Cum omnium rerum fastidium atque odium naturaliter in animo meo insitum ferre non possim.—Epist. ad Post.


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Petrarch 1304-1374

(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 its encyclopedic catalogs of famous persons, its visionary outlook, concern with worldly vanities, and emphasis on salvation through God. Petrarch called his most lasting poetic work Rerum vulgarium fragmenta ("Fragments in the Vernacular"), but since his time this work has been variously referred to as the Rime, Rime sparse, Rhymes, and, most commonly, the Canzoniere. In its final form the Canzoniere consists of 366 poems: 317 sonnets, 29 canzone, 9 sestinas, 7 ballads, and 4 madrigals. The collection is divided into two parts; the first section contains 266 poems—the majority of which focus on Laura during her lifetime, with some political, moral, and miscellaneous poems interspersed, while the poems in the second section of the Canzoniere are reminiscences about Laura after her death. Throughout the Canzoniere the narrator reflects upon his passion for Laura, the suffering caused by his unrequited love, and his efforts to free himself from his desire. The final poem of the Canzoniere closes with a plea to the Virgin Mary to end the narrator's heartache. While Laura's existence and identity remain uncertain, critics have observed that she has served as the epitome of feminine virtue and beauty for generations of poets. Petrarch's major prose works include De viris illustrious (On Illustrious Men; begun 1337); Secretum (Petrarch's Secret; begun 1342-43); De otio religioso (On Religious Idleness; 1345-47); and De remediis utriusque fortunae (Remedies for Fortune Fair and Foul; begun 1353). On Illustrious Men is a collection of biographies covering such famous Romans as Romulus, Cincinnatus, and Scipio. Petrarch's Secret consists of three dialogues in which Augustine, who personifies the religious ideal, scolds Petrarch for failing to achieve the ideal. Dedicated to the Carthusian religious order, of which Petrarch's brother Gherardo was a member, On Religious Idleness examines the benefits of the religious life, particularly the ability to resist temptation. Remedies for Fortune Fair and Foul discusses the proper way to live and die under varied circumstances. Petrarch characterizes life as difficult and fraught with troubles and argues that human weakness springs from our abandonment of virtue. Stressing Christian values, self-examination, and individual responsibility, Remedies for Fortune Fair and Foul was immensely popular during the early Renaissance.

Critical Reception

Petrarch is credited with popularizing—but not inventing—the Italian sonnet, a poetic form with an octet rhyming in the pattern abbaabba and a sestet that usually follows the pattern cdecde. His works in this form are generally regarded as his most significant contribution to literature, and numerous critics have credited Petrarch with reviving traditional poetic forms. Commentators have noted the relationship between form and meaning in his poetry, his use of complex syntax, and his imagery. Scholars have also frequently discussed the theme of tension between the body and spirit in Petrarch's works, his extensive use of classical mythology, his celebration of statesmen and leaders from the classical period, and his contributions to humanist philosophy, particularly his efforts to reconcile Christian and pagan ideals. As Christopher Kleinhenz observed, "The 317 sonnets that provide the form and essence of the poetic corpus of the Canzoniere are without doubt one of the finest literary legacies ever bequeathed to mankind. In their attempts to define the excellence of the Petrarchan sonnet, critics praise it for its precision and compactness, for its graceful symmetry and vibrant musicality, and for its noble sentiments and intimate tones."

Littell's Living Age (essay date 1878)

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 13540

SOURCE: "Petrarch," in Littell's Living Age, Vol. XXIV, No. 1802, December, 1878, pp. 771-87.

[In the review below, the anonymous critic remarks on Henry Reeve's Petrarch (1878) and discusses Petrarch's contribution to the Italian Renaissance as a humanist and poetic stylist.]

The true position of Petrarch in the history of modern culture has recently been better understood, owing to a renewed and careful examination of his Latin works in prose and verse. Not very long ago he lived upon the lips of all educated people as the lover of Laura, the poet of the canzoniere, the hermit of Vaucluse, the founder of a school of sentimental sonneteers called Petrarchisti. This fame of Italy's first lyrist still belongs to Petrarch, and remains perhaps his highest title to immortality, seeing that the work of the artist outlives the memory of services rendered to civilization by the pioneer of learning. Yet we now know that Petrarch's poetry exhausted but a small portion of his intellectual energy, and was included in a vaster and far more universally important life-task. What he did for the modern world was not merely to bequeath to his Italian imitators masterpieces of lyrical art unrivalled for perfection of workmanship, but to open out for Europe a new sphere of mental activity. Petrarch is the founder of humanism, the man of genius who, standing within the threshold of the Middle Ages, surveyed the kingdom of the modern spirit, and by his own inexhaustible industry in the field of study determined the future of the Renaissance. He not only divined but, so to speak, created an ideal of culture essentially different from that which satisfied the mediæval world. By bringing the men of his own generation once more into sympathetic relation with antiquity, he gave a decisive impulse to that great European movement which restored freedom, self-consciousness, and the faculty of progress to the human intellect. To assert that without Petrarch this new direction could not have been taken by the nations at the close of the Middle Ages would be hazardous. The warm reception which he met with in his lifetime and the extraordinary activity of his immediate successors prove that the age itself was ripe for a momentous change. Yet it is none the less certain that Petrarch did actually stamp his spirit on the time, and that the Renaissance continued to be what he first made it. He was in fact the hero of the humanistic struggle; and so far-reaching were the interests controlled by him in this his world-historical capacity, that his achievement as an Italian lyrist seems by comparison insignificant.

It is Mr. Reeve's merit, while writing for the public rather than for scholars, to have kept this point of view before him. Petrarch, he says, "foresaw in a large and liberal spirit a new phase of European culture, a revival of the studies and the arts which constitute the chief glory and dignity of man;" and there are some fine lines in his "Africa," in which he predicts the advancement of knowledge as he discerned it from afar:—

To thee, perchance, if lengthened days are
A better age shall mark the grace of
Not always shall this deadly sloth endure;
Our sons shall live in days more bright and
Then with fresh shoots our Helicon shall
Then the fresh laurel spread its sacred
Then the high intellect and docile mind
Shall renovate the studies of mankind,
The love of beauty and the cause of truth
From ancient sources draw eternal youth.

With reference to Mr. Reeve's life of the poet-scholar it may be briefly said that none of the more interesting or important topics of Petrarch's biography have been omitted, and that the chief questions relating to his literary productions have been touched upon. The little book is clearly the product of long-continued studies and close familiarity with the subject; it is, moreover, marked by unvarying moderation and good taste. Those who have no leisure for studying the more comprehensive biographies of De Sade and Koerting, or for quarrying for themselves in the rich mine of Signor Fracassetti's edition of the poet's letters, will find it a serviceable guide. One general criticism must here be added. Mr. Reeve is not always particularly happy in the choice of his translations. He quotes, for example, not without approval, Macgregor's version of the canzone to Rienzi, which renders the opening lines by this inconceivable clumsiness of phrase:—

Spirit heroic! who with fire divine
Kindlest those limbs, awhile which pilgrim
On earth a chieftain, gracious, wise, and

It might also be parenthetically questioned why he prefers to call the river Sorgues, which in Italian is Sorga, by its Latin name of Sorgia. But these are matters of detail. The book itself is sound. Taking this volume of "Foreign Classics for English Readers" in our hand, we shall traverse a portion of the ground over, which Mr. Reeve has passed, using such opportunities as offer themselves for expressing disagreement upon minor points with his conclusions.

The materials for a comprehensive life of Petrarch are afforded in rich abundance by his letters, collected by himself and prepared for publication under his own eye. Petrarch was an indefatigable epistolographer, carrying on a lively correspondence with his private friends, and also addressing the dignitaries of his age upon topics of public importance. Self-conscious and self-occupied, he loved to pour himself out on paper to a sympathetic audience, indulging his egotism in written monologues, and finding nothing that concerned himself too trivial for regard. His letters have, therefore, a first-rate biographical importance. They not only yield precise information concerning the chief affairs of his life; but they are also valuable for the illustration of his character, modes of feeling, and personal habits. The most interesting of the series is addressed to posterity, and is nothing less than the fragment of an autobiography begun in the poet's old age. Of this remarkable document Mr. Reeve has printed a translation into English. Next in importance to the letters rank the epistles and eclogues in Latin verse and the Italian poems; while apart from all other materials, as furnishing a full confession of Petrarch's passions, weaknesses, and impulses, stand the dialogues upon the "Contempt of the World." The preoccupation with self which led Petrarch to the production of so many autobiographical works, marks him out as a man of the modern rather than the mediæval age. He was not content to remain the member of a class, or to conform his opinions to authorized standards, but strove at all costs to realize his own particular type. This impulse was not exactly egotism, nor yet vanity; though Petrarch had a good share of both qualities. It proceeded from a conviction that personality is infinitely precious as the central fact and force of human nature. The Machiavellian doctrine of self-conscious character and self-dependent virtù, so vitally important in the Renaissance, was anticipated by the poet-scholar of Vaucluse, who believed, moreover over, that high conditions of culture can only be attained by the free evolution and interaction of self-developed intellects. Nature, besides, had formed him for introspection, gifting him with the sensibilities that distinguish men like Rousseau. Subjectivity was the main feature of his genius, as a poet, as an essayist, as a thinker, as a social being. By surrendering himself to this control, and by finding fit scope for this temperament, he emancipated himself from the conditions of the Middle Ages, which had kept men cooped in guilds, castes, cloisters. Determined to be the best that God had made him, to form himself according to his ideal of excellence, he divested his mind of superstition and pedantry, refused such offices of worldly importance as might have hampered him in his development, and sought his comrades among the great men of antiquity, who, like himself, had lived for the perfection of their own ideal.

After the materials afforded to the biographer by Petrarch's own works, may be placed, but at a vast distance below them, the documents furnished by the Abbé de Sade in his bulky "Life." These chiefly concern Laura, and go to prove that she was a lady of noble birth, married to Hugh de Sade, and the mother of eleven children. It would hardly be necessary to refer to these papers, unless Mr. Reeve had expressed a too unqualified reliance on their authority. He says, "These facts are attested beyond all doubt by documents in the archives of the De Sade family." Yet it is still an open question, in the absence of the deeds which the abbé professed to have copied and printed, whether he was not either the fabricator of a historical romance very flattering to his family vanity, or else the dupe of some earlier impostor. It is true that he submitted the supposed originals to certain burghers of Avignon, who pronounced them genuine; but we may remember with what avidity Barrett and Burgon of Bristol swallowed Chatterton's forgeries about the same period: nor, even were we convinced of the abbé's trustworthiness, is there much beyond an old tradition at Avignon to justify the identification of Petrarch's Laura with his Laure de Sade. Mr. Reeve is therefore hardly warranted in asserting that it is "useless to follow the speculations which have been published as to the person of Laura, and, indeed, as to her existence."

Petrarch was born at the moment when the old order of mediævalism had begun to break up in Italy, but not before the main ideas of that age had been expressed in an epic which remains one of the three or four monumental poems of the world. Between the date 1302, when Dante and Petrarch's father were exiled on one day from Florence, and when Petrarch himself was born at Arezzo, and the year 1321, when Dante died, and when the younger poet was prosecuting his early studies in Montpellier, the "Divine Comedy" had been composed, and the mighty age of which it was the final product had already passed away. The papacy had been transferred from Rome to Avignon. The emperors had proved their inability to settle the Italian question. Italy herself, exhausted by the conflicts which succeeded to the first strong growth of freedom in her communes, had become a prey to factions. The age of the despots had begun. A new race was being formed, in whom the primitive Italian virtues of warlike independence, of profound religious feeling, and of vigorous patriotism were destined to yield to the languor of indifference beneath a tyrant's sceptre, to half-humorous cynicism, and to egotistic party strife. At the same time a new ideal was arising for the nation, an ideal of art and culture, an enthusiasm for beauty, and a passion for the ancient world. The Italians, deprived of their liberty, thwarted in their development as a nation, and depraved by the easygoing immorality of the rich bourgeoisie, intent on only money-getting and enjoyment, were at this momentous crisis of their fortunes on the point of giving to the modern world what now is known as humanism, and had already entered on that career of art which was so fruitful of masterpieces in painting, sculpture, and architecture. The allegories, visions, ecstasies, legends, myths, and mysteries of the Middle Ages had lost their primitive vitality. If handled at all by poets or prose-writers, they had become fanciful or frigid forms of literature, at one time borrowing the colors of secular romance, at another sinking into the rigidity of ossified conventionality. Wearied with the effort of the past, but still young, and with a language as yet but in its infancy, the Italians sought a new and different source of intellectual vitality. They found this in the Roman classics, to whom, as to their own authentic ancestors, they turned with the enthusiasm of discoverers, the piety of neophytes.

For Dante the Middle Age still lived, and its stern spirit, ere it passed away, was breathed into his poem. Petrarch, though he retained a strong tincture of mediævalism, belonged to the new period: and this is the reason why, though far inferior in force of character and grasp of thought to Dante, his immediate influence was so much greater. For the free growth of his genius, and for the special work he had to do, it was fortunate for Petrarch that he was born and lived an exile. This circumstance disengaged him from the concerns of civic life and from the strife of the republics. It left him at liberty to pursue his own internal evolution unchecked. It enabled him to survey the world from the standpoint of his study, and to judge its affairs with the impartiality of a philosophical critic. Without a city, without a home, without a family, without any function but the literary, absorbed in solitary musings at Vaucluse, or accepted as a petted guest by the Italian princes, he nowhere came in contact with the blunt realities of life. He was therefore able to work out his ideal; and visionary as that ideal seems to us in many of its details, it controlled the future with a force that no application of his personal powers to the practical affairs of life could have engendered.

Another circumstance of no little weight in the formation of Petrarch for his destined life-work was his education at Avignon. When his father settled there in 1313, the boy of eleven years had already acquired his mother-tongue at Arezzo, Incisa, and Pisa. Nothing therefore was lost for the future poet of the canzoniere in regard to purity of diction. But Avignon was a far more favorable place of training for the humanistic student than any Tuscan town could have been. It was the only cosmopolitan city of that time. A fief of Provence, and owning King Robert of Naples for its sovereign, it was now inhabited by the popes, who swayed Christendom from their palace on the hill above the Rhone. All roads, it is said, lead to Rome; but this proverb in the first half of the fourteenth century might with more propriety have been applied to Avignon. The business of the Catholic Church had to be transacted here; and this brought men of mark together from all quarters of the globe. Petrarch therefore grew up in a society more mingled than could have been found elsewhere at the time in Europe; and since he was destined to be the apostle of the new culture, he had the opportunity of forming a cosmopolitan and universal conception of its scope. His own attitude towards the papal court was not a little peculiar. Though he could boast of being favored by five popes, though he lived on intimate relations with high dignitaries of the Church, though he was frequently pressed to accept the office of apostolic secretary, though he owed his pecuniary independence to numerous small benefices conferred upon him by the pontiffs whom he served, and though he undertook the duties of ambassador at their request, he was unsparing both in prose and verse of the abuse he showered upon them. No fiercer satire of the papal court exists than is contained in the "Epistolœ sine Titulo." It was not that Petrarch was other than an obedient son of the Church; but he could not endure to see the chiefs of Christendom neglecting their high duties to Rome. He thought that if they would but return to the seat of St. Peter, a golden age would begin; and thus his residence in Avignon intensified that idealization of Rome which was the cardinal point of his enthusiasm.

Next in importance to his exile from Provence and his education at Avignon, must be reckoned Petrarch's numerous journeys. His biographers have no slight difficulty in following him from place to place. Besides visiting the most important cities of Italy, he travelled through France and the Low Countries, saw the Rhine, crossed the Alps to Prague, and touched the shores of Spain. No sooner is he established in Vaucluse than we find him projecting a flight to Naples or to Rome. His residence at Parma is interrupted by return flights to Avignon. He settles for a while at Milan; then transfers his library to Venice; next makes Padua his home; then goes on pilgrimage to the Eternal City. The one thing that seems fixed in his biography is change. How highly Petrarch valued freedom of movement, may be gathered from his refusal to accept any office which would have bound him to one spot. Thus he persistently rejected the advances of the popes who offered him the post of secretary; and when Boccaccio brought him the invitation to occupy a professorial chair at Florence in 1351, even this proposal, so flattering to his vanity as an exile and a scholar, was declined with thanks. He knew that he must ripen and possess himself in disengagement from all local ties; for the student belongs to the world, and his internal independence demands a corresponding liberty of action. At the same time there is no doubt that he loved a restless life for its own sake; and he expressly tells us that many of his journeys were undertaken in the vain hope of casting off his passion for Laura, in the unaccomplished effort to break the chains of an internal discontent. The effect of so much movement on himself was still further to develop his cosmopolitan ideal of humanism. He was also flung back by contrast on his inner self, and while he made acquaintance with all the men worth knowing among his contemporaries, he remained a solitary in the midst of multifarious societies. Fame came to him upon his travels, and some of his excursions resembled royal progresses rather than the expeditions of a simple priest. In this way he enhanced the dignity of the humanist's vocation. He may be called the first and by far the most illustrious of those poet-scholars who fitted restlessly from town to town in the Renaissance, ever athirst for glory, and scattering the seeds of knowledge where they went.

When we seek to analyze the ideal of life formed by Petrarch in exile, at Avignon, in the solitary valley of Vaucluse, and in the courts of Europe, we shall be led to consider him from several general points of view— as a scholar, as a politician, as a philosopher, as a poet, and lastly as the man who, living still within the Middle Ages, was first clearly conscious of a modern personality. The discussion of these topics will also serve as well as any other method to bring the complex qualities of one of the most strangely blended characters the world has ever known into sufficient prominence.

It is a mistake to suppose that, though Greek was lost to western Europe, the Latin classics were unknown in the Middle Ages. A fair proportion of both poets and prose-writers are quoted by men of encyclopædic learning like John of Salisbury, Vincent of Beauvais, and Brunetto Latini. But the capacity for understanding them was in abeyance, and their custody had fallen into the hands of men who were antagonistic to their spirit. Between Christianity and paganism there could be no permanent truce. Moreover, the visionary enthusiasms of the cloister and crusade were diametrically opposed to the positive precision of the classic genius. The intellectual strength of the Middle Ages lay not in science or in art, but in a vivid quickening of the spiritual imagination. Their learning was a compilation of detached, ill-comprehended fragments. Their theology, as represented in the "Summa," resembled a vast structure of Cyclopean masonary—block placed on block of roughhewn inorganic travertine, solidified and weighty with the force of dogma. Their philosophy started from narrow data of authority, and occupied its energies in the proof or disproof of certain assumed formulæ. It was inevitable that mediæval scholarship should regard the classical literatures as something alien to itself and should fail to appropriate them. The mediæval mind was no less incapable of sympathizing with their æsthetic and scientific freedom than the legendary mathematician, who asked what the "Paradise Lost" proved, was unable to take the point of view required by poetry. Its utter misapprehension of the subject-matter of these studies was expressed in the legends which made Virgil a magician and turned the gods of Hellas into devils. Nor were the most learned men free from such radically false conceptions, such palpable and incurable "lies in the soul," poisoning the very source of erudition, and converting their industry into a childish trifling with the puppets of blindfold fancy. The very fact that, while Greek was a living language in the east and in the south of Italy, it should have been abandoned by the students of the north and west, proves the indifference to literature for its own sake and the apathy with regard to human learning that prevailed in Europe. Had not Latin been the language of the Church, the language of civilized communication, it is certain that the great authors of Rome would have fallen into the same oblivion as those of Athens. An accident of social and ecclesiastical necessity preserved them. Yet none the less did they need to be rediscovered when the time came for a true comprehension of their subject-matter to revive. What Petrarch did for scholarship was to restore the lost faculty of intelligence by placing himself and his generation in a genial relation of sympathy to the Latin authors. He first treated the Romans as men of like nature with ourselves. For him the works of Virgil and Cicero, Livy and Horace, were canonical books—not precisely on a par with the Bible, because the matter they handled had a less vital relation to the eternal concerns of humanity—but still possessing an authority akin to that of inspiration, and demanding no less stringent study than the Christian sacred literature.

The dualism of the papacy and the empire, which had struck such deep roots in mediæval politics, repeated itself in Petrarch's theory of human knowledge. Just as the pope was the sun, the emperor the moon of the mediæval social system, so, with Petrarch, Christ and the Church shed the light of day upon his conscience, while the great men of antiquity were luminaries of a secondary splendor, by no means to be excluded from the heaven of human thought. This is the true meaning of his so-called humanism. It was this which made him search indefatigably for MSS., which prompted him to found public libraries and collect coins, and which impelled him to gather up and live again in his own intellectual experience whatever had been thought and done by the heroes of the Roman world. At its beginning, humanism was a religion rather than a science. Its moral force was less derived from the head than from the heart. It was an outgoing of sympathy and love and yearning towards the past, not a movement of sober curiosity. Petrarch made the classic authors his familiar friends and confidants. His epistles to Cicero, Seneca, and Varro are but fragments of a long-sustained internal colloquy, detached by a literary caprice and offered to the public as a specimen of his habitual mood. Unlike Machiavelli, after a day passed among the boon companions of a village inn, Petrarch had no need to cast aside his vulgar raiment on the threshold of his study, and assume a courtly garb before he entered the august society of the illustrious dead. He had wrought himself into such complete sympathy with the objects of his admiration, that he was always with them. They were more real to him than the men around him. He tells Augustine or Cicero more about his inner self than he communicates to the living friends whom he called Lælius and Socrates and Simonides. These men, of whom we know almost nothing, served Petrarch as the audience of his self-engrossed monologues; but they were separated from him by the spirit of the Middle Ages. He held converse with them, and presumably loved them; but he recognized a difference of intellectual breed which removed them to a greater distance than the lapse of years dividing him from antiquity. Only those friends of Petrarch's who were animated by an instinct for humanism, kindred in nature and equal in intensity to his own, emerge from the shadow-world and stand before us in his correspondence as clearly as his comrades of the Roman age. Cola di Rienzo and Boccaccio have this privilege. The rest are formless, vague, devoid of substance. …

When we enquire into the range of Petrarch's knowledge, we find that he had by no means more than belonged to the mediæval students in general. It was not the extent, but the intensity of his erudition, not the matter, but the spirit of his scholarship, not its quantity, but its quality, that placed him at an immeasurable distance of superiority above his predecessors. He had so far appropriated Virgil and Seneca, with the larger portions of Cicero and Livy, as to find some difficulty in avoiding verbal reproductions of their works. Had he so willed, he might have expressed himself in a cento of their prose and verse. Horace and Ovid, Juvenal and Persius, Terence, Lucan, Statius, Ausonius, and Claudian, were among his favorite poets. It is possible that he had read Lucretius, and he twice refers somewhat vaguely to Catullus: but Propertius and Tibullus seem to have been unknown to him, while he makes but scanty use of Martial and Plautus. Valerius Flaccus and Silius Italicus he never saw: else it is improbable that he would have chosen Scipio Africanus for the hero of his Latin epic. With Apuieius he was partially acquainted; but there seems good reason to suppose that he had never read the "Golden Ass," though he alludes to it. He knew Macrobius, Aulus Gellius, Solinus, Hyginus, and Pomponius Mela in part, if not completely; for it must be remembered, in reading this lengthy list of authors, that the MSS. were imperfect and full of errors. What Poggio tells us about his finding Quintilian at St. Gallen, proves that the discovery of a good codex was almost equal to the resuscitation of a forgotten author. Cæsar, Sallust, Suetonius, Florus, Justin, Curtius, Vopiscus, Ælius Lampridius, Spartian, together with the anecdotes of Valerius Maximus and the universal history of Orosius, were among the authors he studied and epitomized while composing his great work on "Famous Men." Tacitus was unfortunately unknown to him; and he possessed Quintilian only in a mutilated copy. It may also be regarded as a special calamity that he was unacquainted with the letters of the younger Pliny, though he possessed the natural histories of the elder. The style of these letters would have supplied Petrarch with a better model than Seneca's rhetorical epistles; and he could have assimilated it more easily than that of Cicero, partly because it is itself less idiomatic, and partly because the poet of Vaucluse would have recognized a vivid bond of intellectual sympathy between himself and the humane and tranquil dilettante of Como. As it was, Petrarch's letters bear the stamp of Seneca, Augustine, and the Middle Ages. He found the MS. of Cicero too late (at Verona in 1345) to profit by its study. And here we must express a total disagreement with a passage of Mr. Reeve's "Petrarch," where he says: "But though the style of Cicero was, no doubt, his model, he attained rather to the epistolary than to the philosophical diction of that great master." It is true that on the next page Mr. Reeve appears to contradict this statement by the following admission: "As his knowledge of the Ciceronian epistles was not attained till Petrarch had passed his fortieth year, it may be concluded that his own epistolary style was formed before he knew them." The fact is here correctly given. There is no trace of Cicero's diction, at once epigrammatic and easy, in Petrarch's letters; but in his philosophical treatises, though these reveal the paramount influence of Seneca, St. Augustine, and Lactantius, we occasionally detect an aiming at Cicero's oratorical cadences. The variety of matter handled in his letters, the rapid transition from description to dissertation, their masterly portraits of men, the pleasant wit and caustic humor that relieve the graver passages, the unaffected friendliness of their familiar discourse, the earnest enthusiasm of their political and philosophical digressions, the animation and the movement that carry the reader on as through an ever-shifting, ever-changing scene, render this great mass of correspondence not only valuable for the historian but delightful to the general reader. The scholar will detect a less than classic elegance in their diction, and the student will desire less generality of treatment on some personal topics. But both will admit that neither the ear for rhythm nor the quick intelligence which Petrarch recognized among his choicest literary gifts, had failed him in their composition.

It was Petrarch's merit, while absorbing the Roman classics and the Latin fathers, to have aimed consistently at a style that should express his own originality, and be no mere copy of however eminent a master's. The ruling consciousness of self, which formed so prominent a feature of his moral character, lying at the root of his vanity and conditioning his genius as a poet, here decided his literary development. He would be no man's ape—not even the ape of Cicero or Virgil. Come good, come bad, he meant to be himself. With this end in view, he forced himself to deal with the most formidable stylistic difficulties, and to find utterance in a practically dying language for thoughts and feelings that were modern. In this respect he contrasted favorably with his Italian followers, and proved that his conception of humanism was loftier than that of Ciceronian Bembo, or Virgilian Vida. They cut their matter down to the requirements of an artificially assimilated standard. He made the idiom bend to his needs, and preferred that purity of form should suffer, rather than that the substance to be expressed should be curtailed. It may indeed be said with truth that Erasmus, at the close of the fifteenth century, returned to the path trodden by Petrarch in the first half of the fourteenth, which had been abandoned by a set of timid and subservient purists on the quest of an impossible ideal.

Petrarch knew no Greek, yet he divined its importance, and made every effort in his power to learn it, if we except the supreme effort of going to the fount of Greek in Constantinople. His opportunities at Avignon were few; and he obtained no hold upon the language. What the subsequent history of Italian scholarship would have been, if Petrarch had but ventured on that journey to Byzantium which Filelfo and Guarino took with such immediate profit, or if by any other means he had acquired the key to Greek literature, it is now impossible to say. The weak side of the Renaissance was that it depended mainly upon. Latin: and this explains in no small measure its philosophical superficiality, its tendency to lifeless rhetoric, its stylistic insipidity, the timidity and artificiality that stamp its literary products with the note of mediocrity. It was the echo of an echo, the silver age of a culture which had its own golden age in the Hellenic past: and all that it achieved in close relation to antiquity was consequently third-rate. Whether Petrarch, if he had known Greek, could have resisted the powerful bias which drew Italians back to Rome rather than to Athens, and whether, if he had overcome this tendency himself, he could have had the force to dye the humanism of the Renaissance with Hellenic instead of Latin colors, are questions that cannot by their very nature be decided. But none the less may we regret that tardy and partial impregnation of the modern mind by the Greek spirit which, had it but come earlier and in fuller measure, might have given the world a new birth of Athens instead of Rome. At the moment when humanism was a religion, the Italians absorbed the Latin genius; but now that scholarship has passed into the scientific stage, we are directed to Hellas with an unassimilative curiosity. As regards Petrarch's own knowledge of Greek authors, it may be briefly stated that he possessed MSS. of Homer and some dialogues of Plato. But he lamented that they were dumb for him while he was deaf. He read the "Iliad" in the pitiful Latin version dictated to Boccaccio by Pilatus; and the doctrines of Plato were known to him only in the meagre abstract of Apuleius, in Cicero, and in the works of St. Augustine.

Rome lay near to the Italians on their emergence from the Middle Ages. They were not a new nation, like the French or Germans; but were conscious that once, not very long ago, and separated from them only by a space of dream-existence, their ancestors through Rome had ruled the habitable world. Therefore Florence clung to her traditions of Catiline; the soldiers on watch at Modena told tales of Hector; Padua was proud of Antenor, and Como of the Plinies; Mantua sang hymns to Virgil; Naples pointed out his tomb; Sulmo rejoiced in Ovid, and Tivoli remembered Horace. The newly-formed Italian people, the people who had fought the wars of independence and had founded the communes, were essentially Roman. In no merely sentimental sense, but as a fact of plain historical survival, what still remained of Rome was indefeasibly their own. The plebs of the Italian cities was of Roman blood. Their municipal constitution, in the form and name at least, was Roman. Yet this great memory was but dimly descried through the mist of legends and romance, till Petrarch seized upon it and called his fellow-countrymen to recognize their birthright. His letter describing the impression made upon him by the ruins of Rome, dated with pride from the Capitol upon the Ides of March, his epistles to Varro and Cicero, and his burning appeals to each succeeding pope that he should end the Babylonian captivity and place a crown upon the brows of the world's mistress, prove with what a passion of anticipation he forecast the time when Rome should once more be the seat of empire. In the field of scholarship his enthusiasm was destined to be fruitful. The spirit of Roman art and literature arose from the grave to sway a golden period in the history of human civilization. But in the sphere of politics it remained impotent, idealistic, fanciful.

As a politician, Petrarch continued to the end an incurable idealist. The very conditions of expatriation and pilgrimage, which rendered him so powerful as the leader of the humanistic movement, loosened his grasp upon the realities of political life. We see this on every occasion of his attempting to play a part in the practical business of the world. In his mission from the papal court to Naples, after the accession of Queen Joan, and in his representation of the Visconti at Venice toward the close of her long struggle with Genoa, he was unsuccessful, mainly because he thought that affairs of State could be decided upon moral principles, and because he assumed the tone of an oratorical pedagogue. It was only when the rhetorician's art was needed for a magnificent display, as in his embassy from the Visconti to the French court upon the delivery of John the Good from captivity, in his speech to the conquered people of Novara, and in his ceremonial address to Charles IV. at Prague, that he justified the confidence which had been placed in him. He never saw the world as it was, but as he wished it. And what he wished, was the imposible resuscitation of the Roman commonwealth. Rome was destined, he believed, to be the centre of the globe again as it had been before. With a thoroughly unpractical conception of the very conditions of the problem, he at one time called upon the popes to re-establish themselves in the Eternal City; at another he besought the emperor to make it his headquarters, and to finish by this simple act the anarchy of Italy; at a third, when Rienzi for a moment evoked the pale shadow of the republic from the ruins of the Campagna, he hailed in him the inaugurator of a new and better age. It was nothing to Petrarch that these three solutions were discordant; that pope, emperor, and commonwealth could not simultaneously exist at Rome. Whatever seemed to reflect lustre on the Rome of his romantic vision satisfied him. Indifferent to the claims of gratitude in the past, careless of consequences in the future, he published letters which denounced his old friends and patrons, the Colonna family, as barbarous intruders in the sacred city. Even his humanity forsook him. He burned to play the Brutus, and bade Rienzi to strike and spare not. By the same heated utterances, penetrated, it is true, with the spirit of a sincere patriotism and piety to Rome, he risked the hatred of the papal see. Nor was it until Rienzi had foamed himself away in the madness of vanity that Petrarch awoke from his wild dream. He awoke indeed, but he never relinquished the hope that, if not by this man or that policy, at least by some other Messiah, and upon a different foundation, Rome might still be restored to her primeval splendor. It would seem as though the great ones of the earth estimated his enthusiasm at its real value, and allowed him to pass free as a chartered lunatic; for, much as he said and wrote about the republic, he never seriously imperilled his consideration at the papal court, nor did he interrupt his friendly relations with the petty princes whom he so vehemently denounced as traitors to the Italian people. There was a strange confusion in his mind between his admiration for the ancient Roman commonwealth, which he had imbibed from Livy and which inspired his "Africa," and his mediæval worship of the mixed papal and imperial idea. To Dante's theory of monarchy he added a purely literary enthusiasm for the populus Romanus. Yet Petrarch was no real friend of the people, as he found it, and as alone it could exist in the new age. His friendship for Azzo da Correggio and Luchino Visconti, for the tyrants of Padua, Verona, and Parma, and for King Robert of Sicily, prove that, though in theory he desired some phantom of republican government, in practice he accommodated himself to the worst forms of despotism. Democracy formed no portion of his creed; and his plan of Roman government, submitted to the consideration of Clement VI. in 1351, simply consisted of a scheme for placing power in the hands of the Roman burghers to the exclusion of the great Teutonic families. He was possessed with scholarly hauteur and literary aristocracy; and if he could not have a senate in Rome, with Scipios and Gracchi perorating before popes and emperors in some impossible chimera of mixed government, he did not care how cities suffered or how princes ground their people into dust. His apathetic attitude toward Jacopo da Bussolari's revolution in Pavia, and his sermon to the Novaresi on obedience, would be enough to prove this, if his whole life at Milan, Parma, and Padua were not conclusive testimony.

The main fault of Petrarch's treatises on politics is that they are too didactic. They do not touch the points at issue, but lose themselves in semi-ethical and superficially rhetorical discourses. Thus he prepared the way for those orators of the Renaissance who thought it enough to adorn their subject with moral sentences and learned citations, neglecting the matter of dispute and flooding their audience with conventional sermons. The same fault may be found with his philosophical writings, although a nobler spirit appears in them and a more sturdy grasp upon the realities of life. It was his misfortune to be cast exclusively upon the Roman eclectics—Cicero, Seneca, and Lactantius— for his training in moral science. His ignorance of Greek deprived him of the opportunity of studying any complete system, while his temperament rendered him incapable of absorbing and reconstructing the stoicism of the later Latin writers. According to his view, orthodoxy was the true philosophy; nor did he ever grasp the notion that in the scientific impulse there is an element of search and criticism perilous to Christian dogmatism. It need scarcely be said that he was a good churchman, though of a type less monumentally severe than Dante. Early in life he took orders; and here it may be observed that Mr. Reeve is possibly wrong in supposing he was never ordained priest. The point seems proved by his own declaration that he was in the habit of saying mass;1 and though his life was not irreproachable from a moral point of view, he never pretended that in this respect his conduct had not fallen short of sacerdotal duty.

St. Augustine, whose mental attitude as an orthodox philosopher was similar to his own, became the author of his predilection. Few moments in the history of thought are more interesting than the meeting of that last Roman, already merging his antique individuality in the abyss of theological mysticism, with Petrarch, the first modern to emerge from that contemplative eclipse and reassert the rights of human personality. Between them rolled the river of the Middle Ages, which had almost proved the Lethe of learning; but Petrarch stretched his hand across it, and found in the author of the "Civitas Dei" a friend and comrade. The exquisite sensibility of Augustine, his fervid language, the combat between his passions and his piety, his self-analysis, and final conquest over all that checks the soul's flight heavenward, drew Petrarch to him with irresistible attraction. The poet of Vaucluse recognized in him a kindred nature. The "Confessions" were his Werther, his Rousseau, his cherished gospel of tenderness, "running over with a fount of tears." But, more than this, Augustine pointed him the path that he should tread; and though Petrarch could not tread it firmly, though he bitterly avowed that love, restlessness, vanity, thirst for earthly fame, coldness, causeless melancholy, and divided impulse, kept him close to earth, when he would fain have flown aloft to God, yet the communion with this sterner but still sympathetic nature formed his deepest consolation. Those who wish to study Petrarch's very self must seek it in the book he called his Secretum, the dialogues with St. Augustine upon the contempt of the world. Between Augustine's own "Confessions" and this masterpiece of self-description, the human intellect had produced nothing of the same kind, if we except Dante's exquisite but comparatively restricted "Vita Nuova." With a master hand Petrarch touches the secret springs of his character in these dialogues, lays his finger upon his hidden wounds, and traces the failures and achievements of his life to their true sources. No more consummate piece of self-conscious analysis has ever been penned. It is inspired with an artistic interest in the subject for its own sake; and though the tone is grave, because Petrarch was sincerely religious, there is no obvious aiming at edification. In this intense sense of personality, this delight in the internal world revealed by introspection, it differs widely from mediæval manuals of devotion, from the "Imitatio Christi," for example, which is not the delineation of a man but of a class.

The De Contemptu Mundi is the most important of Petrarch's quasi-philosophical works, chiefly, perhaps, because it was not written with a would-be scientific purpose. Together with a very few books of a similar description, gathered from all literatures ancient and modern, it remains as a fruitful mine for the inductive moralist. His treatise, De Remediis utriusque Fortunœ though bulkier, has less value. It consists of sentences and commonplaces upon the good and evil things of life, and how to deal with them, very often acute, and not seldom humorous, and written in a fluent style, that must have made them infinitely charming to the fourteenth century of arid composition. Petrarch had the art of literary gossip; and he displayed it not only in his letters, but also in such studied works as this The essay De Vitâ Solitariâ has a greater personal interest. Petrarch unfolds in it his theory of the right uses to be made of solitude, and shows how intellectual activity can best be carried on in close communion with nature. What he preached he had fully proved by practice at Vaucluse and Selvapiana. His recluse is no hermit or mediæval monk. He does not retire to the desert, or the woods, or to the cloister; but he lives a life of rational study and sustained communion with himself in the midst of nature's beauties. These he enjoys with placidity and passion, mingled in a wise enthusiasm, till, living thus alone, he finds his true self, enters into the possession of his own mental kingdom, and needs no external support of class interests, official dignities, or work among his fellow-men to buoy him up. There is a profoundly modern tone in this essay. Petrarch describes in it an intellectual egotist, devoted to self-culture, and bent on being sufficient to himself. It is, in fact, the ideal of Goethe, anticipated by four centuries, and colored with a curious blending of piety and paganism peculiar to Petrarch. The De Vitâ Solitariâ might be styled the panegyric of the wilderness, from a humanistic point of view. … [What] Petrarch did was to restate a classic theory of life, which had been merged in the asceticism of the cloister. He did so, without doubt, unconsciously; for Menander was a closed book to him. In harsh contrast is the companion essay on the leisure of the religious, De Otio Religiosorum, composed by Petrarch after a visit to his brother Gherardo in his cloister near Marseilles. The fascination which, in spite of humanism, the Middle Ages still exerted over Petrarch, may be seen in every line of this apparent palinode. If we examine the two discourses side by side, we are almost driven to the conclusion that his command of rhetoric induced their author to treat two discordant aspects of the same theme with something like cynical indifference. Yet this was not the case. In each discourse Petrarch is sincere; for the mediæval and humanistic ideals, irreconcilable and mutually exclusive, found their meeting-point in him. Their conflict caused his spiritual restlessness, and it was the effort of his life to bring them into equilibrium. At one time the humanist, athirst for glory, bent on self-effectuation, forensic, eloquent, enjoying life, devoting his solitary hours to culture, and communing in spirit with the orators of ancient Rome, was upper-most. At another the ascetic, renouncing the world, absorbing himself in mystic contemplation, fixing all his thoughts on death and on the life beyond the grave, assumed supremacy. In his youth and early manhood the former prevailed. After the year 1348, the year of Laura's death, the year of the great plague, which swept away his friends and changed the aspect of society, the latter gained a permanently growing ascendency. But it may be safely said that both impulses co-existed in him till the day of his own death in 1374. A common ground for both was found in the strong love of seclusion which formed one of his chief characteristics, driving him from time to time away from towns and friends into the country houses he possessed at Vaucluse, near Parma, near Milan, and at Arquà. A singular scheme, communicated in 1348 to his friends Mainardo Accursio and Luca Cristiano, for establishing a kind of humanistic convent, of which the members should be devoted to study as well as to religious exercises, shows that Petrarch even meditated a practical fusion of the scholarly and monastic modes of life.

Petrarch was neither a systematic theologian nor a systematic philosopher. He was an orthodox essayist on moral themes, biassed by a leaning towards pagan antiquity. Far more valuable than any of his ethical dissertations was his large and liberal view of human knowledge; and in this general sense he rightly deserves the title of philosopher. Mere repetitions of prescribed formulæ, reproductions of a master's ipse dixit, and scholastic reiterations of authorized doctrines, whether in theology or in philosophy, moved his bitterest scorn. He held that everything was worthless which a man had not assimilated and lived into by actual experience, so as to reconstruct it with the force of his own personality. This point of view was eminently precious in an age of formalism. His antipathy to law, in like manner, did not spring from any loathing of a subject redolent with antiquity and consecrated by the genius of Rome. He only despised the peddling sophistries and narrow arts of those who practised it. His polemic against the physicians, condensed into four ponderous invectives, was likewise based upon their false pretensions to science and their senseless empiricism. In every sphere of human activity he demanded that men should possess real knowledge, and be conscious of its limitations. When he entered into the lists against the Averrhoists, his weightiest argument was founded on the fact that they piqued themselves upon their erudition in the matter of stones, plants, and animals, while they neglected the true concerns of man, and all that may affect his destinies for weal or woe. He dreaded a debasement of human culture by Averrhoistic materialism hardly less than an injury to religion from Averrhoistic atheism. A steady preference of the spirit to the letter, and a firm grasp of the maxim that "the proper study of mankind is man," formed the pith and substance of his intellectual creed. It was here that his humanism and his philosophy joined hands. Nor can we regard the revival of learning in Italy without regretting that the humanists diverged so signally from the path prescribed for them in this respect by their great leader. They copied his faults of vanity and rhetoric. They exaggerated his admiration of Cicero and Virgil into a servile cult. They adhered to Latin authors and Latin canons of taste, when they might have carried on his work into the region of Greek metaphysics. But they lost his large conception of human learning, and gave themselves to puerilities which Petrarch would have been the first to denounce. Thus the true strength of Petrarch's spirit failed to sustain his disciples; while his foibles and shortcomings were perpetuated. In particular it may be affirmed that the Renaissance in Italy produced no philosophy worth notice until the dawn of modern science appeared in Telesio and Campanella, and in the splendid lunes of visionary Bruno.

In his general theory of poetry Petrarch did not free himself from mediæval conceptions, however much his practice may have placed him first upon the list of modern lyrists. He held that the poet and the orator were nearly equal in dignity, though he inclined to assigning a superiority to the latter. This estimate of the two chief species of impassioned eloquence, which we are accustomed to regard as separate and rarely combined in the same person, was probably due to the then prevalent opinion that poets must be learned—an opinion based upon the difficulty of study, and the belief that the unapproachable masterpieces of the ancients had been produced by scientific industry. With the same high sense of the literary function which marked his conception of humanism, he demanded that both orator and poet should instruct and elevate as well as please. The content of the work of art was no matter of indifference to Petrarch; and though he was the most consummate artist of Italian verse, the doctrine of art for art's sake found no favor in his eyes. It may, indeed, be said that he overstepped the mark, and confounded the poet with the prophet or the preacher, retaining a portion of that half-religious awe with which the students of the Middle Ages, unable to understand Virgil, and wonder-smitten by his greatness, had contemplated the author of the "Æneid." It was, he thought, the poet's duty to set forth truth under the veil of fiction, partly in order to enhance the pleasure of the reader and attract him by the rarity of the conceit, and partly to wrap his precious doctrine from the coarse unlettered world. This view of the necessary connection between poetry and allegory dates as far back as Lactantius, from whose "Institutions" Petrarch borrowed the groundwork of his own exposition. That it was shared by the early Florentine lyrists, especially by Dante and Guido Cavalcanti, is well-known. It reappears in the diploma presented to Petrarch upon the occasion of his coronation. It pervades Boccaccio's critical treatises, and it lives on with diminished energy until the age of Tasso, who supplied a key to the moral doctrine of his Gerusalemme Liberata. Genius, however, works by instinct far less than by precept; and the best portions of Petrarch's poetry are free from this æsthetic heresy. We find allegory pure and simple, it is true, in his Latin eclogues, while the concetti of the Italian lyrics, where he plays upon the name of Laura, reveal the same taint. In the Trionfi allegorical machinery is used with high art for the legitimate presentation of a solemn pageant; so that we need not quarrel with it here. The Latin epistles are comparatively free from the disease, while the "Africa" is an epic of the lamp, modelled upon Virgil, and vitiated less by allegory than by an incurable want of constitutional vitality. It is the artificial copy of a poem which itself was artificial, and is therefore thrice removed from the truth of nature. What must be said about Petrarch's Latin poetry may be briefly stated. It has the same merits and the same defects as his prose. That is to say, he studiously strove at being original while he imitated; and, paradoxical as this may seem, he was not unsuccessful. His verse is his own; but it is often rough, and almost always tedious, deformed by frequent defects of rhythm, and very rarely rising into poetry except in some sonorous bursts of declamation. The lament for King Robert at the end of the "Africa," with its fine prophecy of the Renaissance, and a fervid address to Italy, written on the heights of Mont Genèvre in 1353 upon the occasion of his crossing the Alps, to return to Avignon no more,2 might be cited as two favorable specimens. But when we speak of Petrarch as a poet, we do not think of these scholastic lucubrations. We think of the canzoniere, for the sake of which the lover of Madonna Laura is crowned second in the great triumvirate of the trecento by the acclaim of his whole nation.

Petrarch the author of the Rime in Vita e Morte di Madonna Laura, seems at first sight a very different being from Petrarch the humanist. There is a famous passage in the De Remediis utriusque Fortunœ, where the lyrist of chivalrous love pours such contempt on women as his friend Boccaccio might have envied when he wrote the satire of "Corbaccio." In the Secretum, again, he describes his own passion as a torment from which he had vainly striven to emancipate himself by solitude, by journeys, by distractions, and by obstinate studies. In fact, he never alludes to the great love of his life without a strange mixture of tenderness and sore regret. That Laura was a real woman, and that Petrarch's worship of her was unfeigned; that he adored her with the senses and the heart as well as with the head; but that this love was at the same time more a mood of the imagination, a delicate disease, a cherished wound, to which he constantly recurred as the most sensitive and lively well-spring of poetic fancy, than a downright and impulsive passion, may be clearly seen in the whole series of his poems and his autobiographical confessions. Laura was a married woman; for he calls her mulier. She treated him with the courtesy of a somewhat distant acquaintance, who was aware of his homage and was flattered by it. But they enjoyed no intimacy, and it may be questioned whether, if Petrarch could by any accident have made her his own, the fruition of her love would not have been a serious interruption to the happiness of his life. He first saw her in the Church of St. Claire, at Avignon, on the 6th of April, 1327. She passed from this world on the 6th of April, 1348. These two dates are the two turning-points of Petrarch's life. The interval of twenty-one years, when Laura trod the earth, and her lover in all his wanderings paid his orisons to her at morning, evening, and noonday, and passed his nights in dreams of that fair form which never might be his, was the storm and stress period of his checkered career. There is an old Greek proverb that "to desire the impossible is a malady of the soul." With this malady in its most incurable form the poet was stricken; and, instead of seeking cure, he nursed his sickness and delighted in the discord of his soul. From that discord he wrought the harmonies of his sonnets and canzoni. That malady made him the poet of all men who have found in their emotions a dreamland more wonderful and pregnant with delight than in the world which we call real. After Laura's death his love was tranquillized to a sublimer music. The element of discord had passed out of it; and just because its object was now physically unattainable, it grew in purity and power. The sensual alloy which, however spiritualized, had never ceased to disturb his soul, was purged from his still vivid passion. Laura in heaven looked down upon him from her station amid the saints; and her poet could indulge the dream that now at last she pitied him, that she was waiting for him with angelic eyes of love, and telling him to lose no time, but set his feet upon the stairs that led to God and her. The romance finds its ultimate apotheosis in that transcendent passage of the Trionfo della Morte, which describes her death and his own vision. Throughout the whole course of this labyrinthine love-lament, sustained for forty years on those few notes so subtly modulated, from the first sonnet on his "primo giovenile errore" to the last line of her farewell, "Tu stara' in terra senza me gran tempo" Laura grows in vividness before us. She only becomes a real woman in death, because she was for Petrarch always an ideal, and in the ideal world beyond the tomb he is more sure of her than when "the fair veil" of flesh was drawn between her and his yearning.

No love-poetry of the ancient world offers any analogue to the canzoniere. Nor has it a real parallel in the Provençal verse from which it sprang. What distinguishes it, is the transition from a mediæval to a modern mood, the passage from Cino and Guido to Werther and Rousseau. Its tenacity and idealism belong to the chivalrous age. Its preoccupation with emotion as a given subject-matter and its infinite subtlety of self-analysis place it at the front of modern literature. Among the northern nations chivalrous love was treated as a motive for epic poetry in the Arthurian romances. It afterwards found lyrical expression among the poets of Provence. From them it passed to Italy, first appearing among the Lombard troubadours, who still used the langue d'oc, and next in Sicily at Frederick's court, where the earliest specimens of genuine Italian verse were fashioned. Guido Guinicelli further developed the sonnet, and built the lofty rhymes of the canzone at Bologna. By this time Italian literature was fully started; and the traditions of Provençal poetry had been both assimilated and transcended. From Guido's hands the singers of Florence took the motive up, and gave it a new turn of deeper allegory and more philosophic meaning. The canzoni of Dante and Guido Cavalcanti were no mere poems of passion, however elevated. Love supplied the form and language; but there lurked a hidden esoteric meaning. It is true that in the "Vita Nuova" Dante found at once the most delicate and the most poetically perfect form for the expression of an unsophisticated feeling. Beatrice was here a woman, seen from far and worshipped, but worshipped with a natural ardor. He was not, however, contented to rest upon this point; nor had he any opportunity of becoming properly acquainted with the object of his adoration in her lifetime. In the "Convito," she had already been idealized as Philosophy, and in the "Divine Comedy" she is transfigured as Theology. Death, by separating her from him, rendered Beatrice's apotheosis conceivable; and Dante may be said to have rediscovered the Platonic mystery, whereby love is an initiation into the secrets of the spiritual world. It was the intuition of a sublime nature into the essence of pure impersonal enthusiasm for beauty, an exaltation of woman similar to that attempted afterwards by Shelley in "Epipsychidion," which pervades the poetry of Michelangelo, and which forms a definite portion of the Positivistic creed. Yet there remained an ineradicable unsubstantiality in this point of view, when tested by the common facts of human feeling. The Dantesque idealism was too far removed from the sphere of ordinary experience to take firm hold upon the modern intellect. In proportion as Beatrice personified abstractions, she ceased to be a woman; nor was it possible, except by losing hold of the individual, to regard her as a symbol of the universal. Plato in the "Symposium" had met this difficulty, by saying that the lover, having reached the beatific vision, must renounce the love by which he had been led to it. A different solution, in harmony with the spirit of their age and their religion was offered by the trecentisti. Their transmutation of the simpler elements of chivalrous love into something mystical and complex, where the form of the worshipped lady transcends the sphere of experience, and her spirit is identified with the lover's profoundest thoughts and highest aspirations, was a natural process in mediæval Florence. The Tuscan intellect was too virile and sternly strung at that epoch to be satisfied with amorous rhymes. The mediæval theory of æsthetics demanded allegory, and imposed upon the poet erudition; nor was it easy for the singer of that period to command his own immediate emotions, with a firm grasp upon their relation to the world around him, or to use them for the purposes of conscious art. He found it more proper to express a philosophic content under the accepted form of erotic poetry than to paint the personality of the woman he loved with natural precision. Between the mysticism of a sublime but visionary adoration on the one side, and the sensualities of vulgar passion or the decencies of married life upon the other, there lay for him no intermediate artistic region. The Italian genius, in the Middle Ages, created no feminine ideal analogous in the reality of womanhood to Gudrun or Chriemhild, Guinevere or Iseult: and when it left the high region of symbolism, it descended almost without modulation to the prose of common life. Guido Cavalcanti is in this respect instructive. We find in his poetry the two tendencies separated and represented with equal power, not harmonized as in the case of Dante's allegory. His canzoni dealt with intellectual abstractions. His ballate gave artistic form to feelings stirred by incidents of everyday experience. The former were destined to be left behind, together with the theological scholasticism of the Middle Ages. The latter lived on through Boccaccio to Poliziano and the poets of the sixteenth century. Still we can fix one moment of transition from the transcendental philosophy of love to the positive romance of the "Decameron." Guided by his master, Cino da Pistoja, the least metaphysical and clearest of his immediate predecessors, Petrarch found the right artistic via media; and perhaps we may attribute something to that double education which placed him between the influences of the Tuscan lyrists and the troubadours of his adopted country. At any rate he returned from the allegories of the Florentine poets to the simplicity of chivalrous emotion; but he treated the original motive with a greater richness and a more idealizing delicacy than his Provençal predecessors. The marvellous instruments of the Italian sonnet and canzone were in his hands, and he knew how to draw from them a purer if not a grander melody than either Guido or Dante. The best work of the Florentines required a commentary; and the structure of their verse, like its content, was scientific rather than artistic. Petrarch could publish his canzoniere without explanatory notes. He had laid bare his heart to the world, and every man who had a heart might understand his language. Between the subject-matter and the verbal expression there lay no intervening veil of mystic meaning. The form had become correspondingly more clear and perfect, more harmonious in its proportions, more immediate in musical effects. In a word, Petrarch was the first to open a region where art might be free, and to find for the heart's language utterance direct and limpid.

This was his great achievement. The forms he used were not new. The subject-matter he handled was given to him. But he brought both form and subject closer to the truth, exercising at the same time an art which had hitherto been unconceived in subtlety, and which has never since been equalled. If Dante was the first great poet, Petrarch was the first true artist of Italian literature. It was, however, impossible that Petrarch should overleap at one bound all the barriers of the Middle Ages. His Laura has still something of the earlier ideality adhering to her. She stands midway between the Beatrice of Dante and the women of Boccaccio. She is not so much a woman with a character and personality, as woman in the general, la femme, personified and made the object of a poet's reveries. Though every detail of her physical perfections, with the single and striking exception of her nose, is carefully recorded, it is not easy to form a definite picture even of her face and shape. Of her inner nature we hear only the vaguest generalities. She sits like a lovely model in the midst of a beautiful landscape, like one of Burne Jones's women, who incarnate a mood of feeling while they lack the fulness of personality. The thought of her pervades the valley of Vaucluse; the perfume of her memory is in the air we breathe. But if we met her, we should find it hard to recognize her; and if she spoke, we should not understand that it was Laura. Petrarch had no objective faculty. Just as he failed to bring Laura vividly before us, until she had by death become a part of his own spiritual substance, so he failed to depict things as he saw them. The pictures etched in three or four lines of the Purgatorio may be sought for vainly in his rime. That his love of nature was intense, there is no doubt. The solitary of Vaucluse, the pilgrim of Mont Ventoux, had reached a point of sensibility to natural scenery far in advance of his age. But when he came to express this passion for beauty, he was satisfied with giving the most perfect form to the emotion stirred in his own subjectivity. Instead of scenes, he delineates the moods suggested by them. He makes the streams and cliffs and meadows of Vaucluse his confidants. He does not lose himself in contemplation of the natural object, though we feel that this self found its freest breathing-space, its most delightful company, in the society of hill and vale. He never cares to paint a landscape, but contents himself with such delicate touches and such cunning combinations of words as may suggest a charm in the external world. At this point the humanist, preoccupied with man as his main subject, meets the poet in Petrarch. What is lost, too, in the precision of delineation, is gained in universality. The canzoniere reminds us of no single spot; wherever there are clear, fresh rills and hanging mountains, the lover walks with Petrarch by his side.

If the poet's dominant subjectivity weakened his grasp upon external things, it made him supreme in self-portraiture. Every mood of passion is caught and fixed forever in his verse. The most evanescent shades of feeling are delicately set upon the exquisite picture. Each string of love's many-chorded lyre is touched with a masterly hand. The fluctuations of hope, despair, surprise; the "yea and nay twinned in a single breath;" the struggle of conflicting aspirations in a heart drawn now to God and now to earth; the quiet resting-places of content; the recrudescence of the ancient smart; the peace of absence, when longing is luxury; the agony of presence, adding fire to fire,—all this is rendered with a force so striking, in a style so monumental, that the canzoniere may still be called the "introduction to the book of love." Thus, when Petrarch's own self was the object, his hand was firm; his art failed not in modelling the image into roundness. Dante brought the universe into his poem. But "the soul of man, too, is an universe;" and of this inner microcosm Petrarch was the poet. It remained for Boccaccio, the third in the supreme triumvirate, to treat of common life with art no less consummate. From Beatrice through Laura to the Fiammetta; from the "Divine Comedy" through the canzoniere to the "Decameron;" from the world beyond the grave through the world of feeling to the world in which we play our puppet parts; from the mystic terza rima, through the stately lyric stanzas, to Protean prose. Such was the rapid movement of Italian art within the brief space of some fifty years. We cannot wonder that when Boccaccio died, the source of inspiration seemed to fail. Heaven and hell, the sanctuaries of the soul, and the garden of our earth, had all been traversed. Well might Sacchetti exclaim:—

     Sonati sono i corni
D' ogni parte a ricolta:
La stagione è rivolta:
Se tornerà non so, ma credo tardi.

Hitherto we have spoken only of Petrarch's love-verses. There is a short section of the canzoniere devoted to poems on various arguments, which presents him in another light. The oratorical impulse was only second to the subjective in his genius; and three canzoni, addressed to Giacomo Colonna, to Rienzi, and to the Princess of Italy, display the pleader's eloquence in its most perfect lustre. If the Rime in Vita e Morte di Madonna Laura bequeathed to the Italians models of meditative poetry, these canzoni taught them how classical form might be given to hortatory lyrics on subjects of national interest. There was a wail, an outcry in their passionate strophes, which went on gathering volume as the centuries rolled over Italy, until at last, in her final servitude beneath the feet of Spanish Austria, they seemed less poems than authentic prophecies. The Italians inherited from their Roman ancestors a strong forensic bias. What the forum was for the ancients, the piazza became for them. To follow out the intricacies of this thought would require more time and space than we can spare. It must be enough to remark that in their literature at large there is a powerful declamatory element. It impairs their philosophical writing, and helps to give an air of superficiality to their poetry. They lack what the Germans call Innigkeit, and the French intimité. What will not bear recitation in the market-place, what does not go at once home without difficulty to the average intelligence of the crowd, must be excluded from their art. It is rarely that we catch an undertone piercing the splendid resonances of their verse, or that we surprise a singer hidden in the cloud of thought, pouring his song forth as the night-bird sings to ease her soul in solitude. Such being, roughly speaking, the chief bent of the Italians, it followed that Petrarch's rhetorical canzoni had a better and more fruitful influence than his meditative poems on their literature. The Petrarchisti of chivalrous passion attenuated his feeling without realizing it in their own lives, and imitated his style without attaining to his mastery of form, until the one lost all vitality and the other became barren mannerism. But from time to time, as in Filicaja's sonnet or Leopardi's "Ode to Italy," we catch the true ring of his passionate "Italia mia!"

It will be understood that what has been said in the foregoing paragraph, about the rhetorical bias of the Italians, is only generally applicable. Their greatest artists and poets—Dante, Petrarch, Signorelli, Michelangelo, Tintoretto, Leopardi—have combined the forensic qualities of the Latins with the Innigkeit of the Teutons, just as, from the opposite point of view, we find a similar combination in Germans like Goethe, and in the French intellect at large. Petrarch's preoccupation with self so far balanced the oratorical impulse that, while the latter found its scope in his prose works, by far the larger portion of his poems gave expression to the former.

By right of his self-consciousness and thirst for glory, Petrarch was a modern man, fashioned by contact with antiquity. But dwelling as he did within the thresh-old of the Middle Ages, he had to pay the penalty of this emancipation from their intellectual conditions. After all is said, the final characteristic of Petrarch is the state of spiritual flux in which he lived. His love of Laura seemed to him an error and a sin, because it clashed with an ascetic impulse that had never been completely blunted. In his "Hymn to the Virgin," he spoke of this passion as the Medusa which had turned his purer self to stone:—

Medusa e l'error mio m'han fatto un sasso
D'umor vano stillante.

Yet he knew that this same passion had been the cause of his most permanent achievements in the sphere of art. Laura's name was confounded with the laurel wreath, for which he strove, and which he wore with pride upon the Capitol. Even here a new contradiction in his nature revealed itself. Thirsting as he did for fame, he judged this appetite ungodly. The only immortality to be desired by the true Christian was a life beyond this earth. While he expressed a contempt for the world inspired by sympathy with monasticism, he enjoyed each mundane pleasure with the fine taste of an intellectual epicure. Solitude was his ideal, and in solitude he planned his most considerable literary masterpieces: but he frequented the courts of princes, made himself their mouthpiece, and delighted in the parade of a magnificent society. Humanism, which was destined to bring forth a kind of neo-paganism in Italy, had its source in him; and no scholar was more enthusiastic for the heroes of the antique age. But even while he gave his suffrage to the "starry youth" of Scipio, he was reminded that the saints of the Thebaid had wreathed their brows with the palms of a still more splendid victory. He worshipped Laura with a chivalrous devotion; but he lived, according to the custom of his time and his profession, with a concubine who bore him two children. No poet exalted the cult of woman to a higher level; but no monk expressed a bitterer hostility against the sex. He could not choose between the spirit and the flesh, or utter the firm "I will" of acceptance or renunciation upon either side. The genius of Rome and the genius of Nazareth strove in him for mastery. At one time he was fain to ape the antique patriot; at another he affected the monastic saint. He pretended to despise celebrity and mourned the vanity of worldly honors; yet he was greedy of distinction. His correspondence reveals the intrigues with which he sought the poet's laurel, pulling wires at Rome and Paris, in order that he might have the choice of being either crowned upon the Capitol or else before the most august society of learned men in Europe. At the same time, when fame had found him, when he stood forth as the acknowledged hero of culture, he complained that the distractions of renown withdrew him from the service of religion and his soul. He claimed to have disengaged himself from the shackles of personal vanity. Yet a foolish word dropped by some young men in Padua against his learning, made him take up cudgels in his failing years, and engage in a gladiatorial combat for the maintenance of his repute. He was clamorous for the freedom of the populus Romanus, and importunate in his assertion of Italian independence. Yet he stooped to flatter kings in letters of almost more than Byzantine adulation, and lent his authority to the infamies of Lombard despotism. It would be easy enough, but weariful, to lengthen out this list of Petrarch's inner contradictions. The malady engendered by them—that incurable acedia, that atonic melancholy, which he ascribed to St. Augustine—made him the prototype of an age which had in it, and which still has, a thousand unreconciled antagonisms. Hamlet and Faust, Werther and René, Childe Harold and Dipsychus, find their ancestor in Petrarch; and it is this which constitutes his chief claim on the sympathies of the modern world. He too has left us a noble example of the method whereby the inevitable discords of an awakened consciousness may be resolved in a superior harmony. Through all his struggles he remained true to the one ideal of intellectual activity, and the very conflict saved him from stagnation. His energies were never for one moment prostrated, nor was his hope extinguished. He labored steadily for the completion of that human synthesis, embracing the traditions of antiquity and Christianity, which, as though by instinct, he felt to be the necessary condition of a European revival. It may be confidently asserted that if his immediate successors had continued his work in the spirit of their leader, the Renaissance would have brought forth nobler fruits.

We are told that the faces of dying persons sometimes reproduce the features of their youth, and the memory of old men reverts to the events of boyhood. Thus Petrarch at the close of life survived the struggles of his manhood, and returned with single-hearted impulse to the alma mater of his youth. From the year 1348 forward, he approximated more and more to the mediæval type of character, without losing his zeal for liberal studies. The coming age, which he inaugurated, faded from his vision, and the mystic past resumed its empire. Yet, as a scholar, he never ceased to be industrious. One of his last works was the translation into Latin of Boccaccio's "Griselda;" and on the morning after his unwitnessed death, his servant found him bowed upon his books. But Petrarch was not sustained in age and sickness by a forecast of the culture he had labored to create. The consolations of religion, the piety of the cloister, soothed his soul; and he who had been the Erasmus of his century, passed from it in the attitude of an Augustinian monk.

At Arquà they still show the house where Petrarch spent his last years, the little study where he worked, the chair in which he sat, the desk at which he wrote. From those soft-swelling undulations of the Euganean hills, hoary with olives, rich with fig and vine, the Lombard plain breaks away toward Venice and the Adriatic. The air is light; the prospect is immense; there is a sound of waters hurrying by. In front of the church-door, below the house, and close beside the rushing stream, stands the massive coffer of Verona marble where his ashes rest. No inscription is needed. The fame of Petrarch broods on Arquà like the canopy of heaven. For one who has dwelt long in company with his vexed, steadfast spirit—so divine in aspiration, so human in tenderness, and so like ourselves in its divided impulses—there is something inexpressibly solemn to stand beside this sepulchre, and review the five centuries through which the glory he desired has lived and grown. Few men capable of comprehending his real greatness, while there standing, will not envy him the peace he found upon the end of life, and pause to wonder when that harmony will be achieved between the wisdom of this world and the things of God which Petrarch, through all contradictions, clung to and in death accomplished.


  1. See Koerting, "Petrarca's Leben und Werke," p. 51.
  2. Ep. Poet Lat., iii. 24.

Principal Works

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 183

*Rerum familiarium libra [Books on Personal Matters] (letters) 1325-1366

†Rerum vulgarium fragmenta [Canzoniere] (poetry) begun 1330s

De viris illustribus [On Illustrious Men] (biographies) begun 1337

Africa (unfinished epic poem) begun 1338-1339

Trionfi [The Triumphs] (unfinished poem) begun 1338

Secretum [Petrarch's Secret] (dialogues) begun 1342-1343

Rerum memorandarum libri [Books on Matters to Be Remembered] (prose) begun 1342-1343

Psalmi poemitentiales [Penitential Psalms] (poetry) begun 1342-1343

De otio religioso [On Religious Idleness] (essay) 1345-1347

Bucolicum carmen [Bucolic Song] (poetry) begun 1345-1347

De vita solitaria [On the Solitary Life] (essay) 1345-1347

Liber sine nomine [Petrarch's Book without a Name] (letters) 1351-1353

De remediis utriusque fortunae [Remedies for Fortune Fair and Foul] (dialogues) begun 1353

Epistolae seniles [Letters of Old Age] (letters) 1361-1374

De sui ipsius et multorum ignorantia [On His Own Ignorance and That of Many Others] (essay) 1367

Letters from Petrarch [translated by Morris Bishop] (letters) 1966

Petrarch's Lyric Poems: The "Rime Sparse" and Other Lyrics [translated by Robert M. Durling] (poetry) 1976

Rime Disperse [translated by Joseph A. Barber] (poetry) 1991

*These letters are also collectively known as the Familiares.

†This work is also known as the Rhymes, Rime, and Rime sparse.

Henry Dwight Sedgwick (essay date 1904)

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Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 6320

SOURCE: Henry Dwight Sedgwick, "Francis Petrarch, 1304-1904," in The Atlantic Monthly, Vol. XCIV, No. LXI, July, 1904, pp. 60-9.

[In the excerpt below, Sedgwick celebrates the six hundreth anniversary of Petrarch's birth with a laudatory survey of the poet's life and literary importance.]

Six hundred years ago, on the 20th of July, 1304, a little Florentine baby was born into exile in a house on Via dell' Orto in Arezzo, whither his father, banished from Florence, had fled. Civil war between Ghibelline and Guelf raged everywhere, mingled with ambitions of nobles and jealousies of cities, with local wrongs and chance enmities. Exiles found no rest; within the year the baby was suspended from a stick, like a papoose, and carried to Incisa in the Valdarno; and before he was a lad his family had wandered to Pisa, and on to Avignon, lately become the city of the papal court. Thence the boy was sent to school at Carpentras, some fifteen miles away.

His father, Ser Petracco—the fastidious son softened these burgher syllables to Petrarca—was a notary, but like a true Florentine wishing his son to fly higher in the world than he, determined to make him a doctor of law, a student and expounder of Pandects; but by some eccentricity of nature, the sons of notaries become addicted to letters, and the boy Francis was already elbow deep in the Latin classics. Discovering this, Ser Petracco, following the foolish precedents of foolish fathers, seized the precious books and burned them all, except one volume of Cicero and one of Virgil, which he spared out of compassion for the poor boy's tears. Petracco did this from the best of paternal intentions, for he himself was amantissimus Ciceronis; but fathers are born unto folly as the sparks fly upward. From Carpentras Francis was sent to the university at Montpellier, a mere lycée as it were, and then at the age of nineteen to the great university of Bologna.

Here, after ten years of exile, Francis's sensitive heart beat hard for his country. The other Italian students might deem themselves Venetians, Milanese, Pisans, Neapolitans, but from the first moment of his coming, he, the exile, felt that he was not a Florentine, but an Italian. This feeling he drank deep in the pleasant city of Bologna, with its Roman traditions and its Italian charm. Those were the years before the great church of San Petronio frowned across the Piazza Maggiore, before the Palace Bevilacqua inclosed the most enchanting of courtyards, before the never-ending arcades protected the just and the unjust from sun and rain; but there was the dungeon palace of the Podestà, where Enzio, poet and king, had for twenty-two years watched his youth go down into the grave; there were the wicked towers, the Asinella, the Garisenda, and an hundred more; and, no doubt, Petrarch used to stop and watch the troop of doves parade and wheel through the air, flinging their shadows on loggia and piazza, flashing them across the narrow streets, as they mounted, stooped, whirled, and encircled the grim, gray towers with their purple and green, for a moment seeming to hang like a wreath, only the more suddenly to swoop down to his feet and pick the corn he had strewn. The city had the charm of Italy, but the university, without hall, dormitory, or lecture room, bare as the poorest student of things corporeal, was greater and more interesting than the city,—imperium majus in imperio minore. There were congregated thousands of students, men and lads from Gaul, Picardy, Burgundy, Poitou, Touraine, Maine, Normandy, Catalonia, Provence, Hungary, Germany, Spain, Poland, Bohemia, England, and from every province and city in Italy; a strange world, immensely democratic, yet enwrapped in the great imperial traditions. It was a university devoted to Roman law, and every gloss on Roman law preached the glory of the Roman Empire. There were other intellectual interests at the university,—the canon law, philosophy, medicine, astrology,—and, more stimulating than they, the contact of youth with youth, of enthusiasm with enthusiasm, in that time of life when young men are so many princes entering into their own; but the great Justinian code was the life of the university, and encouraged in Petrarch an admiration and veneration for Rome equal to his love for Italy. He attended lectures diligently, but his heart inclined neither to gloss nor to Corpus Juris. The very beginnings of those copious outpourings of comment and explanation, which flowed from the lips of professors eager "to prove that they were artists," as one grumbler said, must have chilled him. Nevertheless, he went regularly to his professor's room, and scribbled with his stylus, while the learned man in bad Latin waded in: "Primo dividendo literam, casum ponendo et literalia explanando; secundo loco signabo contraria et solvam, tertio loco, etc.Prima pars potest subdividi in tres particulas," etc., in saecula saeculorum. Petrarch's thoughts surely wandered away to the sonnets written to Selvaggia la bella by the famous jurist, Ser Guittoncino de' Sinibuldi, more familiarly known to the undergraduates and to posterity as Cino da Pistoia; or perhaps to the verses of Bologna's native poets, to Onesto or to Guido Guinicelli,—

Al cor gentil ripara sempre Amore
Come a la selva augello in la verdura.

Or perhaps he thought of his own great compatriot, whose Commedia, recited by butchers, fullers, and tavern-keepers, he himself did not read, half aristocratically, half for fear of becoming subservient to the mighty master.

Out of the classroom, no doubt he was a very elegant young gentleman, singing Provençal madrigals under palace windows, or in less proper neighborhoods shouting out,

Lauriger Horatius, quam vixisti bene,

in the wild company of stroller students. But, though the livery of his youth may have been somewhat gay, at least to the sober eye of his later years, and though the Corpus Juris may have been neglected, Cicero, Virgil, Horace, Ovid, and Seneca were not. Out of reach of the notarial arm, he plunged into what classic literature he could get.

Petrarch stayed three years at the university, and returned to Avignon on the death of his father (1326). His mother died soon afterward. Here he led the life of a fashionable young man much concerned with the brushing of his hair, the cut of his cloak, the fit of his shoes, and the whiteness of his linen, as he says in a letter written in grayer years; but these backward glances of age often cast too vivid a color on the follies of youth, for age has its hypocrisies, and loves to moralize on the deceitfulness of ephemeral pleasures. Certainly he continued his classical studies with diligence, and soon became celebrated as a scholar. On his father's death he had frankly abandoned the law, and, as his patrimony had been stolen by his father's executors, it was necessary for him to take steps toward gaining a livelihood. The church was the natural resource for educated men, especially as there were many livings and sinecures set apart for the support of scholars; animated by some hope of stipend, he took deacon's orders. This step did not necessitate strictness of living. Francis was a charming young man, cultivated, clever, agreeable, brimming with interest in life, learned beyond his years, and adorned by the natural grace of Tuscan manners, which had been bettered by his breeding; his company was sought by men of position and distinction, and he naturally felt that he had but entered into his lawful inheritance. Society, however, was to him but a secondary interest; his heart, still fancy free, beat to Cicero's periods and Virgil's hexameters. Thus life passed in the easy, luxurious, windy city, until he was nearly twenty-three. Then, on an April morning in Holy Week, the lovely April of Provence, fresh with flowers and the breath of spring, he walked through the narrow streets of Avignon and entered the cold, gray aisles of the church of St. Clare; there he beheld the golden hair and the beautiful eyes that he was never to forget. As the vision moved, hers was no mortal's step, but an angel's, and her voice murmuring the prayers was more than human; the religious light, the solemn music, the high-aspiring arches, the sacredness of the place, transfigured her, or she transfigured them, and always afterwards, save once or twice when the dust of earth rebelled, whenever he thought of that golden head he bent his own in reverence.

History has not revealed who she was. The poet guarded her in the privacy of his art, and all the curiosity of six hundred years has not made sure of more than he has told. There are always guessers; in the eighteenth century the garrulous, indefatigable, agreeable, self-important Abbé de Sade put forward three stout volumes full of evidences and appendices to prove that Laura was the wife of his own ancestor, Ugo de Sade, and mother of eleven children; thus contradicting himself with a dozen reasons. Many critics, wise, spectacled, lean or maybe fat, with aiblins nae temptations to leave their books for the frivolous study of love, adopt this theory. Other surmises have had their partisans, among them the theory of pure poetical fancy. Let us hear what Petrarch has told us of her:—

I bless the spot, the time, the hour
  When my eyes looked so high.—

Her eyes were beautiful, her brow serene, her smile, her laugh, her speech, sweet and gentle, her voice like an angel's, her hands thin, white, and lovely, her arms grace itself, her movements sweetly high-bred; and her beautiful young body, fit temple for her soul, was the home of refinement, of courtesy, of Love himself; her three chief excellencies were her milk-white neck, the roses of her cheeks, and her golden hair, loved by the wind,—but one might as well count the stars as her perfections. Her dress was charming, too; she wore a gown of green, or of cramoisie, or sometimes one inclining to deep blue, to drab, or to some dark indistinguishable color,—all were lovely.

Petrarch used to wander in the woods eager to avoid all mankind, lest his face should betray his inward struggle; there he repeated his own sonnets till mountain, hill, wood, and river knew his inmost thoughts. Everywhere the beautiful eyes haunted him, hid everything but themselves, cloaked in their own splendor mountains, rivers, lakes, the blue Mediterranean. A thousand times he felt impelled to offer her his heart, but she would not suffer him, and after she perceived his too fervent inclination, she wore a veil over her starry eyes and golden hair, and when he gazed at her she put her hand before her face, and even for a time banished him from her company. On one ineffaceable day, as he sat thinking of love, his lady passed; he rose with pale face and reverent gesture to do her honor; but no sooner did she see him than she flushed in anger, and with a brief word walked on. He shrank within himself. But in the earlier days, before his speech or his face had betrayed him, she used to speak to him words that scarcely have had their like in all the world, and she used to honor him with her salutation, such as angels give when they meet, and fired his heart with a passion for heaven.

Everything that had come near her, or touched her, made him tremble; her glove,—

Candido, leggiadretto, e caro guanto,—

her veil, which a little shepherdess washed at a mountain brook; the portrait, painted (as if in heaven) by Simone Martini; the south window of her house; the stone seat on which she used to sit; every spot on which her shadow had fallen or her foot had trod. Thus in melodious sonnets he berhymed her.

Some years after he first saw her, he wrote a poem in Latin rhymes in which he says: "Especially dear to me is a most illustrious lady, known by her virtue and her birth. My poems have published her fame and spread it abroad. My thoughts always revert to her; always with renewed pangs of love she troubles me. I do not think she will ever be shaken in her lordship over me. Not by coquetry, but by her native charm and beauty has she bound me." Then he describes his efforts to throw off her yoke; how he had traveled north and south, to mountain and to sea, always in vain. Even in the pathless woods, whither he has fled to avoid her, no bush bent in the wind but he saw her lithe figure, no oak stood firm but he saw her immobile, no brooks but reflected her face; he saw her pictured in the clouds, in the empty air, and on the flinty rock.

In December, 1336, he wrote to his friend Giacomo Colonna: "But you, like an everlasting tease, follow me up and say that I have invented the name of Laura, because that which I like to talk of and that which makes other people talk of me is all one, and that the only Laura [Laurel] in my heart is that which bestows honor upon poets, for my studies show that to be the top of my desire; but that the other Laura, whose beauty I say has made me prisoner, is the creature of my fancy, that my verses are make-believe, and my sighs imaginary. Would to Heaven that your jests had hit the Truth, and that my love were a joke, and not the madness that it is. But believe me, not without great labor does a man succeed in simulation for a long time, and to labor without any advantage that others may deem you mad, would be the maddest of madnesses. … Time wounds and Time cures; and against Laura, who you say is imaginary, perhaps that other imaginary friend of mine, St. Augustine, will help me."

Later still, perhaps fifteen years after that scene in the church of St. Clare, Petrarch wrote a book, entitled Concerning Contempt for the World, in the form of a dialogue between St. Augustine and himself. The saint is his conscience, and they talk together. I can but give the substance of one dialogue:—

St. Augustine. Is not loving mere folly?

Petrarch. According to the object loved. Love is the noblest or the basest of all passions. To love a worthless woman is a great misfortune; to love a good woman is the top of happiness.

St. Aug. (Bringing the conversation to Laura.) The love of woman is surely folly.

Pet. There are bad women; but a gulf yawns between them and Laura. Her mind, knowing nothing of earthly cares, burns for heaven. In her face (if there be any truth anywhere) shines the glory of divine beauty; her behaviors are the pattern of perfect modesty. Neither her voice, nor the light of her eyes, resembles any mortal thing, and her bearing is more than human.

St. Aug. Think what it will be when you come to die. Remember how it was when she nearly died.

Pet. God let me die first! The memory of her illness makes me cold. I thought to lose the noblest part of my soul.

St. Aug. Turn from her; she has already lost much of her beauty.

Pet. I loved her body less than her soul. Her manners surpass the ways of earth, and her example shows how the dwellers in heaven live. If she die first I shall love her virtue, which cannot die.

St. Aug. But you cannot gainsay that the most noble things are sometimes vilely loved.

Pet. If you could but see my love! It is not less fair than her face. In it there has been nothing base or shameful, nor anything blameworthy except its greatness. One thing I cannot pass in silence,—whatever little I am become, I am because of her; nor should I have ever attained to whatever name or fame I have, if any, had she not, by inspiring me with a most noble affection, watered and tended the tiny seeds of virtue which nature planted in me. She plucked my young mind away from every shameful thing, and dragged it back as with a hook, and bade it look upward to the heights. It is certain that love undergoes a change to conform to the beloved. No backbiter was ever found so base to touch her name with his cur's tooth, or to dare say that there was any fault to find in her; and I do not say in what she did, but even in the turn of her words. They who leave nothing untouched left her in admiration and veneration. It is small wonder therefore, if she, so famous in good repute, made me long for a fairer fame, and smoothed the rude labors by which I sought it. While a young man I desired nothing but only to please her, who alone pleased me; now you bid me forget or love her less, who set me apart from vulgar fellowship.

St. Aug. Filling your heart with love of the creature, you shut yourself off from the love of the Creator,—and that is the road to death.

Pet. Not her body, but her soul I love; the years have faded her cheeks, but her soul has become more beautiful, and my love has likewise increased.

St. Aug. Are you making fun of me? If her soul dwelt in a hideous, knotty body, would it please you as much?

Pet (Quoting Ovid.) Her soul with her body I loved.

Step by step, however, St. Augustine led him to confess and tell that in the beginning he had not been free from earthly desires, and had striven to gratify them, but that Laura had remained firm against flattery and prayers, and that now he rendered thanks unto her. Lord Byron says: "It is satisfactory to think that the love of Petrarch was not platonic."

There is also on the first leaf of his copy of Virgil a note in his handwriting of the first time he saw her and of her death, and he adds: "To write these lines in bitter memory of this event, and in the place where they will most often meet my eyes, has in it somewhat of a cruel sweetness, lest I forget that nothing more ought in this life to please me, and this by the grace of God need not be difficult to one who thinks strenuously and manfully of the idle cares, the empty hopes, and the unexpected end of the years that are gone."

Such was Laura; not the allegorical Beatrice of Dante, nor the conventional beauty of the troubadours, but still ideal and beautiful, the first real woman in poetry since the Greeks.

Petrarch's renown is so enduring because he is the first master of letters in Europe since the death of Cicero. He was by no means the first modern master of art, even if we pass by Gothic and Moorish art; for in painting, Giotto, in sculpture, Niccola Pisano, in architecture, Arnolfo del Cambio, were a generation ahead of him; in poetry, Dante, born nearly forty years before, was immeasurably greater than he, but Petrarch was the first to make letters as letters the work of his life, and the first to hold the faith that literature is as great a factor in civilization as politics or theology. He was a professional man of letters, and became the first of the great tyrants of European literature; he is more important than his successors,—Erasmus, Voltaire, Goethe,—in that he stands at the threshold of modern literature, while it was hesitating which way to turn, while Latin still was the only known classic literature, and national literatures had not yet got out of their leading strings. In contemporary literature what was there? In France, Froissait was a baby; in England, Langland a little boy, Chaucer not born; in Germany and in Spain, only an encyclopædia knows. The Roman de la Rose, setting Dante aside, is the one remembered work of letters that existed when Petrarch wrote his sonnets. For the third time in history Italy was about to take her place at the head of Europe, and Petrarch, representing her intellectual life, set his seal on unformed literatures, and stamped an ideal impression.

Poetry is the attempt by man to carry on the divine labor of creation, and make this world more habitable; poets take mere words, and fashion a habitation, whither, when the world of sense grows chill, we may betake ourselves and breathe a richer atmosphere. In another aspect poetry is merely the arrangement of words in a certain order; it is a matter of empirical psychology. Poets are practical psychologists, measuring sensations by measures finer than men yet use in laboratories; and in mastery of the fuller knowledge of this psychology Petrarch is perhaps unrivaled. Hundreds of thousands of men have loved as dearly as he; thousands have thought greater thoughts than he, and many poets, English poets at least, have had a nobler instrument; but he had the skill to put his words into the right order, and when we read them we forget everything except love.

The charm of his verses made him famous from the very beginning. Well it might, for his sonnet differs from other sonnets as the song of the bird differs from that of a singing master; the soft Italian syllables unburden all their rapture in the fourteen lines, then close their lips, for they have finished. Italian words are made to be strung in a sonnet. Italian verses rhyme, as if they were lovers—Hero and Leander—calling across the gap between line and line; they melt away in sensuous vowels, they echo melodious in l's and m's and r's.

Perhaps the least objectionable way to deliver a lecture on the Petrarchan sonnet will be to show by example how impossible it is to transport this union of sound and sense across the fatal gap between the lingua di si and the tongue of yes. I choose the best translation I can readily lay hands upon, out of an attractive little book entitled Sonnets of Petrarch, translated by Thomas Wentworth Higginson, which has Italian sounds on pages to the left and English to the right.

Qual donna attende a gloriosa fama
Di senno, di valor, di cortesia,
Miri fiso negli occhi a quella mia
Nemica, che mia donna il mondo chiama.
Come s'acquista onor, come Dio s'ama,
Com' è giunta onestà con leggiadria,
Ivi s' impara; e qual è dritta via
Di gir al Ciel, che lei aspetta e brama.

Doth any maiden seek the glorious fame
Of chastity, of strength, of courtesy?
Gaze in the eyes of that sweet enemy
Whom all the world doth as my lady name!
How honor grows, and pure devotion's
How truth is joined with graceful dignity,
There thou mayst learn, and what the path
 may be,
To that high heaven which doth her spirit

To begin the lecture with the first time of the sonnet, in the Italian married women are not excluded from gazing at Madonna Laura, nor, in the second line, does senno shrink to chastity, nor valor to strength, even if the cortesia of the Italians can be frozen into the courtesy of us Americans. The fourth line, Whom all the world doth as my lady name! sounds a little like the language of hard-put sonneteers, whereas che mia donna il mondo chiama would be said with a bow, hand on heart, from the foot of the Alps to the Strait of Messina. Come Dio s' ama and pure devotion's flame mark the difference between a religion and our American Sunday-go-to-meeting-isms. Com' è giunta onestà con leggiadria—most delightful of meetings! Onestà, shy dignity of maidenhood, sweet innocence of motherhood, such as looks out from Raphael's Madonnas; leggiadria, the gay, girlish motion of comely youth, the grace of the leaping fawn, the sentiment in Botticelli; how did these most charming of feminine graces meet? At what Golden Gate? Are they corporeal or angelic? How, how and where? "How truth is joined with graceful dignity" is the proper junction of two respectable dames,—a sight that arouses very moderate exhilaration. In the last line of the octave, the Italian heaven, in a heavenly way, waits for Laura, aspetta e brama; the English heaven, instinct with Common Law, serving, as it were, a writ from the King's Bench, claims her.

We are forced to the conclusion that sense and sound are fatally imprisoned in the Petrarchan sonnet, and must stay there forever; they are stored where time doth not corrupt them, neither can translators break in and steal. But from the days of Wyatt and Surrey to those of Colonel Higginson, men who love poetry have felt ever renewing temptations to translate Petrarch, and to carry home the moonbeams that lie so lovely on water.

The union of sound and sense is very nearly perfect in Petrarch,—he used to test and try and substitute until all the words fell into their true order,—and as this perfection was not of a kind to require special knowledge in order to be enjoyed, his poetry, accredited and sustained by his great reputation as a scholar, quickly passed from mouth to mouth, and so set its seal on the nascent literature of Europe.

His poetry asserted this dogma, that in the only real world, the world of ideas, woman and the love of woman are noble and beautiful. From this central dogma of the idealistic faith proceed the derivative dogmas, that all life, all things great and little, are noble and beautiful. This is the mission of poetry,—to see life as a divine work, to be the priestess of a perpetual revelation, in all things to behold the beauty of God. This is the continuation by man of the divine work of creation, for the Lord rested after six days of labor, before His work was complete, and entrusted the fulfillment of the everlasting task to poets. Petrarch has done his duty. What is Laura? Her corporeal existence has become a myth, but she is a thing of beauty and a joy forever, because Petrarch saw her with the eyes of love and faith. This idealism uplifted all modern literature and constitutes Petrarch's greatness, and not that scholastic excellence by which, according to Mr. John Addington Symonds, he "fore-saw a whole new phase of European culture,"—melancholy prospect. The Petrarchan view is set forth in the familiar sonnet of Michelangelo, which says that within the shapeless marble lies beauty imprisoned. So it is with all things: within our rude, rough, shapeless, unpolished selves lies imprisoned something that awaits the liberating eye and hand of faith and love.

There was a second very memorable day in Petrarch's life, the 8th of April, 1341. On that day, in the palace of the Roman Senate on the top of the Capitoline Hill, he received the poet's crown of laurel, bestowed in the name of the Senate and the People of Rome.

This ceremony was the outward recognition of a new force in Europe; arms and theology were making room for literature, for the voice of men of peace. There, on the axis of European history, on the Capitol of the City of Rome, pitiably shrunk to an arena for Pope, Emperor, noble, and burgher to play at gladiators, yet still splendid with unequalled renown, a poet, the head of the new estate, was crowned at a time when popes had fled to receive the tiara elsewhere, and emperors were forced to fight their way step by step to the Vatican. Letters were honored indeed, but it was Petrarch who had convinced the world that literature was worthy of honor, and for his sake the honor had been given.

As we look back over six hundred years, with Petrarch's life before our eyes, it is easy for us to see that he, the prince of living poets and the foremost scholar of Europe, was worthy to be the gonfaloniere of the new guild; but how did the cultivated world of 1340 know this? How did it choose this young man, ruddy, and withal of a beautiful countenance, and goodly to look at, to be its king? Petrarch was thirty-six years old; he had written some eighty sonnets, a dozen canzoni, and a few metrical epistles; and these few contributions to literature, excepting what he may afterwards have judged not worth keeping, were all, and there was no printing to spread them abroad. How did the vague new feeling, that literature ought to be publicly recognized as a force in civilization, manage to select him as its standard bearer, and crown him on the Capitol? The answer is that Petrarch himself hoisted the flag, and the world of letters rallied round him. Even by that time he had come into personal acquaintance with a large part of the cultivated world, and everybody he met was charmed by his beauty, his grace, his gifts in conversation, his high morality, his sweet character, as well as by his rare scholarship and his unequalled poetry. First Bologna brought him into familiar fellowship with men who in later life became persons of consequence; afterwards Avignon served him in a similar way. Avignon he never liked; he complained of its dirty streets, where nasty pigs, snarling dogs, noisy carts, four-horse coaches, filthy beggars, gaping foreigners, isolent revelers, and rowdy crowds made walking intolerable. Worse than these was the fundamental sin of harboring popes who ought to go back to Rome, the Holy City. But Avignon returned good for evil. It was the cosmopolitan city of Europe; for Rome without the papal court was but a little bickering town, and Paris was not what it became when the intellectual sceptre of Europe passed from Italy to France. The main current of European life still flowed in the old channel dug by the ideas that acknowledged Pope and Emperor as the two heads of the civilized world; and by Petrarch's time the popes had thrust the emperors into the second place, and had thereby become the most important personages in Europe; where the pope lived, there was the head of ecclesiastical affairs, and the centre of political intrigue. The pope sent legates and nuncios to every court in Christendom, and received ambassadors in return; to him came archbishops, bishops, abbots, heads of monastic orders, princes, and even kings. In this dirty city the papal court lived in ease and luxury,—the cardinals would not go back to Rome, Petrarch said, because they could not bear to leave the Burgundian wines;—all was reminiscent of the old Provençal civilization. A careless, sensual life, these high priests of Christendom led, accompanied by a refinement in manners not common elsewhere. Avignon was a city to which everybody went; it was easier to go there than to Rome, and immeasurably pleasanter to a man lacking belligerent tastes. The papal dinner parties, if nothing else, would have attracted good society from the Ebro to the Elbe. Wonderful were the dishes, glorious the wines of Roccella, of Bielna, of Sanporciano, noble those from Rhineland and from Greece, quisite the old Vernaccia; all flowed abbondantissimamente. This high living Petrarch in later days denounced like Habakkuk, but the dinners added lustre to the papal court, and helped his career. Avignon was the natural place to look for a poet laureate, because such a poet must not only be excellent, but he must be known, he must not live away from the main thoroughfare of European life,—not far from its dinner-tables.

At Avignon Petrarch saw everybody, not merely because of his personal charm and gifts for conversation, but as the honored inmate of the Colonna household. This family played a great part in Petrarch's life, particularly on that eventful Easter in 1341. The Colonnas had a European importance, because their strongholds in the city of Rome enabled them to block either pope or emperor in that great move in the game of European politics,—the imperial coronation in Rome. In their palace (report still points out the spot), of which he became an inmate, Petrarch met everybody of consequence who came to Avignon.

Moreover, Petrarch was a Florentine,—the fifth essence in nature, as Boniface VIII said,—and Florentine merchants, notaries, envoys, were spread over Western Europe, and when traveling through Avignon naturally met their attractive fellow citizen. Two of these wandering Florentines were closely concerned with Petrarch's coronation. Roberto de' Bardi, chancellor of the University of Paris, procured him an invitation to be crowned poet laureate there, and Fra Dionigi, for a time professor of philosophy and theology, brought him to the notice of King Robert of Naples, who, patron of philosophy and letters, obtained the crown for him in Rome.

Though these were the reasons that brought Petrarch before the eyes of cultivated Europe, yet Petrarch was worthy to be their cynosure. He was not a mere lover of the classics, a worshiper of the long dead, he was conversant with the moderns as well; he was known from Durham to Messina as a scholar, a poet, a writer of letters, a man of philosophic mind; in truth, by his tongue and pen, by his "rethorique swete" he gave a great upward push to literature, lifting it from a beggarly condition to a great estate in the realm of thought.

Petrarch's life after his coronation was one perpetual recurrence of social successes. The Pope invited him to be a papal secretary, the King of France extended the hospitality of Paris to him, the Emperor bade him to Prague, the Visconti wanted him at Milan, the Scaligeri at Verona, the Correggi at Parma, the Carraresi at Padua, the Lord High Seneschal at Naples; the Florentines asked him to accept a chair in their new university, Venice offered him a house. This social renown was the fulcrum by which, pressing the lever of classical enthusiasm, he stirred the world and budged mediæval ideas from their places.

His immediate influence on his contemporaries was as a classical scholar, as a lover of the wisdom, the beauty, the greatness of the long past. It is this aspect of his career that has impressed Mr. Symonds and the German scholars with so deep a dint; scholars themselves, they admire him as a man of like passions with themselves, they look back at the revival of learning, at the updigging of classic culture, and they regard Petrarch as we regard Christopher Columbus, and do appropriate homage to his memory. That aspect of Petrarch's career naturally obtrudes itself on students; but those of us who are indifferent to the fanfares of historic importance may disregard that, and take leave of Petrarch in our own way.

He was a mixture of the good comrade and the anchorite, pushing neither quality to excess. He was fond of talking, and when he could help, never dined alone; but he was also fond of seclusion. Nothing he liked better than to wander along the banks of the Sorgue and dream of Laura, of poetry, of life, of things old and new. He built a house in Vaucluse, the beautiful valley, shut off from Avignon and the whole outer world of lower things, where, from a blue basin within a great cave, the Sorgue breaks out in noisy cataract; there he lived, rich in books, eating black bread, fruits, and the little fishes that he caught himself. His companions were but three,—his dog, and an old couple; the man, gardener, librarian, valet; the woman, farmer, cook, and washerwoman. He loved to stroll about the fields, even long after dark; and sometimes in the middle of the night he would get up, say his prayers, and wander forth in the moonlight, thinking of the beautiful things in heaven and earth. Vaucluse, "loveliest place out of Italy," was his favorite resort; he lived there many years, and thither he loved to return, to meditate in quiet. Even when domiciled by fate in a city, he desired country things; in Milan he rejoiced in dwelling fuori le mura; in Parma he grew choice fruits in his garden. In Arquà—

The mountain-village where his latter days
Went down the vale of years—

he lived in a little house, built by himself, surrounded by vines and olive trees. Here he had horses, for he was too infirm to walk, several servants to minister to him and to the many guests who came eager to see him, four or five copyists copying Latin manuscripts, and an old priest, who used to accompany him on his long drives to the church in Padua, where Petrarch as canon had sundry duties. There, among the Euganean hills, his thoughts turned to death. He was found at the last, so report says, his head bent over his book as if he had paused in the reading. Many mourned him. Among the chief was Giovanni Boccaccio, who is never more charming nor more amiable than in the filial demonstrations of his simple admiration for Petrarch.

Petrarch was good and kind and industrious, always hard at work upon those things which seemed to him important,—the discovery and dissemination of classical knowledge; and, moreover, he had continuously with him a sense of a presence which transcends our measures, and this he used to express in mediæval phrases, that nevertheless still satisfy here and there a backward heart. "Philosophy is to love wisdom; true wisdom is Jesus Christ. Let us read historians, poets, philosophers, but let us always have in our hearts the gospel of Jesus Christ, in which abide true wisdom and true happiness."

Annie Russell Marble (essay date 1904)

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3912

SOURCE: Annie Russell Marble, "Petrarch" and "Modern Echoes of Petrarch," in The Dial, Chicago, Vol. XXXVI, No. 434, July 16, 1904, pp. 27-9, 29-31.

[In the essay below, Marble discusses Petrarch's influence on poetry from the Renaissance to the present.]

In the summer of 1304, the exiled Ghibellines, including in their number the greatest of Italian poets, made their headquarters in the Tuscan town of Arezzo, whence they vainly sought to effect a return to their beloved Florence, which had cast them forth with contumely. One of these exiles, expelled from Florence on the same day with Dante something more than two years earlier, was a scholar and politician of some consequence named Petracco; and to him there was born, on the 20th of July, the child destined to a fame among Italian poets second only to that of his father's friend and fellow-exile. The personal relations which thus link the names of Dante and Petrarch did not, however, operate to shape the two poets in anything like the same mould; and the chief instruction offered by setting them side by side is found in the marked contrast between their temperament, their outlook, and their ideals. The main point of contrast is, of course, to be found in the fact that Dante was the incarnation of the mediæval spirit, while Petrarch had in some dim sense the vision of the world to come 'and all the wonder that should be'; the thoughts and the emotions of Dante were held in the strait-jacket of scholasticism, while those of Petrarch were working themselves free from that hampering confinement; while Dante's ideal of the future took the utopian form of the universal dual monarchy of Papacy and Empire, the words of Petrarch, declaring that

''L'antico valore
Nell' italici cor non e 'ancor morto,'

made his voice the first of those to be raised in prophecy of the very practical ideal of a united Italy. In a word, the temper of Dante, for all his deep tenderness and spiritual exaltation, was that of the schoolman; that of Petrarch, on the other hand, for all the mistaken direction of his aims, was that of the humanist.

It has recently been suggested, in a semi-humorous way, that American contributions toward the erection of a monument at Arezzo might most appropriately be made by such of our fellow-countrymen as had ventured to practice the art of sonnet-writing. Certainly, if all of those thus designated should respond to the appeal, abundant means would be forthcoming, no matter how modest the individual offerings. The sonnets of Petrarch have had a multitudinous progeny, not all of whom have done credit to their progenitor, and many a modern maiden has been the recipient of a form of tribute which might never have been thought of had it not been for the sonnets addressed to Madonna Laura six hundred years ago. The Canzoniere of Petrarch, that 'epitomised encyclopædia of passion,' as Dr. Garnett calls it, is so precious a jewel among the world's poetical possessions that it predisposes us to a kindly indulgence of the feeblest of Petrarch's modern followers. The 'Africa' upon which the poet set his hopes of enduring fame has gone the way of all artificial epics, and of all mediæval attempts to keep Latin alive as the medium of literary expression; but the odes, and the sonnets, and the trionfi, written in the despised vulgar tongue, have taken on with the succeeding centuries a more assured immortality. Of the influence of Petrarch upon the poetry of later ages, something is said in the special article which we print elsewhere; we wish to devote our own brief remarks to the humanist rather than to the poet, to the forerunner of the revival of learning rather than to the singer of his own joys and sorrows.

The Alpinists claim Petrarch as the first of their number by virtue of his famous ascent of Mont Ventoux. We doubt, however, if they can read with proper sympathy the letter in which the expedition is described. The modern mountain-climber is not likely to sit down in the first convenient valley and say to himself, 'What thou hast repeatedly experienced to-day in the ascent of this mountain, happens to thee, as to many, in the journey toward the blessed life,' and then to indulge in a long retrospective survey of his career. Nor is he apt, after having reached his summit, to take St. Augustine's 'Confessions' from his pocket and ponder over its message. In Petrarch's case the effect was startling, for he hit upon the following passage: 'And men go about to wonder at the heights of the mountains, and the mighty waves of the sea, and the wide sweep of rivers, and the circuit of the ocean, and the revolution of the stars, but themselves they consider not.' Whereupon, he says: 'I was abashed, and … closed the book, angry with myself that I should still be admiring earthly things who might long ago have learned from even the pagan philosophers that nothing is wonderful but the soul, which, when great itself, finds nothing great outside itself.' From that moment, the panorama of hill-tops and clouds and skies meant no more to him than the view of Lake Leman had meant to Bernard of Clairvaux. 'Then, in truth, I was satisfied that I had seen enough of the mountain. I turned my inward eye upon myself, and from that time not a syllable fell from my lips until we reached the bottom again.'

But Petrarch could hardly have been expected to climb his mountain in the modern spirit; the significant thing is that he did such a thing at all. 'My only motive was the wish to see what so great an elevation had to offer,' is his simple prefatory statement. But we, knowing in how many things his thought groped unconsciously toward the future, may be pardoned for finding this exploit in a certain sense symbolical, or at least highly suggestive of what we can now see to have been his relations to the development of culture. He cherished the past,—none more fondly than he,—but he never took the view that the sum of all possible culture had been made up by the ancients, leaving nothing for the coming ages to add. He knew not what those ages might bring forth; but he had a wistful sense of their possibilities, which amounted almost to prescience.

The analysis of Petrarch's humanism reveals a number of distinct elements. He not only climbed the mountain, but he also travelled far and wide, because he was genuinely curious about the world of nature and of men, and took a wholesome interest in things and affairs. He read the classical authors, not to find in them texts for disputation, but for the purposes of culture as we understand the term, and with a passionate enthusiasm for their beauty. He collected a library of some two hundred manuscript volumes, not for the reputation of owning them, but because they were for him the very bread and wine of the intellectual life. He even planned to bequeath his books to Venice for the general good, thus conceiving the modern idea of the public library. He wrote the most delightful letters to his friends, following the example of Pliny and Cicero, and he wrote them with an eye to their preservation for future generations. He even wrote a fragmentary autobiography; and, what is particularly noteworthy, he made it largely a record of his inner life, of his intellectual and emotional experiences. The course of his speculation was singularly self-determined; he rejected the narrow educational ideals of his age, and made free to find flaws in the teaching of Aristotle,—not, indeed, calling him 'that accursed heathen,' as Luther was to do two centuries later, but flatly refusing to recognize his authority as pontifical.

All these matters, as well as others unmentioned, bring Petrarch into closer touch with the modern world than any of his contemporaries. Carducci makes him the intellectual arbiter of his age, as Erasmus and Voltaire were the intellectual arbiters of theirs; but that strictly historical fact appeals to us less directly than the fresh and sympathetic quality of his work. Those who would like to come into close contact with Petrarch the humanist, as distinguished from Petrarch the poet, will do well to read the volume of selections admirably translated and edited by Professors Robinson and Rolfe. The English reader could have no better introduction than this to the man and his writings. The poems, of course, need no such introduction. There have been over four hundred editions of them in Italian alone, besides countless translations into numerous tongues. And of their author, now in his grave six hundred years less the three score and ten of his life, let our closing words be those of the contemporary who thus described his end: 'Francesco Petrarca, the mirror of our century, after completing a vast array of volumes, on reaching his seventy-first year closed his last day in his library. He was found leaning over a book as if sleeping, so that his death was not at first suspected by his household.'

Each century brings new proof of the permanence of Petrarch's influence and the charm of his poetry. As Italy celebrates, on the 20th of July, the six-hundredth anniversary of his birth, she challenges the world to name a literary hero who has won more sympathetic homage from cultured men and women of every age. Research during the last century has disclosed few new facts in Petrarch's life; but knowledge of his work, both as humanist and poet, has been widely disseminated. Earlier studies, by Abbe de Sade, Foscolo, Ginguene, and Sismondi, have been translated and appreciated. In Italy and France many biographic and critical treatises have appeared; there have also been a few significant volumes by English and American scholars, from the biography by the poet Campbell in 1843 to more recent studies by Mr. Symonds, Mr. Reeve, and the collaborated work of Professors James Harvey Robinson and H. W. Rolfe. Other popular sketches, both in book and magazine form, have testified to the increasing interest in the romantic phases of Petrarch's life. More illuminative, both of the man and the poet, have been the translations of his sonnets, canzone, and letters, by such modern scholars as Hartley Coleridge, Walter Savage Landor, Mr. Richard Garnett, and Colonel T. W. Higginson. Indirect evidences of his literary influence abound. The Victorian poets and their successors made frequent allusions to him, and their works bear impress of his mode and spirit.

No one would claim Petrarch as one of the world's greatest poets. But the duration of his popularity, and the acknowledged and indirect imitations of his style, give evidence of the progressive quality of his influence. As the lover and sonneteer of Laura, as the patriot-friend of Rienzi and Colonna, as the enthusiast for pure classicism in an age of mental lethargy and pedantry, he merits the remembrance which has never waned from his day to our own. Without loss of his prestige as a scholar, he has won more general recognition as an amatory lyrist, combining the best elements of chivalrous worship for women with the conflicting passions of a modern lover. In the more than three hundred sonnets, and the scores of canzone and sestinas, celebrating the charms and reserve of his mistress, photographing the lover's struggles of heart and conscience, Petrarch has accomplished a work of poetic art more memorable than his cultural reforms. There is an ever-new fascination in his revelations of this fourteenth-century woman, with her soft dark eyes, her golden hair, her alluring voice, and her reposeful beauty of face and presence. Midway between the spiritual Beatrice and the sensual Fiametta, she is a humanized creation of rare charm. Whether she was in truth, as later authorities aver, the wife of Hugo de Sade and the mother of nine children, or only the personification of a poet's vision, she is essentially real yet ideal,—the mistress of feudal days, with the dominant traits of modern womanhood of a loftier type arousing in her lover's heart a conflict between reverence and yearning.

While the last century has given attention chiefly to the love-poetry of Petrarch, it has not overlooked his qualities as a leader both in affairs and in letters. His Latin essays in available form for the modern scholar, his voluminous correspondence carefully edited and largely translated, afford distinct signs of the directive force which he wielded in his own age. Undoubtedly the time was ripe for his influence; but such consideration does not minimize his service. Inferior to Dante as a poet, and separated from him by less than a generation, he was eminently modern in spirit and mode, while Dante was the last noble exponent of mediaevalism. With all his breadth of insight, Petrarch was more than a scholar and a poet; he was the first true Italian patriot-prophet. With vanity and a proneness to servility, he possessed deep-rooted aspirations for political reform, in which are found many of the later tenets of patriotism. In his diplomatic missions, in consultation with Pope and Doge, even in his ardent hope and disappointment in Rienzi, Petrarch was an idealist tempered by practical wisdom. Like Mazzini, his great compatriot of five hundred years later, Petrarch saw in his vision a free and united Italy, though it was his belief that this should come through a revival of Roman standards. For Petrarch, whose father had suffered exile from Florence, there was no specific city-allegiance; he was a patriot, not a partisan, well called by Mr. Symonds 'a freeman of the City of the Spirit.'

Passages in his letters reveal the hidden ethical motives of the man. His honesty, his hatred of deceit in any form, are often reiterated. In the confession of his unabating passion for work, he seems strangely akin to our modern day. The wish expressed to Boccaccio, that death might find him reading or writing, was fulfilled with unexpected literalness. From the letters covering the period between 1326 and 1374, Mr. Lohse selected, translated, and published in London, in 1901, certain 'Thoughts' that well disclose Petrarch's moral and literary traits. Keen insight into humanity and into the fundamental truths of life are interwoven with intimate hints of personal experiences. A few pertinent epigrams have special force,—as 'Nothing can succeed in definance of nature (Bk. IV: Letter 16); 'Idleness alone causes us to disbelieve in our own powers' (Bk. XXI: Letter 10); 'Humble and earnest research is always the first step toward knowledge' (Letters of Old Age; Bk. IV: Letter 5).

Modern scholarship has not only found new meanings in Petrarch, but it has shown greater discrimination in the study of his literary forms. Leigh Hunt's Book of the Sonnet, in the middle of the nineteenth century, emphasized for English readers the perfection of Petrarch's verse and its many adaptations. To Mrs. Shelley he wrote, in general tribute, 'Petrarch and Boccaccio and Dante are the morning and noon and night of the great Italian day; or, rather, Dante and Petrarch and Boccaccio are the night and morning and noon.—"And the evening and the morning were the first day.'" (Dowden's Life of Shelley, II., 220.) To Leigh Hunt we are indebted for one of the most musical translations of Petrarch's 'Ode to Vaucluse.' Hunt caught the playful spirit of the verse, and delicately portrayed the vision of Laura amid a shower of blossoms. Passing by occasional tributes to Petrarch in prose and verse, by Samuel Rogers, Barry Cornwall, Lord Houghton, Lord Hammer, and other English seholars, one is reminded of the more significant allusions by that coterie of poets to whom Italy was not alone a goal of pilgrimage but a place of long and happy sojourn. In 1813, Byron, in disgust at his own inability in sonnet form, had written: 'They are the most puling, petrifying, stupidly platonic compositions. I detest the Petrarch so much that I would not be the man even to have obtained his Laura, which the metaphysical, whining dotard never could.' In Don Juan he interpolated a characteristic sneer,—

'Think you if Laura had been Petrarch's
He would have written sonnets all his life?'

When, however, chance brought Byron to the Euganean hills, he found himself moved to a more sympathetic note toward Petrarch and his adjacent home. In a somewhat skeptical mood, he paid his first visit to Arqua in 1817. He confessed that he was 'moved to turn aside in a second visit,' and two years later he urged the poet Moore 'to spare a day or two to go with me to Arqua; I should like to visit that tomb with you,—a pair of poetical pilgrims,—eh, Tom, what say you?' All are familiar with his commemoration of 'the soft, quiet hamlet at Vaucluse' in 'Childe Harold' (IV: xxx).

Shelley had been under the spell of Petrarch's influence before he came to Italy, when, in 1813, he joined his friend Hogg, and read the Italian poets in company with Mrs. Boinville and her sentimental daughter Cornelia Turner. Shelley's earlier interest was revived under these close associations, and in his 'Defense of Poetry' he spoke warmly of Petrarch, 'whose verses are as spells which unseal the inmost enchanted fountains of the delight which is in the grief of love. It is impossible to feel them without becoming a portion of that beauty which we contemplate.' Vaucluse became a pilgrim-shrine to the Brownings, from that first romantic scene pictured by Mrs. Jamieson, as well as by Mrs. Browning, when the poet-lovers 'sate upon two stones in the midst of the fountain which in its dark prison of rocks flashes and roars and testifies to the memory of Petrarch.' In their Italian studies, the Brownings found Dante and Camoens more stimulating than Petrarch, though one recalls significant references to the latter in 'Apparent Failure,' 'The Ring and the Book,' and 'The Vision of Poets,' such as,

     'And Petrarch pale,
From whose brain-lighted heart were thrown
A thousand thoughts beneath the sun,
Each lucid with the name of One.'

For the most pronounced reflection of Petrarch's influence, one turns to Landor. At the outset, he challenges all English writers who have transformed his hero's name. 'For I pretend to no vernacular familiarity with a person of his distinction, and should almost be as ready to abbreviate Francesco into Frank as Petrarca into Petrarch.' The idea of 'The Pentameron' may be traced to the letter sent by Petrarch to Boccaccio after the latter had given him a copy of Dante and asked for a more sympathetic reading of the earlier master. That Petrarch recognized the mental superiority of Dante cannot be questioned; but he confessed that he was repelled by two causes,—the severe adherence to mediaeval standards, and a persistent memory of one glance, when he was eight years old, at the cold and rigorous face of Dante. Two other reasons for this indifference are suggested in Landor's dialogue: first, Petrarch's youthful fear lest by reading Dante he should become a mere imitator; and, second, an objection to Dante's persistent use of the Italian rather than the Latin text for his lofty poetic vision. The natures of these great poets were too antithetical to be in accord,—leaving out all suggestions of Petrarch's vanity; and Landor has well delineated what Disraeli called 'Petrarch's caustic smile on Dante.' To Landor, the character of Petrarch was thus unfolded: 'Unsuspicious, generous, ardent in study, in liberty, in love, with a self-complacency which in less men would be vanity, but arising in him from the general admiration of a noble presence, from his place in the interior of a heart which no other could approach or merit, and from the homage of all who held the principalities of Learning in every part of Europe.'

The early studies and translations of Petrarch's sonnets by Lord Morley, Major MacGregor, Lord Surrey, Lady Dacre, and Susan Wollaston, are still valuable to the modern reader. During the last three decades, several volumes of translations and anthologies have extended general study of the Petrarchan sonnet,—notably the anthologies by Samuel Waddington, William Sharp, Dr. Richard Garnett, and the scientific treatise on the sonnet by Mr. Charles Tomlinson. In his recent volume of sonnets from Dante, Petrarch, and Camoens, Dr. Garnett has shown skill and poetic insight in his renderings of more than sixty Petrarchan sonnets. Especially fine are the thirty-ninth, with the poet's benediction upon Laura; the eightieth, on Vaucluse; and the second of the later memorial sonnets after the passing of Laura and his friend Colonna. Dr. Garnett has prefaced the translations by an original sonnet of tribute, closely following his model in structure and effective play upon the words Laura and Laurel:

'Laurel in right of Laura thou didst claim,
Which wreath Apollo with his bay
Nature with flower and wit with diamond
Thine were the wind, the dawn, the star, the

Of American translators, none have rendered more scholarly and sympathetic sonnets by Petrarch and Camoens than Colonel Higginson. Some of these were included in his earlier volume of verse, The Afternoon Landscape; and with them have been incorporated a few new translations in the exquisite volume of this memorial year, Fifteen Sonnets of Petrarch. Here also is reproduced the essay published in The Atlantic many years ago, 'Sunshine and Petrarch,' in which the earlier sonnets were imbedded. The elusive memory of Laura's beauty, and the vacuity of mind after her death, have been retold with perfect sympathy in sonnet 251, 'Gli occhi di ch' io parlai.'

'Dead is the source of all my amorous
Dry is the channel of my thoughts outworn,
And my sad heart can sound but notes of

Deft in portrayal of the lighter fancies, Colonel Higginson has been even more successful in the deeper revelations of the spirit. With earnest grace he has interpreted the three hundred and twenty-third sonnet, the exaltation of Laura's womanliness and its admonition to maidenhood of all ages,—'Qual donna atende a gloriosa fama.'

'Doth any maiden seek the glorious fame
Of chastity, of strength, of courtesy?
Gaze in the eyes of that sweet enemy
Whom all the world doth as my lady name!
How honor grows and pure devotion's
How truth is joined with graceful dignity,
There thou may'st learn, and what the path
 may be
To that high heaven which doth her spirit
There learn that speech beyond all poet's
And sacred silence, and those holy ways
Unutterable, untold by human heart.
But the infinite beauty that all eyes doth fill,
This none can learn; because its lovely rays
Are given by God's pure grace, and not by

Though Petrarch's sonnets and songs can never be placed in the very first rank among world-poetry, yet there is an unwaning charm in the life and verse of this man of warm passion, of strenuous ambition for himself and the modern world. Refreshing the mind of his own age with draughts from the spring of classic letters, he speaks a message as pertinent today as when it issued from his romantic valley retreat, or was listened to by his flatterers at the Venetian court.

Further Reading

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Wilkins, Ernest H. Life of Petrarch. Chicago: Phoenix Books/ University of Chicago Press, 1961, 276 p.

Standard biography of Petrarch.


Mazzotta, Giuseppe. "Humanism and Monastic Spirituality in Petrarch." Stanford Literature Review 5, Nos. 1-2 (1988): 57-74.

Discusses Petrarch's ideas on asceticism, secular humanism, and spirituality, focusing on Petrarch's De vita solitaria and De otio religioso as well as his relationship with his brother Gherardo, who was a monk.

Prier, Raymond. "The Figurai Ontology of the Text: Petrarch." In Interpreting the Italian Renaissance: Literary Perspectives, edited by Antonio Toscano, pp. 1-8. Stony Brook: Forum Italicum, 1991.

Compares the figural poetics of Dante and Petrarch. Prier concludes that "Petrarch experiences a figura within and expresses it in a multiplicity of language on a page that lies without."

Proctor, Robert E. "Petrarch and the Origins of the Humanities." In Education's Great Amnesia: Reconsidering the Humanities from Petrarch to Freud, pp. 25-58. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1988.

Examines Petrarch's ideas on values and the meaning of existence, focusing on his letters and his reading of the ancient Romans.

Shapiro, Marianne. Hieroglyph of Time: The Petrarchan Sestina. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1980, 254 p.

A study of the sestina in the context of European and American poetry which also attempts to reconcile the languages of literary scholarship.

Strozier, Robert M. "Renaissance Humanist Theory: Petrarch and the Sixteenth Century." Rinascimento XXVI, second series (1986): 193-229.

Argues that a shift in theoretical focus among philosophers occurred between Petrarch's era and that of the humanists of the 1500s.

Waller, Marguerite R. Petrarch's Poetics and Literary History. Amherst: University of Massachusetts, 1980, 163 p.

Literary-historical study which concerns the "literary inter-relationship inscribed in the Petrarchan texts themselves between a notion of the self and its history or story, an understanding of language which raises problems concerning any and all narrative representations."

Wilkins, Ernest H. "The Evolution of the Canzoniere of Petrarch." Publications of the Modern Language Association of America LXIII, No. 2 (June 1948): 412-55.

Traces Petrarch's revisions of the Canzoniere through nine major versions.

——. Studies in the Life and Works of Petrarch. Cambridge: Medieval Academy of America, 1955, 324 p.

Collects new and revised essays on Petrarch's life and works, including a discussion of the chronology of the Triumphs and a survey of Renaissance Petrarchism.

Additional coverage of Petrarch's life and career is contained in the following sources published by Gale Research: Poetry Criticism, Vol. 8, and DISCovering Authors Modules.

Nathan Haskell Dole (essay date 1908)

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SOURCE: Nathan Haskell Dole, "Lyric Poetry and Petrarca," in A Teacher of Dante and Other Studies in Italian Literature, Moffat, Yard & Company, 1908, pp. 89-141.

[In the following excerpt, Dole provides an overview of Petrarch's life, focusing on the poet's adoration for Laura and the poetry he dedicated to her.]

In passing from Dante to Petrarca we come into another world. Dante closes an era: he is the Titan of Italian poetry; with him the mediæval is summed up forever.

Petrarca is as modern as Chaucer. Just as in midsummer, sometimes, a few days of genuine spring weather seem to stray like summer birds from their exile in the South, as if impatient to be at home once more, so we find simultaneously in England and Italy these two modern men centuries ahead of their day. How gay, unsentimental, free from morbidness, from provincialism is Dan Chaucer! He was of humble origin, the name signifying shoemaker, and yet he rose to be courted by kings and emperors and one of his descendants just missed inheriting the throne of England.

So Petrarca, as is proved by the name, which means Little Peter or Peterkin, sprang from the common people. His father was Ser Petracco di Ser Parenza—unable even to boast a family name—and when he was driven from Florence by that miserable squabble between the two factions that were always tearing the vitals of the city, he carried away with him on that January day in 1302 only a small part of the possessions which he had accumulated as a jurist.

The misfortune which befell Italy had been prognosticated. In September, 1301, a comet flamed in the western sky and twice that year Saturn and Mars had been in conjunction in the sign of the Lion which was the astrological symbol of Italy. Those of us who place some reliance on astrological prophecies, looking back, may perhaps see in that comet a sign of the coming poet, who should, more than any other, influence the world of letters.

Ser Patracco took refuge in Arezzo, a city of Tuscany, and found on the so-called Garden Street a house, as the poet says, haud sane ampla seu magnifica, sed qualis exsulem decuisset—"not indeed magnificent but suitable for an exile."

On Monday, July 20th, almost at the very hour when the Bianchi were making their last fruitless effort to regain the ascendancy, Francesco di Petracco was born. Here on the fifteenth of June, 1800, so nearly five exact centuries later, Napoleon, about to fight "Marengo's bloody battle," paused to grant, out of honour to Petrarca's memory, amnesty to its inhabitants.

Petrarca's life lies before us with remarkable clearness. Hundreds of letters give us an almost complete autobiography; but it has been charged against him that he was ashamed of his humble birth. He tells us little about his father's family. We know that his great-grandfather Ser Garzo, a man of considerable native wisdom, though uneducated, lived at Incisa a few miles from Florence and died at the age of 104 on his birthday, in the very room where he had been born.

Of Petrarca's mother nothing is known and the Italian biographers are still struggling over the unsolved problem—whether her name was Eletta, as seems to be indicated in his poem on her death, where he calls her Electa Dei tarn nomine quam re—in that case making her a member of the well-known family of Cino Canigiani; or Nicolosa, daughter of Vanni Cini Sizoli, or whether she was Petracco's second wife or whether she was only sixteen when she gave birth to her famous son Francesco—Ceceo as they called him. When he was six months old he went with his mother to Incisa and on the way as they crossed the Arno the horse of the servant who was carrying him stumbled and the baby was almost drowned.

At Incisa he spent the first six or seven years of his life and it is generally believed that he there acquired that perfect Tuscan speech which did him and his country such honour. The house where he dwelt is still shown, though badly ruined, and it bears an inscription to the effect that here the great poet first uttered the sweet sounds of his mother tongue. In 1312 Petracco assembled his family in Pisa but perhaps found it impossible to support them there. Like many other banished Florentines he hoped for better fortunes in France and accordingly took his family to Avignon.

The Pope, Clement V., was wandering about France—at Bordeaux, Lyons, Poitiers, Montpellier and Avignon, and in October, 1316, his successor, John XXII. established the Papal Court definitely at Avignon. Hither Petracco came in 1313 and a second time the son nearly lost his life in a shipwreck near Marseilles. Avignon, on the left bank of the Rhone, was a part of Provence and at this time Provence was the patrimony of King Robert of Naples: here the king had his court from 1318 until 1324.

The influences to which Petrarca must have submitted in this transplantation should not be disregarded. Although he detested Avignon itself with its narrow streets and vile odours, yet it was the home of Provençal song and must have given him his first leaning to poetry.

Little in the way of anecdote can be told of his childhood. An astrologer prophesied that he would win the favour of almost all the princes of his day, and this was fulfilled. Also he himself relates in one of his letters how his father showed him the picture of a double-bodied boy with twin heads, four hands and other curious prototypal anticipations of the Siamese twins, that had been born in Florence and lived two or three weeks. He relates that his father gave his ear a sharp twitch that he might the better remember the marvel.

Expenses were high in Avignon and Petracco established his family at Carpentras, the capital of a little province where were mineral-springs and a quiet easy life. Here Petrarca lived four years and first enjoyed regular schooling at the hands of a scholar named Convennole or Convenevole who had a school there. This Convennole is believed by some to be the author of a portentous Latin poem of very mediocre value. He was in perpetual pecuniary difficulties and Petrarca's father often assisted him, but the man played him a very mean trick. In later years Petrarca himself came to his aid but his generosity was likewise most shabbily acquitted: he took two priceless manuscripts by Cicero and disposed of them. The books must have been destroyed, for no trace of them was ever found and thus were lost Cicero's Libri de Gloria.

Nevertheless, when Convennole died at Prato in 1340 or 1344 his fellow-citizens placed a poet's laurel crown on his tomb and Petrarca offered to write his epitaph.

The progress which Petrarca made in his studies was not remarkable and it is to be deeply regretted that a more liberally cultured scholar had not directed his training. A large part of Petrarca's works is in Latin but he never acquired a perfect style, such as Erasmus was able to wield. His Latin is mediæval: he himself discovered Cicero's Epistles but it was too late in life to modify his habits. Only his inherent genius enabled him to invest his Latin Letters with a perennial charm. Certainly his correspondence with Boccaccio is one of the most precious possessions of literature and it is one of the strange anomalies of life that it so long has remained a sealed book to English readers.

Petrarca's principal playmate and friend in Convennole's school was Guido Settimo who became Archbishop of Genoa, their friendship enduring more than fifty years. With the future archbishop the future poet made his first visit to the source of the Sorgue at Vaucluse or Val chiusa, the Shut-in Valley which he was to immortalise.

From Carpentras Petrarca was sent to the high school at Montpellier with the idea of fitting him for his father's profession of the law. Here he spent four years but what he studied, or what his experiences were, is wholly unknown, or at least wholly a matter of conjecture mixed with imagination. One single anecdote of this time is preserved in Petrarca's correspondence. His father, thinking that general literature was too much drawing his son's attention away from the law, came unexpectedly to Montpellier, and making a thorough search for his books succeeded in finding them, carefully hidden though they had been, and flung them into the fire; moved, however, by his son's bitter tears he allowed him to rescue a copy of Vergil and Cicero's "Rhetoric."

From Montpellier he went to Bologna in 1323 with his brother Gherardo and here again he neglected the lectures on civic law to the advantage of what are called "the humanities." He also enjoyed the gaieties of a student's life and in his later days liked to recall them, especially as Bologna was at this time free from the disturbances that elsewhere were racking the Italian cities. The gates of the town were not closed till late at night, so secure felt the inhabitants, and the students had free course. With one of his instructors Petrarca made a visit to Venice and here also he found the highest tide of prosperity. Soon both cities were doomed to vail their glories.

Among his many friends at Bologna was Giacomo Colonna who afterwards became Bishop of Lombes and gave him a home.

Petracco died in 1326, leaving his family in deep poverty, and the two sons returned to Avignon. Petrarca's only legacy was a manuscript of Cicero. With this, the profession of the law, none too enticing to him in any circumstances, seemed to be out of the question and as the Church offered greater inducements and especially as his friend Colonna was already on the road to high preferment, he decided to adopt this profession.

On the sixth of April, 1327, almost a year after his father's death and not long after the probable death of his mother, Petrarca saw in the church of Santa Chiara at Avignon for the first time the lady whom he celebrated under the name of Laura.

Who was she?

This question has been a puzzle for two centuries and seems to offer no chance of satisfactory solution. Opinions have varied in the widest way. Some scholars have argued that the lady who inspired Petrarca's muse to such lofty flights of song was only a creature of his imagination; others, including Kõrting, give a certain amount of credence to the ingenious though somewhat sophisticated evidence of the clever Abbé de Sade, who elaborately argued that she was the daughter of Audibert de Noves and that she was born in 1307, that she was wedded to Hugh de Sade, the Abbé's ancestor, and bore him eleven children. A tomb at Avignon was opened in 1533 and in the coffin were found a medal and a sonnet. The sonnet was supposed to be Petrarca's though it was hardly worthy of his fame. On the medal were the initials "M. L. M. I." which were interpreted to mean Madonna Laura morta iacit—"Here lies the body of Madonna Laura."

This discovery was in accordance with an old tradition that Laura was a De Sade. The Abbé Costaing of Pusignan believed that she was Laura des Beaux, the daughter of the Seigneur de Vaucluse Adhemar de Cavaillon, on her mother's side descended from the house of Orange and that she lived with her relatives on her estates of Galas on the hills overlooking the valley, and that she died not of the plague but of a consumption.

There is no phase of this famous passion that has not been made the subject of an essay or a poem.

Was she a widow or a maiden or the mother of a patriarchal family? Was Petrarca's description of her beauty based on the reality or is it an ideal figment of his imagination? Was she a heartless coquette as was believed by Macaulay? Would Petrarca have written a fuller and more perfect book of songs had she been perfectly complacent? So the learned Professor Zendrini argues. Was Laura an ambitious woman caring for nothing but her own praise and cold to Petrarca not by reason of virtue but because of her insensibility?

A hundred similar questions arise, and how idle they are! Only one of them we may answer and that in the poet's own words. Some one of his friends had evidently suggested that his complaints were imaginary and his Laura a being of air, as the name implies. He answered as follows:

"What dost thou mean by saying that I have invented the specious name of L'Aura as if I wished to have something to talk about; that Laura is in reality nothing but a poetic fiction of my mind to which long and unremitting study proves that I have been aspiring; but that of this breathing Laura by whose form and beauty I seem to be a captive taken is all manufactured, verses fictitious, sighs simulated? Would that in this respect thou wert jesting in earnest! Would that it were simulatio and not furor. But believe me, no one without great effort can long use simulations but to struggle vainly to appear mad is the height of madness [summa insania]. Moreover while we may succeed in counterfeiting illness by our actions, we can not imitate pallor"—tibi pallor tibi labor meus notus est.

There are several passages in Petrarca's Latin writings where he makes it evident that Laura was an actual person. One is in the treatise concerning Scorn of this World in which he represents himself at the instigation of Truth, who appears to him in the form of a stately virgin, as holding a three days' conversation with his beloved instructor Saint Augustine. In the third dialogue Saint Augustine points out that Petrarca is held in the chains of two passions which keep him from the true contemplation of life and of death: these are love and Glory. Augustine expresses his surprise that a man of Petrarca's talent should spend so large a part of his life in praise of an earthly love; and he predicts that the time will come when he will feel ashamed of himself and of this passion.

Petrarca replies that he has already, even during her life time, written a sonnet on her approaching death, having seen her once beautiful body exhausted by illnesses and frequent—what? Here is one of the mysteries; in the manuscript the word is, as usual, contracted and reads ptbus, which De Sade thinks stands for partubus—frequent child-bearing; while other manuscripts have the word spelled out:—pertubationibus. If she was the mother of eleven children, De Sade would seem to have reason on his side.

Petrarca goes on to assure Saint Augustine that in his Laura he had worshipped not the mortal body but the immortal soul and that even if she should die before he did, he would still love her virtue and her spirit. Saint Augustine objects that though she be perfect as a goddess, yet even that which is most beautiful may be loved shamefully—turpiter; but Petrarca asseverates the purity of his passion and declares that in nothing but its impetuosity was he guilty before her: that she was the source and origin of all his glory; she had nurtured the feeble germ of virtue in his breast; she was the mirror of perfection and love has the power to transmute the lover into the standard of the object loved.

But Saint Augustine is not satisfied: he points out the danger of deception and thinks that the fact that he has loved his love so exclusively has caused him to scorn other human beings and human interests. Earthly love has turned Petrarca from the heavenly and into the straight road to death.

In the course of the conversation Saint Augustine brings Petrarca to confess that he has carried next his heart a portrait of his Laura and that even the laurel wreath is dear to him only because it brings the echo of her name. And when Petrarca asks Saint Augustine what he can do to be saved from such a dangerous passion, the Saint recommends change of scene.

"Alas," replies the poet, "in vain have I wandered West and North, far and long, even to the shores of the Deep, and like the wounded stag carried my wound with me wherever I went." Augustine recommends Italy and here occurs his justly famed magnificent eulogium of that beauteous land. This leads naturally to the other chain—glory.

The second passage occurs in a poetic epistle to Giacomo Colonna, written probably in August 1337, two days after returning to Avignon after a long journey:

"Beloved beyond measure is a woman known by her virtue and her ancient lineage—sanguine vetusto. And my songs have given her glory and spread her fame far and wide. Ever does my heart turn back to her and with renewed pangs of love she overcomes me nor does it seem likely that she will ever renounce her conquest."

She had conquered him he says not by any arts of coquetry but by the rare beauty of her form. After enduring the chain for ten years, after wasting to a shadow and becoming another man, the fever of love so penetrating the very marrow of his bones that he could hardly drag one leg after another and he yearned for death, suddenly he determined to strike for freedom and shake off the yoke. God gave him strength to win the battle; but even then the mistress of his heart pursued him as if he were an escaped slave.

"I fly," he says, "I wander over the whole circle of the world, I dare to plough the stormy billows of the Adriatic and the Tyrrhene seas and I entrust my life, rescued from the toils of love, to a tossing vessel: for why should I, wearied by the torments of the soul, and sick of life, fear a premature death? I turn my steps toward the West and behold the lofty summits of the Pyrenees from my couch in the sunny grass. I behold the ocean from where the weary God of Day, after his long journey, dips his chariot of fire in the Hesperian flood and where looking up to Atlas turned to stone at sight of Medusa, he causes the steep mountain precipices to throw long shadows, and hides the moors with hastening shades of night. Hence I turn to the North and Boreas, and, lonely, wander through those lands that are filled with the harsh accents of barbarians' tongues, where the gloomy waves of the British sea splash with changeful foam the shores of half-known coasts and where the icy soil denies obedience to the friendly plough and keeps the vine-stock alien to the hills. Little by little as I journeyed, the billows of my passion grew calm: pain, wrath and fear began to vanish; now and then peaceful slumber closed my eyelids moist with tears, and an unaccustomed smile played over my face; and already in my recollection with less of threat and less of authority arose the image of my deserted love."

Alas, he goes on, he was deceived; he thought he might disregard the sting of passion; the wound was not healed, the anguish was not allayed. He returned, but no sooner was he within the walls of the beloved city than his breast was again laden with the burden of cares. And then follows that superb description not dimmed even in the Latin in which it is couched:

"The sailor fears not with such terror the reefs as he sails through the night, as I now fear my love's face and her heart-stirring words, her head crowned with golden tresses and her snowy neck encircled with a chain and her eyes dealing sweet death."

Even in the secluded vale of Vaucluse he finds no relief: Useless to bewail the vanished years. Waking he sees her and at night her image seems to come through the triple-locked doors of his chamber at midnight and claim him as her slave. Then before the morning paints with crimson the eastern sky, he arises and leaves the house and wanders over mountain and through forest, ever on the watch to see if she is not there.

"Oft," he says, "when I think I am alone in the pathless woods, the bushes waving in the breeze present her figure and I see her face in the bole of the lonely oak; her image rises from the waters of the spring; I seem to see her in the clouds, in the empty air and even in the adamantine stone."

To the celebration of this love he consecrates 291 sonnets, twenty-four canzoni, nine sestini, seven ballata and four madrigals, besides the semi-epic poem written in terza rima like the "Divina Commedia." In these sonnets—which are curious in this respect that they are not a sequence, they mark no progression: they are like a placid lake, not a river—Petrarca celebrates his love in every way. Every little event inspires a poem. Once he sees her about to cross a stream and the removal of her white shoes and red stockings leads to a sonnet. Her beauty is ever the thought in his mind: both in Italian and Latin he tells us:

  Una donna più bella che 'l sole,
forman parem non ulla videbunt saecula

"A woman lovelier than the sun, whose form no century will ever see equalled."

And again of her gait and voice:

  non era l'andar suo cosa mortale,
ma d'angelica forma e le parole
sonavan altro che pur voce umana

"Her gait was not a mortal thing but of an angelic form and her words sounded different from any human voice:"

cuius nec vox nec oculorum vigor
nec incessus hominem repraesentat.

A few of the lovely passages—which alas! even in a paraphrase must lose much of their charm—must furnish a hint of the richness of this collection of poems which Guiseppe Jacopo Ferrazzi calls the bible of poets and which is by most critics considered "the most perfect monument of love-poetry among modern nations."

Her name, he says in the fifth sonnet, which is devoted to an elaborate pun upon it—Laure-ta and Laure—was written on his heart by love. He sends her some fruit in spring and the thought that the sun has ripened it causes him to call her "a sun among women"—tra le donne un sole—which shedding the rays of her bright eyes upon him wakes into life the thoughts, acts and words of love. But he concludes sadly that though spring may shine on earth again there will never be spring again for him. Most beautiful is the beginning of the second canzone

Verdi panni, sanguini, oscuri o persi

excellently translated by Miss Louise Winslow Kidder:

Green robes, blood-coloured, dark or reddish
Or golden hair in shining tresses heaped,
Ne'er clothed a woman beautiful as she
Who robs me of my will, and with herself
Allures me from the path of liberty,
So that no other servitude less grave
Do I endure.

In this canzone there are eight stanzas of seven lines each and a sort of coda of two lines, there being only seven rhymes in the whole poem. In the sestine are no rhymes, but each stanza of six lines has the same word endings. In the third canzone he speaks of her beautiful soft eyes which carry the keys to his sweet thoughts:

Que' begli occhi soavi
Che portaron le chiavi
De' miei dolci pensier.

And further on he speaks of the golden tresses which should make the sun full of deep envy and her beautiful calm look—bel guardo sereno—where the rays of Love are so warm, and still recalling her graces, her white delicate hands and lovely arms—

le man bianchi sottili
e le braccia gentili.

All very well translated by Macgregor:

The soft hands, snowy charm,
The finely rounded arm,
The winning way, by turns, that quiet scorn.

He renders the lines

I dolci sdegni alteramente umili
e 'l bel giovenil petto
torre d'alto intelletto

Chaste anger, proud humility adorn
The fair young breast that shrined
Intellect pure and high.

Wotton translates the lines:

L'oro e le perle e i fior vermigli e i
Che 'l verno devria far languidi e secchi:

Those golden tresses, teeth of pearly white,
Those cheeks' fair roses blooming to decay.

But it very well illustrates the danger one runs in reading translations: the gold and pearls and red and white flowers are the adornments which Laura wears and which are reflected in the mirror against which he complains because in seeing herself reflected there she cares more for herself than for him.

Particularly beautiful is the sonnet in which he blesses all the circumstances of his passion:

Benedetto sia'l giorno, e 'l mese e 'l anno
E la stagione e 'l tempo e l 'ora e 'l
E 'l bel paese e 'l loco ov' io fui giunto
Da duo begli occhi.

This translated literally reads:

"Blest be the day and the month and the year and the season and the time and the hour and the instant and the fair country and the place where I was captured by two lovely eyes that enchained me fast." And the sonnet proceeds: "And blest be the first sweet inquietude [affanno] that I felt at being joined with love, and the bow and arrows whereby I was wounded and the wounds that came into my heart. Blest be the voices which calling out the name of my lady, I scattered; and the sighs and the desire; and blest be all the writings whereby I won my fame and my thought which is wholly of her, so that no other has a share in it."

After eleven years of perduti giorni, since that "fierce passion's strong entanglement" (as Dacre translates the line) he calls upon the Father of Heaven to vouchsafe unto him power to turn to a different life and to finer achievements

ad altra vita ed a più belle imprese.

But still the charm holds: even if he would forget her the sight of the green laurel-tree brings her so vividly before him that amid the oaks and pines on the shore of the Tuscan sea where the waves broken by the winds complain, he falls as it were dead; even after fourteen years have passed he still sings her golden locks flowing in mazy ringlets to the breeze—capelli d'oro a l'aura sparsi.

Leigh Hunt has a good translation of the canzone to the Fountain of Vaucluse beginning: Chiare, fresche e dolci acque

Clear, fresh and dulcet streams
Which the fair shape who seems
To me sole woman haunted at noon-tide.

Fair bough, so gently fit
(I sigh to think of it)
Which lent a pillar to her lovely side
And turf and flowers bright-eyed
O'er which her folded gown
Flowed like an angel's down,
Give ear, give ear with one consenting
To my last words, my last and my

Of Petrarca's later life there are a thousand fascinating details to be found in his letters: his travels, friendships, with all the great men of his day, his relations with popes and prelates, princes and emperors, his clever intrigues to obtain the poet's laurel crown, his studies, his efforts to collect the first private library of modern times, his residences, as for instance in the Magician's house at Selva Piana, or at Venice at the house of Arrigo Molin, from one of the turrets of which he used to watch the ships, or again on the beautiful Euganean Hills.

Nor must we forget his cat which, as Tasoni says, still unburied—un' insepolta gatta—"conquers in glory the tombs of haughty kings." A whole chapter should be devoted to his beautiful friendship with Boccaccio and how one of his last works was to translate into Latin the story of the Patient Griselda which Chaucer put into verse.

A few cardinal dates will serve on which to hang the more important events of the latter half of his life: In 1339 he began his Latin poem "Africa," the hero of which was Scipio: it waited more than half a millennium to be published. The next two years he was busy with his growing glory and waiting to be crowned at the Capitol.

After several years' residence at Parma he was made canon and in 1348 while residing at Verona came the sad news of Laura's death. Henceforth his sonnets, though retrospective and often inspired by memory of her beauty become an ascending scale until in the "Trionfi" they rival the more spiritualised poems of Dante, Laura being personified as Chastity triumphant.

In 1350 he was appointed archdeacon of Parma and the following year the Florentines decreed the restoration of his property, but when he refused to live there they confiscated it again. In 1360 he was sent as an ambassador to King Jean of France and then settled in Venice, where he lived another decade and then retired to Arqua among the Euganean Hills, where, in 1374, on the eighteenth of July, he was found dead at his table. A magnificent funeral was decreed in his honour as became so great an ornament to Italy. In 1873 his tomb was opened. His skull and bones were at first intact but on exposure to the air speedily fell to dust.

This great man becomes even greater on close study: he is chiefly known as the author of love-poems which in a dissolute age are absolutely pure and in such perfect Italian that the taste of the most refined and exacting would change scarcely a word. Although these graceful lavorietti composed of equal parts of serenity, brightness of touch and absolute perfection of imagery, are so spontaneous in Italian and so impossible to translate into English—wilting (as has been well said by an Italian scholar) when transferred into alien soil—yet all poets who know Italian have tried their hand at them. The latest attempt, by a California lady who published her version1 in London, is sheer paraphrase: the simplicity and directness of the original appear in an extraordinarily imaginative overlaying of filagree and arabesque. A word or a hint is enlarged to an elaborate comparison; a thousand poetic images and conceits which Petrarca never dreamed of are introduced, and yet the work has been widely heralded as a masterpiece of translation. It was certainly inspired by Petrarca, but if one compares the version with the original, the enormous gulf between them will become at once apparent.

They were turned into Polish by Ian Grotkowski as early as 1465. Spanish, German and French poets—all have drunk at the fountain of this Parnassus. In 1520 there was a Petrarca Academy at Venice. Ioost van Vondel, the greatest of the classic Dutch poets and the master of Milton, made a pilgrimage to Arqua and set Petrarca above all other poets. Boccaccio in 1374 two hundred years earlier had predicted that Arqua, a village scarcely known even in Padua, would rise famous in the whole world: men in days to come would make pilgrimages to it. His prediction was amply verified.

There are at least two score commentaries on Petrarca's Italian poems which he himself regretted and repented having written. According to Crescenbini there were more than six hundred sonnetteers in the sixteenth century all imitating Petrarca: no less than twelve at once in Venice. Marco Foscarini prepared for the press the Rime of sixty Venetian gentlemen, all disciples of Laura's lover.

On the fifth centenary of his birth, prizes being offered, more than six hundred responses in French and Provençal were submitted.

But he was not merely a poet, he was also great as an orator, as a scholar, as a philosopher. The more we study his career the more we must marvel at its richness in accomplishment. Ugo Foscolo calls him the restorer of letters. He was the promoter of classic literature. "For us and for all Europe," says Carducci, "Petrarca was above all the recreator of glorious antiquity and the leader who through the desert of the Middle Ages freed our people from the slavery of barbarous peoples."

Professor Domenico Berti calls him at once poet, historian, philosopher, scholar and cultivator of the fine arts and speaks of his fine, exquisite, full, robust genius and his noble soul.

He was also the prophet of United Italy. When Cola di Rienzi engaged in his great but futile struggle to restore to Rome her ancient liberty Petrarca actively sympathised with him and wrote to him one of his noblest canzoni beginning

Spirto gentil che quelli membra reggi,

and that which begins "Italia mia" praised by all critics and commentators and called the Marseillaise of Italy, as fresh and animated and full of sparkling enthusiasm to-day as if written only yesterday. It may be read in Lady Dacre's spirited version. No wonder the Austrian authorities, when they were making their desperate efforts to keep Italy dismembered and enslaved, forbade its use in the gymnasia, for it well might kindle generous souls to patriotic hatred of tyranny.


  1. "Madonna Laura." Agnes Tobin, 1907.

Theodor E. Mommsen (essay date 1946)

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 10366

SOURCE: Theodor E. Mommsen, "An Introduction to Petrarch's Sonnets and Songs," in Medieval and Renaissance Studies, edited by Eugene F. Rice, Jr., Cornell, 1959, pp. 73-100.

[In the following essay, Mommsen contrasts the critiques of Petrarch's poetry offered by his peers with those of subsequent generations, arguing that during Petrarch's lifetime he was valued for his classical style, while later scholars praised his originality.]

Petrarch presents in his life and work a most interesting example of a complete mutation in literary fame. For there exists in critical annals a very marked and curious contrast between his reputation among his contemporaries and in subsequent periods.

In the popular imagination of today his name is indissolubly linked with that of Laura,

"La bella giovenetta ch'ora è donna."
(Rime No. 127)

This tradition reaches back many centuries; in fact it had originated shortly after his death. To the majority of the generations of his admirers, Petrarch has been primarily the lover of Laura and the author of the Rime, the sonnets and songs which he began in his youth and in which he never tired of singing of his love. Among Italians and non-Italians the image and fame of that Petrarch are just as much alive today as they were vivid towards the end of the fourteenth century when Geoffrey Chaucer glorified him in the Canterbury Tales:

"Fraunceys Petrak, the lauriat poete,
Highte this clerk, whose rethorike sweete
Enlumyned at Ytaille of poetrie."

Through the mastery of language in his Italian poetry Petrarch not only made an everlasting contribution to world literature, but also rendered a very specific service to the development and moulding of the language of his own country. Since the Renaissance literary historians have referred to him as "the father of the Italian language," a title which he shares with the two other great Florentines of the fourteenth century, Dante and Boccaccio.

By later generations Petrarch was considered an initiator in still another respect. Through the influence of the Rime he became the originator of a whole school of poetry, that of the "Petrarchists," which appeared soon after his death both inside and outside Italy. He had brought his favourite form of expression, the sonnet, to such a classical perfection that for centuries to come he remained the admired and widely imitated model of many poets who endeavoured to write in the same pattern. For the Elizabethan period witness the statement made in 1593 by Gabriel Harvey in his Pierces Supererogation: "All the noblest Italian, French, and Spanish poets have in their several veins Petrarchized; and it is no dishonour for the daintiest or divinest muse to be his scholar, whom the amiablest invention and beautifullest elocution acknowledge their master." Among these Petrarchists of the Renaissance we find Sir Thomas Wyatt and the Earl of Surrey in England, the group of the Pléiade with their leader Ronsard in France.

In marked contrast to the judgment of posterity, Petrarch's own generation, however, found his principal merit in his Latin writings, not in his Italian poetry.

This contemporary estimate is most clearly shown by the fact that it was the authorship of the Latin epic Africa and not that of the Rime which brought Petrarch, in 1341, at the age of thirty-seven, the famous crown of the poet laureateship on the Roman Capitol. According to the tradition of the fourteenth century, in antiquity this ceremony had symbolized the greatest tribute which could be given to a living poet. To Petrarch's contemporaries no one was deemed more worthy of this ancient honour than he who seemed to re-embody the classical ideal. Through the conscious imitation of the Aeneid and the Eclogues in his own Africa and Carmen Bucolicum he appeared to have become a second Vergil. Moreover his numerous treatises dealing with problems of moral philosophy and especially the content and style of his hundreds of widely circulated letters placed him in juxtaposition with Cicero. And as King Robert the Wise of Naples asked Petrarch for the dedication of the Africa to himself, so the German Emperor Charles IV requested later on the same honour for Petrarch's main historical work, the collection of Roman biographies entitled De viris illustribus, in which Petrarch recounted the lives and deeds of the great political and military leaders of ancient Rome in order to inspire his readers to similar accomplishments.

Throughout all these various Latin writings Petrarch pursued the same purpose: he wished to teach his Italian contemporaries not to regard the great Roman statesmen and writers as figures of a dead past, but to look upon them as living models for the present and as harbingers of the future. The Italians alone, not "barbarians" like the French or Germans, Petrarch asserted, had a legitimate claim to the Latin inheritance. In the acceptance of this Roman legacy Petrarch saw an instrument of spiritual unity for his fellow-countrymen. With this motive he devoted many of his Latin poems, treatises, and letters to the task of awakening the consciousness of this legacy in the hearts and minds of the Italians of his day.

In this sense, then, Petrarch again stands at the beginning of a very important evolution in Italian culture, the great movement known as "the Revival of Antiquity" or "Humanism." He was destined to direct and stimulate these new ideas in many significant ways, as for instance through his zealous effort to write in a "pure," i.e., classical, Latin style, through his tireless and often extremely successful search for ancient manuscripts, and through his gift for textual emendation. In contrast to many of the later humanists, this "father of Humanism" did not, however, study Latin primarily from an antiquarian point of view, since for him this language was the medium through which the greatest aesthetic, intellectual, and political tradition ever created had found its timeless expression. It was as the voice of this tradition that Petrarch was most admired and revered in his lifetime. This reputation of Petrarch within his own generation has been well characterized in Jakob Burckhardt's Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy: "Petrarch, who lives in the memory of most people of today chiefly as a great Italian poet, owed his fame among his contemporaries far more to the fact that he was a kind of living representative of Antiquity."

In view of the fact that there exists such a divergence of opinion in the evaluation of the main aspects of Petrarch's lifework and such variety in the judgments rendered by his own generation and by posterity, it seems worth asking what conceptions Petrarch had concerning himself and his work. It is quite easy to find an answer to this question. For Petrarch was fully conscious of the fact that his life and work represented a unique and interesting phenomenon. Thus he says in the first sonnet of his Rime:

"… I have seen enough that in this land
To the whole people like a tale I seem."

When Petrarch wrote these lines in the proem to the collection of his Rime, he had reached the summit of his fame. He could rightly assume that to Italian and non-Italian eye-witnesses his accomplishments and his rise to glory would appear "like a tale." Naturally he wished this "tale" to be perpetuated accurately beyond the memory of his contemporaries, and consequently around the year 1351 he wrote a letter which he addressed explicitly "To Posterity." Later he included this epistle, in a revised form, in the first collection of his letters called the Familiares, and thus made sure that the letter would actually come down to future generations.

The stated purpose of this letter is to tell posterity "what sort of man I was and what was the fate of my works." There is no better account of the main events during the first part of Petrarch's life than that given by himself in this "Letter to Posterity."

He introduces himself with a description of his outward appearance: "In my early days my bodily frame was of no great strength, but of great activity. I cannot boast of extreme comeliness, but only such as in my greener years would be pleasing. My complexion was lively, between fair and dark, my eyes sparkling, my sight very keen for a long time until it failed me unexpectedly after my sixtieth year, so that to my disgust I had to have recourse to glasses."

After this portrait of himself he begins the tale of his life: "I was but a mortal mannikin like yourself, with an origin neither very high nor very low.… I was of honourable parents, both natives of Florence but living in exile on a scanty fortune which was, to tell the truth, verging upon poverty. During this exile I was born at Arezzo, in the year of Christ 1304 of this present age, at dawn on Monday the 20th of July.… The first year of my life, or rather part of it, I spent at Arezzo where I first saw the light; the six following years, after my mother had been recalled from exile, at Incisa, an estate of my father's about fourteen miles from Florence. My eighth year I passed at Pisa, my ninth and following years in Transalpine Gaul on the left bank of the Rhone. The name of the city is Avignon, where the Roman Pontiff holds, and has long held, the Church of Christ in a shameful exile.… There then, on the banks of that most windy of rivers, I passed my boyhood under my parents' care, and, later, all my early manhood under my own vain fancies—not, however, without long intervals of absence. For during this time I spent four whole years at Carpentras, a small town not far east of Avignon; and in these two places I learnt a smattering of Grammar, Dialectic and Rhetoric suited to my age—as much, I mean, as is generally learnt in schools—and how little that is, dear reader, you know well enough. Then I went to Montpellier to study Law, where I spent four more years; and then three years at Bologna where I heard the whole Corpus of Civil Law, and was thought by many to be a youth of great promise if I would only persevere in what I had taken up. However, I abandoned that study altogether as soon as my parents abandoned the care of me; not because I did not respect the authority of Law, which is doubtless great and full of that Roman Antiquity in which I delight, but because it is degraded by the villainy of those who practise it. And so I revolted at learning thoroughly that what I would not turn to dishonourable, and could scarcely turn to honourable, uses; for such rectitude, if I had tried it, would have been laid to ignorance. Accordingly, in my twenty-second year (1326) I returned to Avignon—my exile home, where I had lived from the close of my childhood, for habit is second nature."

Petrarch continues to relate that there in Avignon he gained the friendship and patronage of many distinguished men. Among these patrons he mentions particularly some members of the great Roman family of Colonna who resided at that time at the papal court. He does not tell that after his renunciation of law he took minor orders which entitled him to receive ecclesiastical prebends without becoming a priest. He had now become "a worthy clerk," as Chaucer calls him in the prologue to The Clerk's Tale,

During that period, Petrarch's account goes on, "a youthful longing impelled me to travel through France and Germany; and though other causes were feigned to recommend my going to my superiors, yet the real reason was an eager enthusiasm to see the world. On that journey I first saw Paris; and I took delight in finding out the truth or falsehood of what I had heard about that city. Having returned thence, I went to Rome, which from my infancy I had ardently desired to see. And there I so venerated Stefano Colonna, the noble-minded father of that family, who was like one of the ancient heroes, and I was so kindly received by him in return, that you could scarcely have detected a difference between me and one of his own sons."

On his return from Rome, in 1337, Petrarch decided to establish himself in Vaucluse. According to the "Letter to Posterity" these were his reasons: "I could not overcome my natural ingrained repugnance to Avignon, that most wearisome of cities. Therefore I looked about for some bypath of retreat as a harbour of refuge. And I found a narrow valley, delightful and secluded, called Vaucluse (fifteen miles from Avignon), where the Sorgues, king of all fountains, takes its rise. Charmed with the sweetness of the spot, I betook myself thither with my books. It would be a long story if I were to go on to relate what I did there during many, many years. Suffice it to say that nearly every one of my works was either accomplished or begun or conceived there; and these works have been so numerous that they exercise and weary me to this day."

Now Petrarch's tale comes to the supreme moment of his life, his coronation as poet laureate: "While I was spinning out my leisure in Vaucluse, on one and the same day, strange to relate, letters reached me both from the Senate of the city of Rome and from the Chancellor of the University of Paris, bringing me rival invitations to accept the laurel crown of poetry—the former at Rome, the latter at Paris. In my youthful pride at such an honour, thinking I must be worthy of it as such eminent men so thought me, but weighing their verdict instead of my own merit, I yet hesitated for a while which invitation to accept. And on this point I asked by letter for the advice of Cardinal Giovanni Colonna. He was so near that although I had written late in the day, I received his answer the next morning before nine o'clock. In accordance with his advice I decided for the dignity of the city of Rome as superior to all others, and my two replies to him applauding that advice are still extant. I set out accordingly, and though, like all young men, I was a very partial judge of my own works, I still blushed to accept the verdict upon myself even of those who had invited me. Yet no doubt they would not have done so if they had not judged me worthy of the honour so offered. I determined, therefore, first to visit Naples, and appear before that distinguished king and philosopher, Robert—as illustrious in literature as in station, the only king of our time who was a friend of learning and of virtue alike—to see what judgment he would pass upon me. I still wonder at his flattering estimate of me and the kindly welcome that he gave me; and you, reader, if you knew of it, would wonder no less. On hearing of the reason of my coming, he was marvelously delighted, and considered that my youthful confidence in him—perhaps, too, the honour that I was seeking—might be a source of glory to himself, since I had chosen him of all men as the only competent judge in such case. Need I say more? After numberless conversations on various matters, I showed him that epic of mine, the Africa, with which he was so delighted that he begged me as a great favour to dedicate it to him—a request which I certainly could not refuse, nor did I wish to do so. At length he fixed a day for my visit and kept me from noon to evening. And since the time proved too short for the press of subjects, he did the same on the following two days. After having fully probed my ignorance for three days, he adjudged me worthy of the laurel crown. His wish was to bestow it upon me at Naples, and he earnestly begged me to consent. But my love of Rome prevailed over even the reverend importunity of so great a king. Therefore, when he saw that my resolution was inflexible, he gave me messengers and letters to the Roman Senate in which he declared his judgment of me in flattering terms. This royal estimate was then, indeed, in accord with that of many others, and especially with my own. Today, however, I cannot approve his verdict, though it agreed with that of myself and others. Affection for me and interest in my youth had more weight with him than consideration of the facts. So I arrived at Rome, and unworthy as I was, yet with confident reliance on such a verdict, I gained the poetic laurel while still a raw scholar with great applause from those of the Romans who could be present at the ceremony. On this subject, too, there are letters of mine, both in verse and in prose."

In the retrospective view of the "Letter to Posterity" Petrarch concludes the account of this event with a rather disillusioned comment: "This laurel gained for me no knowledge, but rather much envy, but that also is too long a story to be told here."

It may be true that in the full maturity of his age Petrarch sincerely regretted his early desire for "empty glory" and his "youthful audacity" in accepting the honour of the coronation. But there is no doubt that at the time of the event itself he drew a deep inspiration for his work from his public and official acclaim as "a great poet and historian." He himself tells in the "Letter to Posterity" why it was that after his departure from Rome he resolved to finish his Latin epic Africa which he always considered his greatest title to fame: "I was mindful of the honour I had just received and anxious that it should not seem to be conferred on one who was unworthy of it. And so one day when, during a visit to the mountains, I had chanced upon the wood called Selvapiana across the river Enza on the confines of Reggio, I was fired by the beauty of the place and turned my pen to my interrupted poem, the Africa. Finding my enthusiasm, which had seemed quite dead, rekindled, I wrote a little that very day and some on each successive day until I returned to Parma. There … in a short time I brought the work to a conclusion, toiling at it with a zeal that amazes me today." And in the last book of the Africa he did not hesitate to insert, in the form of a prophecy, an account of his coronation, "such as Rome has not seen for a thousand years."

While it is thus certain that Petrarch's greatest Latin poem owed its completion to the stimulus of the laurel crown, we might digress here for a moment from the account of the "Letter to Posterity," to point out that it seems at least probable that Petrarch's greatest Italian poem, the canzone "Italia mia," was conceived under the same inspiration.2 This fervent appeal for Italian unity is addressed to the Italian princes.

"In whose hands Fortune has put the rein
Of the beautiful places.…"
(Rime No. 128)

It is significant that Petrarch, a poet, not a man of politics, makes himself the mouthpiece of all his fellow countrymen when he reminds the rulers of Italy of their common inheritance of "the gentle Latin blood" and implores them not to call in "barbaric" mercenaries from abroad and not "to ruin the loveliest country of the earth." He places his hopes for the unification and pacification of contemporary Italy in the revival of the ancient virtus Romana:

"Virtue will fight and soon the debt be paid:
For the old gallantry
In the Italian hearts is not yet dead."

It is interesting to recall that Machiavelli concludes his Prince with "an exhortation to liberate Italy from the barbarians," and that he ends this final chapter with the quotation of those very verses of Petrarch.

There seems to be hardly any other moment in Petrarch's life in which he could feel better entitled to utter such an exhortation than that period following his coronation when he had been acknowledged symbolically not only as the greatest living poet of Italy, but also as the resuscitator of the spirit of ancient grandeur. It is by this spirit that "Italia mia" is inspired. In this canzone Petrarch created a poem which, because of its leitmotiv of national unity, might rightly be called the first Italian anthem. But beyond that he distinguished these verses by an intensity of feeling so powerful that all his readers, regardless of their national origin, then found it and have since found it a timeless expression of their sentiments towards their native country:

"Is not this the dear soil for which I pined?
Is not this my own nest
Where I was nourished and was given life?
Is not this the dear land in which we trust,
Mother loving and kind
Who shelters parents, brother, sister, wife?"

It is most significant that for the first time in the history of the western world patriotic feeling had found articulate expression in poetry and had come to consciousness in a man who had grown up and lived in exile and who, therefore, could more clearly perceive the idea of supreme unity which was hidden to the resident citizens through their very entanglement in local rivalry and disunity.

The "tale" of Petrarch's life had reached its climax on the Capitoline in the spring of 1341 and during the period of the greatest productivity of his poetical genius. From the artistic point of view it appears logical, then, that in his "Letter to Posterity" Petrarch deals only very briefly with the events during the ten years following his coronation and that he breaks off his account rather abruptly with the year 1351, never to take it up again. For everything he had to narrate concerning the second half of his life would have seemed anticlimactic in comparison with the story of his dramatic rise during the first half. Even more, the account would have necessarily become a record of Petrarch's increasing pessimism and feeling of personal frustration and disillusionment. The hopes which he continued to have for the pacification and unification of Italy were destined to remain unfulfilled, whether he was to place them on the Italian princes or on the Roman Tribune of the People, Cola di Rienzo, or on the German Emperor Charles IV. The fervent exhortations which he addressed to successive popes, admonishing them to return from Avignon to Rome, met with little or no response. To his passionate feelings against Avignon as the seat of the Frenchified papal court he gave frequent expression in both his Latin and Italian writings, as for instance in the Rime (No. 138), where he denounces the hated city as:

"Fountain of sorrow, dwelling of revolts,
The school of errors, place of heresy,
Once Rome, now Babylon wicked and false,
For which the world suffers in infamy."

The nearness of hateful Avignon poisoned even Petrarch's love for Vaucluse, where since 1337 he had so often sought refuge from the turmoil of the world and found inward peace and stimulation for his work. Thus in 1353 Petrarch decided to bring to an end his sojourn of more than forty years in southern France and to go back to Italy.

It was an outwardly restless life Petrarch spent during his remaining years in northern Italy. He did not choose to take up permanent residence in any one place, not even in his native Florence, where he had been offered, at the instigation of his friend and admirer Boccaccio, a professorship at the university. The Italian princes, among them the powerful Visconti family in Milan, as well as the patrician rulers of Venice, considered it a great honour when the poet accepted their hospitality. Petrarch's democratic and republican friends deplored the close relationship into which the herald of the grandeur of the Roman Republic seemed to have entered with the "tyrants" of his age. Petrarch defied these complaints, for he never considered himself the servant of any prince or the tool of any interest contrary to his own convictions. Free from all obligations of office, in complete independence, he lived solely for his literary work and for the cause of the revival of the eternal standards and universal values of classical antiquity.

If we can trust an old report, death overcame Petrarch in the midst of his studies late at night on July 18, 1374, while he was working in the library of his country house in Arquà near Padua.

An examination of Petrarch's literary opera shows that in the most complete edition, that of the year 1554, the various Latin works and letters occupy almost twenty times as much space as the Italian poetry, the Rime and the Trionfi. Thus Petrarch's Latin writings do not merely outweigh those in the vernacular in actual volume, but they seem also to have had definite preponderance in the mind and judgment of the author himself. For in the "Letter to Posterity" he speaks in some detail about most of the Latin works which he had written or begun by that time, but he does not mention specifically the collection of his Italian Rime. That this omission was not simply accidental becomes evident from the following passage in the same epistle: "My mind was rather well balanced than acute; and while adapted to all good and wholesome studies, its special bent was towards moral philosophy and poetry. But the latter I neglected, as time went on, because of the delight I took in sacred literature. In this I found a hidden sweetness, though at one time I had despised it, so that I came to use poetry only as an accomplishment. I devoted myself singly, amid a crowd of subjects, to a knowledge of Antiquity; for this age of ours I have always found distasteful, so that, had it not been for the love of those dear to me, I should have preferred to have been born in any other."

This passage leaves no doubt as to which part of his work Petrarch himself considered most important. From his own point of view the judgment of his contemporaries certainly was right and that of later generations wrong. He himself desired to be renowned, above all else, for his "single devotion to the knowledge of Antiquity," and not for his Italian poetry.

The fact that Petrarch gave his personal preference to his humanistic endeavours and accomplishments ought not, however, to compel us to believe that he actually meant to disavow his Italian writings altogether. It is true that in a letter written two years before his death, he called his poems in the vernacular "little trifles" and "juvenile fooleries" and expressed the wish that "they might be unknown to the whole world and even to myself if that could be." But notwithstanding this wish for their obliteration, Petrarch, from the record of his work, actually took the greatest personal care in preserving and editing these very same poems. When in mid-life he decided to collect his "scattered rhymes" (Rime No. 1) in one volume, he never ceased working over them throughout the rest of his days, striving to bring them to what he considered the point of perfection.

The clearest evidence of the painstaking effort Petrarch made in this task of polishing his verse is manifestly shown by the great number of corrections and marginal notes in his working copy of the Rime which is preserved today in the Vatican Library. A few examples may suffice to illustrate this point. On the margin of the sonnet "Non fûr ma' Giove" (Rime No. 155) Petrarch remarks: "Note that I had once in mind to change the order of the four stanzas so that the first quatrain and the first terzina would have become second and vice versa. But I gave the idea up because of the sound of the beginning and the end. For (in the case of a change) the fuller sound would have been in the middle and the hollower sound at the beginning and at the end; this, however, is against the laws of rhetoric."

Another marginal note (to Rime No. 199) gives an interesting glimpse into Petrarch's working habits: "In 1368," he jots down, "on Friday, August the 19th, sleepless for a long time during the first watch of the night, I at last got up and came by chance upon this very old poem, composed twenty-five years ago." That Petrarch gave a great deal of thought to determining which of his earlier poems were worthy of inclusion in his final collection is well demonstrated by the following note at the end of the sonnet "Voglia mi sprona" (Rime No. 211): "Amazing. This poem was once crossed out by me and condemned. Now, by chance reading it again after a lapse of many years, I have acquitted it and copied it and put it in the right place. Shortly afterwards, however, on the 27th, in the evening, I made some changes in the final lines, and now I shall have finished with it."

Within the limited compass of this essay it is impossible to go into the intricate problems involving the chronology, the variant forms and arrangements of Petrarch's collection of sonnets and songs. It will be sufficient to state that despite his solemn declarations to the contrary Petrarch never, even during his old age, lost his interest in his "juvenile fooleries" but continued editing and re-editing them to the last. He worked on them until his sense of artistry was truly satisfied. There is tangible evidence of his own critical approval in the frequent recurrence of the word placet on the margins of his working copy. And if there is a legitimate suspicion that Petrarch was not quite candid in the denial of his personal interest in his Italian poems, the same doubt can assail our acceptance of the sincerity of his wish that "they might be unknown to the whole world." For he knew very well from the study of his beloved antiquity that glory depends solely on true distinction in whatever field of activity an individual might choose. In his own incessant striving after perfection he must, therefore, have been greatly inspired and impelled by the desire for approval of these poems by readers in his own era as well as in coming centuries.

In the final collection of his verse Petrarch included three hundred and sixty-six poems. Of this number, three hundred and seventeen were written as sonnets, twenty-nine as canzoni, nine as sestine, seven as ballate, and four as madrigals. The collection has no definite title but is known in Italian simply by the generic names of Canzoniere or Rime, or somewhat more specifically, Rime Sparse. For in contrast to Dante, who assembled his poems to Beatrice in a book named by himself La Vita Nuova, Petrarch never chose a precise name for his collected poems but was content to call them rather vaguely Rerum vulgarium fragmenta, "Fragments," or better "Pieces of matters written in the vernacular." This absence of a concrete title does not seem to be wholly fortuitous. For again in contrast to Dante's Vita Nuova, Petrarch's Rime do not form an organic unit but are in truth "scattered rhymes," as Petrarch calls them himself in the proem to the collection. The content of most of the longer poems is political, religious, or moral in nature whereas the theme of the overwhelming majority of the sonnets is Petrarch's love for Laura. The author did not arrange his poems according to their poetical form nor apparently did he attempt to divide the long series of the love sonnets to Laura into definite "sequences," although there are to be found certain groups of poems which are more closely interrelated than others.

Some of Petrarch's most beautiful verse is contained in his canzoni, as for instance in "Spirto gentil," "Italia mia," or "Vergine bella." But it was especially in the sonnet that his genius found the most adequate mode of expression. Petrarch did not invent the form of the sonnet. It had appeared long before his time and flourished greatly in the school of poets writing in the "dolce stil novo," which reached its climax with Dante. He surpassed, however, all his predecessors in the fashion in which he perfected the traditional form and filled it with a content at once richer and more variegated than ever before. The brevity of the fourteen lines actually permits no more than the expression of one idea or one mood or one emotion. These perceptions and feelings, however, are not allowed to remain vague and fleeting but are submitted to the discipline of rigid form. As no other poet before and only few after him, Petrarch, in many of his sonnets, succeeded in striking this delicate balance of form and content and in establishing a true harmony of feeling and thinking. As the unsurpassed master of the love sonnet of his day Petrarch became, as has been shown before, the model of innumerable sonneteers, in Italy as well as abroad, who were fully conscious of their discipleship and even proud of their denomination as "Petrarchists."

In creating the glory of the Italian sonnet Petrarch can lay claim to still another distinction, the tone colour which is one of the most outstanding characteristics of his Italian poetry. In this connection it is worth noting that the Italian terms sonetto and canzone are derived from the words for "sound" and "song." This derivation tells us very clearly that poems written in these particular two forms were meant to be intoned and that consequently their authors needed musical as well as literary talent. Petrarch in full measure possessed the gifts of the musician. His contemporary biographer, the Florentine Filippo Villani, states: "He played the lyre admirably. His voice was sonorous and overflowing with charm and sweetness." Among the few personal possessions which Petrarch deemed worthy of specific mention in his last will there appears "my good lyre."

In the working copy of his Rime we find the following note to one of his sonnets: "I must make these two verses over again, singing them (cantando), and I must transpose them.—3 o'clock in the morning, October the 19th." No better testimony than this intimate self-reminder can be found to illustrate both the importance which Petrarch attributed to the musical qualities of his verse and the method which he used to test these qualities. Whoever reads his sonnets and songs aloud in their rich Italian will immediately be impressed by their melodiousness and will readily agree with Filippo Villani who says: "His rhythms flow so sweetly that not even the gravest people can withstand their declamation and sound." Some of Petrarch's most beautiful verse, the poems in honour of the Virgin, were set to music by the greatest composer of the Italian Renaissance, Palestrina, in his Madrigali Spirituali.

The theme of the overwhelming majority of Petrarch's Rime is his love for Laura. This fact has led many editors since the sixteenth century to divide the collection up into two parts, the first containing the poems written "In vita di Madonna Laura," the second one consisting of those "In morte di Madonna Laura," beginning with the moving lamentation of the sonnet "Oimè il bel viso" (Rime No. 267). Although this division cannot be directly traced back to Petrarch himself there is no doubt that the main theme of the sonnets is Petrarch's love for Laura "in life and in death."

Who was Laura? With this question we come to that problem which more than almost any other has attracted the attention of scholars working on Petrarch and has, to an even greater degree, challenged and fascinated the popular imagination.

The crux of the problem is that Petrarch himself, both in his Rime and in his Latin writings, chose to give only very few details of a concrete nature concerning Laura and her personal circumstances. This discretion on the part of Petrarch in regard to the central figure in his life becomes particularly manifest in his "Letter to Posterity." For although in this epistle he speaks of a good many of his close friends in some detail, he condenses all he has to say about the person presumably nearest to his heart in one sentence: "In my youth I suffered from an attachment of the keenest kind, but constant to one, and honourable; and I should have suffered longer, had not death—bitter indeed, but useful—extinguished the flame as it was beginning to subside." The marked restraint and the curious detachment make it very evident that in this autobiographical record written for the perusal of later generations Petrarch was resolved to gloss over the crucial importance of Laura in his life, just as he attempted, in the same document, to belittle the significance and the value of those Rime whose principal theme was his love for Laura.

When not thinking of himself in the light of posterity but writing solely for his own record, Petrarch had a good deal more to say about Laura. It was his habit to make notes on the most intimate details of his personal life in the most cherished book of his library, on the fly-leaf of his manuscript of Vergil's works. There appears the following entry: "Laura, illustrious by her own virtues and long celebrated in my poems, first appeared to my eyes in the earliest period of my manhood, on the sixth day of April, anno Domini 1327, in the Church of St. Claire, at the morning hour. And in the same city at the same hour of the same day in the same month of April, but in the year 1348, that light was withdrawn from our day, while I was by chance at Verona, ignorant—alas!—of my fate. The unhappy tidings reached me at Parma in a letter from my friend Louis on the morning of May the 19th in the same year. Her chaste and lovely body was laid in the Church of the Franciscans on the very day of her death at evening. Her soul, however, I am persuaded—as Seneca says of Africanus—has returned to heaven whence it came. I have felt a kind of bitter sweetness in writing this, as a memorial of a painful matter—especially in this place which often comes under my eyes—so that. I may reflect that no pleasures remain for me in this life, and that I may be warned by constantly looking at these words and by the thought of the rapid flight of years that it is high time to flee from the world. This, by God's preventing grace, will be easy to me when I keenly and manfully consider the empty, superfluous hopes of the past, and the unforeseen issue."

Neither in this most intimate record nor anywhere else does Petrarch say who Laura actually was. In truth, he kept this secret so well that apparently even among his closest friends the suspicion arose that "Laura" was merely a fictitious name for an imaginary love and that the word stood not so much for the name of a real person as for Petrarch's dearest goal in life, the "laurel," symbol of the poet's fame. Indeed Petrarch himself liked to play upon the similarity between the name of Laura and the Latin and Italian words for laurel. Against the charge of feigned love Petrarch defended himself in a letter written in 1336 to his intimate friend Giacomo Colonna, Bishop of Lombez, as follows: "You actually say that I have invented the name of 'Laura' in order to have some one to talk about, and in order to set people talking about me, but that, in reality, I have no 'Laura' in mind, except that poetical laurel to which I have aspired, as my long and unwearied toil bears witness; and as to this breathing 'laurel,' with whose beauty I seem to be charmed, all that is 'made up'—the songs feigned, the sighs pretended. On this point would that your jests were true! Would that it were a pretense, and not a madness! But, credit me, it takes much trouble to keep up a pretense for long; while to spend useless toil in order to appear mad would be the height of madness. Besides, though by acting we can feign sickness when we are well, we cannot feign actual pallor. You know well both my pallor and my weariness; and so I fear you are making sport of my disease by that Socratic diversion called 'irony,' in which even Socrates must yield the palm to you."

This letter is a convincing proof of the genuineness of Petrarch's love, but it is again noteworthy that even in this self-defense he did not design to reveal the identity of the actual Laura. As the result of Petrarch's silence concerning the real circumstances of Laura's life there arose soon and frew and flourished throughout the centuries almost to the present a Laura-Legend which was an interesting composite of romantic and fanciful imagination, pseudo-scholarly research, and half-truth. It would lead into too many bypaths to follow the story of this legend. May it suffice to say that according to modern scholarship it seems likely that the "historical" Laura was the daughter of a Provençal nobleman, Audibert de Noves, that she was married to Hugues de Sade, and that Petrarch probably met her for the first time about two years after her marriage.

That the object of Petrarch's love was a married woman and the mother of several children was a hypothesis that ran contrary to the popular and sentimental romanticization of the two lovers and their relationship, and for that reason this thesis was long and bitterly contested. But actually the "real" Laura does not matter at all. For whatever the facts of her life might have been, they do not provide us with any "background" for a better understanding of the collection of the Rime in the form in which Petrarch wanted them to endure. If he had not burnt many of his earlier poems, as he did according to his own statement, the picture would perhaps be quite different. But his final collection does not present a narrative pattern or sequence, and all attempts have completely failed to crystallize an account of a romance out of the Rime.

Everything the more curious need know for the understanding of the nature of Petrarch's relationship with Laura, he himself has told in the self-analysis of his book called the Secretum, which he composed in the form of a dialogue between himself and St. Augustine as his father confessor. He started writing this work in 1342 while Laura was still alive and finished it a few years after her death. Therein he states: "Whatever little I am, I have become through her. For if I possess any name and fame at all, I should never have obtained them unless she had cared with her most noble affection for the sparse seeds of virtues planted in my bosom by Nature." Laura's mind, Petrarch says, "does not know earthly cares but burns with heavenly desires. Her appearance truly radiates beams of divine beauty. Her morals are an example of perfect uprightness. Neither her voice nor the force of her eyes nor her gait are those of an ordinary human being." Petrarch asserts emphatically that he had "always loved her soul more than her body," though he has to admit that, under the compulsion of love and youth, "occasionally I wished something dishonourable."

But the purity of the relationship was saved by Laura, for "not moved by any entreaties nor conquered by any flatteries, she protected her womanly honour and remained impregnable and firm in spite of her youth and mine and in spite of many and various other things which ought to have bowed the spirit of even the most adamant. This strength of character of the woman recalled seemly conduct to the mind of the man. The model of her excellence stood before me so that in my own strife for chastity I lacked neither her example nor her reproach. And when finally she saw me break the bridle and fall (this is obviously a reference to a love affair with another woman), she left me rather than follow my course."

Eventually Petrarch succeeded in conquering himself, for in the dialogue he assures St. Augustine: "Now I know what I want and wish, and my unstable mind has become firm. She, on her part, has always been steadfast and has always stayed one and the same. The better I understand her womanly constancy, the more I admire it. If once I was grieved by her unyielding resolution, I am now full of joy over it and thankful." It was for spiritual reasons that Petrarch felt a sense of profound gratitude towards Laura, as he makes clear both in the Secretum and in the moving lines of thanksgiving in one of his later sonnets:

"I thank her soul and her holy device
That with her face and her sweet anger's
Bid me in burning think of my salvation."
(Rime No. 289)

The autobiographical account in the Secretum provides the most valuable clue to the right understanding of Petrarch's conception of Laura's image and his relationship with her, as they are reflected in the Rime. For a clear comprehension of the passages quoted it should be remembered that they do not represent simply a personal record but are set forth in the solemn form of an imaginary dialogue with Petrarch's spiritual guide and conscience, St. Augustine. In this dialogue, which has an almost confessional character, Petrarch naturally felt bound to reveal himself fully and frankly, even if this meant his candid admission of aberrations from the right path of acting and feeling. It is purely incidental that he has satisfied our curiosity about certain external details of his relationship with Laura.

On the other hand, it is most significant that he depicted this relationship as one in which were linked together two beings who belonged to two entirely different spheres and therefore acted in an entirely different fashion. Whereas he himself was an ordinary human being with all of man's passions and desires, Laura was above earthly cares and burnt solely with heavenly desires. Whereas his own personality and sentiments underwent many radical changes, she remained always one and the same. The climax of this love was reached when Petrarch, inspired by the example of Laura's perfection, masters himself and his desires and begins, under her guidance, to strive for the salvation of his soul.

What Petrarch has recounted in the prose of his Secretum as his personal confession to St. Augustine, he has expressed in the lyrics of his Rime to all.

"… who hear in scattered rhymes the
Of that wailing with which I fed my heart."
(Rime No. 1)

For in the Rime he gives us the rapture of love in which there is only one subject, the man, who alone speaks and feels, acts and changes, while the woman is but the mute and passive object of this love, an ideal and therefore immutable being.

This ideal object of his love was, however, not imaginary or fictitious. As if to refute any doubt as to the existence of a "real" Laura, Petrarch makes repeatedly very specific chronological statements in the Rime themselves concerning the dates of his first meeting with Laura and of her death. Petrarch obviously had very good reasons for such an inclusion of dates into his verse, for his musical ear must have protested against these attempts at fitting bare figures into a rigid metre.

In other ways, too, Petrarch tries to assure his readers of Laura's reality. He describes her appearance, her golden hair and her fair eyes, or he pictures her in the beauty of nature, "walking on the green grass, pressing the flowers like a living girl." But all these descriptions are rather limited in range, for her beauty and charm are beyond the power of the poet's pen, as he himself confesses:

"… I still seem to pass
Over your beauty in my rhyme …
But the burden I find crushes my frame
The work cannot be polished by my file.
And my talent which knows its strength and
In this attempt becomes frozen and lame."
(Rime No. 20)

Petrarch is aware that he will be criticized for his endeavour to enshrine her above others in his song and that the temper of his praise will be considered false, but he cannot accept such criticism. For he knows that no matter what he says he will never be able to express his thoughts in verse as well as he feels them enclosed in his breast (Rime No. 95).

Eventually Laura assumes an ideal nature such as is disclosed in one of the sonnets in words which are almost identical with the quoted passage from the Secretum:

"In what part of the sky, in what idea
Was the example from which Nature
That charming lovely face wherein she
To show her power in the upper sphere?"
(Rime No. 159)

This conception of Laura as the sublime ideal, expressed in terms strongly reminiscent of Platonic thought, shows most clearly the transformation which the picture of the "real" Laura had undergone in the poet's mind: she has become the image of the concept of the beautiful, and we might add from the reading of other poems in the Rime, the embodiment, too, of good and the right. The ultimate transfiguration of Laura is attained in one of the later sonnets where his

"… inner eye
Sees her soar up and with the angels fly
At the feet of our own eternal Lord."
(Rime No. 345)

While Laura is thus elevated into "the upper sphere," Petrarch himself remains earthbound. The object of his love is an ideal, but his feelings for his beloved are human. From the time when, at the age of twenty-three, he met Laura first in the church in Avignon, to her death twenty-one years later, and from that time to his own death, this was the focusing passion of his life:

"I have never been weary of this love,
My lady, nor shall be while last my years."
(Rime No. 82)

Petrarch runs the whole gamut of emotions and passions of a lover, from the highest elation to the deepest despair. In this full scale only one note is missing which in ordinary love would naturally mark the supreme moment: the exaltation of physical consummation. That the love for Laura, by its very nature, was denied fulfillment in the common sense, has to be understood as the mode to which the whole tone of Petrarch's sonnets and songs is pitched. For above all the Rime sing of the sad and woeful beauty of love, of the longing for the unattainable, of the rebellion against denial, of the inward laceration of the lover and of his melancholic resignation. In the Rime all these moods of a lover have found their timeless representation. And the very fact that the figure of Laura is so idealized has made it possible for many readers of these sonnets and songs to see in the image of Laura the picture of their own beloved and to hear in the verse of the poet the expression of their own thoughts and the echoes of their own love.

While in the exalted conception of his beloved Petrarch was still bound by the tradition of the love poetry of the Provençal troubadours and the Italian poets of the "dolce stil novo," in the representation of himself and of his own humanity he was guided by a very different source of inspiration, the model of Latin poetry of classical times. There is hardly one poem in the Rime which does not show more or less definite traces of this influence as to form and content, figures of speech and comparisons, symbols and allegories. Petrarch went wholeheartedly (and with full consciousness of his debt) to school to the great Roman poets. And what he learned there he absorbed so completely that even in imitating he succeeded for the most part in creating something new. The splendour and richness of the Rime were to a large extent based on his lifelong devotion to the scholarly study of antiquity. Thus the accomplishments of Petrarch the sonneteer presuppose the research of Petrarch the humanist.

Petrarch once strikingly compares himself to the statue of Janus: like the double-faced Roman god he feels himself to be looking both backward and forward. This, his own comparison, characterizes well Petrarch's personal outlook on life. For often and with profound yearning he looked back to the glory of ancient Rome and drew from its grandeur the deepest inspiration for his work. He regarded the whole epoch of a thousand years, extending from the fall of the Roman Empire to his own days, as a period of "darkness." But throughout his life he hoped that the "revival" of the past would put an end to the process of decline and would usher in a new and better era. This ardent hope for the future Petrarch has voiced in the canzone "Italia mia" and in many other pieces, but nowhere more impressively than in that work which he himself considered as his greatest, the Africa. At the very end of this epic he addresses his own poem as follows: "My fate is to live amid varied and confusing storms. But for you perhaps, if, as I hope and wish, you will live long after me, there will follow a better age. This sleep of forgetfulness will not last forever. When the darkness has been dispersed, our descendants can come again in the former pure radiance."

Posterity may accept Petrarch's own judgment and may agree that the figure of Janus truly symbolizes his position in history. His outlook on the world indeed included views of two different ages. Yet to posterity his choice of the image of Janus might seem a simplification. He had, it would seem, more than the two aspects of the Roman god. Witness one of the most famous incidents in his life, the ascent of Mont Ventoux near Vaucluse, which he undertook in 1336, at the age of thirty-two. In a letter written under the immediate impression of this experience Petrarch relates how he decided to climb this mountain, "induced by the sole desire of seeing the remarkable height of the place." As a student of classical authors he knows of similar undertakings in antiquity and thus, in imitation of an ancient model, he does what no man during the Middle Ages had done, he scales a mountain with the sole motive of satisfying his curiosity. He describes in great detail the difficulties which he and his brother, his only companion, found on their way. Despite the warnings which the pair received from an old shepherd, they continue their strenuous ascent and finally reach the summit. What Petrarch sees and feels on that momentous occasion, he endeavours to express in the following sentences: "First of all, braced by the nip of the keen air and the extent of the view, I stood as dazed. I looked back; the clouds were beneath my feet. And now the stories of Athos and Olympus seem less incredible to me, as I behold on a mountain of lesser fame what I had heard and read of them. I turn my eye's glance in the direction of Italy, whither my heart most inclines.… I confess I sighed for the skies of Italy, which I looked upon with my mind rather than with my eyes, and an irrepressible longing seized me to behold my friend and my country."

But while he was thus gazing at the beauty of the panorama of the Alps, "a new thought" suddenly possessed him which drew him from the sight of the external world towards a consideration of himself and his past life. He thinks of Laura, saying: "What I used to love, I love no longer—nay, I lie, I do love, but with more restraint, more moderately, more regretfully." He continues: "While I marveled at these things in turn, now recognizing some earthly object, now lifting my soul upwards as my body had been, I thought of looking at the book of Augustine's Confessions … which I always have with me. I opened the little volume, of handy size but of infinite charm, in order to read whatever met my eye.… I call God to witness, and my listener too, that these were the words on which my eyes fell: 'Men go abroad to admire the heights of mountains, and the mighty billows, and the long-winding courses of rivers, the compass of the ocean, and the courses of the stars—and themselves they neglect.' I confess I was amazed; and begging my brother, who was eager to hear more, not to trouble me, I closed the book, indignant with myself that at that very moment I was admiring earthly things—I, who ought to have learnt long ago from even heathen philosophers that there is nothing admirable but the soul—in itself so great that nothing can be great beside it. Then, indeed, content with what I had seen from the mountain, I turned my eyes inward upon myself, and from that moment none heard me say a word till we reached the bottom."

By this narrative of the ascent of Mont Ventoux Petrarch revealed himself in the whole complexity of his personality and in the diversity of his thoughts, feelings, and interests. He was the man of a new age who set out to discover the beauty of the world and relive an experience forgotten for long centuries. He was the humanist who wanted not merely to devote himself to an antiquarian study of the arts and letters, the history and philosophy of Roman days, but who desired to revive the past in the present and for the future by re-enacting what the ancients had done. He was the Italian patriot whose inner eye beheld the unity and splendour of his native country. He was the lover of Laura who was still torn in his human feelings but was beginning to conquer himself. Yet at the end he found himself bound by the traditions of medieval Christianity in which he had been brought up and which he always revered in the person and work of his great guide, St. Augustine. Thus at the culminating point of his new experience Petrarch closed his eyes to the external world and turned to the spiritual problems of his soul.

All these manifold facets of Petrarch, which the account of his impressions on the peak of Mont Ventoux illumines in a most dramatic fashion, have found their expression in the Rime. The essential nature remains, but the colours are much more variegated and the pattern as a whole is infinitely richer. Only the most striking parallel may be pointed out. As the story of the mountain climbing ends with spiritual reflections stimulated by the reading of St. Augustine's Confessions, so the collection of love poetry concludes with a devout prayer to the Virgin Mary:

"Recommend me to your Son, to the real
Man and the real God,
That Heaven's nod be my ghost's peaceful

Petrarch lived in an era which in the history of western civilization marks the beginning of the turn from the medieval to the modern age. Petrarch's personal views and his literary work reflect fully the transitional character of his period. For if there are characteristic medieval features to be found in Petrarch, there are also just as many traits which point to a venture into a world of new ideas. Thus the English biographer of Petrarch, Edward H. R. Tatham, rightly names him "the first modern man of letters." It is Petrarch's interest in man and in the problems of human nature that makes him "modern" and differentiates him from medieval writers. All of Petrarch's works, whether they were written in verse or in prose, in Italian or in Latin, have as their main theme the spiritual and intellectual, the emotional and artistic aspects of man's life.

But Petrarch was not only concerned with "man" in general, but was also deeply engrossed in the phenomenon of man as an individual being, as he saw him in the history of the past or as a living actor on the contemporary stage. And above all Petrarch was interested in himself and in the phenomenon of his own individuality.

"In the Middle Ages," writes Jakob Burckhardt, "both sides of human consciousness—that which was turned within as that which was turned without—lay dreaming or half awake beneath a common veil. This veil was woven of faith, illusion, and childish prepossession through which the world and history were seen clad in a strange hue." Petrarch was among the first to tear this veil away by striving for a full understanding of his own individuality through continuous self-analysis and selfportrayal, as illustrated by the "Letter to Posterity" or the Secretum or, above all, the Rime. In this sense Petrarch may be called the founder of modern humanism.


  1. I should like to thank my friend George W. Freiday, Jr., for his many valuable suggestions and for his constructive criticism.

    The quotations from the "Letter to Posterity" and the letter describing Petrarch's ascension of Mont Ventoux are from the translations by Edward H. R. Tatham in Francesco Petrarca. The First Modern Man of Letters; His Life and Correspondence (1304-1347). 2 vols. 1925/26. The Sheldon Press, London.

  2. [See Theodor E. Mommsen, "The Date of Petrarch's Canzone Italia Mia" Speculum, XIV (1939), 28-37. Mommsen argues that "Italia mia" was certainly composed "before the year 1347" and probably composed in the years 1341-1342, in the months following Petrarch's coronation as poet laureate on April 8, 1341.]

Thomas P. Roche, Jr. (essay date 1974)

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Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 6838

SOURCE: Thomas P. Roche, Jr., "The Calendrical Structure of Petrarch's Canzoniere" in Studies in Philology, Vol. LXXI, No. 2, April, 1974, pp. 152-72.

[In the essay below, Roche argues that Petrarch consciously utilized Renaissance concepts of numerology in the structuring of the Canzoniere.]

The purpose of this essay is to argue that the ordering of the three hundred and sixty-six poems in Petrarch's Canzoniere is numerologically oriented and that one of the main structures in this ordering is a calendrical framework that places the Canzoniere unequivocally in the context of fourteenth-century Christian morality. Without even referring to recent studies about numerological composition in English poetry of the Renaissance or to the overwhelming evidence of Biblical commentaries from earliest times through the seventeenth century,1 we have the figure of Dante, whose numerological structuring of La Vita Nuova and La Divina Commedia has never been called into question. Behind Dante are the Platonic and Pythagorean theories of the mathematical basis of the universe. From the time of Plato's Timaeus and later of Boethius' Arithmetic (both works used as text books throughout the Middle Ages and the Renaissance) men learned that God had created the world in number, weight, and measure, and these philosophical texts for the Christian reader merely corroborated the evidence from the Book of Wisdom: "Omnia in mensura et numero et pondere disposuisti" (Liber Sapientiae, XI: 21). By incorporating numerical proportions into his poems, a poet would be eliciting relations already existent in the world and thereby enhancing his poem and making it more "real."

In such a world Petrarch clearly saw beyond mere coincidence when he insists that his first sight of Laura was the same hour and day and month as that of her death:

Laurea, illustrious for her own virtues and long celebrated in my poems, first appeared to my eyes about the time of my early manhood (sub primum adolescentie mee tempus) in the year of the Lord 1327 on the sixth day of the month of April, in the church of St. Clare in Avignon, in the morning (hora matutina); and in the same city, in the same month of April, on the same sixth day, at the same first hour, in the year 1348, her light was withdrawn from this light, when I by chance was then at Verona, alas, unaware of my fate. Moreover, the unhappy news reached me through a letter of my Ludovico in the same year, in the month of May, the nineteenth day early. That most chaste and most beautiful body was placed in the church of the Franciscans on the very day of her death at vespers.…2

In a world governed by number, one might well begin to believe that a conspiratorial Providence had been numbering her days. I do not want my last punning remark to be taken too lightly, for there is evidence that this kind of numbering of days was familiar to Petrarch. He writes about his grandfather, Ser Garzo, who predicted the hour of his death and having reached the ripe age of one hundred four, when the predicted hour came, lay down quoting the Psalmist: "I will lay me down in peace and sleep" and died. Also Petrarch's earliest surviving poem, written when he was fourteen or fifteen, is thirty-eight Latin hexameters on the death of his mother. She was thirty-eight years old.

I do not want to stress these more lugubrious aspects of numerology, but we have grown away from the belief in Providence and the patterning of human life so far and in so many ways that we can hardly think ourselves into a time when men believed in a God of Love, Who promised that good would eventually emerge from evil, Who proved His Providence in the book of His Revelation and in the trials of His Chosen People, and from Whom the living would expect no less. A man could derive emotional comfort from the power of number to rationalize loss or to memorialize the departed creature through the very same power used by God to create in number, weight, and measure.

For the reasons just indicated and for others that I will develop later I cannot accept the late Professor Wilkins' assumptions about the structuring of the Canzoniere:

Miss Phelps has shown that within each of the two parts [of the Canzoniere] the poems are as a whole arranged with great artistic care upon three principles: (1) the maintenance of a generally but not strictly chronological order; (2) the securing of variety in form; and (3) the securing of variety in content. In accordance with the second and third principles, for instance, canzoni are so placed as to prevent the existence of long series of sonnets, and political poems are so placed as to prevent the existence of long series of love poems.3

I do not find these assumptions convincing as aesthetic principles. Like the outmoded theory of "comic relief" in Renaissance tragedy they do not take into account the extraordinary intellectual analogies that exist between the various poetic forms and topics that constitute the completed Canzoniere, and they fail to see the real and valid relation between the love poems and the political poems.4 Even more to the point, these assumptions do not begin to probe the complexity of Petrarch's innovation, discussed by Wilkins later in his book:

Of the 366 poems of the Canzoniere, 29 are canzoni, nine are sestine, seven are ballate, four are madrigali, and 317 are sonnets. In the Canzoniere these forms are not kept separate, but are so mingled as to afford a pleasing variety. In view of the consistent practice of the separation of canzoni and sonnets in MS collections of pre-Petrarchan lyrics, Petrarch's procedure in mingling canzoni and sonnets is clearly seen to constitute a notable poetic innovation.5

Wilkins' magisterial studies of the Canzoniere, for which I have nothing but admiration, are primarily genetic; they quite rightly emphasize the "making" of the sequence and of necessity do not concern themselves with the completed work. Without denying the validity of Wilkins' researches (in fact, using them to test the validity of my own assumptions) I want to examine the evidence of structural patterns in the Canzoniere to see what they tell us about the meaning of the sequence and about Petrarch's innovation of mingling canzoni and sonnets.

Let us take the simple example of the four madrigali, all occurring in the first part of the sequence. They are numbers 52, 54, 106 and 121. We know that 121 (Or vedi, Amor) was a late addition in Petrarch's manuscript and that it replaced the ten line ballata Donna mi vene, which appeared in most of the early manuscripts and even some of the early printed texts.6 Is it mere coincidence and even some printed of the early of that the number the first two (52 and 54) add up to the number of the third (106) and that canzone 53 contains 106 lines? Perhaps. But if we look at the alternation of forms in the two segments 38-54 and 105-121, we may see a reason why Petrarch replaced the ballata with that fourth madrigale.

38-49 12 sonnets 105 1 canzone
50 1 canzone 106 1 madrigale
51 1 sonnet 107-118 12 sonnets
52 1 madrigale 119 1 canzone
53 1 canzone 120 1 sonnet
54 1 madrigale 121 1 madrigale

The formal pattern of 38-49 is repeated in 107-118, and the admittedly short pattern of 53-54 is repeated in 105-106, the two patterns being reversed. The facts that these two segments form a pattern embracing all four madrigali and that the groups of twelve sonnets are the only two in the Canzoniere suggest that the pattern I am describing may have been intentional. It would seem all the more likely in that 55-63 is another formal pattern of ballate and sonnets.

55 1 ballata
56-58 3 sonnets
59 1 ballata
60-62 3 sonnets
63 1 ballata

My suggestion about the pattern of the madrigali becomes even more probable if we consider the integration of that pattern with the grouping of the first seventeen canzoni. Only five times in the entire sequence does Petrarch group canzoni together: 28-29, 70-73, 125-129, 206-207, 359-360. The first three groups are respectively two, four, and five canzoni. If we consider the placement of the first seventeen canzoni, we will almost see the simple process of adding one more canzone to each succeeding group.

Canzone 1 23 1
Canzoni 2-3 28-29 2
Canzoni 7-10 70-73 4
Canzoni 13-17 125-129 5

The pattern is broken by canzoni 4-6 (37, 50, 53) and canzoni 11-12 (105-119), all but one of which is part of the pattern of the madrigali, but we should note that the missing group of three canzoni is in fact supplied by 37, 50, and 53, which cannot be grouped together if the madrigali pattern is to be maintained. The same line of reasoning will explain the apparent intrusion of canzoni 11 and 12 (105 and 119) into the simple additive grouping of canzoni. It should also be pointed out that the largest group of canzoni (125-129) is followed by the one hundredth sonnet, a fact that Petrarch himself noted in his manuscript.7

Structural symmetries are not the only use made of numerological composition. The first canzone in the sequence is number 23. The first canzone of Part II is number 264, and it is the twenty-first canzone of the sequence. Are we to ignore the facts that Petrarch was 23 when he first saw Laura and that she died 21 years later after he first fell in love with her? I think not, but I do not want to argue at this point about the meaning to attach to this numerological order or about the difficulties arising from the fact that 264 was probably written before Laura's death in 1348. I simply want to suggest the probability of a more patterned structure in the completed sequence.

And we need not confine ourselves to merely formal patterns; verbal repetitions also help to define the structure. The first poem in Part II and the last sonnet have remarkably similar first lines that are meant to recall each other:

I' vo pensando, e nel penser m'assale (264)
I' vo piangendo i miei passati tempi (365)

A more complicated verbal structuring occurs in the segment 70-81.

70-73 4 canzoni
74-79 6 sonnets
80 1 sestina
81-104 24 sonnets

The group of four canzoni, as I have already mentioned, is the second longest grouping of canzoni in the sequence. Number 70, which is also the seventh canzone, is a poem of five ten-line stanzas, the last line of each being the first line from poems by Arnaut Daniel, Guido Cavalcanti, Dante, Cino da Pistoia, with the exception of the last stanza where Petrarch quotes the first line of his own 23, the first canzone in the sequence. Numbers 71-73 are the justly famed "Tre Sorelle" canzoni, so called from the comiato of 72:

Canzon, I'una sorella è poco inanzi,
E l'altra sento in quel medesmo albergo
Apparechiarsi; ond'io piú carta vergo.

Each of these poems has the same stanza and rhyme scheme. The underlined words in the comiato of 73 are picked up and used as the first line of 74, the first of that six sonnet segment:

Canzone, i'sento gia stancar la penna
Del lungo e dolce ragionar co llei,
Ma non di parlar meco i pensier mei. (73)

Io son giá stanco de pensar si come
I miei pensier in voi stanchi non sono.…

Virtually the same line is picked up once more as the first line of the very next block of sonnets: "Io son sí stanco sotto 'I fascio antico …" (81).

There are many more isolated instances of formal structuring in the Canzoniere, but I do not want to discuss them before establishing the basic calendrical structure. Suffice it to say that my proof of this structure will be based on just such formal considerations as we have been discussing.

It is well known that the Canzoniere consists of 366 poems, divided into two parts, poems 1-263, called In vita di Laura, and poems 264-366, called In morte di Laura, since they deal with the time after her death. Furthermore, there can be no question that Petrarch wanted the major division of the Canzoniere to occur at 264.8 Both the evidence from MS 3195 and Wilkins' definitive studies of the accretions to both parts of the sequence (see chart in Wilkins, Making, p. 194) prove that Petrarch had this division in mind as early as 1347.9 Nevertheless, there is a genuine problem here since the division, presumably to mark the death of Laura, occurred at least one year before her death. Wilkins summary of the problem is worth quoting in full:

Those who have been troubled by the division have thought of it from the point of view of the reader rather than from the point of view of the creating poet; and have assumed that the division was made after Petrarch knew of the death of Laura. And indeed, if the division had been made after Petrarch had that knowledge, his decision to begin Part II with 264 rather than with 267 [first poem to announce the death] would have been extraordinary. But this consideration in itself suffices to indicate that the decision to begin Part II with 264 was made before Petrarch knew of the death of Laura. If this fact is realized, the making of the division at this point is no longer difficult to understand. 264 is—as it has been called in a previous section of this chapter—a very great and distinctive canzone, expressive of the fundamental conflict in Petrarch's inner life and of a desired reorientation. The canzone was probably written in 1347; it is highly probable that it was Petrarch's intense experience in the writing of this poem that led him, during the composition of the poem or very soon afterward, to decide to use it to mark a major division in the Canzoniere. In any case, the decision, once made, was too firmly fixed in Petrarch's mind to be altered even by the death of Laura.10

This seems to me an astonishing conclusion. A man who spends a lifetime memorializing the life and death of a woman in poetry, who divides his sequence in vita and in morte, does not ignore one of the two major events of that lifetime in favor of one poem, no matter how intense the experience of writing it, unless there is some poetic priority. The implications of Wilkins' final statement diminish the importance of Laura both for Petrarch's life and for his poetry in ways that cannot be supported either by the text or by his prose statements.

Petrarch insists again and again that he first saw Laura on the sixth of April 1327 and that she died on the sixth of April 1348. We have already quoted the memorial inscription in his copy of Virgil, and he is no less insistent in the Canzoniere:

Mille trecento ventisette, apunto
Su l'ora prima, il dí sesto d'aprile
Nel laberinto intrai; né veggio ond'èsca.

And again,

Sai che 'n mille trecento quarantotto,
Il dí sesto d'aprile, in l'ora prima,
Del corpo uscío quell'anima beata.

There is no reason to dispute Petrarch's facts, although the remarkable coincidence of his first sight of her and of her death need not even be true historically. The dates are part of the meaning of the myth he created for himself. On the basis of evidence from the 1336 letter to Giacomo Colonna, from the third book of the Secretum, from the Letter to Posterity, from the memorial inscription in his Virgil, one can say with certainty that Petrarch is telling us that he fell in love with a woman.12 We can date the occurrence and place it, but we can say very little more. Who is she? What was her name? What was her situation? Questions of this sort we cannot answer from life records, and this has driven critics to the fiction of the Canzoniere to find out the facts, with the result that those supremely metaphorical poems have been squeezed and drained of their vitality to produce biographical fact. This will not work; this is not proof. Laura has a reality that comes from Petrarch's statements and from the poems, but this reality does not require the actuality of existence to make it real. If one is a Christian, one does not have to see the actual Jerusalem to know what the real Jerusalem is. That city has been built aere perennius in the minds of generations of men through words that defy actuality and the temporal and posit a reality undisturbed by actuality because essential. Laura may have existed. Laura may not have existed. Neither one of these possibilities will affect the reality of the myth that Petrarch created. In the passages refered to above, Petrarch seems to indicate the actual existence of Laura, but this actual existence is always subsumed into the greater myth of fourteenth century Christianity, as is evident in the conclusion of the memorial in his Virgil:

But her soul has, I am persuaded, returned to the heaven whence it came, as Seneca says of Scipio Africanus. As a memorial, afflicting yet mixed with a certain bitter sweetness, I have decided to make this record in this place of all places, which often falls under my eyes, that I may reflect that there can be no more pleasure for me in this life, and that, now that the chief bond is broken, I may be warned by frequently looking at these words that it is time to flee from Babylon. This, by God's grace, will be easy for me when I think courageously and manfully of the past's vain concerns and empty hopes and unexpected outcomes.13

If Petrarch could accommodate his love and his loss to this Augustinian Christian view, then we too as critics should be able to do as much.

Nevertheless, underlying most of the discussions of the problem of the division of the Canzoniere are the assumptions that Laura actually existed and that she actually died on the sixth of April 1348, and these assumptions force the critics to consider the division at 264 as a real problem. If one is starkly logical about the problem, either Laura existed as a woman or she is a symbolic fiction, either the 1327-1348 dates are real, or one or both of them are fictions. If Laura and the dates are real, then there is an indecorum in not starting Part II with 267 because the structure of the sequence does not follow the facts. If, on the other hand, Laura and the dates are fictions, then the indecorum is reduced to a mere bumbling ineptitude in naming the two parts, because Petrarch could have changed at will the dictates of his fictive world. Neither one of these explanations is satisfactory—nor even binding on the poems.

A third possibility exists: Laura was an actual woman, and Petrarch is writing fiction about her. If we now make the assumption that this fiction depended on a plan for ordering the poems, we will escape the problem that Wilkins' genetic approach imposes on him. What could be so "firmly fixed" in Petrarch's mind except some plan, some intellectual program, that would encompass the events of his experience? Let us start with the assumption that Petrarch did have such a plan when he began the Canzoniere, that this plan became fixed when in 1347 he decided that 264 would begin the second part, that this plan could accommodate even the unexpected death of Laura, and that this plan found its completion in the writing of MS 3195 over the next twenty-six years. This plan, I am suggesting, is the use of a calendrical structure to order the poems, and it is evident only in the completed MS 3195.

If we return now to Petrarch's insistence that he first saw Laura on the sixth of April 1327, we find another instance where a strictly biographical approach to the poems lands us in difficulty. On the evidence of poem 3 (Era il giorno) commentators connect this sixth of April date with Good Friday, but then quickly accuse Petrarch of inaccuracy because the sixth of April 1327 was the Monday of Holy Week and not Good Friday. Nonetheless, we need doubt neither Petrarch's memory nor his calendar. As Carlo Calcaterra has brilliantly shown, Petrarch was not speaking of the annual liturgical celebration of Christ's crucifixion, he was speaking in terms of absolute time, and his scholarly sources told him that Christ was actually crucified on the sixth of April.14 If the April sixth date of Petrarch's first sight of Laura actually occurred, a man of Petrarch's learning could not have avoided relating this date to other occurrences on the feria sexta. According to some traditions, as Calcaterra has shown, on the sixth day man was created, and on the sixth he fell, and on the sixth Christ's death redeemed that fall.15 Petrarch would have us believe that this same sixth of April was equally important in his life: on the sixth of April 1327 he first saw Laura; on the sixth of April 1338 he first was inspired to write the Africa;16 on the sixth of April 1348 Laura died.

The implications of all these sixes leads me to discuss one more April sixth, which I feel is of equal importance to our reading of the Canzoniere as the 1327 and 1348 dates. Good Friday fell on the sixth of April only four times during the fourteenth century—1319, 1330, 1341, and 1352. The third of these—1341—is a most important part of the myth Petrarch was constructing for himself.

On the morning of the first day of September 1340 Petrarch received from the Roman Senate an invitation to be crowned laureate, and on the afternoon of that very same day he received another such invitation from the chancellor of the University of Paris.17 He chose Rome and asked for the sponsorship of King Robert of Naples, for which purpose he travelled to Naples, reaching there sometime in February 1341. Petrarch was duly examined by King Robert as to his eligibility for this honor and satisfied the requirements. King Robert wanted the ceremony to be performed at Naples, but Petrarch requested that his coronation take place in the Senatorial Palace on the Capitoline in Rome. The request was granted, and armed with a "robe of honor" from King Robert, Petrarch set out for Rome, arriving there probably on the sixth of April. On Easter Sunday, the eighth of April 1341, Petrarch received the triple crown of poeta laureatus from the hands of Orso dell'Anguillara and after the ceremony proceeded to St. Peter's where he placed his crown on the altar.18

We do not know whether Petrarch chose this precise date, but it is entirely possible that he was most particular about this most spectacular event in his life. Not since antiquity had a poet been crowned in Rome, and only two other laureations had occurred anywhere since antiquity.19 Could Petrarch not have seen some relation among all these April sixth dates, each one of which was a turning point in his life? At any rate that is the assumption I shall make, and it is an assumption that has profound implications for our understanding of the structure of the Canzoniere.

We are now in a position to discuss the calendrical structure of the Canzoniere, and my hypothesis will, among other things, offer a better reason for Petrarch's dividing the sequence at 264 and will place the whole sequence in that Christian context, without which the poems can only be poorly understood. The hypothesis is quite simple: if we number each poem with a day of the year, beginning with the sixth of April, we will find that when we reach 264 we have also reached the twenty-fifth of December, Christmas Day. In short, I am suggesting that the division of the Canzoniere is based on two of the three most important events in the Christian calendar. Part I, dealing with the inception and growth of his love, begins with the death of Christ; Part II, dealing with the death of his love, begins with the birth of Christ.20

Instead of seeing Petrarch's grieving love as a kind of formalized autobiography, a reading of the sequence fiercely refuted by the Secretum, one might better view it as part and parcel of a fourteenth-century Christian outlook. There is an esthetic distance between Petrarch the lover and Petrarch the poet. It seems to me that Petrarch the poet is saying that he has conceived a passion for Laura that is essentially selfish, that is not the vera amicitia of the philosophers, as at least one of the early commentators agrees.21 Petrarch indulges his longings without success, until he learns that Laura has died, when—deprived of the physical object of his desires—he learns to love her truly for her virtues by the end of the sequence. It is thoroughly medieval: subtly intellectualized and probing deep into the nature of man's desires, whether these be for a woman or for glory. The burden of the third book of the Secretum, to which Petrarch gives assent, is that he is still bound by the two golden chains of love and glory, which keep him from the proper love of God, and this subject, it will be recalled, is the major subject of poem 264. The inception of his love on the day that Christ died counterpoints the old Augustinian distinction between caritas and cupiditas, a point made over and over again by the early commentators.22 Beginning Part II of the sequence on the anniversary of the birth of Christ proclaims as well the possibility of rejuvenation and a truer understanding of both earthly and heavenly love. Petrarch did not have to change his plan for the division of his sequence when Laura's death occurred in 1348 because her death simply enriched the metaphorical significance of the basic opposition of caritas and cupiditas: death of Christ—birth of love for Laura; birth of Christ—death of Laura. And that is why Petrarch did not alter his decision to begin Part II with 264.

To test my hypothesis about the Good Friday-Christmas dating of 1 and 264, let us consider other times of the Church year as possible structural devices. This can best be done by considering the placement of nonsonnets in the sequence (i.e., canzoni, sestine, ballate, and madrigali). There are eleven nonsonnets in Part II, and they are by my calculations associated with the following dates:

264 Canzone 25 December
268 Canzone 29 December
270 Canzone 31 December
323 Canzone 22 February
324 Ballata 23 February
325 Canzone 24 February
331 Canzone 1 March
332 Sestina 2 March
359 Canzone 29 March
360 Canzone 30 March
366 Canzone 5 April

Let us begin with 270 since we have already made a case for 264; and 268 is clearly a meditation on the death of Laura announced in the preceding poem. Poem 271 begins a segment of 52 sonnets. The date I attach to 271 is January first, New Year's Day, and I would like to suggest that symbolically those 52 sonnets form a year of mourning. This block of sonnets, the second longest in the sequence, is followed by the three non-sonnets 323-325, another structural break introducing the last forty poems of the sequence. I cannot believe that it is mere coincidence that 326 is associated with 25 February, which was the date of Ash Wednesday in 1327. The last forty poems form a symbolical forty days of Lent, leading up to 366, that great hymn to the virgin, which is associated with 5 April, which in 1327 was Palm Sunday, the day of Christ's triumphal entry into Jerusalem.

Within that forty-poem segment there are two significant formal breaks: 331-332 and 359-360. Number 331 is associated with the first of March, an alternative beginning of the year, and it is followed by a sestina and 26 sonnets, or a half-year cycle matching the 52 sonnets from 271-322. Number 359 is associated with 29 March, which was Passion Sunday in 1327, the beginning of Passiontide.

Now it may be objected that I have not accounted for all the non-sonnets in Part II, as indeed I have not. The reasons for this neglect are two-fold. One, not all the formal breaks are to be explained by the calendrical form. Two, I have simplified the scheme I believe Petrarch was using. Thus far I have pointed out only those correspondences that would have occurred in 1327. But as I have suggested earlier, Petrarch had in mind at least two other years in which the sixth of April was important: 1342, the year of his coronation, and 1348, the year of Laura's death. These three years are counterpointed against one another to complicate the formal breaks in the sequence. In the following chart I will try to show how this counterpointing is sometimes significant and sometimes not.

Date Number Form 1327 1341 1348
21 Feb. 322 sonnet Ash
22 Feb. 323 canzone
23 Feb. 324 ballata
24 Feb. 325 canzone
25 Feb. 326 sonnet Ash
26 Feb. 327 sonnet
27 Feb. 328 sonnet
28 Feb. 329 sonnet
29 Feb. 330 sonnet
1 March 331 canzone New
2 March 332 sestina
3 March 333 sonnet
4 March 334 sonnet
5 March 335 sonnet Ash

It must first be pointed out that of the three years in question only 1348 was a leap year, a reason for the Canzoniere's having 366 poems rather than 365. It will be seen from the chart that the two Ash Wednesdays of 1327 and 1341 frame, as it were, the three non-sonnets 323-325. It will also be seen that the late Ash Wednesday of 1348 does not participate in the formal structure.

A similar use of the three years can be demonstrated in the first two formal breaks of the sequence.

Date Number Form 1327 1341 1348
6 April 1 sonnet Good
7 April 2 sonnet
8 April 3 sonnet Easter
9 April 4 sonnet
10 April 5 sonnet
11 April 6 sonnet
12 April 7 sonnet
13 April 8 sonnet
14 April 9 sonnet
15 April 10 sonnet Good
16 April 11 ballata
17 April 12 sonnet Easter
18 April 13 sonnet Good
19 April 14 ballata
20 April 15 sonnet Easter

No one has ever advanced a reason for Petrarch's making 11 and 14 ballate, but it would not be out of the question to suppose that there is a change in form at these points to call attention to the occurrences of Good Friday and Easter in 1327 and 1348, dates which frame the ballate as the two Ash Wednesdays framed 323-325.

Another use of the liturgical calendar is Advent, the little Lent, the season of preparation for Christmas. Again, a chart will help.

Date Number Form 1327 1341 1348
27 Nov. 236 sonnet
28 Nov. 237 sestina
29 Nov. 238 sonnet Advent
30 Nov. 239 sestina Advent
1 Dec. 240 sonnet
2 Dec. 241 sonnet Advent
3 Dec. 242 sonnet

The two sestine frame the Advent of 1327, and the other two years, so close, are not used in the formal structure.

One final example may help to clarify the reasons why Petrarch sometimes uses more than one date and sometimes does not. We began our discussion of the formal structure of the Canzoniere with what I called the "simple example" of the madrigali pattern, 38-54 and 105-121, in which I tried to show that there was a formal symmetry that obtained between the two segments containing the four madrigali and also how this symmetry was integrated with the arrangement of the first seventeen canzoni. This pattern is, I believe, also integrated into the calendrical structure of the sequence for the feasts of the Ascension and Pentecost.

Date Number Form 1327 1341 1348
17 May 42 sonnet Ascension
18 May 43 sonnet
19 May 44 sonnet
20 May 45 sonnet
21 May 46 sonnet Ascension
22 May 47 sonnet
23 May 48 sonnet
24 May 49 sonnet
25 May 50 Canzone
26 May 51 sonnet
27 May 52 madrigale Pentecost
28 May 53 Canzone
29 May 54 madrigale Ascension
30 May 55 ballata
31 May 56 sonnet Pentecost
1 June 57 sonnet
2 June 58 sonnet
3 June 59 ballata
4 June 60 sonnet
5 June 61 sonnet
6 June 62 sonnet
7 June 63 ballata
8 June 64 sonnet Pentecost

It will be seen from the chart that 52-55, which is the longest group of non-sonnets of various forms in the sequence, begins with the Pentecost of 1341 and that the segment of three ballate separated by groups of three sonnets is signalized after the first and third ballate (56 and 64) by the Pentecosts of 1327 and 1348. The occurrence of the Ascension dates with 42 and 46 seems to me insignificant, although the coincidence of 54 with the Ascension of 1348 may have a significance of which I am still unaware. What is of importance in this segment is that it is the first time that there is some verbal hint about the correlation between the poem and the date. Poem 53, the canzone that comes between the first two madrigali, whose number of lines adds up to the total of the two surrounding numbers (52 and 54) and is matched by the number of the third madrigale (106), comes immediately after the poem associated with the Pentecost of 1341 and begins with a phrase never fully explained by the commentators, "Spirto gentil." What is this Spirit if not the Holy Spirit That rules the members of Christ's church on earth and tries to guide the restoration of the ancient seat of that church in Rome through the agency of Cola di Rienzo?23

Spirto gentil, che quelle membra reggi
dentro a le qua' peregrinando alberga
un signor valoroso, accorto et saggio,
poi che se' giunto a l'onorato verga
colla qual Roma et suoi erranti correggi
et la richiami al suo antiquo viaggio
io parlo a te, però ch'altrove un raggio
non veggio di vertú, ch'al mondo è spenta,
né trovo chi di mal far si vergogni.

In conclusion, one must say that the calendrical frame-work will not explain all the formal breaks in the sequence, nor will it assist (with the possible exception of 54) in the reading of individual poems. Nevertheless, it must be conceded that the probability of mere coincidence of poem and day is offset by the large number of parallels (approximately 85 percent of the non-sonnets) that adds a new dimension to our reading of the Canzoniere, and that this new dimension sets the Canzoniere firmly in the context of fourteenth-century Christian morality. The Good Friday-Christmas division of the Canzoniere sets up a pattern of parallels between the two parts. In Part I the two ballate (11 and 14) are meant to emphasize the Good Friday-Easter dates of 1327 and 1348. Part I ends with the two sestine (237 and 239) emphasizing the beginning of Advent followed by 24 sonnets in preparation for Christmas. In Part II 270 sets up the segment of 52 sonnets beginning on the first of January, which leads to the non-sonnet group 323-325, framed by the two counterpointed Ash Wednesdays of 1327 and 1341, which leads us into that symbolical Lent of the last forty poems, a parallel to the Advent segment of Part I. Thus the beginnings and the ends of each part would seem to be formally structured around four major events in the Christian year: Good Friday, Advent, Christmas, and Lent. Against this annual cycle Petrarch counterpoints the agony of his earthly love and his growing awareness of the disparity between it and the heavenly love he ultimately sought.


  1. See especially Alastair Fowler, Spenser and the Numbers of Time (London, 1964) and Triumphal Forms: Structural Patterns in Elizabethan Poetry (Cambridge, 1970); Silent Poetry: Essays in Numerological Analysis, ed. Alastair Fowler (London, 1970); Christopher Butler, Number Symbolism (London, 1970). For the earlier period see the admirable summary study of Edmund Reiss, "Number Symbolism and Medieval Literature," Medievalia et Humanistica, n.s. I (1970), 161-74.
  2. Inscription in Petrarch's Virgil now in the Ambrosiana in Milano. It is reprinted in Carducci and Ferrari, Le Rime (Firenze, 1899), p. 370: "Laurea, propriis virtutibus et meis longum celebrata carminibus, primum oculis meis apparuit sub primum adolescentie mee tempus, anno Domini M° IIJ° XXVIJ° die VJ° mensis aprilis, in ecclesia sancte Clare Avinoni, hora matutina; et in eadem civitate, eodem mense aprilis, eodem die sexto, eadem hora prima, anno autem M° IIJ° XLVIIJ°, ab hac luce lux illa subtracta est, cum ego forte tunc Verone essem, heu! fati mei nescius. Rumor autem infelix per litteras Ludovici mei me Parme repperit anno eodem, mense maio, die XIX° mane. Corpus illud castissimum ac pulcerrimum in loco Fratrum minorum repositum est ipso die mortis ad vesperas.…" A slightly different translation from mine appears in Morris Bishop, Petrarch and His World (Bloomington, 1963), p. 62.
  3. Ernest Hatch Wilkins, Life of Petrarch (Chicago, 1961), pp. 2, 5.
  4. Ernest Hatch Wilkins, The Making of the "Canzoniere" and Other Petrarchan Studies (Roma, 1951), p. 93, hereafter cited as Wilkins, Making. Ruth Shepard Phelps, The Earlier and Later Forms of Petrarch's Canzoniere (Chicago, 1925).
  5. See in particular Aldo S. Bernardo, Petrarch, Scipio, and the "Africa" (Baltimore, 1962), Chapter IV, "Scipio vs. Laura," pp. 47-71.
  6. Wilkins, Making, p. 266.
  7. Wilkins, Making, p. 120.
  8. The division of the Canzoniere at 264 is evident in Petrarch's manuscript, MS 3195, from the facts that (1) there are some blank sheets left between poem 263 and 264 and (2) only poem 1 and poem 264 have elaborate initials. We know further that Petrarch was consciously aware of placing poems in some order because he left some blank spaces in MS 3195, which were later filled in by a different hand and in a different ink. This system of transferring poems to specific places in MS 3195 is corroborated by another Vatican manuscript, MS 3196, entirely in Petrarch's hand, which was apparently one of his workbooks. In this manuscript he often makes a carefully dated notation that he has finally transcribed this poem in ordine in MS 3195. We know also that Petrarch was consciously aware of the placement of the various kinds of poems he included because he has placed a C opposite the one hundredth sonnet, a CL opposite the one hundred fiftieth, a CC opposite the two hundredth and so forth (for the misnumbering of later sonnets see Wilkins, Making, p. 122). One might also point out that 183, the midpoint of the entire sequence, is also the one hundred fiftieth sonnet. Or we could point to the regular occurrence of groups of six sonnets in conjunction with a sestina: 30 with 31-36, 74-79 with 80, 136-141 with 142 and 143-148, 208-213 with 214.
  9. One such small formal structuring appears even if we accept Wilkins' and Miss Phelps's assumption about a roughly chronological ordering of the poems. Of the self-dating poems (30, 50, 62, 79, 101, 107, 118, 122, 145, 212, 221, 266, 271, 278, 364) all are sonnets except for the first two. Number 30, a sestina, is the seventh non-sonnet in the sequence and contains the phrase "oggi ha sett'anni," the seventh anniversary of his first sight of Laura. Number 50, the fifth canzone and the ninth non-sonnet of the sequence, contains the phrase "ben presso al decim'anno." Counting a poem both as canzone and non-sonnet may seem like double-dealing, but the fifteenth and sixteenth century editors sometimes discriminated among the various non-sonnet forms in numbering and sometimes labelled all non-sonnets "canzoni." For our purposes it is entirely justifiable to call a poem a "sestina" in calculating one formal structure and to count it merely as a non-sonnet in calculating another formal structure because, as I intend to show, the various structures overlap.
  10. Wilkins, Making, p. 193.
  11. See also Triumph of Death, 1. 133 and Canzoniere, 325. 13.
  12. The letter to Colonna is Fam. II. 9 and is translated and abridged in Morris Bishop, Letters from Petrarch (Bloomington, 1966), pp. 29-33. The Secretum was translated by William H. Draper as Petrarch's Secret (London, 1911). The Letter to Posterity was translated by Morris Bishop, Letters from Petrarch, pp. 5-12, but see esp. p. 6. The Latin texts with Italian translations can be found in Francesco Petrarca Prose, ed. Martellotti, Ricci, et al. (Milano, n.d.).
  13. Translated by Morris Bishop, Petrarch and His World, pp. 62-3. The Latin text as cited in Carducci is: "animam quidem eius, ut de Africano ait Seneca, in celum, unde erat, rediisse mihi persuadeo. Hec autem ad acerbam rei memoriam amara quadam dulcedine scribere visum est hoc potissimum loco qui sepe sub oculis meis redit, ut scilicet cogitem nihil esse quod amplius mihi placeat in hac vita, et, effracto maiori laqueo, tempus esse de Babilone fugiendi, crebra horum inspectione ac fugacissime etatis existimatione, commonear: quod, previa Dei gratia, facile erit, preteriti temporis curas supervacuas, spes inanes et inexpectos exitus acriter ac viriliter cogitanti" (p. 370).
  14. Carlo Calcaterra, La "Data Fatale" nel Canzoniere e nei Trionfi del Petrarca (Torino, 1926). Reprinted in Nella Selva del Petrarca (Bologna, 1942).
  15. Calcaterra, p. 30.
  16. The commentators make the same mistake about the inception of the Africa as they do about the April date in Canzoniere. Morris Bishop, Letters, p. 8, translates the day as Good Friday, but the Latin in Posteritati is "sexta feria": "sexta quadam feria maioris hebdomade" (p. 12). It should also be pointed out that in 1338 the sixth of April was the Monday of Holy Week and not Good Friday, exactly as in 1327.
  17. The letter is Fam. IV. 4 and is translated by Bishop, Letters, pp. 51-2. See the account in Bishop, Petrarch and His World, pp. 160-71 and Wilkins, Life, pp. 24-9, but note that Wilkins erroneously reverses the order of arrival of the two invitations.
  18. See references in preceding note and Wilkins, Making "The Coronation of Petrarch," pp. 9-69. Petrarch's oration is translated by Wilkins, PMLA, LXVIII (1953), 1241-50.
  19. Albertino Mussato had been crowned in his native Pavia in 1315, and Dante had been crowned posthumously.
  20. The Good Friday-Christmas division of the Canzoniere was first pointed out by Angel Andrea Zottoli, "Il numero solare nell'ordinamento dei 'Rerum vulgarium fragmenta,'" La Cultura, VII (1928), 337-48. Zottoli's argument is radically different from the one presented here. I am indebted to him only for the coincidence of Christmas and 264.
  21. Antonio da Tempo in his commentary on poem 1. His commentary was often reprinted following the commentary of Filelfo, e.g., the edition of Venice 1503.
  22. The early commentaries have not been studied with sufficient attention to their impact on directing the reader's response to the poems, but see Bernard Weinberg, "The Sposizione of Petrarch in the Early Cinquecento," Romance Philology, XIII (1960), 374-86. I am at present at work on a study of the fifteenth and sixteenth century commentaries and academy lectures as a guide to understanding the reading habits of the Renaissance.
  23. A useful discussion of the difficulties of this opening passage may be found in the notes of Chiorboli's edition of the Canzoniere (Milano, 1924).

Francis X. Murphy (essay date 1974)

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 8954

SOURCE: Francis X. Murphy, "Petrarch and the Christian Philosophy," in Francesco Petrarca: Citizen of the World, edited by Aldo S. Bernardo, State University of New York Press, 1980, pp. 223-47.

[In the excerpt below, Murphy examines Petrarch's humanism and argues that he was a "genuine Christian philosopher."]

During the month of February, 1325, Francesco Petrarca purchased a manuscript of the De civitate dei of St. Augustine for 12 florins from the executors of Cinthius, a cantor of Tours. The budding poet was twenty-one, and on leave in Avignon from his legal studies in Bologna. This information is contained in a note in his own hand on the manuscript, and represents what is probably the earliest of Petrarch's preserved autographs. As such, it is also the first of a long series of annotations that supply an avid posterity with authentic biographical detail, in contrast to the frequently ambiguous if not contrived information he wove into his poems and prose compositions.1

The acquisition of the De civitate did not immediately affect Petrarch's literary tastes or student mores. He confesses that it was only when he joined the household of the Colonna in the 1330s that he began to take an interest in the sacred scriptures and the literary productions of the Christian authors.2

On his definitive return from Bologna, in 1326, Petrarch and his brother Gerard had taken residence in Avignon and engaged in the frivolous pastimes that prevailed among officials and supernumeraries who flocked to the papal court. Nevertheless, almost from the moment of his arrival, Petrarch became part of the literary scene and the commerce in manuscripts and codices encouraged by the pontifical court's largesse. One of his first accomplishments was a critical edition of the first, third and fourth decades of Livy that had been handed down in separate fascicles by the Middle Ages.3

Meanwhile, on Good Friday, April 6th, 1327, Petrarch had experienced the fatal encounter with Laura in the Church of Santa Chiara in Avignon, a fact faithfully recorded on his Virgil manuscript. About this time, too, he had taken minor orders in the Church, apparently to obtain a livelihood in the household of the Colonnas. His assumption of clerical status entailed the daily recitation of the divine office—laudes Cristo diutumas—that he acknowledges he performed with little enthusiasm until his conversion, years later.

Inspired with love for the litterae humaniores by Convenevole da Prato, his early preceptor in grammar and rhetoric, Petrarch found himself impelled toward the achievement of greatness through the pursuit of classical studies. Despite his complaints about the corruption prevalent in the papal court, it was there he encountered kindred spirits in the pursuit of learning. Of these, the Dominican historian, Giovanni Colonna played an important role, Eight of the Epistolae rerum familiarium are addressed to this learned friar.4

Colonna wrote a De viris illustribus in which he presented examples of virtue to encourage readers to better their lives. This was, of course, the traditional purpose of ancient historical writing. St. Jerome's work of the same name was his model. But his immediate inspiration is to be found in John of Salisbury's prescription for the Christian humanist: "the cult of virtue fostered by eloquence through the use of letters"—licterarum usus.5 The relationship of Petrarch's De viris to Colonna's has not been completely unraveled. Both authors paraphrase ancient historians—Colonna, Valerius Maximus; Petrarch, Livy—as they announce their intention to exemplify virtuous deeds. But by a curious twist, Colonna chose learned men as his viri illustres,—Plato, Cicero, Paul, Origen, Augustine—while Petrarch concentrated on upright men of action. Colonna compiled a list of some 300 writers for whom he furnished biographical and bibliographical information. Petrarch selected 36 pre-Christian heroes for whom he provided extensive, moralizing lives. This singular interest in moral greatness pervades all his major compositions. It dictates his philosophical interests; and is the criterion he employs in his rejection of the philosophers and theologians of his own day whom he accuses then of cultivating the knowledge of virtue with no intention of achieving its practice.6

In 1333 Petrarch journeyed to Paris, then on to Flanders and Germany at the expense of Cardinal Giovanni Colonna. On this voyage, he enjoyed the hospitality of the Hermits of St. Austin with many of whom—Dionigi da Borgo San Sepulcro, Bartolomeo da Urbino, Jean Coci, and Bonaventura da Perargo—he remained on intimate terms all through life. To this period belong the earliest of his rimes as well as a Metrical Epistle (1.2) directed to pope Benedict XII calling on the pontiff to return with the papacy to Rome. To it likewise must be traced his introduction to Augustine and the first stirrings of his interest in the Christian philosophy.7

Somewhere in the course of 1333, the Austin monk and teacher, Dionigi da Borgo San Sepulcro, gave Petrarch a pocket-sized copy of St. Augustine's Confessions together with a fatherly admonition regarding his way of life. Petrarch carried the little book with him through the length and breadth of Europe, including the scaling of Mt. Ventoux, and a near drowning in the bay of Nice.8 Dionigi, the learned Augustinian churchman, had taught at the University of Paris, and was a noted commentator on the writings of Aristotle particularly his Politics and Rhetoric. These were works foreign to Petrarch's tastes, although, later in controversy, the poet boasts that he had read all of Aristotle's moral compositions and listened to not a few others.9 While he does not mention Dionigi's productions,—which is strange since Petrarch seems to have modelled his Rerum memorandarum libri on the Facta et dicta memorabilia of Valerius Maximus for which the Austin friar had written an extensive commentary—Petrarch looked on him as his spiritual father and literary mentor, and addressed to him one of his most famous Epistolae, the account of the ascent of Mt. Ventoux.10

Petrarch traced his active interest in the Christian literature to his reading of Augustine's Confessions, and in particular to the passage where Augustine describes his discovery of philosophy through his encounter with Cicero's Hortensius and the change it wrought in his intellectual development. Petrarch is not entirely uninfluenced by the Augustinian self-relevation in his own literary inventiveness, when he confesses that previously, with juvenile if not demoniac insolence, he had looked upon the Christian authors as barbaric, of little consequence in comparison with the secular literature. The Confessions changed his perspective, While they did not lead him to dismiss his early vices—would that I could forgo them even at this age! he wrote much later—they did give him a new literary and moral insight.11

In 1335, Petrarch purchased Augustine's De vera religione and on a blank leaf of the codex inscribed the first known catalogue of his literary possessions, some fifty titles with an obvious concentration on the works of Cicero. In a sort of coda to this list, he recorded his four Christian acquistions, all Augustinian works: the De civitate dei, the Confessions, the Soliloquies and a De deo orando. It was only two years latter, apparently on his first sojourn in Rome, that he began to expand his collection of Christian manuscripts.

On March 6, 1337 in Rome, he purchased the Homilies on the Gospels of St. Gregory the Great; and on the sixteenth of that month, Augustine's Enarrationes in Psalmos. The latter codex contained the bishop of Hippo's sermons on the last fifty Psalms of the Davidic psalter, and is copiously annotated with Petrarchan glosses. Much later, Boccaccio was to give him a complete copy of the Enarrationes in a large unwieldly codex that Petrarch treasured despite its bulk and difficulty in handling.12 Petrarch's meditative activity recorded in the annotations on these manuscripts indicate clearly that it is to this period of his life—in his early 30s—that should be traced the first serious stirrings of a deeper religious self-consciouness. A gloss on the De vera religione dated the first of June 1335, and another of July 10, 1338, contain prayers composed apparently under the influence of the Soliloquies, in which Petrarch expresses the sentiments of a soul in pain, desirous of living virtuously, but weighed down by worldly cares. The second of these prayers is found in other manuscripts marked with the rubric "oratio cotidiana." Among the earliest of the annotations on his first copy of the Enarrationes is a meditation on examining one's conscience and a prayer of religious repentence. Thus by 1338, Petrarch had undergone a considerable change of religious sentiment.13

In the Canzoniere there is no direct record of Petrarch's passion for Laura during the first six years that followed their fatal encounter. The earliest intimation of his enslavement is recorded in his Sestina II (xxx) where he says, that, if his figures are correct, his sighs go back exactly seven years. Thus on April 6, 1334, his love for Laura was still alive and strong. Nevertheless, in the Epistle to Dionigi da Borgo San Sepolcro, presumably of April 26, 1336, ten years to the day since he departed Bologna, there is the admission that for the past three years he had desired to liberate himself from the cruelty of this unrequited love. But in the Canzone IV of 1337, Petrarch depicts the poet ensconced in his amorous desires during a whole decade. This was the year of his journey to Rome where, besides the awakening of an intense national sentiment, he felt a further stirring toward liberation. There, the coeval Sonnet depicts a struggle between his love for Laura and his fear for his eternal salvation.

On his return from Rome, Petrarch fled Avignon for Vaucluse, and there he made the first "collected edition" of his rimes. In his second Madrigal, the poet acknowledges the perils to which his life is exposed and speaks of changing direction "toward midday," apparently close to age thirty-five, that was considered the middle of life by the ancients. Finally in the haunting sonnet, Padre del Ciel, Petrarch addressed a prayer to God to save him "today," in the eleventh year of his amorous passion, thus Good Friday, April 10, 1338. "Rammenta lor come oggi fusti in croce." One does not expect consistency of a poet, particularly one suffering from the pangs of excruciating love unfulfilled. But the evidence embodied in the Lauran poetry would seem to supplement the indications in his manuscript glosses. In the late 1330s Petrarch was involved in a war within himself to shift his spiritual orientation.14

Petrarch's first trip to Rome with its antiquarian and bibliophilic delights occurred a year after his account of the Ascent of Mt. Ventoux in which he gives the impression of being deeply imbued with the Augustinian Weltschmerz, an excellent possibility if he had mastered the writings of Augustine then in his possession. But Petrarch's confusing literary habits, particularly the frequent reworking of his texts, his predilection for inventing Epistolae and his habit of inserting newly discovered classic as well as patristic quotations in his polished writings long after their original composition, gives one pause in accepting at face value the Epistle to Dionigi with its earliest recording of a poet's Alpinist adventure. This in turn introduces doubt when dealing with the chronological and biographical material in his other, obviously contrived literary accomplishments, as has been the painful experience of Petrarchan scholars over the past six centuries. The suspicions that surround the factual information contained internally in the first book of the Epistolae rerum familiarium in particular render the information on the manuscripts, and possibly also the Lauran chronology, of considerable importance in tracing the history of his relation with the Christian philosophy. Petrarch's literary habits are part of the machinery of an extremely deep and diversified mind. He said explicitly that he did not write for the vulgar crowd, but was busy about intricate phases of human knowledge (De vita sol., prol). In this sense he is a man and a philosopher unique for his time.15

In his own estimation Petrarch is a moral philosopher and a poet.16 But while a convinced Christian and a pundit with strong moral convictions, he has little direct contact with the thinkers and theologians of his own times. Though his universe was still the closed classical world of antiquity, he was not a medieval poet or theologian as was Dante. Nor was he the libertarian scholar and litterateur found in a Poggio Bracciolini or a Laurentius Valla of the following century. Despite his involvement in the political happenings of his age as diplomat and counsellor, not infrequently travelling on ambassadorial tasks to Paris, to Prague, to Venice and to Naples, and his proffering of unsolicited advice to tyrants, kings and popes, he displays no interest in the development of political theory going on under his very eyes.

Petrarch seems to have ignored the ideological struggle between the papacy and the rising national states, and simply gives no consideration to the polemical writings of William of Ockham, Marsiglio of Padua, John of Paris, or James of Viterbo, or any of the pamphleteers on both sides of the vast quarrel between the papacy and the national monarchies for control of the disordered world in which he lived. He wants the emperor or the king to force the issue, and make the pope resume his proper station as spiritual lord of the universe. When Cola di Rienzi attempts to restore peace and order to the eternal City, Petrarch encourages him with high sounding, patriotic advice. But he seemingly has no interest in the theories of his contemporaries who are seeking to rearrange the constitutional structure of his worldly habitation.17

On the other hand he is fully conscious of factors involved in the political arena such as the habits and characteristics of individual peoples and nations. he quotes the Emperor Frederick II, germanus origine, italus conversatione, when he warns that the Italians should be dealt with benevolently by their rulers. They can easily be led to repentance, and to respect for authority. With the Germans, by contrast, he says, leniency is an occasion for insolence, and mercy is looked upon as weakness. The Italians should be treated with civility; by no means with familiarity. For no people are quicker to seize the opportunity to search out the vices of others, and while themselves living as a Sardanapalus, to render judgment with the severity of a Fabricius or a Cato. The German can be dealt with familiarly. In this case, familiarity does not breed contempt, but a mutual, affectionate appreciation.18

Despite his unbridled criticism of the papacy, it must be stated at once that Petrarch was a believing Christian—a Catholic as he himself frequently asserts in the course of his Invective On His Own Ignorance and That Of Many Others. In the third book of the Secretum, Augustine questions him regarding the piety of his youth. "Do you remember how great was your fear of God at that time? How much you thought of death? How strong was your religious affection? How great was your love of goodness?" And Francesco replies: "I do indeed remember; and I deplore the fact that with my progress in years, my virtues have diminished." In later life, Petrarch insists that he had fasted on bread and water every Friday from his youth.19

Despite his acknowledged moral lapses, or perhaps in consequence of the compunction he felt over his spiritual weaknesses, his faith is unquestioning. It was nourished by his youthful training; his daily recitation of his prayers—the oratio cotidiana of his manuscript glosses; the psalms and readings that constituted the divine office, which, in later life, he arose during the night to recite; and his familiarity with both the Austin monks and the Augustinian corpus, particularly the Confessions and the De vera religione. It is also evident in the support for Christian beliefs that he is constantly turning up in the pagan authors, particularly Plato, Cicero, Seneca, and guardedly Aristotle.20

Petrarch's intent differed considerably from that attributed to him by modern, mainly nineteenth century scholars who saw him throwing off the yoke of religious obscurantism by his insistence on his right to an unfettered judgement, and establishing himself as a precursor to the Protestant revolt, if not the age of the Enlightenment. Petrarch's total engagement is quite the contrary; it is to amalgamate the ancient wisdom of his pagan poets and orators with the Christian creed within the framework of the Church that was simply a normal inescapable part of his consciousness.21

In a contrary vein, Étienne Gilson deals with him too harshly in his Unity of Philosophical Experience where the ebullient historian of medieval philosophy brackets Petrarch between Nicholas of Autrecourt and Erasmus as responsible for giving the coup de grâce to the perennial philosophy of the thirteenth century, scholastic renaissance. He accuses Petrarch of having thereby destroyed the possibility of an authentic theological revival in his own and later ages.22

The accusation is interesting. For in fact Petrarch had no use for the Christian philosophers of his day, and was equally hostile to the theologians, holding them responsible for the very same ideological crime of which Gilson accuses him. Petrarch excoriates his contemporaries for debilitating the traditional theology. Not only does he not reflect the thinking of his generation, but he even avoids mentioning their names. Actually, he makes specific reference to a few great men of the previous century when, in a polemic jibe at a Gallic critic in his Invective Against One Who Criticized Italy, he names Bonaventure, Thomas Aquinas, Peter the Lombard, and James of Viterbo—all Italians—as the only competent teachers the university of Paris ever had.23

Petrarch's judgment on the culture of his day was devastating. He blames the decadence on the multiplication of teachers and scribblers, intent on monetary gain rather than wisdom. He claims, not without reason, that much of the older theology had been perverted by dialectics, and that philosophy was being destroyed by the vain pursuit of logic if not of sophistry. Once there were professors worthy of the name of theologians, he explains with indignation. But now in their insolence they attempt to subject God to the laws of their feeble intellects; and so describe the intricacies of the workings of nature that you would think they had just come from heaven where they had been present at the councils of the Almighty.

Behind this decadence Petrarch saw the shadow of Averroes and the spectre of Aristotle. The latter, as the source of the new knowledge regarding the nature of things, had been quickly thrust into the position of an oracle whose ipse dixit drove Petrarch literally into a rage. The cult of Averroes found a home among the medieval doctors who, with Pietro d'Abano (d. 1313) and the school of Padua cultivated a naturalistic materialism. Petrarch accused the Averroists of teaching that the created universe was eternal, without beginning or end, thus denying creation and the final judgment; maintaining that the human soul enjoyed immortality as a component of the world soul, thus denying the resurrection; and of cultivating astrology to the detriment of man's free will. In many of his longer letters and philosophical works, Petrarch conducts a recurring assault on these heresies.

As a Christian given to philosophizing, Petrarch was concerned with attacks on monotheism, and particularly on the Catholic creed with its belief in one God, creator of heaven and earth, and judge of the living and the dead. In his apologetic moods, he is ambiguous in his judgements on Aristotle, at times appealing to his authority, at others blaming the fell state of theology on the Stagirite's influence; but he does know that the Latin style in which Aristotle had come down to him was faulty: qualis est nobis, non admodum delectari (as we have him, he is hardly pleasing). In the end, Augustine is his theologian, and Cicero his philosopher. But when he finds his Cicero once more discussing the gods, after speaking so eloquently of the Supreme Being, Petrarch chides him: "Heu, mi Cicero, quid ais? Tam cito Dei unius et tui ipsius oblivisceris?" (Alas my Cicero, what are you saying? Have you so quickly forgotten the one God and your own nature?)24

In his old age, the poet-scholar contemplated writing a refutation of Averroes, "who raves against Christ his Lord and the Catholic faith." But he had to entrust the task to a youthful friend, the Florentine Austin friar, Louis Marsilius. Petrarch advises the young monk—to whom, in view of his failing eyesight and impending death, Petrarch gave his precious copy of the Confessions, restoring it to the Augustinian patrimony whence he had received it—to delve deeply into the second book of Augustine's De doctrina christiana. There the bishop of Hippo had dealt with the distinction, newly resuscitated by the Averroists, that limited knowledge to the domain of philosophy and granted to theology only the sphere of belief and opinion.

Augustine had insisted on the convergence of all knowledge, both religious and profane, since the totality of what man can know is a gift of the creator. In this framework, Petrarch described the genuine theologian as one who should know many things beyond the realm of faith, indeed if possible, almost everything. Certainly as God, to whom all things are subject is one, so the knowledge of God must be one, under which all things have their proper place.25

It is to Augustine that Petrarch owes his own knowledge of theology; and though he made no claim to be other than a "moral philosopher and a poet," the evidence of his theological awareness is clear enough in his later, polemical writings as well as in the first book of the De vita solitaria, where he deals with man's knowledge of the presence of God in the world. In an eloquent passage not far removed from the dialectical method he pretended to despise, Petrarch outlines the creative presence of God to the one seeking him, for all practical purposes as if he were a professional theologian engaged in preaching. He sets out his thesis, introduces proof from scripture, then draws his conclusion, applying it immediately to the pragmatic order where his true interest lies. Commenting on an Epicurean maxim, "Always behave as if Epicurus were watching you," Petrarch remarks that it is the advice of a sage, despite the bad reputation that Epicurus has for some of his ideas. Nevertheless the Christian is not in need of such counselling since he lives continually in the presence of Christ who as God is everywhere, and of his guardian angel assigned to every individual.

How then explain the fact that the believing Christian is not ashamed to do evil? Here Petrarch introduces the testimony of Cicero. He does not discount the witness of Augustine's De vera religione, but seeks the concurrent wisdom of a stranger who certainly did not know Christ. To Cicero he attributes the observation that most people are incapable of seeing anything with the mind; they see only what is placed before their eyes. It takes a supreme effort to turn the mind from sense knowledge, and to force one's thinking out of its accustomed ways. Hence the sinner, though a believer, easily ignores the presence of Christ.26

Toward the end of this section of the De vita solitaria, Petrarch speaks of the possibility that a human being, still bound to the earth, might hear the chanting of the angelic choirs, and see things that on returning within himself, he could not describe. This passage is of considerable interest in that it does not reflect the poet's normal approach to preternatural phenomena. Referring to the stigmata of St. Francis, for example, he shows a reverent but reserved interest. While he venerates the saint's down-to-earth simplicity, he does not over-praise his poverty, and withholds judgment regarding the miracles attributed to him. In his reference to mystical experience, he is ambiguous: he does believe in heavenly immortality; but his true preoccupation is with the immortality he hopes to have engineered in this world. With Cicero he feels, non omnis moriar.

In his reference to mystical experience, in the De vita, Petrarch seems to reflect the verses of Dante's Paradiso, where the Florentine poet spoke of "having seen things that he neither know how to, or could repeat, on returning from there above."

       e vidi cose che ridire
Né sa né può chi lassù discende
(1, 5-6)

Here, as in the Triumphs of Death and Eternity, Petrarch is influenced by his near contemporary, Dante, an indebtedness he is reluctant to acknowledge. In fact, he was chided by Boccaccio for his neglect of his fellow poet. Petrarch's answer in a long letter, acknowledges the justice of the accusation. He says however that, as he has also cultivated the vernacular poetry, he did not want to be accused of imitation or plagiarism resulting from coincidences that could occur if he read other poets. It is a lame excuse; but it helps explain Petrarch's failure to reflect the massive theological vision that was Dante's.27

Gilson has demonstrated that Petrarch did not see himself as the first renaissance man. His perspective was far short of the historical consciousness of a Flavio Biondo (1388 to 1463) who seemingly first selected the period of A.D. 410 to 1440 as the age between antiquity and modernity to which, in 1518, the designation media aetas was applied.

Petrarch does speak of himself as "situated on the confines of two peoples, looking at once backward and forward—velut in confinio duorum populorum constitutus ac simul ante retroque prospiciens (Rerum memor. 1, 2). The phrase has been interpreted as signifying the Petrarchan consciousness of initiating a new age. But in the context, the meaning is significantly different. Petrarch is complaining about the neglect of ancient learning by his contemporaries. he says they are handing on nothing to posterity. Thus future ages will be blissfully ignorant of the past and thus without complaint. In their complacency they will resemble antiquity, but for a totally different reason. Antiquity had no right to complain since it possessed a plenitude of learning.28

Petrarch's ideal was not to reproduce the past as will be the aim of the ages coming after him. His intention was to discover and preserve what still existed, and in this he gave the lie to his own gloomy prediction—si ut auguror res eunt—"if things go as I seem to think they will." In his determination to resurrect the learning of the past he turned his attention to the early Fathers of the Church, particularly after settling in Milan in 1353, where he had access to the manuscript treasures in the library of the Church of St. Ambrose. Scattered through his writings are a large number of patristic references, but they are largely illustrative or anecdotal, seldom doctrinal. With Augustine it is different. Petrarch has absorbed much of the master's thought, citing the De Trinitate as well as the earlier books that he had in his possession, and using Augustine as part of his intellectual armory. There are definite traces of Augustinian thought, particularly of the De civitate dei, in Petrarch's heroic poem, Africa, as Calcaterra has demonstrated.29 Here, and though less obviously, in the De viris illustribus, the author's basic themes of Roman virtue and eternal destiny have an evident Augustinian tinge. These works were begun in 1338, soon after Petrarch's awakening to the deeper aspects of the Christian philosophy. It is likewise to Augustine that Petrarch turns for the solution of a problem that bothered him in his later writings concerning his utilization of the pagan learning. In this he was a medieval man, echoing unwittingly Chrétien de Troyes: "The Christians are right, and the pagans are wrong."30

Augustine had used the allegory of the Jews despoiling the Egyptians of their treasures before the Exodus; and Petrarch cites this principle in justification of his own inveterate steeping in the pagan classics. He is also well aware of St. Jerome's difficulty in his pre-occupation with the secular learning, applyng to himself the accusation hurled at Jerome in a dream: Mentiris; ciceronianus es, non es christianus—"You lie; you are a ciceronian, you are not a Christian".31 He seems to think that Jerome made a great effort to avoid the pagan authors thereafter, missing the full import of the accusation made by Rufinus of Aquileia who charged Jerome with continually parading his Maro, his Tullius, his Flaccus like smoke before his readers' eyes, that he might appear learned and of great erudition! Petrarch seems equally unaware of Jerome's own solution. With the cry regarding his well-stocked memory—"having dyed the wool once purple, what washing could make it clean," Jerome resorted to the passage in Deuteronomy (21. 10-13) where the pious Jew was justified in marryng a captive, gentile woman if first he shaved her head and eyebrows and clipped her nails. Having rid her of vanity and superstition, says this supreme misogynist, he could then retain what was useful.32

Among the other early churchmen, Petrarch is fairly well acquainted with Ambrose of Milan whose De officis ministrorum he recognizes as a christianized version of Cicero's De officiis. Petrarch possessed several manuscripts of the bishop of Milan's sermons, particularly his De penitentia, and his funerary orations for his brother Satyrus. Petrarch admires him for the part he played in the conversion of Augustine, although he is well aware of the long itinerary that brought Augustine to Christ along the path of the platonists and neo-platonists.

Petrarch is equally familiar with Lactantius' Institutes praising the author's ciceronian style; and he employs the names of Cyprian, Rufinus, Benedict, Pope Gregory I and Isidore of Seville, though of the latter's Etymologies he says, "I seldom use them." He was not enamored of the early Christian poets from Prudentius and Paulinus of Nola to Prosper of Aquitaine and Sedulius. Likewise but for a few anecdotes, the Greek fathers were merely names: Origen, Athanasius, Eusebius of Caesarea, Basil and Gregory of Nazianzen. Petrarch signals John Chrysostom for special mention. But though he read and annotated a considerable number of Latin texts of the Fathers, this is the extent of his patristic learning.33

In the second book of the De vita solitaria, where he praises the wisdom of the saints and sages who had escaped from the world to take refuge in solitude, Petrarch cites a great variety of real and legendary Christian heroes. For the most part he has been delving in the Lausiac History of Palladius, the Eusebian-Jerome Chronicle, the Dialogues of Gregory the Great, and the Golden Legend of James of Voragine.34

Of the churchmen between Gregory I (604) and Peter the Lombard, Petrarch took little notice. He did possess a copy of Abelard's Historia calamitatum and shows considerable sympathy for its victim. But he confesses that he did not know enough of Abelard's other writing to judge concerning his reputation as a heretic. The literature on the De contemptu mundi beginning with Peter Damian and including Bernard of Clairvaux and Pope Innocent III seems to have influenced Petrarch's De remediis utriusque fortune. While he does not mention John of Salisbury directly, much of his detail in attacking the dialecticians comes very close to being modelled on, if not drawn, from, the Polycraticus.35

Among Petrarch's annotated manuscripts are a number of twelfth century authors such as Richard and Hugh of St. Victor, Berengarius of Poitiers, the Gesta of Innocent III, Stephen of Tornai, and Albertus Magnus; but there is little indication that these works entered deeply into Petrarch's thought. Pierre Courcelle contrasts Petrarch's reaction in reading the Confessions to that of Ailred of Rielvaulx, attributing to the highly spiritual minded monk a much deeper penetration into the depths of Augustine's thought. He assesses Petrarch's interest as more literary and philosophical. But Courcelle thus seems to miss the full significance of Petrarch's Secretum in which the fictional Augustine of the dialogue is the real Petrarch, who displays an acute understanding of the spiritual analysis engaged in by the author of the Confessions?36 At the same time, Petrarch aims at supplying an ideal of the Christian way of life better suited to the spiritual needs of his contemporaries—the rising class of merchants and officials—a docta pietas—differing from the ascetic and monastic demands of the medieval spirituality. The Secretum is not modelled directly on the Confessions; it is much closer in inspiration to the Soliloquies. With the real Augustine's actual conversion, there was a total turning from the world of everyday affairs. Petrarch was determined to remain in the world and still achieve spiritual well-being. This is the message of his search for easier, divergent paths in contrast to his brother's direct mounting in the ascent of Mt. Ventoux; and in this respect, the Epistola to Dionigi da Borgo San Sepolcro is very close in time and content to the Secretum.37

Complicating enormously the problem posed by Petrarch's attitude toward the Christian philosophers is the startling probability, raised once more by Billanovich that the first section of the Epistolae rerum familiarium is a literary creation having no direct connection with the time and place in which they were supposedly composed. I must confess that in a recent rereading of the Petrarchan corpus, the possible significance of the closing line of the Epistle to Bishop Giacomo Colonna, Hoc saltem oro, ne finxisse me fingas—this at least I ask, do not imagine that I have imagined this—struck me with impelling force. The whole letter deals with the accusations that Petrarch has deceived his public—that he has simply imagined his own Augustinian devotion, imagined the very existence of Laura, and imagined the unfulfilled promise to make the journey to Rome. In view of these accusations acknowledged by Petrarch himself, to have the discussion close suddenly with that alliterative, but brassy phrase, ne finxisse me fingas raises the spectre of a subtle Petrarchan joke—an epystola iocosa as he refers to the letter he had apparently received from his episcopal patron and to which this letter is the answer.

Attributing his patron's ironic accusations to his urbanity, he asks the bishop how far he intends to go with his joking. "You indicate," he says, "that many have gathered great opinions about me because of my fictitious creations." And it is in this connection that he brings up once again the legitimacy of using the pagan poets and philosophers. There arises a suspicion of a close relation between this Epistola and the Secretum, lending substance to the possibility that it is of much later composition than it purports to be. While Morris Bishop and Ernest Hatch Wilkins simply dismiss this notion, Billanovich takes it for demonstrated.38

A starker suspicion stalks the chronological claim and the provenience of the Epistola to Dionigi da Brogo San Sepolcra. There can be little doubt that the details of the scaling of Mt. Ventoux are an allegorical description of the difference between his brother's sudden withdrawal from the world to join the Carthusians upon the death of his beloved, and Petrarch's dilatory search for compromises on his divagating path to the summit of spirituality. Nor can the sudden change to morose silence when his eyes fell on the passage from Augustine, admonishing men for seeking pleasures in contemplating the skies and travelling the seas, but neglecting their own interior selves, be understood outside the context of the meditations that form the substance of the dialogue in the Secretum.

What seems most likely is that during the decade of 1340 Petrarch found himself gradually impelled to follow the Augustinian pattern first in his intellectual pursuits, then in his gradual retreat from the sins of the flesh that had resulted in his fathering two illegitimate children, for all his insistence in his literary compositions that the praise of virtue was useless if one did not strive to live virtuously. There is sufficient evidence that during the Jubilee year of 1350, on his pilgrimage to Rome, he made a definite commitment to a virtuous life. Writing to reassure his brother Gerard, he says that he had received sacramental absolution after revealing the festering sores of his hidden sins to his confessor and that he intended to do so habitually for the future.39

There is no direct reference to this personal experience in the Secretum, but the dialogue is the fruit of Petrarch's far-ranging meditation of his inner psychological structure and awareness. It is a sort of spiritual metaphysics, not distinguishing between the id and the superego of Freudian analysis, but pursuing the Augustinian uncovering of the soul's inner recesses.

The Secretum is a dialogue between Augustine as the master and his pupil Francesco. While contrived to allow the author to play a double role, the discussion is much less artificial than that of the De remediis utriusque fortune. The latter is still within the medieval tradition. The Secretum breaks through that barrier and verges toward a new creation. It is a realistic production of Petrarch the humanist who has not merely absorbed the classic learning but has amalgated the Stoic ethic with the Christian consciousness of man's inner liberation in response to the message of salvation. As such it exhibits Petrarch's mastery of the dialectical machinery he deplored so bitterly in the professional philosophers and theologians, but which he turns to good use in his own psychic and spiritual introspection.

The central message of the Secretum is the need to strip the soul of its mundane wrappings—the layers of self-deceit that prevent the individual's autorealization and final freedom. This notion is of Stoic origin, of course, and had been developed at length by Seneca, a fact of which Petrarch is fully aware. But Augustine had advanced the analysis by introducing Platonic elements in a Christian perspective. In the De civitate dei Petrarch discovered a basic Augustinian postulate. It is not the corruption of the body that weighs down the soul and is therefore the cause of sin. It is rather sinfulness in the soul that renders the body corruptible and thus engenders the punishment of original sin. This distinction is based on the fact that the will can induce man to deceive himself by finding satisfactions in terrestrial and therefore transitory pleasures.

By its very nature the soul cannot be satisfied with finite pleasures. It is in search of the absolute. But on this earth it is subject to the buffeting of vain desires and foolish ambitions due to the contrariety of human wilfulness. But the will is not geared to evil; it seeks only the good. It is in the psyche that the difficultly exists; in the dark corridor between the intellect's searching for light, in order to understand, and the will's impulse to love even when it is exposed only to the appearances of goodness. Thus the problem faced by the individual is to free himself of the encirclement of vices, primarily for Petrarch, pride, avarice, lust and acedia, to discover the soul's pristine beauty.40

In the Secretum Francesco is assured that his soul was originally well endowed by heaven; but that it has degenerated from its former beauty due to the contagion that surrounds the body. The soul has become so torpid that it forgets its origin and its eternal creator. Nevertheless, the sudden discovery of a great truth through an instant intuition can illuminate the abyss of the soul where the will resides, and awaken it to a consciousness of its potential as a responsible agent, exercising true freedom in the love of which it is capable.

Petrarch's dramatic reaction to the reading of the passage from the Confessions on Mt. Ventoux would seem to have been an experience of this kind. He is plunged into stunned silence at the rebuke he received in the unexpected admonition from his spiritual guide, Augustine. Then as he arrives at the inn, he experiences the sudden release that results in a powerful creative effort. Petrarch gives the impression that this beautifully contrived Epistola, with its enmeshed themes, polished literary expression, and nuanced psychological revelations was the work of an hour or two of leisure while his retainers were preparing dinner, and after a strenuous, day-long mountain climb. Even granting that the learned allusions and literary citations were inserted later, it is a bit too much to expect the reader to accept this as a straight-forward record of a day's experiences. It is a psychological document, and as such in close affinity with the Secretum both in time and subject matter.41

Petrarch reaches a climax in his argument in the third book of the Secretum when Augustine catechizes Francesco in regard to his love for Laura. At first Francesco protests violently that his affection for this most noble of God's creatures was wholly without self-interest and therefore pure. Under cross-examination, however, he admits that it was in consequence of his contact with Laura that his passions finally got the best of him, and that instead of leading him to the practice of virtue, his lady love had first reproved and then abandoned him.

Augustine takes advantage of this admission to pound home his point. Francesco's original contention that he desired to achieve the love of God through the love of one of God's creatures was blasphemous. It was the obverse of the proper order. God is to be loved in and for himself; and his creatures are to be loved in God. In the second book, Petrarch has supplied the perspective for this contention by confronting human love with its two possibilities. It can serve as a source of sin, or as an occasion for redemption. The origin of human perversity is not in love, but in the human spirit that is capable of confounding its values and thus its loves.42 The remedy is not to be sought in knowledge as such, nor in flight from the body. Seneca witnesses to the latter truth.

As to knowledge, in his Invective Against the Doctor of Medicine, Petrarch says explicitly that he would certainly blame himself for not having read all the medical books if he could see that their therapeutic devices had made these men either better or more learned, or even only healthier of body. But since he could find no such improvement either in the exterior or interior man, he thanks his good fortune that he had been spared this reading, which might have brought him to the same miserable state in which he finds the men of medicine.

In a highly rhetorical passage of his De otio religioso, Petrarch reveals the extent of his admiration for Augustine. He calls him a noble soul, endowed with divine ingenuity who lacked neither the light to search out the falsehoods of the enemy, nor the power to strengthen the minds of his friends. In what appears to be a direct reference to the technique he employs in his Secretum, Petrarch says Augustine's questions and responses are fully worthy of one who battles for the faith and performs as an athlete of the truth. He refers to the De civitate dei as Augustine's standard bearer.43

The significance of the Secretum is that it is not a meditation in the medieval sense of the term—a dwelling on the miseries of life worsened by one's sinfulness, with a morbid preoccupation with death, and a longing for liberation from earthly cares. The Secretum does dwell on these themes, and rings all the cadences of the De contemptu mundi with both Augustinian desperation and Bernardian ruthlessness. But it rises to a new experience. Petrarch faces death with the studied indifference of the Stoic and the Christian. But his intention in so doing is not to arrive at the atrium of paradisial joy here on earth. That hope is afar, in the al di là. His desire is rather to penetrate to the unfathomable depths of his inner being to find the basis for man's intimations of immortality and his potential for eternal bliss. He finds that in this life, man can only reach convalescence, a balance between the tensions of spiritual and bodily maladies over against the possibility of perfect health.44

One objective of the Secretum was to offset the Occamistic dualism that separated the natural world from the divinity, theology from philosophy, and that grounded religious conviction not on a rational theodicy but on a direct contact of the soul with its creator. In this effort, Occamism reflected a renewal of the Augustinian search for illumination. But it perverted this effort when it turned to the logicism of the later scholastics. By its rejection of a metaphysical foundation for man's spiritual beliefs, it tended to destroy the function of religion as a bridge between man's worldly and transcendant aspirations.

Petrarch tried to find a way between what he considered the excesses on both sides. His was not a return to the ordered scholasticism of a Thomas Aquinas, or even to Bonaventure who was closer to the authentic Augustinian tradition. It is rather an attempt to utilize the psychological experiences of which he was conscious in a very personal fashion to create a spirituality closer to the need of his immediate contemporaries. In so doing Petrarch ran counter to both the structured theology of the schools, and to the superficial dialectics of the new pseudo-aristotelianism.

In Augustine, Petrarch had found the final security he sought for his employment of the classic authors whom he did not want to consider pagans. He says repeatedly that if Plato or Cicero or even Caesar had known Christ and his teachings, they would certainly have embraced the true faith. He believes that these men were models of upright reasonableness whom he does not blush to use as counsellors and guides for the well-being of the faith and moral teaching. If Augustine had not thought the same of them, he could never have written his great De civitate dei!45

In Petrarch's Egloga I, there is a long discussion on the relation of poetry to morality where Petrarch insists that in his eyes poetry is a theology of man—de hominibus. The distinction between the poet and the religious thinker arises from the direct object and the form of their meditations, not from a difference in moral obligations. He thus justifies his own vocation and his employment of the muses. There is a commentary on this Egloga with its definition of poetry in his Epistola familiaris (X. 4).

Toward the close of the Secretum, Petrarch has Francesco exclaim: "I believe that not even God can make me embrace eternity, or the heavens and the earth. For me human glory suffices; for this I long, and as a mortal, I have no desire but for mortal things." This outburst leads Augustine to his final correction in which he summarises his message regarding the meaning to be given to life, and the criterion for judging the world in its proper existence. While secular things have a limited and transitory value, they are not to be despised as man adheres to his proper self, gathering together the scattered fragments of his mind, and remains within himself diligently.46 This is the essence of Petrarch's moral philosophy, and as such his justification as a Christian and a poet.

In his letters written in old age, Petrarch looks toward death benevolently. He confides to Pandolfo Malatesta that his life is most insecure, since he has been struck down by illness four times in the course of the past year. But he is in a gentle mood, as he intimates with true Christian indifference, that he would like to be discovered in death with his head resting on the Psalter of David, the poet of his advanced years, and presumably, we hope, with his Virgil at his side. "Et certe jam tempus est," he remarks, "non expedit ad fastidium vivere; ad satietatem sufficit." (And indeed it is now time. For it is not good to live beyond one's time; it is enough to live unto satiety.)47 (Sen. XXII, 8).

In the Petrarchan humanism, man's humanity is not to be despised, just as it is not to be made the final purpose of his existence. Petrarch prescribes the completion of the whole man, soul and body, insisting on the integral interaction of all his faculties, mind, will and senses. It is in his achievement as an analytic therapist of the soul, and as such, a true moralist, that he deserves the designation of a genuine Christian philosopher, rather than the Gilsonian accusation that he was a forerunner of the breakdown of the Christian culture.

Petrarch's Weltanschauung or ubicazione was not that of the structured scholastic whose systematic vision of the world was tied to the closed cosmos of his daily experience. Petrarch was a man born out of due time who, by penetrating into the depths of the spirit within him, broke the bonds of intellectual limitation posed by the decadence of the Christian aristotelianism. He thus predated the Copernican revolution, not in its actual discovery of the immensity of the material universe, but in redimensioning man's relation to space and time, under the shadow of eternity—sub specie eternitatis. Petrarch might not have been fully at home in our contemporary world, but at least he would have understood the problems of the spirit troubling modern man. If this be not true philosophy, what is?


  1. Pietro P. Gerosa, Umanesimo cristiano del Petrarca (Turin, 1966), 37-81. Cf. Pierre de Nolhac, Pétrarque et l'humanisme, 2 v. (2nd ed. Paris, 1907; new Printing, Turin, 1959) II, ch. IX.
  2. Epist. Sen. XVI, I (Senilium rerum libri XVII in Opera omnia, Basel, 1581); see Gerosa, op. cit., 115, n. 67.
  3. G. Billanovich, "Petrarca e i classici," in U. Bosco, ed., Studi Petrarcheschi 7 (Bologna, 1961), 21-34.
  4. W. Braxton Ross, "Giovanni Colonna, Historian at Avignon," Speculum, 45 (1970), 533-545.
  5. Ioannes Saresberiensis, Policraticus (ed. C. J. Webb, Oxford, 1909) prol., 12; cf. W. Braxton Ross, 539.
  6. De sui ipsius et multorum ignorantia in Francesco Petrarca, Prose (ed. G. Martellotti, et al. La Letteratura Italiana: Storia e testi, VII, Milan, Naples, 1955), 746-48; cf. "Note critiche," ibid., 1163-66.
  7. Epist. posteritati, ed. Prose, op. cit., 10-14.
  8. Epist. Sen. XV, 7, Prose, 1132-34.
  9. De Ignorantia, Prose, 744; cf. R. Arbesmann, Der Augustiner-Ermitenordern und der Beginn der humanistischen Bewegung (Wurzburg, 1965), 16-36.
  10. Epist. fam. IV, I, Prose, 830-844.
  11. Epist. Sen. VIII, 6. Cf. Gerosa, op. cit., 49.
  12. Cf. Gerosa, op. cit., 336-337, nn. 72-75.
  13. Epist. Sen. XII, 2. See. L. Delisle, "Notice sur un livre annoté par Pétrarque", in Notices et extraits des mss. de la Bibliothèque Nationale, XXXV, 2 (Paris, 1897). Cf. Gerosa, op. cit. 48-49, n. 15.
  14. See E. Gilson, Pétrarque et sa Muse (Oxford, 1946); n. 1.
  15. See G. Billanovich, Petrarca letterato. I. Lo scrittoio del Petrarca (Rome, 1947), 47-49; N. Iliescu, Il Canzoniere petrarchesco e Sant' Agostino (Rome, 1962), 38-42.
  16. Epist. Poster.: "ad omne bonum et salubre apto sed ad moralem precipue philosophiam et ad poeticam prono …"
  17. Cf. J. H. Robinson and W. Rolfe, Petrarch the First Modern Man (New York, 1898); P. Piur, Petrarca Buch ohne Namen und die papstliche Kurie (Hall, 1925); M. Bishop, Petrarch and His World (Indiana U. Press, 1963), 305-319.
  18. Epist. Sen. I, I, Prose, 1036. See G. A. Levi, Classicismo e neoclassicismo in Questioni e problemi di storia letteraria italiana, 824-831.
  19. Secretum III, Prose, 150.
  20. Epist. Sen. XII, 2; Gerosa, op. cit., 279-316.
  21. Cf. L. Geiger, Petrarca (tr. D. Cossila, Milan, 1877); Rinascimento e Umanesimo in Italia e Germania (Milan, 1891); G. Voigt, Il risorgimento dell'antichità classica (Florence, 1889). Cf. V. Bonetti-Brunelli, Le origini italiane della scuola umanistica (Milan, 1919).
  22. E. Gilson, The Unity of Philosophical Experience (New York, 1937), 102-105.
  23. Cf. Gerosa, op. cit., 181 and n. 1; "Note critiche," Prose, 1177.
  24. De remediis, 1, 46; on Averroes, see De Ignorantia, Prose, 750-52; on Cicero, cf. Gerosa, op. cit., 284-288; De Ignorantia, Prose, 726.
  25. Epist. Sen. XV, 6; cf. Gerosa, op. cit., 365-66, and n. 29.
  26. De vita sol. I, Prose, 348-350.
  27. Epist. fam. xxi, 15, Prose, 1002-1014.
  28. E. Gibson, "Notes sur deux lettres de Pétrarque" in Studi Petrarcheschi 7, 42-50.
  29. C. Calcaterra, "S. Agostino nelle opere di Dante e del Petrarca," in S. Agostino, (Milan, 1931); P. Gerosa, op. cit., 50-52, n. 21.
  30. See Gerosa, op. cit., 166-179.
  31. Jer. Epist. xxii, 30; Cf. De ignorantia, Prose, 758; Epist. fam. II, 9, Prose, 820.
  32. Cf. F. Murphy, Rufinus of Aquileia (Washington, 1945), 8-13; 64-66.
  33. Cf. Gerosa, op. cit., 161-66.
  34. De vita sol, Prose, 436-454.
  35. Gerosa, op. cit., 180-224.
  36. P. Courcelle, "Un humaniste épris de Confessions: Pétrarque" in Les Confessions de Saint-Augustin dans la tradition littéraire (Paris, 1963), 339-351; but see, Gerosa, op. cit. and F. Tateo, Dialogo interiore e polemica ideologica nel "Secretum" del Petrarca (Florence, 1965), 36-37, n. I.
  37. Epist. fam. IV, 1, Prose, 830-843.
  38. Epist. fam. 11, 9, Prose, 816-827. Cf. G. Billanovich, Lo scrittoio del Petrarca, 190-198; M. Bishop, Petrarch and His World, 381; E. H. Wilkins, Life of Petrarch (Chicago, 1961).
  39. Epist. Sen, VIII, 1: "Iam a multis annis sed perfectius post Iubileum, a quo septimus decimus annus hic est (1367) sic me adhuc viridem pestis illa deseruit. Scit me Christus liberator meus verum loqui. Epist. fam. X, 5: "abditas scelerum meorum sordes, que funesta segnitie longoque silentio putruerunt, in apertum manibus salutifere confessionis elicui … idque saepius facere …" Cf. Gerosa, op. cit., 112-114.
  40. Secretum in Prose, 22-215; See F. Tateo, op. cit.; Gerosa, op. cit., 82-119.
  41. See Billanovich, Lo scrittoio del Petrarca, 192-195 for the temporal affinity.
  42. Secretum III, Prose, 136-148; see Tateo, op. cit., 62-66.
  43. De otio religioso, ed. G. Rotondi, (Vatican City, 1958) I, 18: Et Augustinus in eo libro quem sepe hodie in testimonium arcesso, e.g., De vera religione, cap. 65.
  44. Secretum III, Prose, 166: "Non curandum sanamdumque sed preparandum dixi animum." Tateo, op. cit., 65-67 points out the relationship between this sector and the Canzone CCCLX of the Rime.
  45. Epist. fam. II, 9, Prose, 820.
  46. Secretum III, Prose, 214: "sparsa fragmenta recolligam moraborque mecum sedulo."
  47. Epist. Sen. XIII, 8. Much earlier, in his Vergine bella, Petrarch had deplored the

    Mortal bellezza, atti et parole m'anno
    Tutta ingombrata l'alma.
    Vergine sacra et alma,
    Non tardar, ch'i' son forse a l'ultimo anno.

    (Mortal beauty, its words and deeds have totally overburdened my soul. O Virgin, pure and hodly, do not delay, for I may be in my ultimate year.).

Concetta Carestia Greenfield (essay date 1975)

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 4283

SOURCE: Concetta Carestia Greenfield, "The Poetics of Francis Petrarch," in Francis Petrarch, Six Centuries Later: A Symposium, edited by Aldo Scaglione, University of North Carolina Press and The Newberry Library, 1975, pp. 213-22.

[In the following essay, Greenfield examines Petrarch's poetics as it relates to Platonism, Aristotelianism, and the legitimacy of pagan literature from the classical period. Greenfield concludes that Petrarch's poetics was "an elaboration of the rhetorical and Platonic tradition against the new Aristotelianism"]

Poetry for Petrarch was the catalyst for a humanist awakening, the symbol of a renewed consciousness. Salutati and Boccaccio looked back to Petrarch and Dante as the ones who opened the way for the return of the Muses to Italy. Indeed, if the word Humanism referred to a reawakening centering around the consciousness-expanding power of poetry, Petrarch would certainly be its primary innovator.1 Completely original in his poetry, he developed in his poetics some of the themes introduced by his Paduan predecessor Albertino Mussato. Petrarch's discussion of poetics was tightly bound up with the major issues of the thirteenth-century intellectual tradition, namely: 1) the conflict in poetics between a humanist-patristic tradition of Platonic inspiration and the new Aristotelianism based on all the translations of Aristotle's Organon; and 2) the debate over the legitimacy of classical pagan literature for the Christians. The significance to poetics of the latter debate was to raise questions about the nature of poetical and biblical metaphor, and about the place of poetry within the system of the sciences. These issues colored Petrarch's entire life in addition to his intellectual output. For this reason scholars have devoted considerable attention to his biography, the stages of which reflect the progress of these conflicts of the time.2

Petrarch spread the Platonic spirit of Cicero and St. Augustine in Florence. On one occasion he even made a gift of St. Augustine's Confessiones to the Augustin-ian monk Luigi Marsili. Under Petrarch's influence, the medieval Platonic heritage remained the center of the Cenacolo of Santo Spirito in which Marsili and, later, Coluccio Salutati participated.3 When in Padua, he strenuously fought the dehumanizing Aristotelian trend prevailing at the University of Padua in the Faculties of Law and Medicine. A result and expression of this Invectivae contra medicum.4 Finally, in France, as Pierre de Nolhac suggests,5 he came into contact with many classical manuscripts at the Library of the Sorbonne and experienced the heritage of the School of Chartres. French Humanism played an important role in the development of Italian Humanism through the influence of such representatives of the School of Chartres as John of Salisbury, Bernard Silvestris, and Fulbert of Chartres on Petrarch, Boccaccio, and Salutati. The major feature Petrarch inherited from the School of Chartres and transmitted to Italian Humanism was an insistence on the reconciliation of classical poetry with Christianity. This doctrine was based on the Augustinian philosophical argument in the De doctrina christiana concerning the Egyptian gold appropriated by the Jews, and on the practical argument of Cassiodorus' De ordine, which suggests that grammar, comprising poetry and history in the Middle Ages, was the first of the liberal arts and was necessary for an understanding of Scripture.

While accepting the idea that the liberal arts are necessary to an adequate understanding of Scripture, Petrarch disengages poetry from its ancillary role to grammar, and defines it as an autonomous science, including the traditional disciplines of the patristic and classical heritage and devoid of the anti-classical and technical spirit of the Aristotelian theology and philosophy. Petrarch's main statements on poetical theory are contained in the Invectivae contra medicum6 and in letters among his Familiares and Seniles. Book III of the Invectivae specifically concerns poetics. Its tone is that of a defense, this time not against a Dominican, but against a medicus. The medicus represents the scholastic approach characteristic of fourteenth-century law, medicine, and theology.

Concurring with Augustine,7 Petrarch attributes the popularity of dialectic to the decadence of the humanae litterae. After the invasion of dialectic, the humanism of the church fathers gave way to speculative commentaries; philosophy and theology became matters of captious argumentation or subtle intellectual games. Thus, the Arab translations of the books of the Organon made possible the flow of late medieval dialectic into the body of logic then prevailing at the universities. The mania for syllogism, a cumbersome way of reasoning, became the subject of the debate.8 According to Petrarch, this disease spread and entrenched itself particularly in England's school of Occam and in Italy's Averroistic University of Padua, most noticeably in its Faculty of Medicine. Petrarch complains in a letter of the accusations against poetry directed to him by a Sicilian dialectician.9 He notes that this pestilence seems to be peculiar to islands, for in addition to the legions of British dialecticians and logicians, a new horde seems to be arising in Sicily. This is the third pack of monsters to have invaded the poor island of Sicily, their predecessors being the Cyclops and the tyrants. Petrarch goes on to say that these dialecticians are anti-Christian, since their naturalistic beliefs stem from the Arab commentators on Aristotle, rather than from Aristotle himself. To Averroism as a pseudo-science, to dialectic as a pseudo-philosophy, he opposes humanist wisdom, the subordination of the intellectual sphere to the moral one.

Petrarch's emphasis on moral philosophy led him not to a metaphysical but to a practical kind of wisdom, much like the philosophy of bene vivendi developed by Cicero in his Tusculan disputations. The Thomist negation of the cognitive value of poetry is itself to be discounted in view of poetry's esthetic and moral impact, according to Petrarch. In this issue Petrarch sided with the Franciscans, heirs of the Platonic-Augustinian tradition by virtue of its coincidence with their basic spiritualism.

The Aristotelian doctor who makes his charges against poetry is addressed by Petrarch as "Ypocras et Aristoteles secundus,"10 by which Petrarch means someone who is versed in naturalistic science and syllogism. The first charge of the medicus is based on the premise that what is not necessary is not worthy and noble. Petrarch, however, undoes the logic of the syllogism. If necessity argues true nobility, the farmer and the carpenter are truly noble and the ass and the cock are nobler than the lion and the eagle. So necessity does not always imply nobility. In fact, the contrary is sometimes true, since it is obvious that the eagle is no less noble than the cock, although it is less necessary than the cock. The fact that the art of medicine is more necessary makes it only an ars mechanica. How does the doctor dare to proclaim himself a follower of Aristotle if he ignores the basic distinction made in the Metaphysics (983a 10-11) between the productive and theoretical arts? With this distinction Aristotle locates the artes mechanicae among the productive arts. On the other hand, Aristotle holds the theoretical arts in higher esteem because they pursue knowledge for its own sake rather than for utilitarian goals. Since goals are proper to the artes necessariae or artes mechanicae, they are less noble and the syllogism of the doctor turns out to be incorrect even in Aristotelian terms.

Continuing in this vein, Petrarch argues that the doctor should understand the limits of his trade, insofar as its nobility is concerned, from the fact that there are many doctors but only a few poets. As Horace said, "neither men nor the gods, nor the booksellers allowed the poets to be mediocre" (Ars Poetica 372-3), and it is for this reason that they are few and good. Poetry's gratuity is the mark of its superiority; its lack of necessity makes it a theoretical art, hence more worthy than medicine.

The doctor had subsequently argued that since medicine cures the body and helps people to live better, it is on the same level as ethics and poetry. But Petrarch counters by observing that medicine is directed to the cure of the body and is, therefore, at the service of the body. In the same way the liberal arts, as they aim at the benefit of the soul, are at the service of the soul. Now since the soul clearly leads the body and stands above it, it follows that the liberal arts lead and are above the arts which aim to cure the body. Nor should the doctor think, continues Petrarch, that poetry is not a liberal art simply because it is not mentioned in the traditional division of the arts. It is true that poetry is not mentioned by Hugh of St. Victor in his Libri septem eruditionis, where he says that the liberal arts include grammar, rhetoric, dialectic, arithmetic, music, geometry, and astronomy, distinguishing them from the artes mechanicae including lanificium, armatura, navigatio, agricultura, venatio, medicina, and treatricum. But poetry goes without mention here because, along with history, it is included in grammar, the leading art. Nobody would deny the existence of philosophy simply because it is not mentioned among the seven liberal arts, and since grammar subsumes poetry, Petrarch concludes that the place of poetry among the liberal arts is so obvious as to have been taken for granted.

In the next point of controversy, the doctor argues that a science is firma et impermutabilis, while poetry is a matter of variable meters and words and is, therefore, not a science. Petrarch counters that the doctor should inquire what this variation means before excluding poetry from the sciences, for what changes is words, while the things remain "upon which the sciences are founded."11 Science, too, uses words which change according to historical periods, yet it is not judged wholely on the words it uses. Poetry is a science "firm and immutable," as is obvious from the fact that its exercise lends eternity to the poet. It gives the poet a glory which Petrarch's Secretum identifies with the particular achievement of the poet in society: through his poetry the poet survives beyond his bodily death. Since poetry transcends the finite barriers of the human life span, it has no time limits and assures the survival of worthwhile human endeavour. Poetry sets itself against the transitoriness of other human values, as a means to eternity. Being eternal, then, its laws remain the same from antiquity to modern times. Hence poetry is a science.

Another accusation made by the doctor is that poets are the enemies of religion: "What do you think of Ambrose, Augustine, Jerome, Cyprian, the martyr Victorinus, Lactantius and all the other Christian writers," asks Petrarch, "since you accuse the poets of being enemies of religion?"12 He adds that poets have always been concerned with divine matters, and many of them have defended the existence of a unique God. On the other hand, doctors have not become any healthier for reading the treatise of Galen and the Greek treatises based on a naturalistic approach. Furthermore, the doctor seems to ignore the opinion of the philosopher Aristotle, of whom he proclaims himself a follower. In Metaphysics 983b 29 Aristotle calls the poets "theologians," since these ancient poets were striving for an understanding of God even more than the philosophers were. Privately, poets believed there was only one God, although the people in those times were uncultured and incapable of understanding concepts of monotheism. Homer thus presented them with images that they could grasp, images of many gods who, in a fashion similar to men, committed crimes and fought with one another. In this way, Homer indicated that since a multiplicity of gods led them to disputes much as it does with man, there must be some sort of supreme being to inspire harmony.

Poetry is theology for Petrarch as well. In the Familiares, (10.4), he writes: "Poetics is not very different from theology. Are you amazed? Actually I could easily say that theology is that form of poetics concerning itself with the godhead. Christ is described now as a lion, now as a worm, and is this not a form of poetry? It would be a long matter to enumerate all the other similar images which can be found in Scripture."13 Considering their relationship further, Petrarch says that poetry and theology are identified not only because the ancient poets were theologians, but also because poets and theologians shared a figurative language whose main element is the metaphor. This language was invented by the ancient poet-theologians: in their desire to understand the first causes, struck by the worth and nobility of these generative principles, they built temples and established ministers and a cult to celebrate them. In order to pray and implore the divinity, they had to create a language more noble than the colloquial one, suitable to address the divinity, so they invented poetry. This is a particular form of speaking and writing involving numerus, which confers suavitas.14 This form was called poetry, and the people who used is were called poets. Since it was born out of the need to communicate and address the divinity properly, it is a divine form of speech shared by Scripture; however, while poetry and theology have a common means of expression, their subject-matter remains different. For theology always speaks of true facts and presents true gods, while poetry has often portrayed fictional events and false gods. Except for this difference in subject matter, then, poetry and theology basically involve the same literary forms. So there is a tradition which emphasizes the literary quality of Scripture and notices the poetical language used in such works as Jerome's Breviary, St. Augustine's Enarrationes in Psalmos, and Cassiodorus' Exposition in his Psalterium. St. Augustine himself saw David as a poet, and interpreted the Psalms allegorically. Petrarch provides an allegorical interpretation of his Bucolics in much the same vein as St. Augustine had done with the Psalms (Fam. 10.4; 10.3).

The suavitas of the poetical language, its allegorical veil, the doctor counters, is a form of obscurity which, just as it creates wonders, deceives the reader. Petrarch, however, defends the obscurity of poetical allegory, likening it to that of Scriptural allegory.15 Following the Augustinian argument, he says that the divine word must be obscure, for it is the expression of an inconceivable power, access to which must be rendered difficult to make its understanding pleasing and wondrous. Similarly, poetry uses allegory to signify things not easily understood in a way which stimulates the intelligence of the reader to understand them. Thus, with the allegorical sermo ornatus the poet creates wonders, as Horace also noted; the creation of wonder is a main characteristic of poetry. So veritas is hidden under the ornamentation of allegory. And beauty resides both in this cortex and in the veritas hidden by the cortex, because content and form complement one another. The cortex creates in the reader a sense correlative to the veritas, as St. Augustine found in Scripture; Petrarch extends this power to poetry.

It bears noting here that although Petrarch is moved to emphasize that both form and content must be given proper care, it is the stylus or sermo ornatus, as he calls it, which must be particularly cultivated by the poet. Petrarch's notion of style is a very complex one, as it involves not only poetics but the "expression" of all the humanae litterae. It is strictly related to the concept of imitation. In the Familiares 1.8 he says: "Like the bees, who do not regurgitate the flowers as they find them but combine them to make wax and honey,… so words and style should be our own although composed out of many.… Some are like silk worms, which spin everything out of themselves. Let us, however, peruse the books of the wise."16 The invitation here is to read carefully the form of expression of the classical writers and to retain their spirit, from which all things follow, not simply to copy them: "Like a father and a son whose features and dimensions are different yet have in common what the painters call 'air.' Do not copy words and expressions, but inspire the general 'air.'"17 "Mix the old with the new."18 Imitation is then intended as an invitation to be alert to the general "air," i.e., to the spirit or style of the ancient writers.

While the Thomist movement and even some famous Christian writers de-emphasize form and style, often seeing them as a useless adjunct, Petrarch conceives of style as an integral part of content, by virtue of its formative power over content. Later Petrarch clearly felt a conflict between his attachment to form and the disregard of it by famous Christian writers, whom he otherwise admired:

I loved Cicero, I admit, and I loved Virgil; … similarly I loved, of the Greeks, Plato and Homer.… But now I must think of more serious matters. My care is more for salvation than for noble language. I used to read what gave me pleasure, now I read what may be profitable.ߪ Now my orators shall be Ambrose, Augustine, Jerome, Gregory; my philosopher shall be Paul, my poet David.… But although I put the Christian writers first, I do not reject the others. I seem to love both groups at once, provided that I consciously distinguish between those I prefer for style and those I prefer for content.19

The doctor's final objection concerns a passage in Boethius' De consolatione Philosophiae (1.1.8). Boethius narrates that at his deathbed the poetical Muses came to comfort him, but Philosophy sent the "scenicas meretriculas" away and wished for the presence of her muses ("meae Musae"). Following Priscian's grammatical reasoning, the doctor tries to establish that the "meae" refers to philosophical Muses rather than to poetical Muses in general. Petrarch laughs at the internal contradiction inherent in the doctor's argument, for it seeks to undermine the existence of poetry by borrowing explanations from the field of grammar. In his turn, Petrarch argues that the Muses have always been muses of poetry. By calling them "meae," the personification of Philosophy means that the Muses, in general, are close to her, for philosophers have frequently dealt with poetics, as Aristotle's Poetics proves. Actually, Lady Philosophy in Boethius differentiates between the theatrical and other kinds of poetry, which Petrarch uses as evidence that theatrical poetry has too often deviated from the path of truth. But this is not a fault peculiar to poetry. All good things have an impure side, just as oil has dregs and philosophy has Epicurus. In fact, philosophy, like poetry, has been accused of impurity. In Book VIII of the Confessiones (2.3), St. Augustine writes that the books of the philosophers are filled with deceptions and lies; yet by this he does not mean to condemn philosophy, for in the same book he extensively praises Platonic philosophy. He condemns only that branch of philosophy which by the use of limited rational syllogisms claims to arrive at unconditional truths. The impure part of poetry comes from the dramatic poets condemned by Plato in the Republic (398a and 606-607) because the theater had become unworthy of the majesty of the gods. But epic poets like Homer and Virgil have never written drama. Thus, the condemnation should not be extended to them.

To sum up Petrarch's poetics, we find it an elaboration of the rhetorical and Platonic tradition against the new Aristotelianism. He mentions Thomas Aquinas only once, but opposition to a technical, dehumanized theology, philosophy, and poetry runs through his entire work. For Petrarch, poetry is a theoretical art because it makes use of grammar and all the other liberal arts. What raises poetry above grammar and the other liberal arts is the poetical language it shares with the Bible. This language has divine origins because it was invented to speak about the gods. Furthermore, it serves as a vehicle for divine revelation, not only on account of its content and origins, but because with its allegorical form of expression it has the air of divine truth, from which every truth proceeds. With its language, then, poetry holds to the spirit of things, and the stylus ornatus is the specific characteristic of poetry which gives it a formative power unsurpassed by any other art. In addition, poetry immortalizes the poet through posterity, a theme dear to Petrarch's sonnets in the Canzoniere. For insofar as the poet avails himself of the classical poets, imbuing their style with the spirit of his own times, his poetry will come to have enduring force.

Petrarch's poetics is particularly influenced by Platonism.20 In Book VIII of St. Augustine's De civitate Dei, he read about the superiority of Platonism to all other philosophies. And in the work of St. Augustine, Petrarch found much correspondence with Christian Fathers.21 He knew Plato, too, through Macrobius' Somnium Scipionis. He knew Chalcidius' version of the Timaeus and Apuleius' De Platone et eius dogmate.22 In addition to this indirect tradition, the School of Chartres handed down to him the ideal of a reconciliation of paganism and Christianity, of classical humanist wisdom and the newly rediscovered Aristotle.23 The direct influence of John of Salisbury of the School of Chartres on Petrarch has been recently pointed out by Paolo Gerosa.24 Like John of Salisbury in the Metalogicon, Petrarch considers logic a science of persuasion involving basically moral criteria and directed toward practical aims. All this is not to say that Petrarch did not recognize Aristotle's scientific acuity. Petrarch, however, calls Aristotle a student of Plato: "Aristotle, a disciple of Plato, was a man of great intelligence and eloquence; though not comparable to Plato, nevertheless he easily surpasses quite a few."25 Petrarch's Platonism is of extreme importance, for he is the transmitter of the Platonic heritage in poetics to the Florentine humanists. This tradition was not transmitted without influence from medieval thinkers; Gerosa's investigation of Petrarch's sources indicates that the medieval heritage was his firm cultural background, while he emphasized the classical sources as a "discovery."26 Thus, his poetics reflect that humanist tradition which, issuing from the classical and Platonic tradition, became crystallized in the system of St. Augustine. This tradition was transmitted to the Renaissance by such early humanists as Mussato, Petrarch, Boccaccio, and Salutati.


  1. B. L. Ullman, Studies in the Italian Renaissance (Rome, 1955), pp. 11-40, supports the idea that early humanist reawakening means reawakening of poetry.
  2. E. H. Tatham, Francesco Petrarca: The First Man of Letters, 2 vols. (London, 1925-26); E. H. Wilkins, Life of Petrarch (Chicago, 1961).
  3. E. Garin, La letteratura degli umanisti, in Storia della letteratura italiana (1966), III, 7, sees as symbolic of this heritage the gift of the Confessiones made by Petrarch to the humanist Augustinian monk Luigi Marsili, who revamped the Augustinian spirit in the Florentine circle. Petrarch sides with the Franciscans, i.e., the Augustinian Platonic tradition, against the Dominicans who, in the middle of the thirteenth century, following Albertus Magnus and St. Thomas, abandoned that tradition. Platonic idealism corresponded to the spiritualism of the Franciscan order, while Aristotelian intellectualism corresponded to the rationalism of the Dominicans. Hence a continuous polemic between the two schools of thought.
  4. For a discussion of this cultural climate, see G. Toffanin, Storia dell'Umanesimo (Bologna, 1933), p. 13, and Il secolo di Roma (Bologna, 1942); U. Bosco, "Il Petrarca e l'umanesimo filologico," Giorn. Stor. della lett. It., 120 (1943), 65.
  5. Pierre de Nolhac, Pétrarque et l'Humanisme (Paris, 1907), I, 39.
  6. Invectivae in Francisci Petrarchae Opera Omnia (Basel, 1581). For the text with an Italian translation see P. G. Ricci's edition in Francesco Petrarca, Prose, ed. G. Martellotti et al. (Milan, 1955).
  7. De doctrina christiana 4.1; 2.50.
  8. Secretum 1.1 in Prose, p. 52. "Ista quidem dyalecticorum garrulitas nullum finem habitura, et diffinitionum huiuscemodi compendiis scatet et immortalium litigiorum materia gloriatur; plerumque autem, quid ipsum vere sit quod loquuntur, ignorant."
  9. Familiares 1.7. See the critical ed. by Rossi-Bosco, 4 vols. (Firenze, 1933-42). Cf., among others, P. O. Kristeller, Renaissance Thought II (New York, 1965), pp. 111-118.
  10. Invectivae in Prose, p. 648.
  11. Invectivae in Prose, p. 648: "In quibus scientiae fundatae sunt."
  12. Invectivae in Prose, p. 648. "Quid de Ambrosio, Augustino et Ieronimo, quid de Cypriano, Victorinoque martire, quid de Lactantio ceterisque Catholicis scriptoribus sentias?"
  13. The Latin text with an Italian translation appears in E. Garin, Il pensiero pedagogico dell'Umanesimo (Firenze, 1958), p. 32. "Miraris? parum abest quin dicam theologiam poeticam esse de Deo: Cristum modo leonem modo agnum modo vermem dici, quid nisi poeticum est? mille talia in Scripturis Sacris invenies que persequi longum est."
  14. Garin, Il pens. ped., p. 32. "Id quadam non vulgari forma, sed artificiosa et exquisita et nova fieri oportet." See also Isidore's Etymologiae 8.7, 1.3; Suetonius, De poetis 2; and Boccaccio's Gen. Deor. 14.7.
  15. Invectivae in Prose, pp. 669-70. "Quid sermo ipse divinus, quem etsi valde oderis, tamen aperte calumniari propter metum incendii non audebis? Quam in multis obscurus atque perplexus est. Cum prolatus sit ab eo Spiritu Sancto.…"
  16. Garin, Il pens. ped., p. 31. "Apes in inventionibus imitandas, que flores, non quales acceperint, referunt, sed ceras ac mella mirifica quadam permixtione conficiunt.… Illud affirmo: elegantioris esse solertie, ut, apium imitatores, nostris verbis quamvis aliorum hominum sententias proferamus.… Rursus nec huius stilum aut illius, sed unum nostrum conflatum ex pluribus habeamus; felicius quidem, non apium more passim sparsa colligere, sed quorundam haud multo maiorum verminum exemplo, quorum ex visceribus sericum prodit, ex se ipso sapere potius et loqui, dummodo et sensus gravis ac verus et sermo esset ornatus.… Perscrutemur doctorum hominum libros."
  17. Familiares 22.19; English translation in Morris Bishop, Letters from Petrarch (Bloomington and London, 1966), p. 198.
  18. Seniles 2.3 in Garin, Il pens. ped., p. 38: "Veteribus nova permisce."
  19. Fam. 22.10 in Bishop, p. 191.
  20. P. P. Gerosa, Umanesimo cristiano del Petrarca (Torino, 1966), p. 246.
  21. De Remediis 11.119; Fam. 22.5.
  22. Giovanni Gentile, "Le traduzioni medievali di Platone e Francesco Petrarca," Studi sul Rinascimento (Firenze, 1936); Roberto Weiss, Il primo secolo dell'Umanesimo (Roma, 1949).
  23. Pierre de Nolhac, ch. ix.
  24. Gerosa, p. 248.
  25. Rerum memorandarum 1.26. "Aristoteles, Platonis discipulus, vir excellentis ingenii et eloquii, Platoni quidem impar, sed multa facile superans."
  26. Gerosa, p. 258, lists all the medieval thinkers who, like the rings of a long chain, connect St. Augustine to Petrarch.

Robert M. Durling (essay date 1976)

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Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 12774

SOURCE: Robert M. Durling, in an introduction to Petrarch's Lyric Poems: The Rime Sparse and Other Lyrics, edited and translated by Robert M. Durling, Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1976, pp. 1-33.

[In the essay below, Durling provides a thematic and stylistic analysis of the Rime sparse.]

Ser Petracco (or, as he sometimes spelled it, Petrarcha) of Florence was exiled from his native city in 1301, at the same time as his friend Dante Alighieri; but his later life was much more prosperous than Dante's. Along with many other Italians he eventually moved to Avignon, the new seat of the papacy, where he became one of the most successful members of the legal profession, thanks partly to the patronage of powerful Italian clergymen. His eldest son, Francesco, who had been born in Arezzo on July 20, 1304, was eight when the family moved to Provence; with his mother and brother Francesco lived near Avignon, in Carpentras. Francesco was given every educational advantage. As a boy he had adistinguished tutor, the grammarian Convenevole da Prato, and as a young man he was maintained for ten years as a law student at two of the foremost universities of the day, first Montpellier and then Bologna.

After Ser Petracco's death in 1326, Francesco and his brother, Gherardo, returned to Avignon, now the most cosmopolitan cultural center in Europe, and lived for a time as wealthy young men about town. Whether the two squandered their considerable inheritance or whether they were swindled by their father's executors and their own servants, as Francesco later related, or both, it eventually became necessary for them to seek some means of support. The idea of practicing law seems to have been repugnant to Francesco from the outset; he decided to take the path of clerical preferment, which would allow him the leisure to continue his studies, and at some time he probably took minor orders so that he could legally hold benefices.

Already a great classical scholar in his early twenties, Francesco came to the attention of a powerful Roman family, the Colonnas, and in 1330 he formally entered the service of Cardinal Giovanni Colonna as a private chaplain (this may have meant no more than that he occasionally sang prayer services in the chapel), remaining more or less loosely under the family's patronage until 1347-48. From 1330 on Petrarch lived essentially in a scholarly semiretirement guaranteed for him by his connections with the great, carrying on a voluminous correspondence with learned and princely friends all over Europe, and frequently indulging his love of travel. Thanks to the patronage of the Colonnas and other prominent friends, he was able to accumulate benefices (most of them in Italy) that assured him a modest financial independence. Although throughout his life he willingly served on special diplomatic missions for popes and other rulers, he repeatedly refused preferments—for instance as a bishop or as papal secretary—that would have meant the end of his devotion to study.

Between 1326 and 1337 Petrarch lived mainly in Avignon; in 1337 he moved to the wild, romantic source of the Sorgue River at the fountain of Vaucluse, twenty miles east of Avignon. The 1340s brought momentous events in Petrarch's life. On Easter Sunday, 1341, Petrarch's celebrated coronation as poet laureate took place on the Capitol in Rome; skillfully dramatized by Petrarch, this event added considerable luster to his fame, especially in Italy, and led to his spending increasing amounts of time there. Petrarch's coronation oration, in form a sermon on a text from Virgil's Georgics, calls for a rebirth of classical wisdom and poetry and develops in some detail the idea of the laurel as symbolic of poetry and literary immortality.

In 1342 Gherardo became a Carthusian monk after the death of his beloved, and except for brief visits to Montreux in 1347 and 1353, Petrarch never saw him again. Petrarch's daughter, Francesca, was born in 1342 (his son, Giovanni, had been born in 1337); she lived with him until the end of his life. It is not known who the mother of these illegitimate children was. In 1345 Petrarch made his most notable philological discovery, that of the manuscript of Cicero's letters to Atticus, Quintus, and Brutus, in the library of the cathedral of Verona; these were the models for his collections of his own letters. In 1347 Cola di Rienzo's attempt to revive the Roman Republic at first evoked Petrarch's sympathy. His feelings changed, however, as it became increasingly antipatrician and several members of the Colonna family were killed in bloody uprisings. In 1347 the Black Death appeared in Sicily and began to make its way up the peninsula; during 1348 and 1349 Petrarch lost to it a number of friends and relations, including Cardinal Giovanni Colonna, the poet Sennuccio del Bene, so frequently addressed in the Rime sparse, and, he tells us, his beloved Laura.

In October 1350 Petrarch visited Florence for the first time (while on a pilgrimage to Rome) and there made acquantance with his devoted admirer, Giovanni Boccaccio, beginning a friendship that lasted until Petrarch's death. To what extent Petrarch's much-debated religious conversion took place in the late 1330s, in the late 1340s, or in the early 1350s will probably never be determined fully. There is no doubt, however, that after 1350 he rewrote much of his earlier work and composed poems and letters with fictitiously early dates.

In 1353 Petrarch left Provence for good, accepting first the patronage of the Visconti in Milan, who were emerging as the most powerful dynasty in Italy. Boccaccio and other Florentine republicans were scandalized by this apparent condoning of what they regarded as tyranny. Petrarch maintained that he had complete independence, but it seems clear that the Visconti were able to take advantage of his prestige as an ambassador by manipulating his vanity. In 1361 Petrarch left Milan, perhaps because of the increasing gravity of the plague there (his son died of it that year), and gravitated toward the Venetian sphere of influence, while continuing to maintain friendly relations with the Visconti. After long periods of residence in Venice, Pavia, and Padua, he retired in 1370 to a modest house (still standing, though much altered) that he built on land given him by Francesco da Carrara, lord of Padua, at Arquà in the Euganean Hills, where he lived until his death on the night of July 18, 1374.

Boccaccio once accused Petrarch of having spent his life with princes, and the charge has considerable weight in spite of Petrarch's reply that it was the princes who had sought him and that he had preserved his independence. His friends were princes, prelates, and their servants. His identification with privilege was unquestioning, and his quietism amounted to tacit consent in the political arrangements of the day. It can be claimed for him that he did not seek political power for himself (although he does seem to have cherished the hope that Clement VI would make him a cardinal, which may help explain his strange mixture of adulation and denunciation of that pontiff), that when he was manipulated it was because he was naive, and that he actively sought to promote Christian virtue (including the ideal of crusade against the Moslems) and to prevent war among the Christians. But he set a style of ambiguous relation of humanist to prince that in the later Renaissance was to degenerate into subservience.

The glory of the Italian communes was a thing of the past, and it was inevitable that in a society increasingly dominated by princely courts Petrarch's effort to create a secular role for the man of letters should be aristocratic in orientation. After 1350 both Petrarch and Boccaccio threw the weight of their influence on the side of aristocratic culture in Latin; their audience was learned and international, not peninsular, let alone municipal. But both are beloved for the other side of their genius and for their writings in Italian.

To immortalize Laura is an avowed purpose of the Rime sparse, as of the Trionfi and many verse epistles and eclogues in Latin. We do not know who she was, however, or even whether she really existed. One of Petrarch's closest friends, Giacomo Colonna, seems to have doubted that she was anything but a symbol and a pretext for poetry. At the other extreme are the sixteenth-century commentators who, like Vellutello, imagined a biographical basis for each poem, or the abbé de Sade, who in the eighteenth century discovered what he thought was archival evidence for Laura's being an ancestress of his who died in 1348. Outside of the poetry, however, evidence is slight. Petrarch answered Giacomo Colonna's charges in a letter, asserting that Laura was only too real, his passion all too unfeigned. But the letter by itself is very inconclusive evidence, since it was clearly written for publication (at least in the limited sense of circulation among the poet's friends and wealthy patrons) and since it serves just as much to call Laura's reality into question as to prove it.

More interesting are the references to Laura in Petrarch's Secretum, probably first written around 1342 and revised after Laura's death. Although the Secretum is as dominated by Petrarch's reflexive irony as any of the works intended for publication, he never published it, and there is no evidence that he ever intended to. This dialogue between Francesco and his spiritual mentor, Saint Augustine of Hippo, imagined as taking place in the presence of Truth, consists of the saint's efforts—sometimes resisted, often successful—to bring his charge to the realization of his sinfulness and of the inadequacy of his earlier efforts to change. The first two books analyze Francesco's preference for a state of sinfulness and measure his varying subjection to each of the seven capital vices. In the third book, Augustine singles out what he regards as the two greatest obstacles to Francesco's repentance—his "virtuous" love for Laura and his immoderate desire for glory. Francesco argues heatedly against the saint's critique, but he is outmaneuvered by Augustine to the point of acknowledging that his love for Laura must have a basis in sensuality, since he would not have fallen in love with an equally virtuous woman in an ugly body. At one point, in a passage that was probably added in revision, the saint points out that one must expect a woman "worn out with frequent childbearing" to have limited life expectancy. The precision of this indication, in a work presumably not intended for publication (and in none of Petrarch's Italian or Latin poetry or other published works is there any reference to Laura's being married or having children), may be regarded as strong evidence of her existence.

Another piece of evidence is furnished by a note on the flyleaf of Petrarch's copy of Virgil. Throughout his life, Petrarch used the flyleaves of various books for personal notes (lists of his favorite books, gardening enterprises, and so forth). On the flyleaf of his Virgil—a magnificent codex apparently commissioned by Petrarch and his father, stolen at some time but recovered in 1347, when Petrarch commissioned a frontispiece by his friend the famous painter Simone Martini—Petrarch wrote obituaries of relatives and friends. One of the notes refers to Laura.

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; and in the same city, also on the sixth day of April, at the same first hour, but in the year 1348, the light of her life was withdrawn from the light of day, while I, as it chanced, was in Verona, unaware of my fate. The sad tidings reached me in Parma, in the same year, on the morning of the 19th day of May, in a letter from my Ludovicus. Her chaste and lovely form was laid to rest at vesper time, on the same day on which she died, in the burial place of the Brothers Minor. I am persuaded that her soul returned to the heaven from which it came, as Seneca says of Africanus. I have thought to write this, in bitter memory, yet with a certain bitter sweetness, here in this place that is often before my eyes, so that I may be admonished, by the sight of these words and by the consideration of the swift flight of time, that there is nothing in this life in which I should find pleasure; and that it is time, now that the strongest tie is broken, to flee from Babylon; and this, by the prevenient grace of God, should be easy for me, if I meditate deeply and manfully on the futile cares, the empty hopes, and the unforeseen events of my past years. (Translated by E. H. Wilkins, in his Life of Petrarch [Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1961], p. 77)

This note suggests some of the respects in which the Rime sparse are an expression of genuinely held attitudes—the sense of the connection between grief and contemptus mundi, of the liability of earthly existence, of the passage of time—all amply substantiated in Petrarch's repeated experience of bereavement. It suggests also some insights into the indirection, not to say evasiveness, of the Rime sparse.

For the Rime sparse avoid the factual. There is no mention of Laura's being a married woman (if such she was) or having children, just as there is no mention of Petrarch's two illegitimate children or their mother. There is no mention of Saint Clare's Church—in fact, there is no mention of any encounter with Laura taking place indoors (the inference is possible in several cases, but not imposed by the text). The Rime sparse transpose all "events" to the level of recollection and reflection, bring them into a zone where the dividing line between fact, illusion, and fiction is obscured. This is partly a literary elegance, partly a serious theme—again, the line is hard to draw. Not one external event involving Laura is related in a literal, straightforward, factual manner. Did he actually see her bathing naked in the Sorgue? Did he first see her in Avignon and then later fall in love with her in Vaucluse? That is possible, but for the purposes of the Rime sparse it is assumed that the first encounter and the decisive encounter are the same. Furthermore, April 6, 1327, was not Good Friday; it was the historical anniversary of the Crucifixion, as its date was calculated in Petrarch's day. But poem 3 says he fell in love amid "the common grief," which clearly implies the liturgical date. (The solution would seem to be that he did not expect the reader to remember the difference.) As Aldo S. Bernardo and Bortolo Martinelli have recently pointed out, April 6, 1348, the date of Laura's death, was Easter Sunday. The coincidence of the two anniversaries comes to involve both the penitential implication for the lover and the assurance of Laura's salvation.

The figure of Laura emerges in the Rime sparse with a concrete vividness, rich with at least implied incident, quite different from the hieratically stylized or philosophically abstract manner of the dolce stil or the Vita nuova, justifying De Sanctis formula that in comparison with Dante, Petrarch brought woman down from Heaven to earth. Still, Laura herself is not the central focus of the poetry. Her psychology remains transcendent, mysterious (perhaps even miraculous, but that is evaded), the subject of conjecture and bewilderment except at moments represented as virtually total spiritual communion. Rather it is the psychology of the lover that is the central theme of the book.

Although Petrarch was accustomed in later life to disparage poetry in the vernacular, he lavished intense if intermittent care on his own over more than forty years. It does not consitute a large proportion of his entire literary output—some 10,000 lines of Italian verse (the Rime sparse, the Trionfi, the uncollected poems, a few fragments), as opposed to thousands of pages of verse and prose in Latin—but it has been accepted as his greatest achievement. He apparently began writing the poems that were to form the Rime sparse in the early 1330s; perhaps by 1335 he had decided to make a collection; by the mid-1350s most of the 366 poems had been drafted. Working papers of various kinds, from first drafts to fair copies, have come down to us for sixty-five poems and for several of the Trionfi in the Vatican Library's codex Vat. Lat. 3196. Many of these papers have dated marginal notations, and on their basis the great Petrarchan scholar Ernest Hatch Wilkins built a series of hypotheses about the development of the collection. The first version of the collection that actually survives is a preliminary, incomplete one that Petrarch allowed to circulate in 1359. It is found in a manuscript (the Vatican's Chigi L. V. 176) that includes an anthology of poems by Dante and others, and an important version of Boccaccio's life of Dante; it is now generally thought to have been transcribed by Boccaccio himself. This version of the Rime sparse consists of 215 poems (1-120, "Donna mi vene," 122-156, 159-165, 169-173, 184-185, 178, 176-177, 189, 264-304; in that order).

In 1366 Petrarch began intensive work on a definitive version of the Rime sparse. He replaced "Donna mi vene" with 121, drastically revised the order of poems after 156, and added 151 other poems, many of which he revised just before they were transcribed into his definitive copy. Abandoned by his copyist late in 1366, Petrarch continued to revise, transcribe, and rearrange the poems well into the last year of his life. The definitive manuscript of the Rime sparse, Petrarch's own copy, is the Vatican's codex Vat. Lat. 3195; poems 121, 179, 191-263, and 319-366 are in Petrarch's handwriting. Wilkins inferred reliable dates of transcription into Vat. Lat. 3195 from notations in Vat. Lat. 3196, from variations in the handwriting and ink of Vat. Lat. 3195, and from fairly detailed knowledge of Petrarch's whereabouts from 1366 on. Some time after the transcription had been completed in 1374, Petrarch renumbered the last thirty poems, thereby sharpening the focus of the conclusion. The final version of the Rime sparse is the basis of this edition.

Both the Chigi version and the post-1366 versions (Petrarch allowed several copies to be made from Vat. Lat. 3195 while it was in progress) have two parts, often referred to, somewhat inappropriately, as poems in vita and in morte. The second begins with the great canzone of inner debate, "I' vo pensando" (264). In Vat. Lat. 3195 the division between the two parts is indicated by an elaborate initial for poem 264 and by the presence of seven blank pages before it; whether Petrarch meant to add more poems there has been debated.

In the Chigi version and in manuscripts deriving from it, in Vat. Lat. 3196, and in Vat. Lat. 3195 it is possible to trace the process of revision of individual poems, in some cases from the first draft through several versions to the final one. Some of these materials have been assembled by Carl Appel and Angelo Romanò in their editions of Vat. Lat. 3196, but there has been no reliable codification of all the variant readings, and a truly critical edition of the Rime sparse is still awaited.

Petrarch's themes are traditional, his treatment of them profoundly original. From Propertius, Ovid, the troubadors, the Roman de la rose, the Sicilians, the dolce stil novo, Dante, Cino da Pistoia there comes to him a repertory of situations, technical vocabulary, images, structures. Love at first sight, obsessive yearning and lovesickness, frustration, love as parallel to feudal service; the lady as ideally beautiful, ideally virtuous, miraculous, beloved in Heaven, and destined to early death; love as virtue, love as idolatry, love as sensuality; the god of love with his arrows, fires, whips, chains; war within the self-hope, fear, joy, sorrow. Conceits, wit, urbane cleverness; disputations and scholastic precision; allegory, personification; wooing, exhortation, outcry; praise, blame; self-examination, self-accusation, self-defense; repentance and the farewell to love. These elements of the world of the Rime sparse all exist in the tradition. Petrarch's originality lies in the intensity with which he develops and explores them, in the rich, profoundly personal synthesis of divergent poetic traditions, in the idea of the collection itself.

Although Petrarch's wide familiarity with troubador poetry is evident on every page of the Rime sparse, the way in which he assimilated and made use of its influence—at all levels—was shaped by the example of Dante. The study of Provençal poetry, in particular the poems of Arnaut Daniel, had had a profound effect on Dante, provoking (around 1296) a series of radical experiments, the rime petrose (stony rhymes), so called because the central theme is the hard, unyielding cruelty of the lady. The way Petrarch learned to adapt to his own purposes what he found in the rime petrose was a key moment in the clarification of his attitude toward both the Vita nuova and the Commedia.…

One of Petrarch's greatest originalities lies in the idea of the collection itself. C. S. Lewis once wrote that Petrarch invented the sonnet sequence by omitting the prose narrative found in the Vita nuova, and it ought to be kept in mind that, as Wilkins established, before the Rime sparse it was the custom to keep different metrical forms separated, in different sections of manuscripts. (The Verona manuscript of Catullus separates short poems in lyric meters from long poems in lyric and other meters and from poems in elegiacs; Italian manuscripts regularly separate sonnets, ballate, canzoni; the same principle applies in Provençal collections.) The Rime sparse are arranged as if they are in chronological order, and most modern opinion holds that they are in fact more or less, and with certain notable exceptions, in the order of composition. But this cannot be determined with much reliability, since the anniversary poems, which used to be thought of as anchors of the "real" chronology, could have been written years later or even years earlier, and we have evidence in Vat. Lat. 3196 that a number of the poems of the first part were written long after 1348. The work presents a fictional chronology that should not be confused with a real one, and the ordering of the poems derives from artistic principles.

As a collection the Rime sparse have a number of models. Some are classical: Horace's Odes, Virgil's Eclogues, Propertius' and Ovid's elegies are collected in works that form composites, made up of separate units arranged in complex, obliquely symmetrical patterns. In the Vita nuova, the retrospective prose narrative explains the circumstances of composition of the poems and provides some technical commentary; the assumption is that the poems express the most intimate experience of the poet, the meaning of which becomes apparent only later, not at the time of writing. This becomes an important principle in the Rime sparse: the meaning of experience is qualified in retrospect, and the passage of time becomes a structural principle as well as a major theme. It is discernible both in the recurrence of the anniversaries and in the succession of separate poems. Presented as if the products of distinct occasions, the poems are arranged as if deposited by the passage of time. Omitting the prose narrative means that there is no mediation between poems, that the reader must supply the narrative and psychological inferences. Successive poems often may or may not have been written on the same day (in the fictional chronology). The passage of time may cast altogether new light on earlier poems, as the second anniversary poem (62) does on the first one (30), or as Laura's death does on the whole first part.

The Vita nuova provided another structural principle for the Rime sparse. It has thirty-one poems in the following order: ten sonnets or short poems, one canzone, four sonnets, one canzone (prophetic of Beatrice's death), four sonnets or short poems, one canzone, ten sonnets or short poems. Petrarch derived from this arrangement the idea of placing canzoni and groups of canzoni as structural nodes or pillars at varying intervals among the short poems. The arrangement of the second part of the Rime sparse is a particularly clear allusion to the symmetry of the Vita nuova: it has three groups of canzoni, separated by long stretches of sonnets, standing at the beginning (264, 268, 270), the middle (323, 325, 331, 332), and at the end (359, 360, 366); the first group of sonnets is exactly twice as long as the second, but the mid-point of the second part falls in poem 331. Laura's death is announced in poem 267, which gives exactly one hundred poems from there to the end.

Wilkins accepted Ruth S. Phelps' view that the poems added in the post-Chigi versions were less carefully arranged than those in the Chigi version. It is increasingly clear that this view was based on utterly inadequate criteria and is untenable. Rather what emerges from recent studies is that Petrarch's notion of what he was seeking to achieve in the arrangement of the poems grew clearer as he neared the end of his work on them. His renumbering of the last thirty poems is a striking instance.

Petrarch was less an inventor of new forms than an untiring explorer of the possibilities of existing forms. More than anyone before him, he demonstrated the remarkable range of the sonnet; he developed a new flexibility, sinuousness, and variety in the canzone; he made the sestina peculiarly his own. Some discussion of forms here is vital to an understanding of the interrelation for him of form and the other aspects of poetry.

The formal principle of the sonnet is closely related to that of the Italian canzone stanza. The Italian sonnet consists of two parts (octave and sestet) theoretically governed by a different "melody"; its divisions are marked by the rhymes, which do not overlap between the two parts. The rhythmical, formal contrast between the parts is between double-duple movement (2 x 4 lines, four appearances each of two rhymes) and double-triple ( 2 x 3 lines, two appearances each of three rhymes, or vice versa). Petrarch explores the possibilities of symmetry and contrast among the parts of the sonnet with endless ingenuity, and the self-conscious technical mastery is integral to his expressiveness. It is commonly said that the Petrarchan sonnet presents a situation, event, image, or generalization in the octave and in the sestet a reflection, result, or application. Many do follow such a scheme, but the range of possibilities is broad, and it is characteristic of Petrarch to capitalize, in the sestet, on the division between first and second tercet—to introduce a qualification or reversal, often epigrammatically coming to focus in the very last line. I shall discuss one example in order to suggest some of the subtlety of what may seem to modern readers merely formal or cerebral.

An extreme case of Petrarch's artificiality, the fifth poem in the Rime sparse, puns on the meaning of each syllable of Laura's name (Laurette, adapted to high style in a Latinate form, Laureta). In the octave, after a pair of introductory lines, each of the three syllables receives two lines of comment:

Quando io movo i sospiri a chiamar voi
e 'l nome che nel cor mi scrisse Amore,
LAU-dando s'incomincia udir di fore
il suon de' primi dolci accenti suoi;

vostro stato RE-al che 'ncontro poi
raddoppia a l'alta impresa il mio valore;
ma "TA-ci!" grida il fin, "ché farle onore
è d'altri omeri soma che da' tuoi."

When I move my sighs to call you and the name that Love wrote on my heart, the sound of its first sweet accents is heard without in LAU-ds.

Your RE-gal state, which I meet next, redoubles my strength for the high enterprise; but "TA-lk no more!" cries the ending, "for to do her honor is a burden for other shoulders than yours."

The regularity of the pattern (two lines per syllable) is connected with the idea of slow pronunciation of the name. What is said about each syllable, in addition to being a pun (though that is not strictly true in the case of the first, since according to traditional etymology laurus was derived from laudare, to praise), also plays on the position of the syllable in the name: praise, he says, begins with the first syllable; next, the energy is redoubled; and the ending calls for silence. Even more: the position of the syllables in the lines corresponds to their position in the name—beginning, middle, and—but just when the structure is becoming mechanical, the urgency of anxiety brings the third syllable back to the beginning of the line.

In the sestet the positioning of the syllables is different. The first two appear immediately and together, while the third is delayed until the last line of the poem (thus the promise of the octave is obliquely fulfilled):

Cosi LAU-dare et RE-verire insegna
la voce stessa, pur ch' altri vi chiami,
o d'ogni reverenza et d'onor degna;

se non che forse Apollo si disdegna
ch'a parlar de' suoi sempre verdi rami
lingua mor-TA-1 presuntuosa vegna.

Thus the word itself teaches LAU-d and RE-verence, whenever anyone calls you, O Lady worthy of all reverence and honor; except that perhaps Apollo is incensed that any mor-TA-1 tongue should come presumptuous to speak of his eternally green boughs.

The first tercet sets up a neat chiastic relation between line 9 and line 11; it leads up to degna as establishing the explanation of the strange efficacy of the name. Degna is thus the hinge of the sestet; juxtaposed with it is the forbidding and enigmatic disdegna, and the last lines bring in a more serious anxiety than the finitude of the poet's gifts—the finitude of his existence itself. The silence of line 7 is now connected with the idea of death.

Is this merely precious, trivial play? What is the relation between the urbane, witty, complimentary surface and the recurrence of the anxiety, a recurrence dictated by the last syllable of the name, inherent in the formal "perfection" itself? The last word of the poem, vegna, may seem a curiously weak one in view of the emphasis on the last syllable of the name. But that emphasis in fact gives it a relief, and it is to be connected with line 12 of the next poem: "a morte mi trasporta; / sol per venir al lauro"—to speak the name is itself to reenact the myth of Apollo and Daphne. That Petrarch found this an interesting poem may be inferred from his giving it such a prominent place at the beginning of the Rime sparse: it is the first poem that refers to the myth of Apollo and Daphne.

Brief mention will suffice for the other short forms Petrarch uses. The term madrigal has no precise formal meaning. All of Petrarch's (52, 54, 106, 121) are experiments in three-line groups (their schemes are, respectively, A B A, B C B, C C; A B A, C B C, D E D E; A B C, A B C, D D; A B B, A C C, C D D). The principle of ballata form is that after an initial statement of a ritornello (a melodic unit that recurred, originally, thus a rhyme scheme, not a refrain) one or more stanzas follow, each of which ends with the ritornello; the first rhyme(s) of these later ritornellos must be attached to the rhymes of the individual stanzas, and the last rhyme repeats the last rhyme of the original ritornello, thus (11): A B B A (ritornello), C D E D C E, E F F A (stanza). When there is more than one stanza, each starts afresh. Most of Petrarch's ballate have only one stanza; two (55 and 59) have two stanzas.

The longest poems in the Rime sparse are canzoni, a form in which Petrarch's greatness as a poet reaches its fullest expression. In both the Provençal and the Italian type, a canzone consists of several stanzas of identical form, the form being devised by the poet: he is free to make the stanza as short or as long as he pleases (Petrarch's shortest stanza is seven lines long; his longest, twenty), to arrange the rhymes as he pleases, and to mix long and short lines as he pleases. (Petrarch's long lines are always the normal Italian eleven-syllable line, corresponding to iambic pentameter; his short lines all have seven syllables.) The canzone usually ends with a commiato or congedo (farewell) that repeats the scheme of the last few lines of the stanza.

It is integral to Petrarch's cult of technical refinement that (except for the sestinas) he devises a new stanza for each new canzone. There are two exceptions to this rule, each involving successive poems. One is the sequence of three canzoni in praise of Laura's eyes (71-73), all in the same stanza form. The other is the pair 125 and 126, discussed below. As one might expect, the interplay in the Rime sparse of the different stanza forms and different lengths of poems is carefully planned.

Most of Petrarch's canzoni are of the Italian type, in which the stanza has two "melodies," two rhyme schemes that are separate, except that the first line of the second part rhymes with the last line of the first part. As Dante had pointed out, either or both the parts of the Italian canzone stanza could be symmetrically subdivisible (into two or three parts) or not. Petrarch's stanzas are always divisible in the first part, indivisible in the second. Here is a stanza in which there is a clear division of sense between the first and second parts:

   In quella parte dove Amor mi sprona   A
conven ch' io volga le dogliose rime      B
che son seguaci de la mente afflitta       C
quai fien ultime, lasso, et qua' fien prime?      B
Collui che del mio mal meco mi ragiona   A
mi lascia in dubbio, sì confuso ditta.      C

  Ma pur quanto la storia trovo scritta    C
in mezzo 'l cor che sì spesso rincorro      D
parlando an triegua et al dolor soccorro.    D
Dico che perch' io miri                    e
mille cose diverse attento et fisco,         F
sol una donna veggio e 'l suo bel viso.    F

Like the overwhelming majority of Petrarch's stanzas, this one has a first part of six lines; most rhyme like this one, some rhyme A B C A B C. Second, most of the stanzas end, like this one, with a rima baciata (two consecutively rhymed lines). Third, in almost all his stanzas, as here, the second part begins with some variant of C D E E D, and the longer ones even repeat it (the second part of poem 23 is C D E e D F G H H G F F I I). In other words, in Petrarch's usage, the two parts of the stanza tend to be "melodically" related in a way similar to the two parts of the sonnet: in the first part of the canzone stanza the double-triple rhythm, similar to the sestet of the sonnet, governs; in the second part, within the basic asymmetrical indivisibility, there is usually a recurrent sense of double rhythm in the groups of four lines and in the paired lines.

Petrarch used the Provençal type of stanza, which has no division, much less frequently, and in such poems as 70 and 206 there is still a strong feeling for division. The stanza of 135 is a hybrid:

Qual più diversa et nova                a
cosa fu mai in qualche strania clima,     B
quella, se ben s'estima,                   b
più mi rasembra: a tal son giunto, Amore.  C
Là onde il dì ven fore                    c
vola un augel che sol, senza consorte,     D
di volontaria morte                        d
rinasce et tutto a viver si rinova.            A
Così sol si ritrova           a
lo mio voler, et così in su la cima         B
ed' suoi alti pensieri al sol si volve,       E
et così si risolve,                            e
et così torna al suo stato di prima;         B
arde et more et riprende i nervi suoi       F
et vive poi     con la fenice a prova.   (f) A

This stanza has a symmetrically divided first part and seems to move into the ordinary division with line 9; instead it reintroduces both the a and B rhymes. Thus a and B occur at the very beginning of the stanza; A, a, and B at the center; and B and A at the end. The connection with the theme is clear: the form is renewing itself, finding itself again (lines 8 and 9), ending with its beginning (line 15), in a cycle like that of the phoenix.

The sestina, which was probably invented by Arnaut Daniel, is technically a canzone with undivided stanza, of a type that Arnaut particularly cultivated—one in which rhymes do not occur within stanzas but only between them (canso a coblas dissolutas—poems 29 and 70 are of this type) and in which the same rhymes are used throughout the poem (coblas unissonans—29 is an example). More than half of Arnaut's poems are of this difficult type. The sestina has two further refinements: instead of rhymes, entire rhyme-words are repeated, and the order of the rhyme-words is changed according to a fixed rule, called retrogradatio cruciformis (cruciform retrograde motion): a B C D E F, f A E B D C, and so forth. This procedure would in a seventh stanza bring back the original order; instead Arnaut closes the poem with a three-line envoi in which each line ends with two of the rhyme-words. Arnaut's sestina, "Lo ferm voler q'el cor m'entra," is a brilliant poem in which the technical daring is the tense victory of an expressiveness combining obsession, warmth of intimacy, angry frustration, and ironic self-awareness.

Dante's sestina, "Al poco giorno e al gran cerchio d'ombra," is an important part of the petrose group.… Both Dante's and Arnaut's sestinas are almost by definition unique—one would be surprised to see either poet repeat the form, devised and conquered in an individualized act of expression. Dante—who had changed Arnaut's form by making all six lines the same length—went on to invent an even more elaborate and difficult form, sometimes called a double sestina, though it is not properly a sestina at all ("Amor, tu vedi ben" …). The rime petrose are consciously microcosmic; "Io son venuto" is based on (1) a parallelism between the cycles governing the cosmos and the cycles governing the life of the self; (2) the traditional parallelism between the realms of nature and the parts of the human body. The sestina is a particularly clear example of a cyclical form expressing the embeddedness of human experience in time.

Petrarch assimilated, codified, and diluted the intensities of Dante's sestina and the other rime petrose in order to fit them into his own poetic universe. That he wrote nine sestinas (or ten, if you count 332 as two) is indicative of the process. His theme is not the victorious ascent out of time, though the number six has in the Rime sparse an importance analogous to that of the number three in the Commedia, As medieval readers knew, God created the world in six days, and on the sixth day (Friday) He created man. According to many medieval authorities, including Dante, man fell on Friday also; and Christ redeemed man on a Friday. Six was, then, the number of the created world, of man's earthly existence, of man's excess, and of time. Seven, corresponding to the day God rested, and eight, corresponding to Easter, were the numbers of eternity, of life beyond the world and beyond time. In Petrarch's sestinas the recurrence of the six rhyme-words expresses the soul's obsession with its inability to transcend time. The rhyme-words recur cyclically but with changing meanings, and the form reflects the nature of the mutable world, governed by cycles in which all things change but recur: omnia mutantur, nil interit (Metamorphoses 15.165). The commiati of Petrarch's sestinas, furthermore, usually have a function related to the figural significance of the number seven: they allude to the intensity of contemplation (30), to conversion (42, 214), to death (22, 332), to the end of time (22). It is not accidental that the vast majority of Petrarch's canzone stanzas have a first part of six lines. Petrarch made the number six peculiarly his own, as can be seen also in the number of poems in the entire Rime sparse, 366 (6 x 60 + 6), probably a solar number (the number of days in a leap year), and in the importance assumed by that anniversay of anniversaries, feria sexta aprilis: the sixth day of the fourth month. Recent studies suggest that numerological principles also govern the arrangement of the Rime sparse to a hitherto unsuspected degree.

The theme of the first sight of Laura derives much of its importance from the fact that Petrarch accepts the traditional conception of love as an obsession with the mental image of the lady, imposed on the fantasy at the moment of falling in love. For the image to take effect, the force with which its arrow reaches the heart must derive from both a special sensuous intensity and a predisposition to love in the observer. Under the right conditions, just as in perception the mind—the imagination—assumes the form of a lady as mental image, so the will assumes her form as its goal; when the two coincide, the image of the lady is always before the mind's eye, the will always moves toward her. So mind and will cooperate to inflame each other. Here is Andreas Capellanus' description of the typical process of amorous meditation:

only from the reflection of the mind upon what it sees does this passion come. For when a man sees some woman fit for love and shaped according to his taste, he begins at once to lust after her in his heart; then the more he thinks about her the more he burns with love until he comes to a fuller meditation. Presently he begins to think about the fashioning of the woman and to differentiate her limbs, to think about what she does, and to pry into the secrets of her body, and he desires to put each part of it to the fullest use. Then after he has come to this complete meditation, love cannot hold the reins, but he proceeds at once to action … This inborn passion comes, therefore, from seeing and meditating. Not every kind of meditation can be the cause of love, an excessive one is required (immoderata cogitatio); for a restrained thought does not, as a rule, return to the mind, and so love cannot arise from it. (The Art of Courtly Love, trans. J. J. Parry [New York: Columbia University Press, 1941], pp. 28-29)

Andreas is describing the process of a natural love that proceeds to a natural goal, but Petrarch's subject is the possibility of a sublimated, virtuous love, and the different forms of his fantasies are expressions of the conflict inherent in sublimation. Insofar as his love is a form of sexual desire, it consists in sexual fantasies, but these are seldom of the explicit kind Andreas describes. The most nearly explicit ones emerge almost against the lover's will, either when he is off his guard or when his obsession has reached a particularly intense phase (as in 22 or 237). A major theme is the way the lover's meditation on the lady's virtue and on her virtuous influence paradoxically leads to the emergence of the sensual basis of his love. A clear instance is poem 37, closely related to Dante's canzone montanina, "Amor, da che convien pur ch' io mi doglia." … The subject of both poems is the destructiveness of the obsession with the lady's image as the lover deliberately evokes it. Dante states the theme directly (lines 16-28); Petrarch's poem enacts the principle dramatically: it is the very composition of the poem, a self-pitying meditation on his absence from Laura, that instead of consoling him causes the image to emerge to consciousness and makes his suffering worse. Just before the midpoint of the poem, he states his realization that, since it is in his power not to prolong the process, the composition of the poem is a perversity (lines 49ff). As he describes the psychological mechanism of this self-indulgence he simultaneously enacts it, and thus the activity of introspective poetic composition results in the emergence to dominance—both in his consciousness and in the poem—of an image of Laura that becomes gradually more sensuous. The poem ends with the cycle completed, with the failure of hope all the more exacerbated.

The fullest exploration of the self-destructiveness of this process is in poems 71-73, where the desire to praise the beauty of Laura's eyes and their power to guide him to virtue is shown dramatically to lead into an uncontrollable negative spiral. He is led to say what he does not wish to say—that he is unhappy—and the poem culminates in a thinly veiled sexual fantasy:

così vedess' io fiso
come Amor dolcemente gli governa
sol un giorno da presso
senza volger giamai rota superna,
né pensasse d'altrui né di me stesso,
e 'l batter gli occhi miei non fosse spesso!

Might I see thus fixedly how Love sweetly governs them, only one day, up close, without any supernal wheel ever turning, nor think of any other nor of myself, and the blinking of my eyes not be frequent!

There are two kinds of expression in the Rime sparse of the fantasy of sexual fulfillment. The direct form avoids sensuous particularity (for example, poem 22); the indirect form, as here, is veiled, but the link with poems 22 and 237 is provided by the optative past subjunctive. Even more important is the presence behind all these passages of the fantasy of fulfillment in Dante's "Così nel mio parlar voglio esser aspro," lines 53-78.… Dante's fantasy asserts the passage of time as constitutive of a prolonged sexual encounter, but Petrarch calls for time to stand still. Petrarch's model is the Beatific Vision of God; the more sensuous the content, the greater the tendency to assimilate the fantasy toward the safe religious category of contemplation. The stasis Petrarch desires is both an intensification of the fantasy and an evasion of the idea of activity. This critical tension between contemplative form and sexual content is a major theme of the Rime sparse, and not least in the second part.

Petrarch's exploration of the experience of love thus derives considerable depth from his use of Augustinian psychology and metaphysics. The most important Augustinian concepts underlying his analysis are (1) the power and deceptiveness of the images of desire; (2) the instability of man's nature, fluctuating among inconsistent desires and multiple loves, spiraling downward toward nonbeing unless upheld, integrated (collected, to use the Augustinian term favored by Petrarch) by grace; (3) the opposition of eternity and time (eternity represents fullness of being, unchanging stability; time represents succession, change, instability).

Petrarch represents the experience of love in terms of these oppositions, but he does not resolve them unambiguously, as Augustine does. In the Augustinian view, sexual desire is love directed outward and downward toward mutable lesser goods; it is doomed to frustration and subjects the soul to its own habitus ad nihilum, its tendency toward nothingness. In this view sexuality is not a source of integration but of disorder, and the Augustinian answer to it is denial. The Rime sparse do demonstrate the lover's subjection to the fluctuating instability of his will, as in the juxtaposition of contradictory poems represented as written on the same day, often an anniversary (poems 60-63, for example). Caught in the inconsistency of his desires, wandering in the labyrinth of his illusions, the lover is only intermittently capable of identifying the erotic source of even his most sacrosanct fantasies. Laura's death does not solve the problem; rather it frees his fantasy all the more, and he imagines her coming down from Heaven to sit on his bed in all her beauty (359), a kind of fantasy earlier identified as dangerous nonsense (345). The lover must pray for grace to heal the split in his will and clear the clouds from his understanding. But the unambiguous experience of grace never comes, and the Rime sparse end not with victory achieved or assured but with the longest and most poignant of the many prayers for help.

Although Petrarch's pessimism accepts the Augustinian critique of love of the mutable, the other pole of his ambivalence asserts its value. Two of the longest canzoni (264 and 360), placed at the beginning and near the end of the second part, dramatize the impossibility of simple judgments about love; they are closely related to the debates of book 3 of the Secretum. For the experience of love makes possible the only integration the lover does in fact achieve, however temporary or imperfect it may be. Absence is an experience of scattering, presence one of synthesis; the image of Laura in the memory is a principle of integration. This can be seen with particular clarity in the central group of canzoni in the first part, 125-129, most of them explorations of different aspects of the dominance in his fantasy of the image of Laura.

Poems 125 and 126, which form a unit, show clearly the identity in Petrarch's mind of the problematics of poetry and love, both seen in terms of Augustinian categories. In 125 the intensity of the poet's frustration has created a split between the inner poignancy of his feelings and his capacity to express them. If he could express them adequately he would surely win her love, he says, but his frustration has so accumulated with time that he has become blocked even from the kind of outpouring of feeling that formerly gave him relief though it did not succeed in winning her love (stanzas 1-3). There may seem to be a characteristic Petrarchan paradox in these beautiful verses discussing the poet's inability to write beautiful verses. The paradox has a point, for it focuses the problem of the relation of outer and inner, of form and content: it is resolved by the poem's being dramatic, of representing the simultaneity of love and poetic inspiration as in process.

The initial situation in 125 is one of impasse, split, alienation, resulting from the fact that Laura, the source of integration and inspiration, is absent. The block can only be broken by an upsurge of energy that will free the sources of feeling and resynthesize the existential situation, reunite inner and outer. A way must be found to make Laura present, and it will consist in eliciting the full power of her image. At the moment there seems no way to accomplish this.

In the fourth stanza the focus of attention is the setting of the meditation (we are meant to identify it as Vaucluse), and the gesture of addressing the landscape is represented as a defeated renunciation of direct address of Laura. Actually this is a first step toward evocation of her presence, but it begins as a demonstration of her absence. The lover's eye interrogates the scene, running discursively over it for the signs of her former presence. The poem ends on a note of provisional satisfaction afforded by imagining her "scattered footprints," which evoke the memory of disconnected moments—not synthesized—of the experience of the first day. In this, poem 125 is recapitulating and gathering up a series of scattered recollections that began around poem 85, and includes especially 90, 100, 108, 112, 116 (all sonnets).

In poem 126 the lover's meditation continues the despairing indulgence in alienation: he imagines his death and hopes to be buried here; after his death, Laura will return to seek him, but he will be dust, and she will weep for him. Here the mixture of despair and displaced wish fulfillment—a low point in terms of any real future but for that very reason safe for fantasy, disinterested and therefore laden with affect—triggers the release called out for in 125, and the image of the first day abruptly emerges with a greater intensity than in any other poem of the book.

This release has a magical intensity partly because its stanza form is identical with that of 125 except that the last line of each stanza has eleven syllables instead of seven, a difference that is stunningly effective in suggesting the overcoming of the halting inhibition of 125. The difference between the two poems is signalized also at the beginning of 126 by the prominence given the image of water (never directly mentioned in 125) and of Laura's body. Poem 126 begins where 125 leaves off, with a discursive interrogation of the place: it looks back to the unsynthesized past, then to the blocked, defeated present, then to the transcendent—and useless—future (in which Laura will interrogate the place); finally comes the ecstatic image, and the synthesis reintegrates both the lover's sense of Laura and the poet's evocative power.

The image itself (stanzas 4 and 5) derives its categories from the Beatific Vision. It is a suspended moment, its immobility evoked by the motion of the falling flowers, Laura's nimbus or glory. It is a contemplative rapture that is utterly engrossing, from which the lover can no more turn away than the blessed can from God. The rain of flowers is a direct reference to the appearance of Beatrice in Purgatorio 30:

Tutti dicean, 'Benedictus qui venis!'
  e, fior gittando di sopra e d'intorno,
'Manibus o date lilia plenis!

Così dentro una nuvola di fiori,
  che dalle mani angeliche saliva
  e ricadeva in giù dentro e di fuori,
Sovra candido vel cinta d'uliva,
  donna m'apparve, sotto verde manto
  vestita di color di fiamma viva.
(Purgatorio 30.19-21, 28-33)

All were saying, "Blessed is he who comes" and, throwing flowers above and around, "O give lilies with full hands!" … So within a cloud of flowers that rose up from the angles' hands and fell back again within and without, girt with an olive branch over her white veil a lady appeared to me, under a green mantle clothed in the color of living flame.

Petrarch's flowers are natural flowers, expressive of the culminating but transitory moment of the springtime, as opposed to angelic flowers; Laura is sitting, not standing like Beatrice; the flowers touch Laura, falling first on her lap, while Beatrice is within the cloud and there is no mention of the flowers' touching her. Dante will eventually cross the river and see Beatrice unveil herself: for him the moment is a circumscribed, provisional goal soon to be transcended; for Petrarch it is almost mythic original synthesis that is a goal in itself. The release, in 126, is both sublimated and orgasmic, and consciously so. The sowing of seed is displaced from the lover to the tree; the lover may not acknowledge the wish, and the tree contains and isolates Laura, protects both lover and poet, and permits the symbolic release, the moment of grace.

A major emphasis of the last stanza of the poem is the difference between the image of Laura treasured in the lover's mind and the "true image," from which the lover says he was "divided." By definition the memory has been transfigured by desire. It is an image from the distant past—eighteen years back, according to the fictional chronology (see 120). To what extent is it an accurate memory even of his own experience, to what extent refashioned? The question hovers over the vision: the incessant falling of the flowers is the sign both of the present urgency and of the passage of time—the barrier that separates the present from the unrecoverable past. Thus in the Rime sparse memory is reevocation and resynthesis, it must be constantly renewed. The recurrences of space and time—revisiting of the consecrated place, commemoration of the recurrent anniversary (a kind of secularization of the Christian year), a new interest in the milestones of experience, personal anniversaries, memorials—express also the anxiety of a reflexiveness clearly aware of the willed, even arbitrary, element in each of its self-assertions.

Poems 125 and 126, then, provide a model of the Petrarchan-Augustinian dialectic of dispersal and reintegration that governs the entire Rime sparse. As the fullest evocation of the original synthesis, the climax of 126—emerging from the alienation of 125 (and the sonnets)—provides essential support to the three other canzoni in this central group. The appearance of 125-129 as a group (in violation of chronological order and geographical logic) is an enactment of relative psychological integration around the image of Laura; it is also an important formal node, a poetic integration, of the book. That "Italia mia," Petrarch's most important patriotic poem, is part of this group is not accidental: surrounded by the great love canzoni, with which it has many structural and poetic similarities, it is meant to be related to the critical psychological insights of these poems. The dialectic of 129, where the ascent of the mountain is accompanied by increasing awareness of the lover's actual situation, culminates in a measurement of distance which brings release because of the sense of exalted clarity. Poem 127, a rich exploration of the theme "all things remind me of Laura," gradually intensifies the nature images to the superb effect of stanza 5, where the static image of roses in a vase indoors is suddenly given life in the image of the wind moving across a meadow. But that intense—if indirect—evocation of the imago is not the culmination of the poem, for in the sixth stanza the summation suddenly brings to the fore the theoretical models on which the poem has been based.

  Ad una ad una annoverar le stelle
e 'n picciol vetro chiuder tutte l'acque
forse credea, quando in sì poca carta
novo penser di ricontar mi nacque
in quante parti il fior de l'altre belle
stando in se stessa à la sua luce sparta,
  a ciò che mai da lei non mi diparta;

né farò io, et se pur talor fuggo,
in cielo e 'n terra m'à racchiuso i passi,

(127. 85-93)

Perhaps I thought I could count the stars one by one and enclose the sea in a little glass when the strange idea came to me to tell in so few pages in how many places the flower of all beauties, remaining in herself, has scattered her light in order thatI may never depart from her; nor shall I, and if at times I flee, in Heaven and earth she has circumscribed my steps.

The idea of a supreme source of beauty which though transcendent fills all things with its omnipresence, which cannot be escaped by any flight, mirrors the relation of God to the universe and to the human soul, as described in the Wisdom of Solomon 7:26-27 and Psalm 138:2-13, passages repeatedly echoed by Augustine in the Confessions (see especially 1.2-4, 7.16- 19, 10.33-38), not to speak of Dante in the opening lines of the Paradiso.

The remarkably original and innovative structure of the Rime sparse, with its mixture of symmetries and looseness, with its structural pillars—groups of canzoni where what is scattered among the short poems is gathered and brought to fuller development—this form reflects the provisional, even threatened nature of the integration of experience possible for natural man. Perfect integration of a life or a book comes only when the mutable and imperfect is caught up into eternity. That ultimate gathering, that binding of the scattered leaves, comes only on the anagogical Sabbath. The force of Dante's claim to have the Commedia stand as a perfectly integrated poem rests, as Dante understood, in its claim to derive from God, the ultimate unifier of all things:

Nel suo profondo vidi che s'interna,
legato con amore in un volume,
ciò che per l'universo si squaderna.
(Paradiso 33.85-87)

In its depths I saw internalize itself, bound with love in one volume, what through the universe is scattered unbound.

This is the point of Petrarch's title for his collection, Rerum vulgarium fragmenta (Fragments of vernacular poetry), for which the Italian is given in the first poem: "rime sparse" (scattered rhymes). This may well be the first use of the term fragment to describe a kind of work of art. There is, however, a scriptural precedent in the story of the miracle of the loaves and fishes (John 6:12), where Jesus says "Colligite fragmenta quae supersunt ne pereant" (Collect the fragments that remain lest they perish). Bede and Alcuin interpreted the words as referring to the gathering together in exegesis of the prophecies and allegories scattered through the Bible. For Petrarch the term expresses the intensely self-critical awareness that all integration of selves and texts is relative, temporary, threatened. They flow into multiplicity at the touch of time, their inconsistencies juxtaposed as the successive traces of a subject who dissolves and leaves only words behind.

Metamorphosis is, then, a dominant idea in the Rime sparse. It is seen in the psychological instability of the lover, the ontological insufficiency of human nature, in time, in death. It is an idea that governs the relation of the poems to their sources or to the broader tradition: they transform it. It governs the relation of the individual poems, themes, motifs, forms, even individual words, to each other. Ovid is omnipresent. The first and basic metamorphosis in the Rime sparse reenacts the myth of Apollo and Daphne: when the lover catches up with the object of his pursuit, she has turned into the laurel tree. It is merely the change of a letter that turns Laura into lauro (laurel), and since Petrarch did not have the apostrophe as part of his punctuation, but simply ran elided words together, there was for him hardly an orthographic distinction between Laura and l'aura (breeze) or lauro and l'auro (gold). The deployment of these various kinds of metamorphosis is so ingenious that many critics have been blinded to the poetic seriousness that lies behind them.

Transformation into the laurel is a figure of sublimation, in which desire accepts an object other than its natural one; instead of Laura, the lover gets (or becomes, it amounts to the same thing) the laurel of poetic achievement and glory. The longest poem in the Rime Sparse is the canzone "Nel dolce tempo de la prima etade" (23), which a marginal note in Vat. Lat. 3196 calls "one of my earliest" ("est de primis inventionibus meis"). In a highly artificial, elaborately rhetorical style, the poem narrates the "events" of the lover's experience as reenactments of six Ovidian myths of metamorphosis. He falls in love with Laura and turns into a laurel tree like Daphne; because his overreaching hope, like Phaeton, was struck down by a thunderbolt, he turns into a swan and mourns like Cygnus; because, misled by deceptive appearances, he spoke of his love after having been forbidden, he turns to stone, like Battus; because all his pleading for mercy is to no avail, he turns to a fountain of tears, like Byblis; though mercifully restored to his own shape, he begs for mercy once more and therefore is divided into stone and a wandering voice, like Echo; finally, one day while out hunting, when the sun is hottest, he stands gazing at Laura naked in a fountain, whereupon she sprinkles his face with water, like Diana, and he is transformed into a fleeing deer, like Actaeon.

The theme of the poem is the incomprehensible changeability of the self in love, which is so violent as to call its very identity into question. The myths succeed one another in a brilliant, surrealistic superimposition of images. There is a baffling coexistence of abrupt, radical instability and of permanence and cyclicality. It is obvious that the myths were not chosen at random, and Petrarch expects the reader to know Ovid and to be alert to subtle changes. None of the myths is reenacted in its entirety or without some significant change. Petrarch's lover completes three times a cycle that takes him through falling in love, hoping and wooing, being rejected and rebuked, and finally (Cygnus, Byblis, Echo) lamenting and writing poetry. Poem 23 ends with the Actaeon myth for many reasons: it is the most violent episode in "Nel dolce tempo"; it is the least metaphorical, the least disguised; it allows the fullest emergence of sexual affect and acknowledges most fully the fear resulting from a sense of taboo. Furthermore, it is significant that Petrarch ends the series of transformations with one that is in process: he is still in flight.

ch' i' senti' trarmi de la propria imago
et in un cervo solitario et vago
di selva in selva ratto mi trasformo
et ancor de' miei can fuggo lo stormo.

for I felt myself drawn from my own image and into a solitary wandering stage from wood to wood quickly I am transformed and still I flee the belling of my hounds.

"Ch' i' senti' trarmi de la propria imago" echoes the words describing the first transformation into the laurel (lines 41-45); the unusual turn of phrase of the second two lines quoted here is richly ambiguous, the shift in tenses startling.

What Petrarch has omitted from Ovid's myths is also part of the meaning of the poem. He has left out Daphne's sexual fear and her flight from Apollo. In Ovid's account of Actaeon, as the dogs begin to tear Actaeon to pieces he tries to call them by name, to reveal his identity; but, since he is now a stag, that is impossible, and all he can do is weep. In Ovid the myths (with the exception of that of Battus, which Petrarch skillfully adapts) are about frustrated love, about loss and refusal. With the exception of the Battus myth they take place near a body of water into which at least one of the characters gazes. With the exception of the Daphne myth they involve characters who are punished for something they have seen. All of them concern frustrated—or even disastrous—speech or writing, and in each case the speech involves deception or confusion or some question about the identity of one of the protagonists.

As Petrarch saw, the myth of Actaeon is an inversion of the myth of Daphne. In one, it is the beloved who flees, in the other the lover. In one, the end result is speech: poetry and fame; in the other, silence. In one, there is evergreen eternizing; in the other, dismemberment. Daphne, as she runs, looks into the water and becomes a tree, takes root; Actaeon, who is standing still, branches into a stag, grows hooves, flees, sees his reflection and flees the more. These extremes are also connected in the myth of Orpheus, who was able to move rocks and trees and tame beasts; he both recalled Eurydice from death and was dismembered after losing her again (Virgil, Georgics 4.522: "discerptum latos iuvenem sparsere per agros"—tearing the youth apart, they scattered him across the wide fields). By beginning and ending "Nel dolce tempo" with Daphne and Actaeon, Petrarch paired myths that are related to the deepest preoccupations of the Rime sparse: dismemberment or scattering versus integration; poetic immortality versus death; the creation of poetry as an expression of the impossibility of speech resulting from sexual fear.

Thus the myths of Daphne and Actaeon are intimately connected with Petrarch's other great mythic symbol, the Medusa (Ovid's account is in Metamorphoses 4.617ff), whose sight turns men to stone—indeed, into marble statues, something like works of art. Traditionally, the Medusa had been variously interpreted: as a symbol of the fear that blinds the mind (Fulgentius), of lust (Ovide moralisé), of the power of memory (Fulgentius). Dante's rime petrose are based on the idea of a young woman whose heart is hard as stone; she is a "stone that speaks and has sensation as if it were a woman." This lady is associated with the influence of the cold planet, Saturn, and with the freezing of all nature in the depths of winter. If her cruelty continues long enough, she will turn the lover into a marble statue; in other words, she will be a Medusa for him, an implicit though never stated reference. A celebrated incident in the Inferno has Dante, outside the gates of Dis, threatened with the sight of the Medusa and only saved by turning away and covering his eyes. The interpretation of the passage is debatable; clearly the threat of despair—a fear that blinds the soul to God's mercy and deprives it of hope—is involved. Whether, as John Freccero has recently argued, a rejection by Dante of the petrose is also implied, there is no doubt that Petrarch did connect the petrose with the traditional interpretations of that his countless allusions to the petrose are to be connected with his references to the Medusa. The Medusan tranformation most frequently alluded to is that of Atlas. Petrarch combines references to Ovid's account with allusions to Virgil's description (Aeneid 4.246-251), a projection of Aeneas' immobile fixation on Dido, as in 366.111-112, where the dripping tears are suggested by the rivers in Virgil's anthropomorphic description. Petrarch's allusions to the Medusa are often implicit, as in poem 129, where they are related to the themes of memory and writing; the parallels with 125 and 126 are perhaps more obvious than the equally important connection with the myths of Daphne and Actaeon:

   I' l'ò più volte (or chi fia che mi 'l
ne l'acqua chiara et sopra l'erba verde
veduto viva, et nel troncon d'un faggio
  e'n bianca nube, sì fatta che Leda
avria ben detto che sua figlia perde
come stella che 'l sol copre col raggio;
   et quanto in più selvaggio
loco mi trovo e'n più deserto lido,
tanto più bella il mio pensier l'adombra.
Poi quando il vero sgombra
quel dolce error, pur lì medesmo assido
me freddo, pietra morta in pietra viva,
in guisa d'uom che pensi et pianga et

I have many times (now who will believe me?) seen her alive in the clear water and on the green grass and in the trunk of a beech tree
and in a white cloud, so beautiful that Leda would have said that her daughter faded like a star covered by the sun's ray;
and in whatever wildest place and most deserted shore I find myself, so much the more beautiful does my thought shadow her forth. Then, when the truth dispels that sweet deception, right there in the same place I sit down, cold, a dead stone on the living rock, like a man who thinks and weeps and writes.

It is not merely the idea of petrifaction that establishes the connection with the rime petrose and the Medusa, it is such phrases as "sopra l'erba verde" (compare "Al poco giorno e al gran cerchio d'ombra," lines 28, 39), "stella che 'l sol copre col raggio" ("Io son venuto al punto de la rota," lines 5-6); "quando il vero sgombra / quel dolce error" ("Io son venuto," lines 10-11); "pur lì medesmo assido / me freddo, pietra morta in pietra viva" ("Amor, tu vedi ben che questa donna," lines 33-34, 57; "Al poco giorno," line 34). The central idea of the passage, that meditation on Laura's image is in tension with the wildness of the surroundings, is related to the situation of "Io son venuto," just as the theme of the projection of the image of the lady onto the external world is related to "Amor, tu vedi ben che questa donna," lines 40-43:

per che ne li occhi sì bella mi luce
quando la miro, ch'io la veggio in petra,
e po' in ogni altro ov' io volga mia luce.

so beautiful into my eyes she shines
when I gaze on her, that I see her in stones
and in everything else, wherever I turn my

The lover is fascinated with the complexity of his own psychological processes; the image that turns him to stone in the Rime sparse is a projection of them onto the outside world. The idea that the lover's fixated gaze on the beloved turns him into a statue is emphasized in Ovid's account of Narcissus, who stares at his image in the pool:

… vultuque immotus eodem
haeret, ut a Pario formatum marmore signum.
(Metamorphoses 3.418-419)

he stares unmoving on that one face, like a statue formed of Parian marble.

This is an ultimate form of the Medusa, a perception that hovers over the Rime sparse, that endlessly polished mirror of the poet's soul. The charge of a fundamental narcissism in the collection (as in Petrarch's entire output) would be only partially answered by the undeniable intensity of his self-criticism. He rather tends to avoid making explicit the presence of Narcissus in the mythic networks he weaves. But the two extremes of poem 23, Daphne and Actaeon, like the other myths in the poem, converage on and point toward the figure of Narcissus: at the midpoint of 23 there is a curious breakdown and a decision to omit certain things (the break occurs exactly at line 89, in the midst of the Battus passage, where the lover is turned to stone), and soon after he recounts how he has reenacted the myth of Echo. But Echo, after all, wasted away because of her love for Narcissus, and the implicit connection (Petrarch = Echo means Laura = Narcissus; if Laura's image = Narcissus' image, Petrarch = Narcissus) is both established and evaded. In the working papers of poem 23 there is evidence that completing the poem was difficult for Petrarch. On the recto of leaf 11 of Vat. Lat. 3196 lines 1-89 are written in a book hand as a fair copy; on the verso of leaf 11 are lines 90-169, in a cursive hand as a working draft. The verso has seven major instances of revision; the recto has two. The marginal notes indicate that work on the poem continued over a number of years. It may well be that the sensitivity of the nexus Battus-Medusa-Narcissus-Echo (in a poem beginning with Daphne and ending with Actaeon) caused Petrarch's difficulty.

In any case, the myths constantly blend into one another, and Petrarch expects us to bring a detailed knowledge of them to his poems. Poem 23 is echoed and balanced by poem 323, which describes six emblematic visions of Laura's death—a deer with a human face is killed by dogs, a ship sinks suddenly, a laurel is struck by lightning, the phoenix dies, a fountain is swallowed up by the earth, a lady is bitten in the heel by a snake—all instances of abrupt mutability. These myths and their order are related to those of poem 23. Poem 323 begins with an emblem similar to Actaeon, has the laurel at the center, and ends with a more realistic though not less symbolic emblem (the death of Eurydice), in which, as in the last myth of 23, the pathos is allowed to come through less masked. Each of the major emblems for Laura thus at some time or other also stands for the lover, and vice versa. If Laura is the laurel, the lover turns into a laurel; if she is the beautiful deer he is hunting, he is an Actaeon (and, again, in 323 she is torn by dogs); if he becomes a fountain of tears, she is a fountain of inspiration (but is it Narcissus' pool?); if like Echo he becomes merely a voice, she dies, and he is left to imagine her voice in dreams. The myths are constantly being transformed.

To see one's experience in terms of myth is to see in the myth the possibility of the kind of allegorical meaning that was called tropological. Petrarch knew and used freely the traditional allegorical interpretations of the Ovidian myths. But he dissociated them from clear-cut moral judgments, and in this he was closer to the Dante of the petrose than of the Commedia. To say that falling in love and becoming a love poet is a transformation into a laurel tree involves the sense that the channeling of the vital energy of frustrated love into the sublimated, eternizing mode of poetry has consequences not fully subject to conscious choice or to moral judgment. For Petrarch the perfection of literary form, which exists polished and unchanging on the page in a kind of eternity, is achieved only at the cost of the poet's natural life. His vitality must be metamorphosed into words, and this process is profoundly ambiguous. If on the one hand Petrarch subscribes to—even in a sense almost singlehandedly founds—the humanistic cult of literary immortality and glory, on the other hand he has an acute awareness that writing poetry involves a kind of death. This recognition has something very modern about it; it gives a measure of the distance that separates Petrarch from Dante, who gambled recklessly on the authority his poem would have as a total integration. Petrarch is always calling attention to the psychologically relative, even suspect, origin of individual poems and thus of writing itself. His hope is that ultimately the great theme of praise will redeem even the egotism of the celebrant.

Charles Trinkaus (essay date 1979)

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SOURCE: Charles Trinkaus, "Petrarch and Classical Philosophy," in The Poet as Philosopher: Petrarch and the Formation of Renaissance Consciousness, Yale University Press, 1979, pp. 1-26.

[In the following excerpt, Trinkaus examines Petrarch's contributions as a philosopher and argues that his "conception of ancient philosophy was shaped by his sensibilities as a poet."]

Petrarch's knowledge of ancient thought was amazingly extensive. Yet how he incorporated this knowledge into his own philosophy is not entirely clear. De Nolhac and Sabbadini laid the foundations for our efforts to reconstruct Petrarch's classical humanism, and Billanovich, Pellegrin, and Wilkins, with major assistance from such scholars of the previous generation as Rossi and Bosco, have come close to completing the edifice.1 But scholars continue to differ on the questions of what ideas Petrarch drew from his knowledge of ancient philosophies, and how, to what degree, and when he made use of his readings.2

Petrarch identified himself at various times as a poet, a historian, a rhetorician, and a moral His awareness of the classical philosophical3 heritage was formed by his responses to it in all of these roles. Yet the way in which his conception of ancient philosophy was shaped by his sensibilities as a poet is of special interest. It is likely that Petrarch understood classical philosophy better through Vergil and Horace than through the philosophers he came to know, which suggests that his grasp of ancient philosophy was more characteristically that of a poet than that of a historian. It also suggests that it was possibly through the medium of his poetic understanding of ancient thought that he was incited to conceive and fulfill the roles of both rhetorician and moral philosopher.

Petrarch's kind of poetry had a special relationship to the new mode of philosophical consciousness that was emerging in the Renaissance to which he made so important a contribution. Aristotle, in explaining his famous claim that poetry is more philosophical than history, said that the philosophical character of poetry may be seen in the universal nature of its statements, "whereas those of history are singulars."4 We must recognize the universality of Petrarch's poetry. Yet we must recognize its subjectivity as well. His use of emotional experience, the recreation in emotion of that experience, and the imagined prolongation and projection of it in the Canzoniere underline the difference between his poetry and the kind Aristotle discussed. It is not enough to say that Petrarch's verse was lyric, and hence more personal, whereas Aristotle was referring to epic and dramatic, and thus more objectified poetry. Petrarch's great achievement was that he realized poetic objectivity through the medium of subjective experience.

To say that Petrarch thought philosophically as a poet is not to minimize his importance as a philosopher but to point out his unique mode of thinking. Petrarch's work, whether poetic, historical, or philosophical, is of critical importance as the first major manifestation of the great transformation from the objective mode of classical thought and perception to the subjective Renaissance and modern modes.5 While many questions remain concerning the character and the extent of such a shift in the basic conceptions of Western art and thought, Petrarch gave a powerful impulse to the movement toward subjectivity.

Under this large assumption about the differences in basic patterns of thought and perception in the ancient and modern worlds, Petrarch's manifold contradictions seem to fall neatly into place. But it is far too neat. It is like saying that we are all romantics in our modern retrospective classicism, since we regard antiquity through the screen of our own affections and imaginations, imitating it and idealizing it because of our own needs and motivations. We view it as at once distant and highly relevant, a historical perspective that Petrarch helped to shape. This insight, stressed by Panofsky, is true in a sense, but it threatens to dissolve amidst our own subjectivity. Not all of modern thought and perception is subjective; otherwise we could not make claims to science or to scholarly understanding. Even Petrarch helped develop the "objective" study of antiquity. On the other hand, not all ancient thought and perception was substantive and objectivistic. Important aspects of it, and especially much of what attracted Petrarch, pointed the way toward more modern modalities.6

[Petrarch's] inclination was to value philosophy primarily for its contribution to the strengthening of human virtue. The tendency of contemporary scholasticism was to regard discussions of substantive questions in theology as of limited viability and, almost by default, to move toward the exegetical and pastoral. Petrarch expressed great suspicion regarding both the emphasis on dialectical analysis and the interest in Aristotelian natural philosophy of his contemporaries. He seems, however, to have had a rather scanty knowledge of medieval philosophy. He was certainly not very sympathetic to the possibility that the vogue for dialectic in fourteenth-century scholastic thought might have represented a parallel development to his desire to consider philosophical thought as humanly centered and motivated.7 Petrarch also seems not to have been aware of those fourteenth-century contributions to natural philosophy that represented experimental departures, however limited, from an all-determining Aristotelian physical framework. It is Petrarch's knowledge of ancient philosophy, however, that is my main concern here.

The philosophical thought of the ancient Greeks and Romans is an enormous, highly diverse body of material. It is now known only through those texts that survived in medieval manuscripts or have been recovered from papyri in the past century. These texts are supplemented by descriptive accounts by other ancient authors and modern collections of scattered quotations from ancient, early Christian, Syriac, Arabic, Jewish, and Byzantine writers. It is tempting to make use of modern scholarship and historical sophistication to give a single characterization to this diverse mass (as Cranz has so suggestively done; see note 5). But this is clearly a risky undertaking. Some portions of ancient philosophy are rather well known, possibly even understood by modern historians and philosophers. But others, even when reported to be of the greatest importance in antiquity, are unknown, or hardly known. A further element of complication is that ancient philosophical writings contain much that is religious, magical, scientific, literary, critical, and rhetorical, while ancient writings in these other disciplines also contain much that is philosophical.

Ancient philosophy as it is presently known includes the partially understood pre-Socratic speculators concerned with the cosmos and the "nature" of things— the physici. Also identified are the equally poorly understood teachers of political discourse whom we call, by their own designation, the sophistes. Some Sophists claimed inspiration from contemporary Greek tragedy and traced their ancestry through the poetic tradition back as far as Homer and Hesiod. They were not only admirers of tragedy; their ideas are reflected in Euripides and mocked in Aristophanes. The physici preceded and were contemporary with the Sophists, some of whom had studied under and been influenced by them. The physici, conventionally divided into Ionians and Eleatics, seem to have followed our loose distinction between empiricists and metaphysicians, though this seems to dissolve in almost every instance thought to be adequately understood. The Sophists seem to have drawn from both the empirical and metaphysical traditions of the pre-Socratics.

Petrarch, of course, knew far less about either the physici or the Sophists than do modern scholars. For the most part, he scattered references through his works and his correspondence to sayings or anecdotes of an early Greek or other ancient thinker which helped to reinforce or exemplify his point rhetorically. Of the pre-Socratics, Petrarch devotes greatest attention to Pythagoras and Heraclitus. Pythagoras he knows only as a sage, moral reformer, and orator, but he cites him frequently because of his great reputation for wisdom in the later ancient sources with which Petrarch was familiar.8 He knows something of Heraclitus's ideas from Seneca and therefore as the Stoics had interpreted him for their own purposes, but he used these ideas more substantively. He cites Heraclitus twice to assert the chaotic and fluctuating character of the world of human experience under the domination of fortune, once at the beginning of book 2 of the De remediis and again at the begining of book 2 of his De otio religioso.9 Valerius Maximumus's Factorum et dictorum memorabilium libri was a major source for the anecdotes and sayings of others. The writings of Cicero, Seneca, Aulus Gellius, and Macrobius also served him well.

Petrarch hardly seems to have known of the Sophists except as enemies of Socrates and Plato, mentioning Gorgias's great age10 and quoting Protagoras as Pythagoras (though significantly).11 The name "Sophist" he reserves for the scholastic dialecticians and natural philosphers of his day, the twisters of truth and vendors of learning. Socrates was admired by the humanists principally for the emphasis he placed on man and for his self-knowledge, education, and morality. The modern dispute about whether Socrates must also be seen as a Sophist or as Plato portrays him, their archenemy, had little meaning for the Renaissance humanists.12

Petrarch, however, is surprisingly uninterested in Socrates, even considering the paucity of his available knowledge. With all his yearning to know Plato, he seems to have seriously studied only the Calcidius partial translation of the Timaeus, though he also possessed a copy of the Henricus Aristippus translation of the Phaedo (BN. lat. 6567A).13 For his scattered anecdotal references to Socrates, Petrarch resorts to Valerius Maximus, Cicero, and Apuleius's De deo Socratis, slender pickings to be sure. There is little expression in Petrarch of the strenuous admiration that Salutati and other humanists showed for Socrates. The crucial and much quoted statement from Cicero's Tusculan Disputations14—"But Socrates was the first who brought down philosophy from the heavens and, snatched from the stars, forced it to live on earth among men and to deal with morals and the affairs of men"—was curiously cited in a letter to Gerardo as an example of how philosophers ridiculed each other. He refers to Aristotle's of ridicule, cited in Cicero's De officiis,15 of Isocrates (misreading the name as "Socrates") for his mercenary behavior.

It might seem that Petrarch's affirmations of the importance of moral philosophy would have made him more responsive to Socrates. His admiration of Cicero would seemingly have led him to note Cicero's addition to the passage just cited from the Tusculans: "I have principally adhered to that (sect) which, in my opinion, Socrates himself followed: and argue so as to conceal my own opinions, while I deliver others from their errors, and so discover what has the greatest appearance of probability in every question …" Petrarch only rarely refers to the passage in the Academica16 where Socrates is asserted to have been the first to discuss moral philosophy and to have affirmed "nothing himself but to refute others, to assert that he knows nothing except the fact of his own ignorance." Toward the end of On His Own Ignorance he does cite Socrates' "This one thing I know, that I know nothing," and adds to it Arcesilas's saying that "even this knowing nothing cannot be known" (both passages are apparently drawn from the Academica), but his purpose is to reject or ridicule this attitude along with a general condemnation of philosophy. "A glorious philosophy, this, that either confesses ignorance or precludes even the knowledge of this ignorance."17

Nonetheless the general influence of Socrates on this work cannot be excluded. Though different in tone and method from the Dialogues, Petrarch built it around the ironic stance of his own acknowledged ignorance and the unacknowledged ignorance of many others. This stance he might well have borrowed from Socrates. He at least understood the rhetorical impact of this posture, although he had not been able to read Plato's Apology and did not indicate his Socratic model. Yet he used this ploy to draw conclusions similar to those that Plato perhaps intended for Socrates' defense. It is one of several examples where Petrarch employs classical models in order to assert or discover his own cultural identity through an act of role playing.

Petrarch wrote four comments on Socrates in his Rerum memorandarum libri which show him to have been aware early in his philosophical career of the chief anecdotes about Socrates and his reputation. Under the rubric "On Leisure and Solitude"18 he briefly cites the anecdote from Cicero's De senectute19 about Socrates as an old man learning to play the lyre. In the next rubric, "On Study and Learning," he repeats the topos of Socrates having brought learning down to earth and turned it from the dimensions of the heavens to the interior of the human heart. "Beginning to treat of the diseases and motions of the soul and of their remedies and the virtues, he was the primus artifex of moral philosophy, and as Valerius said, 'vite magister optimus'."20 Skipping the third, his fourth item under "On Oracles" is equally brief. He narrates from Cicero's De divinatione Socrates' advice to Xenophon to join the expedition of Cyrus and his adjunct that this was a human counsel and that in the case of more obscure matters he should consult the oracle. However, Petrarch misread "Epicurus" for Cyrus and proceeded to berate Socrates for being an Epicurean. "But how much better you were and of how much sounder counsel than he to whom you sent your disciple, except in this one matter that he seemed to you the best and most advisable [leader]."21 Apart from the extraordinary anachronism, one may wonder how Socrates could possibly have seemed an influence in the direction of Epicurus to Petrarch.

His major discussion of Socrates in the Rerum memorandarum libri was under "On Wisdom," cataloguing sayings of the wise. Though it may not eliminate a suspicion that Petrarch was somewhat lukewarm in his admiration of Socrates because of his seeming scepticism, Petrarch lays forth his amplification of Valerius Maximus's essentially moralistic and Stoic version. He starts with the Socratic advice to seek nothing from the gods except what truly benefits us and expands the sparse treatment of this theme by his source into a favorite review of all the evils of a Christian's false desires. But he uses as his model not Socrates but the tenth Satire of Juvenal.22 He seems here to have copied his own earlier letter (Le familiari, 4.2 and Gamma) which uses the Juvenal passage as well as Cicero and Seneca. Other moral anecdotes or sayings of Socrates are added, drawn from Seneca's Ad Lucillium, Aulus Gellius, and Valerius Maximus.

It is difficult to account for Petrarch's rather conventional and not particularly enthusiastic treatment of Socrates. There are undoubtedly other references I have not cited, but those I have cited show his knowledge to have been thirdhand, deriving from Plato or Xenophon through Cicero or Seneca. But perhaps the main reason for Petrarch's lack of enthusiasm is that essentially he knows the sceptical Socrates of his Latin sources and not the religious philosopher embedded in Plato's Dialogues.

With Plato himself it was quite different.23 Petrarch possessed the medieval Latin Plato—Calcidius's partial translation of the Timaeus,24 Henricus Aristippus's translation of the Phaedo, and probably the latter's Meno.25 He owned a large Greek manuscript of some of Plato's works which he hoped to be able to read after he had learned Greek, but this enterprise ended with the premature departure of Barlaam of Calabria. A list of its contents reveals what he could have known had he been able to read Greek: the Clitophon, the Republic, the Timaeus, the Critias, the Minos, the Laws, the Phaedrus, Letters. In addition it contained Diffinitiones Platonis, Confabulationes Platonis, Demodocus de consilio, Critias de Divitiis, and Axiochus de morte.26 In his De ignorantia Petrarch refers to this manuscript to indicate the extensiveness of Plato's writings, disdained by his young critics as "one or two small little books." Petrarch says with his usual numerical looseness, "I have sixteen or more of Plato's books at home, of which I do not know whether they have heard the names." He also says that if they come to his house, "these literate men will see not only several Greek writings but also some which are translated into Latin all of which they have never seen elsewhere."27 It is questionable whether Petrarch possessed some new Latin translations of works of Plato other than the medieval three.

Petrarch's comments on Plato in De ignorantia and the Rerum memorandarum libri show great admiration. How much did he actually know of Plato's philosophic doctrines? References to his copy of the Phaedo are rare. Identifiable references usually come from Cicero's Tusculan Disputations.28 His knowledge of metempsychosis is not specifically related to the Phaedo. Comments on the divisions of the soul are based on those attributed to Plato by Cicero. In the Secretum "Augustinus" alludes to Plato's statement of the progression of desire from sensual to heavenly in the Symposium (which Petrarch could not have read).

But this alludes also to St. Augustine's discussion in the Confessions.29 "Augustinus" also cites Plato more directly: "For what else does the celestial doctrine of Plato admonish except that the soul should be pushed away from the lusts of the body, and their images eradicated so that purely and rapidly it may arise toward a deeper vision of the secrets of divinity, to which contemplation of one's own mortality is rightly attached?" This is an authentic echo of the Phaedo, and "Franciscus" at this point acknowledges that he has begun to read Plato, but the loss of his tutor in Greek has interrupted him.30 In the Secretum "Augustinus" quotes the Phaedrus, not read by Petrarch: the poet "beats in vain on the doors of poetry if he is in his right mind."31 This is certainly a commonplace in many Latin sources.

Petrarch mentions the doctrine of ideas, which he must have known from Cicero's Tusculans and elsewhere, in the De vita solitaria. But it is based on another source of medieval and early Renaissance Platonism, Macrobius's In somnium Scipionis32 Plotinus, rather than Plato, is cited, and the hierarchy of the virtues is set forth—political, purgative, purged (acquired in solitude), and the fourth and highest, "archetypal," or "exemplary." "Hence the [Platonists] hold that the three other kinds of human virtue originate as though from some eternal exemplar, just as the name itself indicates; or, as Plato would say, from the ideas of the virtues which, like the ideas of other things, he placed in the mind of God."33 Despite his professed yearning to know Plato, Petrarch makes little use of the Phaedo on the questions that interested him most. He infrequently repeats even the commonplaces widely disseminated in Latin sources concerning the teachings of Plato.

Petrarch's most extensive statement about Plato runs for five pages in book 1, chapter 25, of his Rerum memorandarum libri, under the rubric "On Study and Learning."34 He sketches Plato's life, drawing principally on Apuleius's De Platone et eius dogmate, with additions from Cicero and Macrobius. Again following Apuleius, Petrarch summarizes Plato's teachings. It turns out to be a catalogue of topics (discussed at greater length by Apuleius): matter, ideas, the world, the soul, nature, time, the wandering stars, animals, providence, fate, demons, fortune, the parts of the soul and the bodily domicile, the senses, the shape of the human body and the arrangement of its parts, the division of goods, virtues, the three kinds of minds, the three causes for seeking the good, pleasure, labor, friendship and enmity, degraded love, the three loves, the species of human faults, the condition, customs, and death of the sage, the commonwealth, and the republic, its customs and best laws. In Apuleius, he says, the reader will find all these matters treated in succinct brevity and not at all unpleasantly.35 It suggests the medieval taste for encyclopedic epitomes and the compilation of rhetorical loci communes.

Petrarch's more pressing concern is to show Plato's compatibility with Christianity. Unlike Aristotle, Plato taught the creation, not the eternity, of the world (though in this Apuleius seems to differ from Cicero). Petrarch hoped here to cite only secular authors, but finds he cannot and switches to St. Augustine. A question arose that was to surface again with Ficino, Pico, and the other Renaissance Platonists: How did Plato arrive at his anticipations of Christianity, and should he, rather than Christ, be given credit for these doctrines? Petrarch cites Augustine's De doctrina Christiana (2.28.43) to the effect that Plato was a contemporary of the prophet Jeremiah and had learned of at least the pre-Christian truths of the Hebrews on his journey to Egypt. But then he cites Augustine's own correction of this tale in De civitate Dei (8.1 1), where he asserts that Plato and Jeremiah were not contemporaries and that Plato also lived before the Septuagint translation of the Old Testament had been made. Hence these truths must have been made manifest by God to Plato, as St. Paul argued in Romans 1:19. Thus Plato is made the equivalent of the Renaissance Platonists' priscus theologus, or else he discovered these truths by colloquy with someone versed in Hebrew letters. Except on the question of the incarnation, Petrarch advises a reading of Augustine's Confessions to see the extent Petrarch of the parity between Plato and Christianity.36 Petrarch asserts that as had been said of Carneades,for Plato there was but a single end for both philoso-phizing and living. This seems to have been basic to Petrarch's conception of philosophy.37

Petrarch perhaps most eloquently praises Plato in the De ignorantia. It is a rhetorical statement that does not enter into the substance of either the philosophy of Plato or of Aristotle, whom he is denouncing. Plato has been called the prince of philosophy. By whom? Cicero, Vergil, Pliny, Plotinus, Apuleius, Macrobius, Porphyry, Censorinus, Josephus, Ambrose, Augustine, Jerome, and others. Who denies this glory to him? Only Averroës. But there is also the question of weight as well as numbers. Here, too, Plato excels. "I would state without hesitation that in my opinion the difference between them is like that between two persons of whom one is praised by princes and nobles, the other by the entire mass of the common people. Plato is praised by the greater men, Aristotle by the bigger crowd; and both deserve to be praised by great men as well as by many, even by all men." Both came far in natural and human matters, but the Platonists rose higher in divine, and Plato came nearer to our goal. Hence the Greeks today call Plato divine and Aristotle "demonious."38 Petrarch then cites the large number of books written by Plato, attested by his own Greek manuscript.

The situation with Aristotle is very different. Petrarch seems to have known both the Nicomachean Ethics and the Rhetoric fairly well, judging by the nature of his citations of them. Only one Aristotle manuscript, however, can be identified as Petrarch's own, an Ethica with commentaries (BN lat. 6458, with scarce anno-tations). This led De Nolhac to comment, "But themanuscript at least establishes, for reasons that we have said, that Petrarch studied Aristotle but little."39 It is not certain that this is true. Petrarch at least seems to have read Aristotle and used him for a com-monplace book, as he did certain Latin authors. Nor does the manuscript show the kind of overt hostility to Aristotle in the use of his sayings that other pas-sages on him have led us to expect.

This essentially rhetorical use of Aristotle for purposes of argumentation can be seen in Le familiari and the Invective contra medicum. A key statement in the Ethics (1103 B 28) is that "we are inquiring not in order to know what virtue is, but in order to become good." This would seem to have found much favor with Petrarch, and he affirms it as applying to himself. Petrarch denies that Aristotle actually observes this criterion in his great polemic against Aristotle and Aristotelians, the De ignorantia.40 Twice he uses Aristotle's advice that faults of one extreme must be corrected by leaning to the other, "as people do in straightening sticks that are bent" (1109 Β 4-7). He does this once in admonishing the four cardinals on how to reform the contemporary Romans, and once in fictitiously admonishing Julius Caesar.41 Aristotle, discussing deliberation as an intellectual virtue, points out that the end of the investigation is the discovery of the beginning or the first cause: "What is last in the order of analysis seems to be first in the order of becoming" (1112 B 23-24). Petrarch in a brief note to a close friend uses this statement merely to suggest that he has finally got around to writing. Just as it pleases the philosophers, he who is first in deliberating is last in performing—certainly a loose proverbializing of an originally serious philosophical point.42

Petrarch suggests to a friend that the day of birth may be worse than the day of death, as the one brings sorrows and the other joys. "But lest we should depart from the opinions of the vulgar—from whom, nevertheless, if we should progress toward salvation, how far we must part—it is said that death is to be feared, and that most widely repeated saying of Aristotle is heard, 'death is the ultimate of terrible things.'" Aristotle was discussing courage (1115 A 27), and death is the greatest of the terrible things a man must face. But Petrarch adds, twisting Aristotle's meaning, "He, himself, also deliberately wished to call it, not the greatest but the last." There follows a long list of heroic ancient deaths and misfortunes to show, no doubt, how terrible is this world.43

Petrarch turns another citation from the Ethics to his advantage in the Invective contra medicum. His basic argument is that medicine is less honorable than poetry because it is more necessary, and thus it is comparable to agriculture. To make his point he cites Aristotle's discussion of justice, where an equality of exchange between two mutually needy persons, each of whom has something the other wishes, must take place: "For it is not two doctors that associate for exchange, but a doctor and a farmer" (1113 A 17-78). Petrarch says, "I do not wish to insult you that I place you and farmers together, Aristotle does the same.… I believe that on account of reverence for Aristotle you have allowed this to be suffered in silence."44

In our final example, Petrarch seems to have applied the Nicomachean Ethics to a more comparable argument. In Le familiari 8.3, he is discussing the relative advantages of places to live. "The crowd thinks even philosophers and poets are hard and stony, but in this as in so many things they are mistaken, for they also are of flesh, they retain humanity, they abandon pleasures. Moreover, it is a certain measure of necessity, whether philosophic or poetic, which it is suspected they pass by. 'Nature,' as Aristotle says, 'is not sufficient by itself for speculation but also needs a sound body, and food, and the other means of existence.'"45 So also says Aristotle in his discussion of the greater happiness of the life of contemplation (1178 B 34-35).

Petrarch cites the Metaphysics several times, though entirely from book 1. Twice he interprets Aristotle as saying that the first theologians were poets, because this fits the notion of theologia poetica he is promoting in competition with scholastic theology. In the Invective the reference (to Metaph. 983 B 28) is vague: "Certainly the first theologians among the pagans were poets as the greatest of the philosophers and the authority of the saints confirm."46 In the well-known letter to Gerardo analyzing his own eclogue as a form of theology, Petrarch first refers to the use of allegory in Scripture as poetry and suggests that the pagan poets do the same—that is, mean God and divine matters when they speak of gods and heroes—"whence also we read in Aristotle that the first poets were theologians."47 Aristotle, no doubt thinking of Homer, says, "Some think that even the ancients who lived long before the present generation, and first framed accounts of the gods, had a similar view of nature (to Thales'); for they made Ocean and Tethys the parents of creation.…" But as E. R. Curtius pointed out, Aristotle is trying to discuss the origins of natural philosophy and not theology.48 In the Invective Petrarch refers to his medical opponent's criticism that even Aristotle reprehended the poets for their arrogance which aroused the envy of the gods. This, at least, seems to be the argument he refers to. But Petrarch's answer is equally vague because, he says, he does not have the Metaphysics with him at Vaucluse. Petrarch does not find it agreeable to scold the poets for their liberty of speech or to excuse the envy of the gods, but he assumes his enemy does not cite this passage any more accurately than he does others.49 Aristotle, of course, argues that the gods cannot be jealous of philosophers, as the poets suggest, since to engage in the study of metaphysics is divine and honorable because it deals with divine matters.

Whether he had his Metaphysics at Vaucluse when writing his Invective or not, Petrarch certainly knew this passage. He refers at least twice to its concluding line: "All the sciences are more necessary than this but none is better." This is a basic argument of his invective, that medicine is not of greater dignity than poetry (or philosophy) because it is more necessary, but that the reverse is true. The less the necessity the greater the nobility and dignity of an art or a science. He pursues the same argument in Le familiari (1.12), which according to Billanovich was apparently composed not long before the Invective of 1353,50 and in which he refutes the fictitious old dialectician who argued that Petrarch's art, by which Petrarch guesses he means poetry, is the least necessary of all. This Petrarch gladly admits, for poetry is written for delight and beauty, not out of necessity. His opponent's argument makes all the most sordid, necessary things the most noble. As he would have it, "Philosophy and all the other arts which in any way make life happy, civilized and beautiful, if they confer nothing to the necessities of the vulgar, they are ignoble. O new and exotic doctrine unknown also to him whose name they celebrate, Aristotle! For he said: 'Necessariores quidem omnes, dignior vero nulla.'"51 He is equally sharp toward his medical opponent: "Impudent idiot, you always have Aristotle in your mouth.… He certainly did not approve of your little conclusion where he said 'All others indeed more necessary, none, indeed, more worthy! I do not indicate the place, for it is a most famous place, and to a famous Aristotelian!"52

Clearly, Petrarch uses Aristotle for essentially rhetorical, not philosophical, purposes. Yet he agrees with a basic philosophical attitude of Aristotle's—the superiority of the liberal arts, particularly philosophy and poetry, over the mechanical. This is specifically illustrated in the principle of the inverse ratio of necessity and nobility. Petrarch also knows and uses the Rhetoric, sometimes disagreeing with Aristotle's assertions. He draws on the discussions in books 2 and 3 of the emotions to which the orator appeals and of the problem of style. Petrarch particularly chides his medical foe, who professes to understand rhetoric and poetry, for his ignorance of Aristotle's Rhetoric, Poetics, and De poetis.53 The latter two Petrarch obviously knew of but could not have seen.

Petrarch's statements against Aristotle in De ignorantia may now be placed in better perspective. It is not so much Aristotle but the cult of Aristotle that he is attacking. All pagan philosophers are to be condemned equally for their non-Christian statements, made from ignorance. Aristotle is neither better nor worse than Plato in this respect. Petrarch revealingly says of his young friends that they "are so captivated by their love for the mere name 'Aristotle' that they call it a sacrilege to pronounce any opinion which differs from his on any matter." Petrarch's so-called "ignorance" may be due to his inadvertent differences from Aristotle, or to the problem of stating the same view with different words. "The majority of the ignorant lot cling to words … and believe that a matter cannot be better said and cannot be phrased otherwise: so great is the destitution of their intellect or of their speech, by which their conceptions are expressed."54 Petrarch adds (as he did in his entry on Aristotle under "On Eloquence" in his Rerum memorandarum libri) that he cannot understand how Aristotle has such a bad style when Cicero had praised its sweetness. Not knowing that Cicero refers to Aristotle's dialogues, he thinks the poor quality of the translations into Latin has destroyed Aristotle's style. His contemporary Aristotelians, "whereas they can in no way be similar to Aristotle himself of whom they are always speaking, attempt to render him similar to themselves, saying that he, as a man who sought after the highest matters, was contemptuous of any eloquence, as if no splendor of speech can dwell in high matters, when on the contrary a high style is most fitting to a sublime science."55

The De ignorantia makes clear Petrarch's preference for "our Latin writers"—Cicero, Seneca, and Horace—who have "the words that sting and set afire and urge toward love of virtue and hatred of vice."56 Despite his interest, albeit wavering, in the Greek philosophers, Petrarch fundamentally prefers the Latin tradition. He is basically concerned with rhetoric and not philosophy as we and the ancients know it.

It is impossible to review in detail the enormous influence and use in his writings of the works of the two Latins who had any claim to be called philosophers— Cicero and Seneca. In Umberto Bosco's magnificent (though still not entirely complete) index to Le familiari, Petrarch's citations of Cicero far exceed those of any other writer.57 The Tusculan Disputations is the most cited single work of Cicero. Petrarch's interest in this work and in Seneca (and there is a marked predominance of citations from the Epistulae ad Lucilium) shows his concentration on consolatory Stoicism. Roman Stoicism, although differing significantly in the two versions presented by Cicero and Seneca, retains the common hortatory emphasis on the classical goal of moral autonomy. This, it seems, was central for Petrarch.

The most important idea Petrarch got from classical philosophy was the notion of pyschic and moral self-sufficiency. He could have drawn equivalent ideas from Plato's image of Socrates but did not, either through unwillingness or inability. He surely encountered the notion in the Nicomachean Ethics, but it was here entangled with the more mundane aim of securing a sufficiency of external goods to ensure the virtuous man's performance of his moral and civic duties. Cicero's exposition of Panaetius's views in the De officiis and of Posidonius's (presumably) in the De natura deorum set the problem in the same framework. Hence Petrarch's lesser use of these works. Significantly, in On His Own Ignorance, he discusses the De natura deorum, particularly Balbus's exposition of Stoicism. But rightly unsure of how much of these views to attribute to Cicero, Petrarch plays up the emphasis on Providence. He fails to find in it the magnificent paean to the rational powers of man that had once so appealed to Lactantius and would again to Giannozzo Manetti.58

As Petrarch does not see this concern for moral autonomy as necessarily a pagan position opposing the Christian doctrines of grace and justification, he comfortably engages in a series of role identifications or philosophical experimentations. It is here that the claim that Petrarch engages in philosophy as a poet finds its principal basis. His doctrine of imitation—that one should penetrate to the essence of a model and then benefit from it in a totally original and autonomous way—is familiar. In his invectives and his letters he sought to emulate but not ape Cicero and thought that even in his retirement and love of solitude he was following Cicero's example of composing his moral treatises in his country retreats. With Seneca the role playing becomes even more explicit, in Petrarch's conception of himself as a lay counselor and moral adviser, particularly through his letters and in his use of the pseudo-Senecan De remediis fortuitarum as a model for his own De remediis utriusque fortunae. He explicitly played the role of St. Augustine in the Secretum, but in this work it is "Franciscus" who plays the part of St. Augustine, while "Augustinus" is developed as a kind of Christian Seneca. Seneca is even more central to the De vita solitaria than the directly attributed citations indicate, as passage after passage echoes the letters and moral dialogues of the Latin sage. I have already suggested that although the evidence is not explicit, his ironic plea of ignorance in De ignorantia can be conceived as analogous to Socrates' profession that he was wisest of all because he knew nothing.59

It is particularly in connection with the Secretum and the De remediis that the question of Petrarch's concept of moral autonomy needs to be discussed. Klaus Heitmann in his study of the De remediis and in subsequent articles on the Secretum is deeply concerned with his seeming lack of discrimination between Stoicism and Aristotelianism and even sometimes Christianity, though he strongly affirms Petrarch's ultimate Christian orthodoxy.60 So also notes Bobbio in her study of Seneca and Petrarch.61 Yet Petrarch in his personal experience of accidia or despair and in his sense of its omnipresence in his contemporaries turned to the elaboration of a theology of sola gratia—salvation by grace alone.62 Time and again he repudiates the classical notion, particularly as it is stated by Cicero, that man's virtuousness is in his own hands, whereas we must thank the gods, or fortune, or providence for our material well-being. Petrarch could not be more emphatic in repudiating virtue as the sole or the supreme goal in life. He does, however, see a link between the attainment of moral autonomy in this life and the desire, faith in, and hope for the grace that can lift the Christian out of his condition of despair and grant him the necessary justification for salvation. It is the role of the writer, the poet, the philosopher, the moral counselor, the rhetor to assist the ordinary man by exposition and exhortation to detach himself from his alienating and self destructive involvement in the affairs of the world.

Reason (Ratio) in the De remediis counsels Dolor and Superbia to find their own moral center when bad or good fortune leads them to succumb emotionally with elation or fear to the uncontrollable flow of events as they impinge upon each individual. The self-integrating attitude he urges is a psychological, emotional, and moral detachment but not a withdrawal. Only the man who achieves this moral autonomy can even enter into the economy of grace and salvation.

Seneca, too, understood that the formal rigidities of Stoic doctrine were inapplicable to case after case of actual life. Like other Stoic moralists, he devised a casuistry that would alleviate the strictness of the code. In Seneca, there is a rhetorical convergence with Aristotle's more principled stress on the need for external goods. Petrarch could easily follow the example of Seneca rhetorically, as he could follow Cicero in his Academic affirmation that a rigid philosophical or moral rule was not essential.

Thus Petrarch, with all the inadequacies and defects of his knowledge of classical philosophy, managed to intuit and to adapt to the needs of his own religion and age perhaps antiquity's greatest moral insight—the ideal of selfsufficiency or autarkeia. In a syncretic way, Petrarch was able to unify opposing schools of philosophy, and even Sophists, rhetors and philosophers, through the writings of Cicero and Seneca. With the models of St. Augustine and St. Jerome before him, he could see how Platonism, Stoicism, and Ciceronian rhetoric could be drawn upon to serve and clarify the Christian goal of salvation. Like Augustine, he was aware of the differences between pagan and Christian doctrine and alert to the dangers of a failure to discriminate. But with his deep appreciation and understanding of this central insight drawn from classical moral philosophy, he was able to adapt, transform, and apply it to the new moral and religious situation of the later Middle Ages. Petrarch himself thus became a paradigm for posterity and thereby guided the transformation of late medieval culture into that of the Renaissance.

If Petrarch through his poetry "became a spiritual individual and recognized himself as such" (Burckhardt), he tried to persuade others to do so through his letters and treatises based on classical moral philosophy. In this way the poet became a philosopher and sought to make his own subjective insights universal. Through establishing the centrality of his own and every other man's subjectivity, he laid the basis for much of modern philosophy and spirituality—except for modern natural science, which has grown out of the great rival of Petrarch's world view, late medieval natural philosophy. The poet describing what the human condition might be becomes the philosopher making subjective statements concerning individuals that simultaneously acquire the nature of universals. And this is what Petrarch meant when he thought of himself as a poeta theologicus.


  1. I refer here to the names of some of the greatest Petrarch scholars. For full references to the works of these authors, see List of Works Cited. To the names of Nolhac, Sabbadini, Rossi, Bosco, Billanovich, Pellegrin, and Wilkins, there should certainly be added Guido Martellotti and B. L. Ullman. See under "Petrarca" and "Studies."
  2. Cf. the following, which concern Petrarch's "inconsistencies": Klaus Heitmann, "Augustins Lehre," "L'insegnamento agostiniano," and Fortuna und Virtus; Hans Baron, "The Evolution of Petrarch's Thought," "Petrarch'sSecretum," and "Petrarch: His Inner Struggles"; Jerrold E. Seigel, Rhetoric and Philosophy, chap. 2, "Ideals of Eloquence and Silence in Petrarch." I have tried to resolve some of the dilemmas in "Petrarch: Man between Despair and Grace," chap. 1 of Image.
  3. Cf. P. O. Kristeller, "Il Petrarca, l'umanesimo e la scolastica."
  4. Poetica, 1451a-b. (Bywater trans.)
  5. More than twenty years ago, Leo Spitzer showed how the Latin verse of Pontano and Poliziano broke out of the mold of antiquity, unable to dispel the personal lyric quality so freely evident in their Italian poems, despite their classicizing aims and conscious imitations. See his "Latin Renaissance Poetry." Edward Cranz has more recently stressed a similar transformation of the philosophical perceptions of antiquity and early Christianity in the High and late Middle Ages, and specifically in Petrarch; see "Cusanus" and "1100 A.D." Professor Cranz is currently preparing a major study of this theme which is briefly summarized in these papers.
  6. A good antidote to the objectivistic stereotype of the classical mentality is the comprehensive survey of Rodolfo Mondolfo, La Comprensione del soggetto. For Petrarch's contribution to the scholarly study of antiquity, see Billanovich, "Petrarch and the Textual Tradition of Livy," and Roberto Weiss, Renaissance Discovery, 30-38. For Panofsky's thesis concerning the Renaissance view of antiquity, see Renaissance and Renascences, 108-13 and passim.
  7. The use of dialectic seems to have been resorted to by many thinkers to compensate for their loss of confidence in the reliability of metaphysical speculation. They, as the humanists after them, sought to make precise statements about the relationship of thought to perception and language rather than sweeping assertions about what, in their view, could be known only vaguely.
  8. He scatters twelve references to anecdotes and sayings through Le familiari. There are two entries on Pythagoras in his Rer. mem.; they closely follow Justin, Epitome; Cicero, Tusc. 5. 3-4, and De inven. 2.1.
  9. Cf. Image, 49, 195-96, 343 nn. 103-05, 400 n. 38; De rem. in Op. om., 121-25; De otio, 59-60. Cf. Seneca, Epist., 58. 23.
  10. Rer. fam., 6. 3. 17.
  11. Nachod, 125. Cf. Image, 50.
  12. Ancient historians have recently given greater recognition to the Sophists. They are frequently designated as the founders of ancient humanism or of the humanist tradition. Whether the rather scanty knowledge of and interest in the Sophists on the part of Renaissance humanists can be accounted for is not of present concern. But there is no doubt that the humanists followed Cicero in considering Socrates as the true founder of their own tradition. What they would have thought of the Sophists if they had possessed or known of Cicero's lost translation of Plato's Protagoras cannot be said. See Werner Jaeger, Paideia, vol. 1, book 2, chap. 3, "The Sophists"; W. K. C. Guthrie, Greek Philosophy, vol. 3, part 1, "The World of the Sophists"; Mario Untersteiner, The Sophists. On Renaissance humanists and the Sophists, see my "Protagoras in the Renaissance."
  13. Pellegrin, La bibliothèque, 105, lists no. 148 of the 1426 inventory of the Visconti-Sforza Library (Phedon Platonis) as Paris, BN. lat. 6567A. Cf. L. Minio-Paluello, "Il Fedone latino," 107-13. De Nolhac, Pétrarque et l'humanisme, 2, 141 and n. 3, expresses surprise that Petrarch had not made greater use of the Phaedo. But see L. Minio-Paluello on Petrarch's marginalia to BN. lat. 6567A. He suggests (113) that Petrarch may have read this work only in his final years.
  14. Tusc., 5.4.
  15. Rer. fam., 10.5.15; De offic, 1.1.
  16. Acad., 1.4.15.
  17. De ignor., Nachod, 126.
  18. Rer. mem., 1.9. (Unless lines and pages are specified, numbers refer to book and section.)
  19. De sen., 8.26.
  20. Rer. mem., 1.27.
  21. Ibid., 4.22; Cic. De divin., 1.54.
  22. Rer. mem., 3.71.
  23. One might say with De Nolhac (1.9) that "the need to oppose a name to that of Aristotle, as much as the study of Cicero and St. Augustine, caused Petrarch to grasp the importance of Plato."
  24. Paris BN. lat. 6280. See De Nolhac, 2.141; Pellegrin, 98. It is no. 121 of the 1426 inventory of the Visconti-Sforza Library.
  25. See note 13.
  26. De Nolhac (2.133-40, 313) discusses this manuscript and Petrarch's efforts to learn Greek in order to read it. Pellegrin lists it (98) as no. 120 of the 1426 inventory and as no. 463 of the 1459 inventory (310). She suggests in n. 2 that because of similarity of contents, it may well be Paris BN grec 1807, which came from Catherine de Médicis.
  27. Prose, 756; Nachod, 112-13.
  28. Tusc., 1.30; Rer. fam., 3.18.5 (1.139); 4.3.6 (1.165).
  29. Prose, 46; Confess., 10.6.
  30. Prose, 98-100.
  31. Ibid., 174; Phaedrus 245 A.
  32. In somn. Scip., 1.8; Prose, 340-42.
  33. Prose, 342.
  34. Rer. mem., 1.25, pp. 26-31.
  35. Ibid., 1.25, lines 78-94.
  36. Ibid., lines 99-157.
  37. Ibid., lines 158-69.
  38. Prose, 750-54; Nachod, 107-11.
  39. 2:152. De Nolhac discusses Petrarch's knowledge of Aristotle on 147-52. Pellegrin (115) identifies this manuscript as (293) no. 190 of the 1426 inventory and as no. 78 of the 1459 inventory (293).
  40. Prose 744-46; Nachod, 103-04.
  41. Rer. fam., 11.16.35, and 23.2.42.
  42. Ibid., 11.4.1.
  43. Ibid., 3. 10. 7.
  44. Contra med., 3.328-35.
  45. Rer. fam., 2.159.
  46. Contra med., 3.448-49.
  47. Rer. fam., 10.4.2 (2.301).
  48. European Literature, 217-18.
  49. Contra med., 3.490-97.
  50. Petrarca letterato, 1:49-50.
  51. Rer. fam., 1.12.4-5.
  52. Contra med., 3.100-06.
  53. Ibid., 2.270-81;3.173-86.
  54. Prose, 742-44; Nachod, 102.
  55. Rer. mem., 2.31, pp. 64-66, lines 37-43.
  56. Prose, 744-46; Nachod, 102.
  57. Citations to Cicero run to six and a half columns. The Bible and Vergil run for four and three and a third; Seneca runs for two and a third. Horace gets one and two-thirds, and Augustine one and a half. All other classical authors run for less than a column, the historians claiming a certain prominence, rightly enough, as the source for his exempla. Of the philosophers Plato is given two-thirds of a column and Aristotle and Socrates each one half. Cicero, Vergil, Seneca, Horace, and St. Augustine are, then, his most cited classical authors, with Cicero massively dominating. Cf. B. L. Ullman, "Petrarch's Favorite Books," Studies, 117-37.
  58. Prose, 726-40; Nachod, 79-100.
  59. Cf. the important comments on Petrarch's role playing of the various careers he assigned himself in Thomas M. Greene, "The Flexibility of the Self," 246-49, especially 248. Greene has also written the most profound study (in my judgment) of Petrarch's theory and practice of imitation, "Petrarch and the Humanist Hermeneutic."
  60. See note 2.
  61. Aurelia Bobbio, Seneca e la formazione spirituale e culturale del Petrarca.
  62. Image, 35-41.

Mariann Sanders Regan (essay date 1982)

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Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 14040

SOURCE: Mariann Sanders Regan, "Petrarch," in Love Words: The Self and the Text in Medieval and Renaissance Poetry, Cornell, 1982, pp. 184-222.

[In the following excerpt, Regan focuses on themes of love and self-examination in her reading of the Rime sparse.]

et perché 'l mio martir non giunga a riva,
mille volte il dì moro et mille nasco,
tanto da la salute mia son lunge.1

We cannot intuit Lover infans in Petrarch's Canzoniere so easily or directly as we can in the lyrics by Dante and Arnaut Daniel. For through the metaphoric language of fusion, an illumined dyad sustains Daniel's poems, and a central presencing event rests at the heart of Dante's poetry; by contrast, in none of Petrarch's various works do Poet and Lover move harmoniously, in continual metaphors of fusion, toward some central arrheton, Rather, in these poems Poet and Lover join in more difficult, defensive verbal efforts, as though in reaction to an inadequate or finally unavailable Source. This "as though"—this pervasive sense of untrustworthy central Source and conflicted central infans—may serve as our beginning intuition for Petrarch's poetry. The lyrics of the Canzoniere may be understood as works of self-texturing appropriate to this uncertain ontological center.

In all of Petrarch's works, final values are never quite final. Final judgments can be postponed, or retracted. When Reason receives the Poet-Lover's appeal for justice late in the Canzoniere, she replies that she needs more time to make up her mind (360. 157).

Augustine, who often seems the winner in the debates of the Secretum, does not really have the last word. Laura is all but obliterated in the palinode, "Vergine bella" (366), but she is there again at the close of the Trionfo dell'Eternità, with those who possess immortal beauty and eternal fame. Perhaps such shifting purposes argue an uneasy ontology for these poems, an inability to fix Source and goal, an inherent restlessness. We recall how the Petrarch of the letters perceived his "wandering life" to have begun at birth:

But I was conceived in exile and born in exile. I cost my mother such labor and struggle that for a long time the midwives and physicians thought her dead. Thus I began to know danger even before I was born, and I crossed the threshold of life under the loom of death.… I was removed [from Arezzo] in my seventh month and borne all over Tuscany by a certain sturdy youth; as Metabus did Camilla, he wrapped me in a linen cloth suspended from a knotty stick, to protect my tender body from contact. In fording the Arno, his horse fell, and in trying to save his precious burden he nearly lost his own life in the raging stream.

After the wanderings in Tuscany we went to Pisa. I was removed from there in my seventh year and transported by sea to France. We were shipwrecked by the winter storms not far from Marseilles, and I was nearly carried off again on the threshold of my young life.… Thenceforward, certainly, I have hardly had a chance to stand still and get my breath.2

As a young boy, he says, he sensed as "true and almost present" those passages from classical authors about the mutability of life and "time's irrecoverability" (Fam. XXIV. 1, p. 201). He was barely in his teens when his mother died, and during those same years his father threw Petrarch's cherished library of classical books into the fire.3 The Petrarch of the letters would see such incidents as further evidence that "there is no resting-place for me," that he must lie exhausted on the bed of this life (Fam. XV. 4, p. 135). He was forever unable or reluctant to find a permanent residence, as though a final sense of belonging, or home, eluded him. For to be by one's very nature deracinated, or homeless, is to lack that definite imagination, that crucial absent presence, at one's psychic center: it is not a question of geography, but of how surely one possesses an intrapsychic representation of self-as-Source, toward which one internally is always directed, always "traveling." Without this sure imagination, in Petrarchan texturing, one can hardly even conceive of arriving home. Source becomes entirely contingent, a central ground that may always be pulled away. And indeed no ground seems to be truly secure in these letters; even though Gherardo has reached spiritual harbor in a Carthusian monastery, Petrarch nevertheless sends him exhortations to piety, as well as a reading list (Fam. X. 3, p. 100). No metaphors of suckling infants belong to this texturing; rather, one exists as though wrapped in a linen cloth and suspended from a knotty stick.

We sense in Petrarch's Canzoniere and in his other works a central infans moved by the full force of both those original contradictory motions, the dread of Void as well as the longing for Source. It is as though this Poet-Lover lives in the interchange of death and birth: "mille volte il dì moro et mille nasco." For the evocations of Source here are centrally threatened, and any Source that might be intuited from these pages seems to be always already departing. For instance, Laura is typically a shadow, an elusive ombra, even in her surest representations. Whereas the donna of Donte's nove rime approaches and brings life with her gaze, making her presence felt, it is of Laura's essence to vanish, to be summoned only with weeping and imaginative effort. And so in morte: Laura as salvific vision, guida al cielo, simply does not work as well as Dante's Beatrice. Her eyes do not show the Poet-Lover "la via ch'al ciel conduce" (the way that leads to heaven, 72. 3), despite all intentions. Instead of guiding him step by step to a consummate "fulgore," Laura repeatedly appears and disappears from his bedside: her tender counsel is intermittent, ephemeral—as her memory has always been. And her presence is swept away in the last poems where she becomes merely "tale" (one, 366. 92).

Moreover, except for those tenuous nightly visitations, the Poet-Lover of the Canzoniere receives no grace, no responsive, infinite Maternal Source, no presencing or represencing to strengthen his repentance and hope for salute. Neither Laura's arms nor God's arms reach down to him in his lifelong wanderings; neither Laura's face nor God's face approaches to bring him definitive rest. One might ask, as Lucia asks Beatrice at the start of the Inferno, do you not hear his cries? Such repentant moments as "Padre del Ciel" (62) and "I' vo pensando" (264) move on unanswered, and the Virgin's exhorted presence subtends the final poem silently. The Poet-Lover's final prayers move full cricle to the first poem in the sequence, where pietà and perdono are left to the reader in an unresolvable appeal. This first poem presents the whole sequence as an endless purgatorial chain, but without final absolution and remission of sins. There is no context that assures a sympathetic audience: it is Laura's role not to listen, of course (223), but there is no sense through the verbal texture that God and the Virgin Mary are listening, either. The poems revolve essentially alone, filling the silences left by their own failing pleas. For in Petrarchan texturing, such Dantean echoes as "il ver tacito" (the silent truth, 309) do not really allay the fear that there may be no truth, no trusted listening figure, in the silence. The pilgrim of the Commedia can experience nourishing silences, long gazes that lead to the final eternal gazing—but the Canzoniere does not evoke such a "silent terminal point"4 to engender and direct the words. The Poet-Lover must himself fill the silences, while no responsive presences arrive to lead him home. He calls Laura's name into a Void:

                   … onde con gravi accenti
è ancor chi chiami, et non è chi responda.

(… whence there is one who calls out with heavy accents, but there is no one to answer.)

The silence that is death shares the maternity of these poems.

In response and reaction to an untrustworthy central Source and a fully conflicted central infans, Poet and Lover meet in difficult textures, where often pain and solitude seem elaborated almost purposefully, willfully, self-consciously, dramatically. Or, one might say, defensively. For through several intricate verbal means that resemble defenses, Poet and Lover join as though to guard uncertain Source, or even to reclaim Source from all uncertainty. Like many defensive efforts, these do not work very well, but the efforts remain to mark Petrarchan texturing. In the cause of these defenses, whole human presences seem deliberately distanced from these poems, while at the same time parts of cherished presences seem to be assimilated, possessed in words. Moreover, the Poet-Lover works hard to turn against himself, in distinctive representations of amant martyr, so that the rages of incompleted mourning are deflected away from Source and into the verbal texture. Source remains uncertain, but finally, through the verbal negations and deviations of these pervasive defenses, Poet takes on weight—becoming perhaps strong enough to subsume, nourish, and compensate Lover for the centrally inadequate Source that provoked the defenses in the first place. Strengthened by Poet, the Poet-Lover may come to love self, his own being-in-words, almost as he would have loved a securely evoked Source. The expectations and problems of this self-love may lead us to the final self-consciousness of the Canzoniere, the Petrarchan "lifelong condition"5 that we all in some measure share with these poems as equivalent selves.

It may seem paradoxical that Poet and Lover would move together in purposeful defense to distance important presences from these poems, since intimations of a departing Source can be centrally threatening to the self. But such distancing can allow a crucial, saving measure of defensive control against a Maternal Source felt to be untrustworthy. For if that Source seems by its nature to vanish, the self can defensively take as its own the act of distancing, in order the more surely to circumscribe and hold the imagination of Source, absent presence, internalized "ideal object." The self contrives its own "optimal distance" from Source, defensively appropriating its own boundaries. And on the other hand, if Source seems by its nature to be overbearing or overpresencing, such managed distancing can be all the more a saving grace, can allow the self to exist in division. For there are some indications in Petrarchan texts that their evoked always-departing Source may operate, on a deeper level of defense, to screen the opposite evocation: an all-engulfing Source. And in this case, the self through the defense of primal envy would tend to devalue and distance important presences, lest they become entirely overwhelming. Thus ultimately, at some evocative level past the signifiers, that central untrustworthy Source in Petrarchan textures may be too near as well as too far, engulfing as well as abandoning, and these two untrustworthy "imagos" may be always oscillating in mutual reaction to each other. From such a conflicted "core" infans, the self would surely move to impose its own distances.

For instance, in an early canzone of the Canzoniere, "Una donna più bella" (119), the figure of Glory may suggest a Source both too far away and too near, and some ambivalence may inform the Poet-Lover's reception of her. When she leaves, she winds the garland of laurel around his temples as though to soften her departure: "'Non temer ch' i' mi allontani" (Do not be afraid that I am going away, 119. 102-5). Formulating this distance from her, the laureled self is discovered; Petrarch is crowned as poet laureate. On the other hand, when several lines earlier, after she presences him with her gaze (88-90), she tells him, "ciascuna di noi due [Virtue and Glory] nacque immortale" (each of us was born immortal, 119. 92), she seems intent to overwhelm him, to provoke his despair.

"Miseri, a voi che vale?
Me' v'era che da noi fosse il defetto"

("Wretches, what does it avail you? It would be better for you that we did not exist.")

Her exclamation here is like the proverb near the close of the Trionfo del Tempo: blessed is he who is not born. For he wanes in comparison with her; he can hope at best, through Glory, to live a long time (14-15), but she is overbearingly immortal.

These allusions to literary fame, and to an age without Virtue or Glory, recall certain similar passages in the letters, mixed evocations of abandonment and engulfment by Source, with appropriate defensive distancing. For in the letters also, Petrarch suggests that none of his contemporaries are worthy of Glory, or indeed worth reading, and that for this reason "I exert all my mental powers to flee contemporaries and seek out the men of the past" (Fam. VI. 4, p. 68). Bergin offers a more defensive cause for this flight—that Petrarch might have found true rivals among his contemporaries, especially those in Florence. Perhaps the Petrarch of the letters would like to hold his literary sources at a comfortable distance, to devalue those that are not already distanced by time. Such devaluing and distancing could manifest a primal envy of Source, an anxiety of influence. And as for those writers already safely distanced by time, not to mention by language and culture, he could continue to lament their irrevocable departure, taking them—from a distance—to heart. Petrarch, unable to read Greek, could clasp a volume of Homer to his bosom and sigh, "'O great man, how gladly would I hear you speak!'" (Fam. XVIII. 2, p. 153). Yet by contrast he could not bring himself to hold so close a copy of Dante's works: "I was strangely indifferent to this one book, which was new and easily procurable.… I was afraid that if I should immerse myself in his words, or in those of any other man, I might unwillingly or unconsciously become an imitator. (At that age one is so malleable, so prone to admire everything!)" (Fam. XXI. 15, pp. 178-79). Thus even while he carefully explains why he could never hate or envy Dante, the Petrarch of this letter is busy with primal defensive texturing, minimizing Dante's achievements and setting himself at a distance, clearly apart, lest he be immersed, shaped, overborne by a contemporary literary presence.

Perhaps the same defensive patterns inform Petrarch's tendency to avoid close or intimate associations, as well as fixed duties or responsibilities. As Bergin says, "with an art more instinctive than calculated, he managed to keep himself ultimately uncommitted." For example, when he was offered a Papal secretaryship in Avignon, he contrived to disqualify himself.6 He believed that his own father had been prevented from rising "high in the scholarly world" by the burdens of a job and family (Sen. XVI. 1, p. 292), and perhaps in consequence he avoided both; yet he also claims that his ability to reject long hopes—a "natural weakness, or natural soundness"—has saved him "from marriage and from others of life's troubles" (Fam. XXIV. 1, p. 201). One leaves, perhaps, before one can be either engulfed or abandoned. And the Petrarch of the letters refuses not only job and family but also a permanent home: he keeps up his travels and changes residence almost incessantly, never becoming definitively "at home," not even in his favorite Vaucluse. He will not belong to a community of close friends, although he several times professes his desire to do so, as when he writes to Guido Sette, "You must know that I never look at pleasant places without recalling my own country home and the friends with whom, God willing, I should most gladly pass there the remnants of my brief life" (Fam. XVII. 5, p. 152). He will not choose any city, such as Florence, upon which he might have some claim as "home." His life has often been called a "voluntary exile," and contrasted with Dante's involuntary exile. He cannot explain his "wanderings," which bring him by his own account more trouble than profit, except to say: "If I should be asked why then I do not stand still, I can only respond … I don't know why" (Sen. IX. 2, p. 260). Perhaps this continual interchange, along with the yearning for the solitary life, helps to preserve the circumference of the self: one keeps home and friends at a safer distance this way, and all evocations of dangerous Source in balance. When Petrarch invites a friend to live with him, he assures him, as he would probably himself like to be assured: "Don't think I am proposing to shackle you, or that you would be confined to a single house" (Fam. VIII. 5, p. 71).

The letters may provide a clarifying context, then, for the defensive texturing of the Canzoniere, where Poet and Lover join to distance all intact human presences from the words. After that "primiero assalto" (first assault, 2), Laura is dramatized only as a vanishing presence, so that the Poet-Lover seldom risks encountering her; moreover, few other whole presences— such as, for instance, the consoling ladies of Dante's "Donna pietosa"—are summoned by these poems. Only the distant invocations of apostrophe really belong to these lyrics; even substantial personifications, such as Glory (119) or Reason (360), are exceptional here. Safe from presencing or represencing events, the Poet-Lover can reflect upon his elusive l'aura. As Budel says of this distance willingly sought, "in the final analysis, he did not want what he seemed to want."7 As he wanders "Solo e pensoso" in "i più deserti campi" (Alone and filled with care … [in] the most deserted fields, 35), he resembles the Poet-Lover of Arnaut's "En cest sonet," intent to create himself "en desert."… For at this perpetual distance, he seems to invoke Laura's absent presence almost at will, while the landscapes (unlike Dante's) yield their inherent significance to serve as a backdrop for his well-controlled intimations of Source:

   Ove porge ombra un pino alto od un colle
talor m'arresto, et pur nel primo sasso
disegno co la mente il suo bel viso.
[129. 27-29]

(Where a tall pine or a hillside extends shade, there I sometimes stop, and in the first stone I see I portray her lovely face with my mind.)

Because she is not there, he can take charge almost entirely of her image, its appearance and disappearance: he "designs" her. And he nourishes himself with this kind of "error," keeps himself symbiotically alive through this absent presence he has worked through distancing to create (129. 37-39; 127. 102-6). Perhaps such brief but distinctive metaphors of fusion, Lover with Poet, are enabled by the defensive distancing.

For he will distance her in time as well as in space. He envisions a future "benedetto giorno" (blessed day, 126. 31) when she would weep at his graveside, and he ranges "ne la memoria" (in memory, 41) to design a spellbinding image:

  Così carco d'oblio
il divin portamento
e  'l volto e le parole e 'l dolce riso
m'aveano, et sí diviso
da l'imagine vera,
ch' i' dicea sospirando:
"Qui come venn' io o quando?"
credendo esser in ciel, non lá dov' era.
[126. 56-63]

(Her divine bearing and her face and her words and her sweet smile had so laden me with forgetfulness
and so divided me from the true image, that I was sighing: "How did I come here and when?" thinking I was in Heaven, not there where I was.)

Here again is the language of fusion: Poet-Lover and poem seem almost to disappear into a carefully removed, imaged Presence. He creates his own trance, fixing and directing his memory until it can "mirar lei et obliar me stesso" (look at her and forget myself, 129. 35). Even so, it is a self-conscious trance, where the Poet-Lover in "obsessive" memory8 still circumscribes and measures his own self-forgetfulness. These textures of fusion are well guarded.

Perhaps the Poet-Lover of the Canzoniere even tries to appropriate Laura's death for his own defensive purposes, another act of distancing. His efforts have perhaps caused some readers to believe (probably erroneously) that when Petrarch noted Laura's death in the margin of his Virgil, he was simply tailoring a fiction. After all, when Laura has been removed by death, the Poet-Lover can be even surer of her image. He can summon her presence closer now in the poetry: Laura in morte, more than in vita, will console, advise, linger a while, and even profess her love. Of course, she is never by any means so direct and immediate a presence as Beatrice. But still, the poems continue to grow in the space cleared by her death: just as the Poet-Lover can in vita design her face against a tree or rock, he can mourn both bitterly and sweetly in the landscape that she has abandoned forever:

  et quanto in piú selvaggio
loco mi trovo e 'n piú deserto lido,
tanto piú bella il mio pensier l'adombra.
[129. 46-48]

(and in whatever wildest place and most deserted shore I find myself, so much the more beautiful does my though shadow her forth.)

In the letters, Petrarch writes to "Socrates" of his reaction to the news that two of his friends have been murdered by brigands: "I feel something fatal, horrible, and yet pleasurable to my mind. Assuredly there is a certain sweetness in mourning …" (Fam. VIII. 9, p. 76). He was planning to spend the rest of his life with these friends, he says, living together in a single house; but now that they are removed, he will "feed and torture" himself with mourning. And so the Poet-Lover of the Canzoniere continues for many years to call Laura's name, for the most part unrewarded—and unencumbered—by her answers. Thus in this defensive texturing Poet rises in significance over Lover, as words born in solitude and memory come to seem more important than the longing for the present lady.

Even while Poet and Lover move to distance whole presences, and especially to hold Laura removed in time and space, they move also to bring worded parts of Laura's presence into the body of the poem. It is as though a sensed untrustworthy Source—too near and too far, engulfing and abandoning—provokes these complementary defensive efforts to draw away from the whole and yet possess the parts. The poems seem to incorporate concrete fragments of Source, worded "part objects" of the unwordable "ideal object," with items taken from Laura and her surroundings. The Poet-Lover works to have her in his own terms, so to speak, to control the poem's genesis by devouring and holding absent presence in words that can neither engulf nor abandon the body of the poem. Poet and Lover join in synecdoche, metonymy, symbol or emblem, and phonic texturing to gather these nourishing fragments.

Any simple, whole, direct representations of Laura as donna are soon lost beneath the loving enumerations of her separate beauties, her belle membra, her attributes. Most frequent in this collection are her eyes (begli occhi), her face (bel viso), and her blonde hair (chiome bionde or capei d'oro); but the poems linger also over her arms (braccia,) side (fianco,) feet (piede),limbs (membra), cheeks (guancie), even her hands and fingers, "bella man" and "diti schietti soavi" (199). Cherished parts seem indispensable to these poems: synecdochic presences become habitual substitutes for whole presences, and part-objects are as insistently desired as Source. "Each part of her has the significance of her entire person."9 In Petrarchan texturing, the distanced whole and the appropriated parts together seem to allow that solid imagination of fusion upon which the self must spin; they provide the equivalent of Dantean "presencing" to define and direct these lyrics. For this Poet-Lover, however long he continues, never can continue long in vita or in morte without returning to the naming of parts; even the Virgin Mary is praised for her "belli occhi" (366. 22).

The spectrum between synecdoche and metonymy in these poems is a long and full one, so that fragments of Laura accumulate here as in a dream-work to displace the affective charge of her presence among a rich panorama of cathected items, part-presences. She is a glance, a smile, a bearing, sweet whispers, words, angelic singing, an inventory of "mortal bellezza, atti et parole" (mortal beauty, acts, and words, 366. 85). She is a veil, a gown, a white glove; she is l'auro, the gold that binds her hair, as well as l'aura, the breeze that plays with her hair—even the paronomasia is metonymic. For she is here through whatever she touches, through any reality once contiguous: she becomes her footprints upon the grass, as the "sí bel piede" (so beautiful a foot) becomes "be' vestigi sparsi" (lovely footprints, 125. 53, 60); she can be known only through "quest' erba sí" (this grass, 126. 65). Time is ignored by this contiguity—as when in the Trionfo dell'Eternitá the speaker exclaims, Happy is the stone that covers her fair face! This touching need not even be quite physical, for she becomes the quality of the air through which her glance has penetrated:

  Ovunque gli occhi volgo
trovo un dolce sereno
pensando: "Qui percosse il vago lume."
[125. 66-68]

(Wherever I turn my eyes, I find a sweet brightness, thinking: "Here fell the bright light of her eyes.")

This Poet-Lover also manages to turn the moment of the original meeting into an enumeration of time and space, as items near Laura which he can savor one by one: the hour, the instant, the countryside, the place … (61). And of course, metonymy in this texture can move almost imperceptibly toward symbol, when Laura becomes also the parts of the natural landscape that call her to mind. Mountain by mountain, with water, grass, cloud, rock, the naming of parts continues, though displaced from her body: "in tante parti et sí bella la veggio" (in so many places and so beautiful I see her, 129. 38). The Poet-Lover in "Chiare fresche et dolci acque" (126) summons a gently melancholy sequence, part for part: acque (waters) for membra (limbs), gentil ramo (gentle branch) for bel fianco (lovely side), erba et fior (grass and flowers) for gonna (garment) and seno (breast), aere sacro sereno (sacred bright air) for those begli occhi. It seems as though this list can never be completed, can never constitute a whole. And even when the Poet-Lover designs the final vignette of Laura here, to move himself toward his own trance, the poem still holds her only through parts, through lovely branches, falling flowers, blonde braids like burnished gold and pearls. This kind of effort to make her present brings her there only in treasured synecdoche, metonymy, symbol, l'auro: the whole has been scattered into rime sparse.

With this texturing of Laura as part-Presence, metaphor is usually not the language of fusion, the inspired evocation of wordless Source—as metaphor can be in the texts of Daniel or Dante. Instead, metaphor and symbol and emblem here often seem merely to extend the uses of synecdoche and metonymy: unsignifiable presences are regularly assumed to become solid objects rendered by concrete, recurring words, cose in rima. The reader comes to expect metamorphosis by metonymy; the lady under a green laurel becomes virtually a lady-lauro, and the weeping Poet-Lover becomes the stone upon which he sits. In appropriated parts of Ovid, the Poet-Lover becomes a laurel, a swan, a stone, a fountain of tears, a voice, a stag like Acteon (23); emblems of Laura's death, in the corresponding canzone in morte, include a deer, a ship, a laurel, a phoenix, a fountain, and a lady like Eurydice (323). For these poems work to transform presences, and ultimately to transform Source, into emblems, into words. All presences, and infinite Presence, are presumed there by contiguity, all but in the word, in this closely metonymic texture; it is a kind of verbal metamorphosis. And the Daphne myth suits this defensive texture well: in the tree, the fleeing lady is both forever distanced and yet still entirely available. For in these poems words or parts of the laurel can be brought close, appropriated by synecdoche: fronde, rami, legno, scorza, ombra (leaves, branches, wood, bark, shade). Thus the laurel as metonymic symbol yields in turn its own nourishing parts. Like Apollo, this Poet-Lover can take those "sacra fronde" (holy leaves, 34) to himself, or receive the laurel garland from Glory, and thus he guards himself against untrustworthy source. He can distance l'aura while he yet assimilates l'auro, valued part-presences. Perhaps in this way also l'ombra, always on the verge of disappearance or dispersion, can be held in words as a reality almost tangible, sweet and sensual, to feed and generate these poems as selves.

seguirò l'ombra di quel dolce lauro
[30. 16]

(I shall follow the shadow of that sweet laurel)

Poi quando il vero sgombra
quel dolce error …

(Then, when the truth dispels that sweet deception …)

L'arbor gentil che forte amai molt'anni
(mentre i bei rami non m'ebber a sdegno)

fiorir faceva il mio debile ingegno
a la sua ombra …

(The noble tree that I have strongly loved for many years, while its lovely branches did not disdain me, made my weak wit flower in its shade …)

The metonymic use of ombra can belong in these poems to suggestions of sexual union, as when the end-words of the sestina "Non à tanti animali" (237) seem to be repeated and savored as dark, delectable part-objects: piaggia, notte, luna, sera, onde, boschi (rain, night, moon, evening, waves, woods.) For ombra is often gathered into the poems with night and evening, in sensual dream-wish: when the Poet-Lover sees the stars "dopo notturna pioggia" (after nocturnal rain), he remembers her eyes "quali io gli vidi a l'ombra d'un bel velo" (such as I saw them in the shadow of a lovely veil, 127. 57, 62).

Through repeating and savoring, Poet and Lover also join to bring Laura's presence into the poem phonically, so that sounds work as part-presences. In the Secretum "Augustine" accuses "Petrarch" of being in love with Laura's name, and even apart from the multifold paronomasia, the naming of Laura seems itself satisfying, an activity to be relished: "L'aura che 'l verde lauro et l'aureo crine / soavemente sospirando move" (246). Sometimes in his lists of cherished parts the Poet-Lover seems to include this very naming, "qualche dolce mio detto" (some sweet saying of mine, 70. 17), as when he adds to a catalogue of natural beauties "dir d'amore in stili alti et ornati" (poems of love in high and ornate style) and "dolce cantare oneste donne et belle" (sweet singing of virtuous and beautiful ladies, 312), or as when he blesses, along with all the "parts" of their first meeting, "le voci tante" (the many words) that he has scattered in calling her name (61). Her sweet presence seems almost to be ritualistically incorporated, ingested again and again with liquid consonants and open-throated vowels: l'aura, lauro, l'ombra, l'ambra, l'aureo, l'aurora, l'oro, l'auro, laureta. Or the words themselves can become her hair, spread with the l's and s's into delicate, enticing strands:

L'aura soave al sole spiega et vibra
l'auro ch' Amor di sua man fila et tesse;
là da' belli occhi et de le chiome stesse
lega 'l cor lasso e i lievi spirti cribra.

(The soft breeze spreads and waves in the sun the gold that Love spins and weaves with his own hands; there with her lovely eyes and with those very locks he binds my weary heart and winnows my light spirits.)

In the course of this sonnet he takes her presence into his marrow and blood, while his mind reels with the sweetness, "di tanto dolcezza," that has been swallowed with the words—as the words, perhaps—into the poem. These are words more than pexa, for the very syllables seem delectable: whereas in "Ne li occhi" the words seem to efface themselves before that nameless donna, in Petrarch's poems the words themselves become substantial, upstaging the whole human presence. The words themselves attract and overwhelm: "'l dir m'infiamma e pugne … mi struggo al suon de le parole" (speaking inflames me and pricks me on … I melt in the sound of the words, 73. 10-14). The words seem not to let the light of Presence through, but to rest in themselves.

Thus Poet and Lover join in paronomasia, synecdoche, metonymy, symbol, emblem, and phonic texturing to assimilate nourishing part-presences, worded fragments of Laura's presence, into the Poet-Lover or poem as equivalent self. These part-presences effectively serve as that "image of the lady" which, as Robert Durling points out in his reading of "Giovene donna" (30), seems to become more rigid and more metallic as the Petrarchan lover meditates upon it; these metonymic part-presences, rather than the whole Presence, provide in Petrarchan texture the Aristotelian internalized phantasm of the lady, the impression stamped upon the wax of the lover's soul. The image of the lady hardens into "l'idolo mio scolpito in vivo lauro" (my idol carved in living laurel, 30. 27) because the parts so harden, as Durling points out—the branches diamond, the hair gold, the eyes topaz. Furthermore, we might ask exactly how the Poet-Lover's "psychological fixation"10 upon these internalized, imagined parts brings about their hardening, for "hard" images are curiously textured in the Canzoniere. Not only is the lady hard, "lei che come un ghiaccio stassi" (she … who now stands like ice, 125. 11), leaving an unanswered flame within him, but he also is hard as though in response:

e d'intorno al mio cor pensier gelati
fatto avean quasi adamantino smalto
[23. 24-25]

(and around my heart frozen thoughts had made almost an adamantine hardness)

He seems to absorb, ingest, take on her hardness: here are Medusa and victim, of course, or in psycho-ontological terms here is a darker version of that original scene of infant spellcasting—unyielding Source becomes frozen self. For Source, however fatally hard, still must be taken in to the vital center of self; we recall the combined responses of mimesis and revenge in Dante's petrose. Thus "hard" or "concrete" images come to suggest not only her Medusa gaze, rejecting and petrifying him (197), but also his response in kind, inevitably mimetic of her or joined to her somehow: he is "hard" because he is ice or marble or stone; but his need for her is also unyielding, as when Time binds him in the "più saldi nodi" (tighter knots, 196) of her hair, or when "il giogo et le catene e i ceppi" (the yoke and the chains and the shackles, 89) entrap him, oppress him. For these chains are also treasures, and belong by metonymy to those cherished parts of Source that the poems so eagerly incorporate, those diamond branches, that "oro forbito e perle" (burnished gold and pearls, 126. 48). By this route the Poet-Lover also becomes "hard" in the strength with which he holds these part-presences, and that hardness becomes displaced upon the parts themselves: her name becomes as solid as marble (104). All these associations of "hard" images, and more, are involved with the Poet-Lover's "fixation" as he contemplates the part-images of the lady. She becomes a part-presence both concrete and vital, "hard" both in her treatment of him and in his intense appropriation of her: "questa viva petra" (this living stone, 50. 78). And he is "pietra morta in pietra viva" (a dead stone on the living rock, 129. 51), in the semblance of a man who thinks and weeps and writes; he takes on her fatal hardness in mimetic response, clinging to her for life even as she deprives him of life. It is as though at his central being, at the primary term of the metaphor here, he is "pietra," like her.

Thus in these complex senses, the Poet-Lover's "contemplation," his motion toward Source, works to harden the partimages of the beloved. Moreover, Poet and Lover move defensively in these words toward yet another kind of "hardening." For one might describe the vocabulary of the Canzoniere, made of small groups of frequently recurring words, as "hard"—refined, restricted, well fixed. The Poet-Lover's metonymic tenacity affects not only the worded fragments of Laura's presence but also the words for his own suffering: pensieri, sospiri, dolor, occhi molli, danni, giogo, vita acerba (thoughts, sighs, grief, soft eyes, pain, yoke, bitter life). He seems to hold to limited sets of words, with little variation: this is hardly a vario stile in vocabulary. In a way the repetitive vocabulary seems almost to encrust these poems with the conventional, the familiar—so that an unusual image would seem intrusive. Bergin notes that the imagery of these poems is "personal," not remaining distinct or "objective" or sharply visual, like Dante's imagery; rather, "with Petrarch the image is absorbed and devoured, and it is precisely this emotional solidarity that the poet seeks."11 Through images made ever more familiar, both Laura and Poet-Lover become constant, possessed in "solidarity." And when in some poems the metonymic vocabulary becomes both substance and audience, as in "Chiare, fresche et dolci acque" (126), the "solidarity" between Poet-Lover and image becomes all the more intense. Poet-Lover becomes a being-in-words defensively, with a vengeance. For in these poems Poet and Lover do not move in infans receptivity, open to the wordless influence of Laura or other whole human presences. In Dante's poems the path to Source, ultimate "fulgore," is clear despite all orribile lingue, so that the language is cosmically diverse, but there is little such "negative capability" in Petrarch's poems. It is as though in Petrarchan texture Source had become treacherous, perhaps both too far and too near, so that individual words are not free to roam and generate worded differences; rather, words seem almost to be circumscribed, taken as part-presences, repeatedly devoured. Through this kind of rigidity, worded part-presences are firmly held, as though in place of a central absent presence, and again Poet comes to seem more important than Lover.

Even the religious language of the Canzoniere does not usually work as the metaphoric language of fusion, but is instead textured with this fixed vocabulary. For usually in the repentance sequences the words themselves remain constant while the references shift from secular to Christian,12 so that even as the Poet-Lover professes change he is holding stubbornly to the language, the words resisting almost all diversity: the unusual "croce" or "miserere" (62) in such instances becomes the exception that proves the rule. And more generally, the very repetition of certain clusters of religious terms establishes them as part of the "hardened," carefully possessed vocabulary: salute, benedetto, beata, miracolo, meraviglia, paradiso, divina (salvation, holy, blessed, miracle, wonder, paradise, divine). And through further allusions, Christian ceremony and ritual are appropriated, and the "commune dolor" (universal woe) brought to the service of "miei quai" (my misfortunes), in religious terms that are savored as insistently as any others (3). These terms can fill out items of synecdoche, as when her voice is "chiara, soave, angelica, divina" (clear, soft, angelic, divine, 167). They can consecrate metonymic presences:

Qual miracolo è quel, quando tra l'erba
quasi un fior siede.

(What a miracle it is, when on the grass she sits like a flower!)

Benedetto sia 'l giorno e 'l mese et l'anno

(Blessed be the day and the month and the year … )

But even when these poems approach the language of fusion, as when the Poet-Lover exclaims, "Costei per fermo nacque in paradiso!" (She was surely born in Paradise! 126. 55), the "blessing" of the Christian words does not seem to enable the words to reach past themselves. The religious terms are, instead, included with the hair, the pearls, the grass, the flowers, the voice—with the treasured metonymic parts, so worded and so named, signifiers as Signified, Poet over Lover.

guerra è 'l mio stato

(war is my state)

Thus in Petrarchan texturing, whole presences are distanced while part-presences are hoarded in words. Poet and Lover move together in these complementary defenses, and in their difficulties the individuating Poet emerges; the poem, as a being-in-words, rises to distinction. But there is still further defensive texturing in these poems—intricate amant martyr representations through which the distinctive Petrarchan "voice" emerges even more clearly. Here Poet and Lover move in continuing, subtle displacements to deflect negative impulses from the problematic Source of the poems; by contrast, in Dante's works with their secure presencing events, primal rages seem to be diverted simply, as with a single clean stroke, to the walled compartments of the petrose and the Inferno.

Thus in the Canzoniere aggression appears displaced or transmuted into that wearying and interminable sorrow, dolore, pena, that will mark the Petrarchan lover through several generations of love poetry. In his use of Ovid, this Poet-Lover does not include Daphne's sexual fear, and he does not follow the story of Acteon through to his dismemberment:13 in these poems, one turns from rage and passion, in painful flight. Of course, he is reluctant to rail at the beloved;14 what is more, he slights the representations of Laura as "cruel," and instead turns his attentions to his own afflicted image, amant martyr. For in this verbal texture, the presences and personifications that always wound the speaker seem perhaps less important than the pain of the blows:

Voglia mi sprona, Amor mi guida et scorge,
Piacer mi tira, Usanza mi trasporta;

(Desire spurs me, Love guides and escorts me, Pleasure draws me, Habit carries me away;)

Here and elsewhere, as in the canzone "I' vo pensando" (264), the active, angry verbs become the speaker's continuing pain, passively endured. Potential rage or invective is turned away from Laura as Source, and becomes woven into the vocabulary of his martyrdom: martiri, sospiri, piaghe, mal, duol, pena, dolore, affanno, danno, tristi, duri, miseri, amare, paura, sconsolato, dispietata. That is, war becomes this Poet-Lover's state of being, and he can thereby avoid actively waging war.

Thus as amant martyr, this Poet-Lover turns against himself centrally, from the beginning of the sequence, to emphasize his swift and lasting departure in time from Laura's presence. Unlike Dante's speaker, he does not linger in the universal moment of presencing; he moves immediately de via, away from that briefly invoked "luogo e tempo" (time and place, 2) to reflection upon the moment, and within a very few poems this moment must be called upon from the past. In this way he avoids making Laura's cruelty the target of his invective. For it is Time that here becomes cruel and implacable, that carries the ever-vanishing Source of these poems all the more surely away. And indeed, Time in its merciless turning, volgendo, could eventually scatter that first moment entirely:

Quand' io mi volgo indietro a mirar gli anni
ch' ànno fuggendo i miei penseri sparsi,
et spento 'l foco ove agghiacciando io arsi,

(When I turn back to gaze at the years that fleeing have scattered all my thoughts, and put out the fire where I freezing burned … )

Time, as the agent of the Poet-Lover's martyrdom, renders him helpless, himself absorbing the possible anger toward the elusive beloved, and thus guarding that problematic Source from aggression. For not only does he typically receive the weight of the transitive verbs: even more frequently, the intransitive verbs governed by the speaker seem to have absorbed the wearing of time: "piango et ragiono" (I weep and speak, 1), "vegghio, penso, ardo, piango" (I am awake, I think, I burn, I weep, 164), "vo mesurando" (I go measuring, 35), "I' vo pensando" (I go thinking, 264. 1), "Là 've cantando andai di te molt'anni / or, come vedi, vo di te piangendo" (Where I went singing of you many years, now, as you see, I go weeping for you, 282).15 In these present tenses and present gerunds, the entropic force of time acts upon him: these are verbs of habitual endurance, always bearing the implicit threat of full dissolution and absence. With these verbs, time takes the speaker ever further from that first moment, and the painful moments of increasing distance are stretched out as though upon a rack of time. He addresses Laura in one of the earlier poems:

… i' vi discovrirò de' miei martiri
qua' sono stati gli anni, e i giorni, et l'ore;

(I shall disclose to you what have been the years and the days and the hours of my sufferings;)

For moments are the elements of his martyrdom—in the recurring present tenses, a war of attrition continues to be his present state.

There are some momentary truces in this war, of course. Several defenses appear to cancel each other: even while time threatens to dissolve the memory of Laura's presence, the defensive distancing allows the Poet-Lover to re-create, elaborate, even improve that memory in moments of pace. There is such "breve conforto" (brief solace, 14) in the solitude canzoni, and also when Laura returns in morte. In these cases his endurance seems almost to have earned a renewal, a recovery of presencing, for she appears unmarked by time, "qual io la vidi in su l'età fiorita" ("just as I saw her in her flowering, 336), and the visions bring him "pace" (126. 55), "soccorso" (help, 283), "tregua" (a truce, 285). But these truces are also subject to time, and indeed time will remove these peaceful illusions:

… se l'error durasse, altro non cheggio.
[129. 39]

( … if the deception should last, I ask for no more.)

i' come uom ch' erra et poi più dritto estima
dico a la mente mia: "Tu se' 'ngannata.…"

(I, like one who errs and then esteems more justly, say to my mind: "You are deceived.…")

Eventually these poems always turn time back against themselves: the cherished memories, like the original moment, yield to the sweep of time. Dante's Commedia moves steadily toward definitive represencing, but Petrarch's Canzoniere is carried away from all represencing scenes. Even though Petrarch in his daily routine fought time like Rabelais' Gargantua, reading while he shaved or ate, and writing in the middle of the night (Fam. XXI. 12, pp. 174-75), he still could acknowledge to Guido Sette, "there is no standing still for man here below; there is nothing but continual flow and down-slipping and at the end the collapse of all" (Fam. XIX. 16, p. 161). "La vita fugge et non s'arresta un'ora" (Life flees and does not stop an hour, 272). There is really no contest in time's war against the self. Time wears away the Poet-Lover, continues to dissolve presencing and represencing scenes: the laurels become oaks and elms (363), and the morte poems reiterate their own fatigue: "Omai son stanco" (Now I am weary, 364). The vaunted moral or religious progress must at best coexist with time's war against all central meaning for this self-in-words. The verbs here appear to have absorbed the rages of primal separation, so that Time in ongoing present tenses keeps drawing the poems toward their own Void, their own unpresenced final appeals.

Moreover, in the amant martyr texturing of these poems, it is not only Time that is turned against the self. The very moment of Presence, such as it is, is turned against the self also, in the elaborated pain of the experience and the memory. In this way also, the Poet-Lover exists in a state of war from the first few sonnets, with the military language of the enamorment as "'I colpo mortal" (the fatal blow) or "primiero assalto" (the first assault, 2) or the time "quando i' fui preso" (when I was taken, 3). Thus far we have only an echo of some of the textures, perhaps, of Dante or Cavalcanti; but Petrarch's Poet-Lover continues insistently to turn the violence of these metaphors upon himself, appropriating the language of colpo, piaghe, giogo, ancide, pena, and taking these words of the pain, as it were, to the heart of the poems. He becomes inseparable from this pain. In this way he manages usually, though certainly not always, to deflect his rage from Laura; it is the moment, the day, the experience that is cruel, "crudo" (298), and not her. But there may be also a causa sui wish defensively textured in this continuing self-affliction. Especially if Source is felt to be untrustworthy—engulfing or abandoning (or both)—the self moves in defense to take charge of, to "write," its own conflicted presencing scene. Thus the self intensifies and receives its own rage toward a Source "too near" or "too far," and perhaps thereby comes to earn a remembered sweetness; the self can design its own nourishing scene of Presence, its own conflated suffering and reward. Indeed, in the Canzoniere that first moment is not really dolce; its sweetness is largely conjured by memory, as though partly in response to the emphatic pain.

Perhaps other defenses are involved here, too. But in any case, surely the complex, defensive representations of the enamorment serve to establish and focus the oxymoronic texture of the Canzoniere.16 For that first "blow" sets up a radical ambivalence that lasts throughout the sequence, so that no luminous meeting in the light of the lamp, no pure drinking of spiriti with the eyes, is ever quite possible in this texture. Evocations of that first moment are virtually always conflicted, scrupulously including pain; the memory can burden him as well as give him rest. Time renews "le prime piaghe sì dolci profonde" (the first deep sweet wounds, 196); the speaker will bless his wounds (61); anniversaries recall a "per me sempre dolce Giorno et crudo" (Day to me always sweet and cruel, 298), a "dolce amaro / colpo" (sweet bitter blow, 296). And this central ambivalence underlies the rich ambivalences of the sequence, where Poet and Lover move together in the oxymorons, antitheses, and paradoxes—the pain with the joy, the bitter with the sweet—that have come to mark the poetry as "Petrarchan." The love that ensnares him is "l'onesta pregion" (the worthy prison, 296), both a promise and a threat: "Amor, con quanto sforzo oggi mi vince!" (Love, with what power to-day you vanquish me! 85). For in this oxymoronic texturing, the state of war continues. Laura's eyes can emanate a sweet and nourishing light that keeps him alive (71. 76-82), but they can also dazzle or burn him, or wound him (195), or turn his heart to marble (197). Laura makes him feel "dolcezze amare et empie" (sweetness … bitter and cruel, 210), and one can "take in" her presence only through paradox:

Così sol d'una chiara fonte viva
move 'l dolce et l'amaro ond' io mi pasco.

(Thus from one clear living fountain alone spring the sweet and the bitter on which I feed;)

He would die content of "tal piaga" (such a wound) and live in "tal nodo" (such a bond, 296); she brings life and death at once, and death itself is made sustaining, "bel morir" (beautiful death, 278).

Besides these familiar phrases, there are other textures of ambivalence in these poems, also growing from their centrally ambivalent moment. For even "dolce ne la memoria," the interludes of pace are so slight that they are virtually oxymoronic, disappearing almost at once back into the prevailing guerra. Paradoxically, even these sustaining memories need expression in negative language:

Da indi in qua mi piace
quest'erba sì ch'altrove non ò pace.
[126. 64-65]

(From then on this grass has pleased me so that elsewhere I have no peace.)

pur mentr' io veggio lei, nulla mi noce.

(As long as I see her, nothing pains me.)

né trovo in questa vita altro soccorso;

(Nor do I find any other help in this life.)

After all, "dolce giogo" (sweet yoke) is a characteristic oxymoron for his memory itself; his heart is nourished by sighs (1). And of course, the central ambivalence will at times seem to govern the very construction of the sonnets, binding sonnet divisions that would separately express "dolce" or "amaro"; often the Petrarchan volta between octave and sestet seems to be thus formulated. And there are other variations: in one morte sonnet, for example, the first eleven lines savor Vaucluse in its natural beauty, while the last tercet knows the grief of Laura's death (303). More broadly, the ambivalence informs the alternating hope and despair in the morte poems: now he is dazzled by Laura's return as a vision, radiant yet familiar (282; 284); and now he despairs of writing when he realizes that her belle membra are all "poca polvere … che nulla sente" (a bit of dust that feels nothing, 292). And of course, the periodic and final poems of repentance add an overriding ambivalence. Now he blesses that first moment (61), and now he rejects it, a "dispietato giogo" (pitiless yoke) no longer sweet (62). Reinforced by the Secretum, this has been the ambivalence most striking to readers of Petrarch's works. Recently, Aldo Bernardo speaks of the "irreconcilability of Petrarch's haunting polarities," his vacillation between Laura as "myth" and Laura as "living Christian witness."17 It is as though the Poet-Lover wishes to write a new Source for himself, when he senses that the presencing event he has helped to design is inadequate, after all, and finite.

Thus Poet rises to prominence in these amant martyr representations, in which both Time and the "premiero assalto" are turned against the Poet-Lover. For these poems are defined as rime sparse partly by their war with Time. The speaker is adamant about including the weight, the pain, the dissolution that Time brings. "Cure me, and I shall be stronger, but my bed will be no smoother and softer" (Fam. XV. 4, p. 135). After all, the motions of Poet are served through this defensive texturing, for this Poet-Lover "chi pianse sempre" (who weeps eternally) finds immortality among the blessed precisely through his unending pain, his ongoing passive defeat before Time.18 By suffering endlessly, he gains endless distinction. Moreover, the oxymoronic texture, established perhaps by that first ambivalent moment, works even further to individuate the Petrarchan "voice." For the tropes of antithesis, oxymoron, and paradox are perhaps those most clearly visible to Petrarch's long line of imitators.19 We can see the introduction of this texture even in the first sonnet: the Poet-Lover names his own style as the "vario stile in ch'io piango et ragiono / fra le vane speranze e 'l van dolore" (varied style in which I weep and speak between vain hopes and vain sorrow). There are many ways of interpreting the stylistic variety of the Canzoniere, of course. But on the most basic level, "vario" is defined by these very lines, as ranging between hope and despair.20 In this sense the self is "varied," or endlessly vacillating, between the polarities of the oxymorons and antitheses, with no further range or progress possible: "né per mille rivolte ancor son mosso" (nor for a thousand turnings about have I yet moved, 118). And the "van" of the first sonnet surely gestures toward that ultimate defensive ambivalence, rejecting that original moment entirely. For even the interludes of repentance, along with those intermittent protestations of moral progress and those late evocations of Dantean luce,21 can be read in the contexts of this vacillation. The path here is almost always "rivolte," not Dante's steady journeying. This self is less centrally secure than the Gherardo who proceeds straight to the top of Mont Ventoux; but for that very reason, the wandering route of "error," more fully informed by Poet, makes this self more distinctive. Thus John Freccero can speak of "real literary strength from fictionalized moral flaws."22 And thus Petrarch can almost proudly apply to himself a sentence from one of Plautus' plays: '"I beat everybody in torturability of soul'" (Fam. IX. 4, p. 83).

There are other strengths for Poet in this antithetical texturing. For through the established habits of oxymorons, antitheses, paradoxes, and contradictions, these beings-in-words become self-generating, in a sense inexhaustible. Through these devices the language comes to feed on its own negations: there must be a pain counterpoint to every pleasure, and each antithetical pair seems to breed further pairs. The sequences of paradoxes (132; 134) gather energy as they continue, as though they could go on forever; they are brought only arbitrarily and temporarily to a graceful close, "In questo stato son, Donna, per vui" (In this state am I, Lady, on account of you, 134). In this texturing the eternity lost at that ambivalent presencing is reclaimed, in a sense, in the very interminability of the tropes. This Poet-Lover, being-in-words, can resonate between speranza and dolore essentially forever; these poems are sustained, born a thousand times a day, by their very lack of rest or repose, their incessant deaths. Thus certainly the last sequence of "conversion" poems, or any other announced closure, would seem inherently unsuitable here. But it is fitting that pace would be the last word for these warring antitheses.

Benedette le voci tante ch'io
chiamando il nome de mia donna ò sparte,

(Blessed be the many words I have scattered calling the name of my lady.)

As Poet and Lover move through these complex defensive textures, the words themselves rise to importance, and the Poet-Lover is clearly distinguished as a being-in-words. Poet emerges as a strong individuating motion in the negations and deviations of these defensive verbal devices—the savored parts of metonymy and synecdoche; the intensified, melancholy distancing of whole presences; the unending oxymorons, antitheses, and verbs of endurance. This Poet motion, in its unusual pervasiveness and strength, seems in several ways to answer that endemic longing, Lover infans: that is, the poems come in large measure to serve as their own Source, to work as "substitute" Source. These poems seem to offer their own worded beings to themselves in the place of unwordable Source, designing themselves in a negative mimesis to possess the qualities lacked by the elusive, untrustworthy Source intuited at their center.

Some of these qualities we have seen achieved through the defensive texturing itself, which works with Poet to make these poems inexhaustible and self-generating, secure, closely held, unique, full of treasured ideal parts. But the poems also imitate ideal Source through some further texturings where Poet and Lover cooperate: individually, the poems become unified wholes that are sweetly, musically, coenesthetically nourishing. They may also become timeless, permanent "ideal objects" that are places of infinite repose. In these ways the "ben colto lauro" (well-tended laurel, 30.36) replaces Laura; the self feeds its own longing; the poems become themselves that wholly present donna or Source that they do not receive into their texture. In Kohut's terms, perhaps, secondary narcissism absorbs the charge of primary narcissism, and the poems, with a "constant and the conscious egocentricity,"23 usurp for themselves the place of Source. Thus Freccero is right about the poems' "self-contained dynamism" and "auto-reflexive" thematic,24 in this sense: these are not nove rime, where Source shines through effaced words; rather, these words, in all their opacity and dense music, seem designed to be poetic selves-as-Source.

Petrarch in the letters seems to know that a literary text could work like a maternal presence, arousing and fulfilling expectations at the coenesthetic level of deep sensibility, until the text becomes an integrated and satisfying whole, allowing one to "coenesthetically fantasize" primal identification with Source. For he speaks of his study of Cicero in early childhood:

At that age I could really understand nothing, but a certain sweetness and sonority so captured me that any other book I read or heard read seemed to me to give off a graceless, discordant sound. I must admit that this was not a very juvenile judgment, if one may call judgment what was not based on reason. But certainly it is remarkable that while I didn't understand anything, I already felt exactly what I feel today, when after all I do understand something, little though it be. That love for Cicero increased day by day, and my father, amazed, encouraged my immature propensity through paternal affection. And I, dodging no labor that might aid my purpose, breaking the rind began to savor the taste of the fruit, and couldn't be restrained from my study. I was ready to forego all other pleasures to seek out everywhere the books of Cicero. [Fam. XVI. 1, pp. 292-93]

Whatever this "certain sweetness and sonority" that marks Cicero as a literary presence, it seems to be more profound than mere "understanding," and more lasting—it seems perhaps to reside even at that "level of deep sensibility" posited by Spitz.25 Perhaps Petrarch, having thus been rapt with the sweetness of another's wit, sought himself in the Canzoniere to devise poems that could likewise be capturing presences; perhaps he refers partly to this captivating sweetness when he insists that he wants any reader, while reading, to be "entirely mine" (Fam. XIII. 5, p. 115).26 But whatever the reason, the poems have a lulling, maternal sound. Even while the poems defensively distance whole presences and rigidly possess worded parts, they sound sweetly nourishing. To this end, the coherence and affective energy of each individual Canzoniere poem inheres in an elaborate, tightly woven "interstitial web" in which logical, causal, and syntactic patterns merge and are overlaid with rhythmic and phonic equivalences. Thus Durling notes that "Giovene donna" (30), with its "sense of balance, cyclical recurrence, and progressive intensification and enlargement," outdoes its predecessor, Dante's "Al poco giorno."27 Similarly, Bergin points out that Petrarch, both in syntax and in the stanzaic patterns that seem to flow so easily from syntax, achieved a unity and integrity markedly greater than that of his predecessors who wrote in the medieval pattern of coordinate clauses. For over and above his rhetorical and prosodic virtuosity, Petrarch typically devises a clear statement, straightforward in syntax and diction, "united and musically set forth."28

These poems can be aural presences, with a "certain sweetness and sonority" enhanced by the syntactic unity and balance—presences that address Lover infans on that primal level explained by Spitz, of "rhythm, tempo, duration, pitch, tone, resonance, clang." And on this aural or phonic level most of the poems are quintessentially sweet, a consoling and nourishing music. One might apply to these poems as constructions of sound the same adjectives that cluster around the donna of Dante's nove rime: soave, piano, umile, dolce. Or their sound might remind one of Laura in her morte visitations, as she speaks "col dolce mormorar pietoso et basso" (with … sweet, low, pitying murmur, 286). Granted, in several poems after Laura's death, the Poet-Lover undergoes harsher texturing, roche rime (332, 32), for as he explains,

non posso, et non ò più sì dolce lima,
rime aspre et fosche far soavi et chiare.

(I cannot—and I no longer have so sweet a file—make harsh, dark rhymes into sweet, bright ones.)

But the uses of the rougher consonant groups seem to be, on the whole, short-lived; in sound, this highly selective vocabulary resembles Dante's pexa words. As in the sweet, incorporative naming of Laura, the resulting aural presence of the poem seems indeed maternal—soave, chiare, dolce.

Chiare fresche et dolci acque …

Quel rosigniuol che sì soave piagne …

Soleano i miei penser soavemente …

Quando io v'odo parlar sì dolcemente …

We come as readers to rest in "confident expectation" of this lulling voice, the voice of poem as substitute Source, and the music of the individual poem can serve in a way to override or reward the painful negations and deviations of the defensive texturing, somewhat as the sweetness of the memory rewards the Poet-Lover for suffering its "blows."

Ma ben veggio or sì come al popol tutto
favola fui gran tempo, onde sovente
di me medesmo meco mi vergogno;

et del mio vaneggiar vergogna è 'l frutto,
e 'l pentersi, e 'l conoscer chiaramente
che quanto piace al mondo è breve sogno.

(But now I see well how for a long time I was the talk of the crowd, for which often I am ashamed of myself within; and of my raving, shame is the fruit, and repentance, and the clear knowledge that whatever pleases in the world is a brief dream.)

In this "sweet, low, pitying murmur" of the introductory sonnet, we are told that everything that follows will record only a brief dream, worthy of nothing but shame and repentance. And yet we are enticed to read on even by sound alone—for example, by the dolorous o's and mournful m's of this beautifully weeping voice. For weeping is sweet in the Canzoniere, so that sighs, as this first sonnet also tells us, can themselves be nourishing, and the sighs of these poems are indeed easy to "drink in" with the ear. In the margin of his Virgil, Petrarch writes that he records Laura's death with a certain "bitter sweetness,"29 and when he writes of the death of two good friends, he confesses, "Assuredly there is a certain sweetness in mourning; on this theme I am unhappy enough to feed and torture myself and find pleasure for days at a time" (Fam. VIII. 9, p. 76). This is not a simple masochism, here or in the lyrics of the Canzoniere: Poet and Lover move in defensive textures that convert rage to pain, and then nevertheless, as though in answer to conflicted Lover infans, the pain is made sweet, musical. The poems are rocked with their own intonations, fed with their own sweetness, as they revolve alone in time.

These poems themselves become the significant maternal presences, ultimate systems of equivalences rewarding all "confident expectations," and perhaps therefore the poems are less than successful in assembling Laura as a whole presence. For as we have seen, the evocations of Laura in vita tend to be lists of her treasured parts, and often the poems in morte continue this cataloguing in the ubi sunt tradition (282; 292; 299). For the Poet-Lover is not trying, finally, to evoke Laura as Source, unwordable Presence; the presence of Laura is not ultimately the point here, though it may indeed seem to be. The poem is mimetic of ideal Source while it holds Laura distant. For this is a texture of complex verbal defenses, not Dante's texture of primal receptivity. Dante's pilgrim can hold up the very syllables of Beatrice's name, BE and ICE, as diaphanous to the light of Source (see Par. vii. 13-15), whereas Petrarch's Poet-Lover seeds his own octave and sestet with the syllables of Laura's name, weaving LAU, RE, and TA into his own carefully formed syntactic unit: "Quando … poi … Così … se non che …" (5). The tribute to the lady or her name is lost to, or indeed becomes, the word-play itself, the opaque music of syntax and sound.30 It is his own the presence he is assembling from these fragments of her name, just as throughout the lyrics it is his own presence he assembles from all the synecdochic and metonymic parts of Laura. The poem is the distinctive and recognizable presence; Laura remains a shadow, l'ombra or l'aura, cast by the worded fragments of her.

One wonders whether perhaps this Poet-Lover treats his literary sources in the same way, assimilating them in fragments in order to reconstitute them as himself. He does specify that only a deeply hidden resemblance to the parent literary work should be observable in the child, the successor (Fam. XXIII.19. pp. 198-99); and his oral, incorporative metaphors for this process of making new works from old tend to stress a total assimilation by the new text as self:

… I have read Virgil, Horace, Livy, Cicero, not once but a thousand times, not hastily but in repose, and I have pondered them with all the powers of my mind. I ate in the morning what I would digest in the evening; I swallowed as a boy what I would ruminate upon as a man. These writings I have so thoroughly absorbed and fixed, not only in my memory but in my very marrow, these have become so much a part of myself, that even though I should never read them again they would cling in my spirit.… It has cost me great labor to distinguish my sources. [Fam. XXII. 2, pp. 182-83]

Those who read poetry, "sweet to the taste," should feed on it and absorb it, not just "taste the Pierian honey with their tongue's tip" (Fam. XIII. 7, p. 120).

Sometimes the features of Petrarch's sources seem almost deliberately recognizable, as with the entire quoted lines from predecessors in the love lyric (70), or perhaps more subtly with such Dantean fragments in the morte poems as "l'alma, che tanta luce non sostene" (my soul, who cannot bear so much light, 284), or "la mia debile vista" (my weak sight, 339), or "l'occhio interno" (my internal eye, 345), or even "vera beatrice" (366. 52). But usually this Poet-Lover knows how to devour and digest literary presences thoroughly. Thomas Greene demonstrates that Petrarch aims to produce texts that must be deeply sub-read, and Adelia Noferi discusses Petrarch's style as a blending of the styles of Cicero, Augustine, and Seneca.31

There is another sense in which these poems take on the qualities of ideal Source—in the continual application of the lauro emblem to the poems themselves. In this way, the poems as selves reclaim the eternity so doubtful in that elusive central Source. For as lauro, the poems themselves become the desired lady, taking one step further a familiar use of emblems in these poems: "Each of the major emblems for Laura thus at some time or other also stands for the lover, and vice versa."32

This mimetic effort is not like the straightforward construction of ideal Source in the poems' music; rather, involved here are several defenses—negations and deviations. For as lauro, the poems become the whole presence of the lady forever distanced, and they become thereby an emblem of the Poet-Lover's own unassuageable and ongoing pain. Moreover, by calling themselves lauro the poems imply that they are evergreen, permanent, even petrified—and they are all the more permanent for including the "hardness" of the lady, the rejection and the distancing. Those branches are "sempre verdi" (eternally green, 5) partly because the lady-lauro never yields, indeed is immobilized in her refusal. Eternal desire, as the Gnostics knew, is at least eternal. In this way the poems as lauro become their own treasured part-presences, their own laurel leaves or crown; they "crown [themselves] with the symbol of [their] defeat."33 This sonnet addressed to Apollo even makes for itself a conclusive laurel crown, in those shading arms:

sì vedrem poi per meraviglia inseme
seder la donna nostra sopra l'erba
et far de la sue braccia a se stessa ombra.

(Thus we shall then together see a marvel—our lady sitting on the grass and with her arms making a shade for herself.)

Finally, the poems as lauro try to weave into themselves a receptive future audience, moving further to assure their own eternity. These efforts, like other defenses here, are not felt as secure; but at least, in this understanding of lauro both self and Source are intended to live together forever. Petrarch wrote in an early Latin lament on his mother's death, "Vivimus pariter, pariter memorabimur ambo."34 And in the emblem of lauro, the Poet-Lover and Laura are verbally fused: thus in this one opaque word Poet and Lover try to accomplish a fusion that they rarely join to evoke beyond the words. Moreover, the invocation of a sympathetic public helps to confirm these poems as places of infinite repose, to bestow lauro upon these poems as lauro. For an audience can work as Source …, whether it be the masses with their "windy applause" that Petrarch scorned when Dante earned it, or only a circle of initiate readers and lovers, such as those invoked for the Canzoniere. From the first "Voi," those textured listening presences allow a chance of pity and pardon, and they encourage the Poet-Lover's hope: "i' spero / farmi immortal" (I hope to become immortal, 71. 95-96). Laura, God, and the Virgin Mary are possible audiences, too, but they hardly care for the poems as lauro; it is with their future readers that the poems make their largest effort, to texture their own "stade du miroir" and reclaim themselves from the void.

ma ricogliendo le sue sparte fronde
dietro le vo pur così passo passo,

(but … gathering up her scattered leaves, I still follow after her step by step.)

Thus in the music of single poems, and in the application of the term lauro, these poems are made as beings-in-words that resemble ideal Source—to answer Lover infans, their own central longing. Nevertheless, as a group the poems remain rime sparse, rerum vulgarium fragmenta, as though there is not a strong enough sense of Maternal Source in these texts to integrate them beyond the level of the individual poem. For it is positive maternal affect that organizes the self's ability to organize, and that allows to texts their coherence, affective energy, and intentionality. These poems as a book are fragmenta in response to their uncertain ontological center.

For example, the poems are episodic, and on the whole they are arranged with no felt integration moment to moment; they are joined to each other by only the slightest of narrative threads. No immediately evident design, chronological or otherwise, governs the poems. Bergin has said of the Trionfi and of all Petrarch's longer works that they are composed of fragments, very loosely united, and that this "basic flaw derives from a constitutional incapacity of Petrarch to handle the grand design" for "the synthesizing resolution eluded Petrarch."35 Those who have found patterns in the Canzoniere have had to work hard to do so, as though any real integration in the sequence were well hidden. For instance, Ernest Wilkins has carefully traced the various orderings of the poems, exploring rationales for each of them. Bernardo has recently sought to connect the search for form with the development of Laura's image, especially in the Triumphs; he stresses the frequent reorderings of the last thirty poems. Thomas Roche has suggested that the Christian liturgical calendar may offer a map for the sequence.36 By contrast, Freccero sees the episodic nature of the sequence as a self-contained strength: the poems "spatialize time" and are "free of the threat of closure."37 But even with such an implied rhetorical infinity, Poet still threatens Lover, for the poems are also "free," in their fragmentation, of those secure organizing affects that could enable integration and closure. As a whole, the sequence hardly forms a densely integrated presence, even though the rich defensive texturing is insistently distinctive, always identifiable as Petrarch. Durling speaks of Petrarch's "intensely self-critical awareness that all integration of selves and texts is relative, temporary, threatened."38 But the best description of the fragmentary nature of the sequence is Petrarch's own, or his adoption of Dante's metaphor: the leaves of this book are scattered, rime sparse, because they have not been well bound with Love. The Poet-Lover must keep toiling, step by step, in the endless task of collecting again all the scattered leaves of lauro, self and Source.

Moreover, some of the defensive texturing seems finally to fail, to threaten the intentionality of the sequence, to cut rather too deeply into the Canzoniere as self. For instance, time as antagonist seems not only to distinguish this Poet-Lover but also gradually to remove the purpose of his existence. As the sequence endures through twenty-one years "ardendo" (burning) and another ten years "piangendo" (weeping, 364), he tells us ever more often that he is weary, "stanco di viver" (weary of life, 363), and we sense a relaxing of his will to continue in those potentially inexhaustible antitheses, Poet without Lover. At several points the weight of time, and the grief at Laura's death, seem to usurp for him even his "sense of an ending," to bring this weeping and writing figure to an abrupt close.39 Also with the experience of Laura's death, the Poet-Lover seems to lose his defensive confidence that he can possess worded parts of Laura's presence. He seems to move beyond his earlier inexpressibility tropes and now fully to acknowledge, at moments, the distance between his worded part-presences and a Presence beyond words. Whatever I spoke or wrote about her, he once says, "fu breve stilla d'infiniti abissi" (was a little drop from infinite depths; 339).40 As she tells him in her last visionary appearance, she is now a "Spirito ignudo" (naked spirit), inaccessible to mortal words and far above the level of his sweet music, "queste dolci tue fallaci ciance" (these sweet deceptive chatterings of yours, 359. 60, 41).

Even more troubling for the coherence of the sequence are those intermittent repentance poems and the final "conversion" poems, where Poet and Lover turn against the self centrally, at the presencing moment. Here defensive ambivalence surely jeopardizes the very reason for the existence of poems and Poet-Lover, their entire foundation of affective energy. The poems contend that they should be otherwise created, that they should be "più belle imprese" (more beautiful undertakings, 62). In this thorough self-doubt, Laura becomes an invalid Source, a mistake, and poems that grow from her absent presence are likewise invalid:

… i' chiamo il fine per lo gran desire
di riveder cui non veder fu 'l meglio.

( … I call out for the end in my great desire to see her again whom it would have been better not to have seen at all.)

All the poems of Laura have been a wandering, an error, better never to have been. When in De Librorum Copia Joy boasts, "I possess countless books," Reason replies, "And countless errors.…"41 In the last poems even lauro disappears:

terra è quella ond' io ebbi et freddi et caldi,
spenti son i miei lauri, or querce et olmi.

(She is dust from whom I took chills and heat; my laurels are faded, are oaks and elms.)

With lauro no longer evergreen, Laura ceases to be named: "tale è terra" (366. 92). The Virgin Mary is brought forward as legitimate Source, new ground of the poems' being:

Vergine, i' sacro et purgo
al tuo nome et pensieri e 'ngegno et stile,
la lingua e 'l cor, le lagrime e i sospiri.
[366. 126-28]

(Virgin, I consecrate and cleanse in your name my thought and wit and style, my tongue and heart, my tears and my sighs.)

But this consecration works only for future poems, not for past ones, and now the sequence is over. The whole sequence seems to have been merely a prelude to its palinode: these retractions, if one takes them at all seriously (and many readers have been understandably reluctant to do so), draw all purpose and intentionality from the poems and leave them grounded on full absence. In this sense we have perhaps not literary strength, but literary weakness, from fictionalized moral flaws. As the first sonnet announces, the poems to follow are to be understood as valueless: raving, "vaneggiar," and cause for repentance, and "giovenile errore." They have taken their being from one who is dust. Who would ask integration or coherence, then, from such fully devalued poems as these?

Perhaps this ultimate turning-against-the-self works as a last, desperate defense—a "splitting" away of almost all the poems as "bad" in order to preserve the ensuing silence after the sequence as "good." That is, the poems seem to annihilate themselves, to renounce their long-held purposes, in order to purify the blank spaces beyond themselves, to conjure the Void as God or true Source. To put it another way, one must renounce all, must be "revolted by physical pleasures and nauseated by unremitting joys," in order to reach "the still, secure harbor of life" (Fam. XXI. 13, pp. 175-76). And among these possible joys the Poet-Lover surely includes the formation of the self in words, "queste dolci tue fallaci ciance." For in these defensive textures some would recognize the "Augustinian" Petrarch holding sway over the "Ciceronian." Bergin finds in the Africa a "melancholy acknowledgment that nothing in this world is of lasting importance," and in the De remediis a "continuous disparagement of life's joys" that seems "to come very close to a negation of the value of life itself and to press the pessimistic attack somewhat beyond the Christian frontiers."42 If poems and self are fully renounced, then it is all the more likely that God may lie behind the poems, "il ver tacito … / ch'ogni stil vince" (that silent truth which surpasses every style, 309), cradling their lamentations.

But if there is this "splitting" defense at work, it too is ultimately a failure. These poems cannot quite bear to throw themselves away. Thus they reclaim themselves from the silence, gathering their scattered leaves and presenting them to the reader: "Voi ch'ascoltate in rime sparse il suono / di quei sospiri" (You who hear in scattered rhymes the sound of those sighs). For these poems, despite all doubts, fall back upon themselves as Source. In this texturing, Eternity is not other than, but merely più bella than Laura,43 and correspondingly the Poet-Lover's Eternity is not other than the painful, defensive response to her in these words. To belong in Eternity, this Poet-Lover must be one "chi pianse sempre."


  1. Epigraph "And that my suffering may not reach an end, a thousand times a day I die and a thousand am born, so distant am I from health."

    Quotations from the Canzoniere or Rime sparse are from Petrarch's Lyric Poems, translated and edited by Robert M. Durling (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1976), reprinted by permission of Harvard University Press. In general, I give line numbers only for the canzoni. Translations are Durling's unless otherwise noted.

  2. Letters from Petrarch, selected and translated by Morris Bishop (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1966), p. 19 (Fam. I. 1). All passages from Petrarch's letters, the Epistolae familiares (Fam.) and the Epistolae seniles (Sen.), are cited in Bishop's translation.
  3. See Thomas G. Bergin, Petrarch (Boston: Twayne, 1970), pp. 38-39.
  4. John Freccero, "The Fig Tree and the Laurel: Petrarch's Poetics," Diacritics, 5 (Spring 1975), 35.
  5. Bergin, p. 36.
  6. Fam. xiii. 5, pp. 112-15; Bergin, pp. 33, 79.
  7. Oscar Budel, "Illusion Disabused: A Novel Mode in Petrarch's Canzoniere," in Francis Petrarch, Six Centuries Later: A Symposium, ed. Aldo Scaglione, NCSRLL, 3 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1975), p. 150.
  8. Bergin, p. 170.
  9. Freccero, p. 39.
  10. Robert M. Durling, "Petrarch's 'Giovene donna sotto un verde lauro,'" Modern Language Notes, 86 (1971), pp. 9-11, 16.
  11. Bergin, p. 178.
  12. See my article "Petrarch's Courtly and Christian Vocabularies: Language in Canzoniere 61-63," Romance Notes, 15. 3 (1974).
  13. See Robert M. Durling, Introduction to Petrarch's Lyric Poems, p. 28.
  14. See Leonard Foster, The Icy Fire: Five Studies in European Petrarchism (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1969), p. 14.
  15. Thomas Greene points out that the characteristic verb tense of the Canzoniere is the iterative present: The Light in Troy: Imitation and Deconstruction in Renaissance Poetry (New Haven: Yale University Press, to be published in 1982). In my comments about Petrarch's poems, I am indebted to Greene's perceptive readings.
  16. Greene has remarked that rhetorical escape from the oxymoronic pattern of these poems can be only momentary.
  17. Aldo S. Bernardo, Petrarch, Laura, and the Triumphs (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1974), pp. 201, 63.
  18. Trionfo dell'Eternità. line 95.
  19. Foster, p. 74.
  20. William J. Kennedy, in Rhetorical Norms in Renaissance Literature (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1978), discusses the rhetorical strategy of the Petrarchan speaker in his first chapter, "The Petrarchan Mode in Lyric Poetry." He says, "By 'vario stile' one may understand the range of tones, moods, and attitudes, that play off one another in balanced patterns of statement and reversal, thesis and antithesis, resolution and dissolution.… One could thus characterize the modality of the Petrarchan sonnet by how it involves the reader in the speaker's evolution of thought, feeling, idea, and attitude through multiple statements, shifts, and reversals within a formally limited space of fourteen lines" (pp. 26-28).
  21. See for example poems 61-62, 80-82, 141-42, 277-96, as well as those later poems involving Laura's visitations and the Poet-Lover's "conversion."
  22. Freccero, p. 37.
  23. Bergin, p. 191.
  24. Freccero, pp. 37, 38.
  25. See René A. Spitz, The First Year of Life (New York: International Universities Press, 1965), pp. 98, 135-36.
  26. See above, Chap. 1, at n. 59.
  27. Durling, "Petrarch's 'Giovene donna,'" p. 5.
  28. Bergin, pp. 175-76.
  29. Translated by Ernest H. Wilkins, Life of Petrarch (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1977).
  30. If there is an impulse to reparation here, it is very much the new presence that is being put together. See above, Chap 1. n. 60.
  31. Thomas M. Greene, "Petrarch and the Humanist Hermeneutic," in Italian Literature: Roots and Branches (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1976), pp. 211-21. Adelia Noferi, L'esperienza poetica del Petrarca (Florence: Le Monnier, 1962), pp. 118-49.
  32. Durling, Introduction, p. 32.
  33. Budel, p. 144.
  34. "We two live together; we will be remembered together." This is Ep. Met. I. 7, and is quoted in Bergin, p. 39. Bergin specifies that the number of lines in the poem is equal to the number of years in Petrarch's mother's life.
  35. Bergin, pp. 152, 103.
  36. Thomas P. Roche, Jr., "The Calendrical Structure of Petrarch's Canzoniere" Studies in Philology, 62 (1974), 152-72.
  37. Freccero, p. 39.
  38. Durling, Introduction, p. 26.
  39. According to Ernest H. Wilkins in The Making of the "Canzoniere" (Rome: Edizioni di Storia e Letteratura, 1951), Chap. 9, poems 292 and 304 were each at one time designed as final poems for the Canzoniere. See Table 1, p. 194.
  40. See my article "The Evolution of the Poet in Petrarch's Canzoniere," Philological Quarterly, 57 (Winter 1978).
  41. De Librorum Copia, in Petrarch: Four Dialogues for Scholars, ed. and trans. Conrad H. Rawski (Cleveland: Western Reserve University Press, 1967), p. 35.
  42. Bergin, pp. 114, 131.
  43. See 359. 64; 268. 40-44, Trionfo dell'Eternità, 143-45. The final poem of the Canzoniere argues that love for the Virgin Mary should be proportionately greater than love for Laura (366. 121-23).

Gordon Braden (essay date 1986)

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Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 12381

SOURCE: Gordon Braden, "Love and Fame: The Petrarchan Career," in Pragmatism's Freud: The Moral Disposition of Psychoanalysis, edited by Joseph K. Smith and William Kerrigan, The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1986, pp. 126-58.

[In the essay below, Braden bases his discussion of Petrarch's love poetry on Freud's ideas concerning "unconventional object choices."]

"The most striking distinction between the erotic life of antiquity and our own," Freud ventures in a late footnote to his Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality, "no doubt lies in the fact that the ancients laid the stress upon the instinct itself, whereas we emphasize its object. The ancients glorified the instinct and were prepared on its account to honour even an inferior object; while we despise the instinctual activity in itself, and find excuses for it only in the merits of the object" (S.E. 7: 149). Those are not equal options; psychoanalysis aligns itself with the ancient wisdom: "Anyone who looks down with contempt upon psychoanalysis from a superior vantage-point should remember how closely the enlarged sexuality of psycho-analysis coincides with the Eros of the divine Plato" (134). Understanding such Eros means undoing a major disposition of our culture: "We have been in the habit of regarding the connection between the sexual instinct and the sexual object as more intimate than it in fact is.… It seems probable that the sexual instinct is in the first instance independent of its object; nor is its origin likely to be due to its object's attractions" (147-48). The immediate context here is the question of unconventional object choices, homosexual and other; but the real point is that any successful settlement of our sexual attention is going to be something of an effort, the result of a complicated process that has more to do with us than with the others who satisfy us or let us down—and that it is possible to be more lucid about this than Western culture since the end of antiquity has tended to be.

This chapter argues on behalf of Freud's historical generalization, which I think will take more weight than he asks it to carry; his graph of the course of Western moral thought tracks more than superficial standards of sexual behavior and taste. I end by corroborating, in a widened sense, Freud's alignment of psychoanalysis with the classical emphasis on the instinct over the object. But I also want to argue that the psychoanalytic critique of romantic love has important historical roots in the world that intervenes between the two paganisms, in a Christian moral tradition that is deeply involved in the very literature that I assume is on Freud's mind and that certainly does the most to legitimate the contrast he makes. There is nothing in classical literature comparable to the exaltation of woman that arises with the Troubadours of the Pays d'Oc in the twelfth century and is transmitted from them to the rest of Europe: to northern France and the Trouvères, to Germany and the Minnesänger, and to Italy and the stilnovisti. These poets sing, time and again, of the woman who is the decisive event in a man's life, whose arrival divides that life in two ("Incipit uita noua …"), who makes all other concerns trivial in comparison. Among the classical poets, Catullus adumbrates such an enthrallment, but he has other things—and other kinds of love—to write about, too. Freud is right to see the elevation of the feminine object into the alpha and omega of masculine desire as in some ways the special mark of postclassical Western culture. Yet the very origins of that hypostatization are also perceptibly troubled about just what is being so rapturously affirmed; some of the founding works of Western European lyric poetry testify to a distressed awareness that Freud might be right about the nature of love as well.

The significant figure, historically and otherwise, is Petrarch (1304-74), the inheritor of Provençal and stilnovist lyric who gives it the shape in which it becomes the dominant form for serious love poetry for the next three centuries. During the general European Renaissance of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, it is Petrarchan imitation that trains the lyric poets of the developing vernaculars: imitation Petrarchan in form—the sonnet, which owes its prominence among the wide repertoire of Italian verse forms to Petrarch's example—but also, and more surprisingly, Petrarchan in content. Italian, French, Spanish, English, German poets, and others, will recount, as though on their own experience, a love that in its general outlines and often in specific details mimics that presented in Petrarch's own Canzoniere, the sequence of lyrics about his love for the blond woman with black eyes (and eyebrows) whom he calls Laura. He saw her first during morning services in the Church of St. Claire in Avignon, April 6, 1327, and she took over his life:

I' vidi Amor che' begli occhi volgea
soave sì ch' ogni altra vista oscura
da indi in qua m'incominciò apparere.…

[I saw Love moving her lovely eyes so gently that every other sight from then on began to seem dark to me.…]

(Canzoniere 144.9-11, 1976)

His devotion remained constant and all-consuming; even her death from the plague twenty-one years later—at exactly the same hour and day of the year at which he first saw her—did not loosen her hold on him. Petrarch's inability to think of anything else ramifies through the Renaissance and beyond.

Yet if that becomes the great love story of its time, literary history has some explaining to do as to why it should have become so central. For it is a peculiar story, peculiarly told: a story, for one thing, in which virtually nothing happens. The preceding paraphrase includes almost all the clearly recoverable events, and some of those can be specified only from information available outside the poems. The surviving evidence of Petrarch's intense interest in the order of his 366 poems—there were several states of the collection, with much meticulous rearranging—sorts oddly with the modern impression that the poems could be read in almost any order (as they usually are: even scholars seldom read them straight through). The very point of the sequence's main event—Laura's death, announced in poem 267—is that it changes almost nothing. The situation Petrarch writes about is largely a static one, and at least ostensibly for a simple but important reason: Laura responds with implacable indifference, if not active hostility, to her lover's attention. In the face of this, he can muster few resources; what he most famously expresses is his despair. The fin amor celebrated by Petrarch's predecessors was itself characteristically unconsummated: "the concept of true love was not framed to include success" (Valency 1982, 160). Petrarch's extraordinary elongation of that frustration is echoed in almost all of the Canzoniere's Renaissance descendants, a run of masculine bad luck so insistent that it becomes almost a joke, a sign of Petrarchism's monotonous conventionality. But jokes have their reasons; and one may meditate on why the European lyric celebration of the feminine object of desire should begin with several centuries fixated on the unavailability of that object.

Petrarch himself for the most part attributes Laura's unresponsiveness to her virtuousness; tradition assumes (as in Provençal lyric) a husband (perhaps ambiguously referred to in 219), so that she is simply doing what Petrarch himself can admit is the correct thing: "veggio ch' ella / per lo migliore al mio desir contese," "I see it was for the best that she resisted my desire" (1976, 289.5-6). Later Petrarchists will be more willing to attack the woman's behavior as, in the usual accusation, cruelty: "Cruell fayre Love, I justly do complaine, / Of too much rigour, and they heart unkind" (Giles Fletcher the Elder 1964, Licia 44.1-2). The claim draws on Renaissance lore about female nature, in which cruelty was often listed as a characteristic flaw. Subtler thoughts on the matter, however, take us into an important area of psychoanalytic theory about erotic development; Freud's own delineation of "the type of female most frequently met with, which is probably the purest and truest one" (S.E. 14: 88), is a credible portrait of the Petrarchan mistress: "Women, especially if they grow up with good looks, develop a certain self-contentment which compensates them for the social restrictions that are imposed upon them in their choice of object. Strictly speaking, it is only themselves that such women love with an intensity comparable to that of the man's love for them. Nor does their need lie in the direction of loving, but of being loved" (88-89). What is happening makes sense because it is in fact a reversion to the original disposition of the libido, which in its first stages is invested not in any external presence, male or female, but in the self; and the spectacle of that reversion can be reveting: "The importance of this type of woman for the erotic life of mankind is to be rated very high. Such women have the greatest fascination for men" (89). It is indeed the allure of their selfishness that may be said to exact the spectacular selflessness of their lovers' devotion, and the man's despair in the Petrarchan story overlays a profound congruence: he and his mistress both adore the same thing. Extreme object love is symbiotic with an extreme self-love that is if anything the more powerful force; the anaclitic lover is trained by the narcissistic beloved.

Which is in fact to use Petrarch's own language from one of the few significant reproaches he ever brings himself to make against Laura:

Il mio adversario in cui veder solete
gli occhi vostri ch' Amore e 'l Ciel onora
colle non sue bellezze v'innamora
più che 'n guisa mortal soavi et liete.

Per consiglio di lui, Donna, m'avete
scacciato del mio dolce albergo fora;
miserio esilio! avegna ch' i' non fora
d'abitar degno ove voi sola siete.

Ma s' io v'era con saldi chiovi fisso,
non dovea specchio farvi per mio danno
a voi stessa piacendo aspra et superba.
Certo, se vi rimembra di Narcisso,
questo et quel corso ad un termino vanno—
ben che di sì bel fior sia indegna l'erba.

[My adversary in whom you are wont to see your eyes, which Love and Heaven honor, enamors you with beauties not his but sweet and happy beyond mortal guise. By his counsel, Lady, you have driven me out of my sweet dwelling: miserable exile! even though I may not be worthy to dwell where you alone are. But if I had been nailed there firmly, a mirror should not have made you, because you pleased yourself, harsh and proud to my harm. Certainly, if you remember Narcissus, this and that course lead to one goal—although the grass is unworthy of so lovely a flower.]

(Canzoniere 1976, 45)

The flower is of course the narcissus, into which, according to Ovid's Metamorphoses, the Greek youth is transformed at his death. The flower's appearance gives a grace to Narcissus's end, but his dying itself is a punishment inflicted by Nemesis for spurning the nymph Echo, who in rejection fades into the phenomenon that carries her name. In Ovid, Narcissus has an early disposition toward his fate—"in tenera tam dura superbia forma," "such harsh pride in that tender form" (1916, 3.354)—but he does not actually look into the fatal pool, does not become a narcissist, until after he has refused to love another. A minor adjustment of cause and effect allows Petrarch to make the myth into a telling version of his own relation to Laura: hypnotized self-absorption paired with tragic anaclisis. And in so doing he indeed gives the classical myth a remarkable approximation of what has become its modern meaning, to sound a sophisticated warning. Laura's indifference is hardly virtue, and worse than mere cruelty to him; it is a self-destructive perversion of her own capacity for love.

Putting it that way only slightly overstates the polemical force of psychoanalysis: "A strong egoism is a protection against falling ill, but in the last resort we must begin to love in order not to fall ill" (Freud S.E. 14: 85). Secure object love is an important achievement of psychic health, likely for all its difficulties to be the most fortunate outcome for the individual, while secondary narcissism is a frequent—increasingly frequent—and proper target for therapeutic correction. Rorty … reminds us of Freud's larger sense, stated on several occasions, that the mission of psychoanalysis was to attack "the universal narcissism of men, their self-love" (Freud, S.E. 17:139). If, as Rorty argues, Freud has not entirely thought through his point here, that is in great part because of the august heritage behind such a stand: at least as much a moral as a scientific heritage, and one that in this regard Freud shares with Petrarch. Petrarch's own accusatory diagnosis of Laura's state draws on the late medieval mythography in which Narcissus's pride, superbia, became a matter of special interest: for pride is, in Christian thinking, not a mere character flaw but the most insidious of human sins.1

Of all sins, pride is perhaps the cleverest in its disguises; Petrarch's philosophical writings brood on its capacity for, indeed, passing itself off as virtue (e.g., De remediis utriusque fortunae, book 1, chap. 10, in Petrarch 1554, 1:14-15). Instructing such wariness is the spirit of Augustine, who identified pride as the primal sin of the fall: "'Pride is the start of every kind of sin' [Ecclesiasticus 10.15]. And what is pride except a longing for a perverse kind of exaltation? For it is a perverse kind of exaltation to abandon the basis on which the mind should be firmly fixed, and to become, as it were, based on oneself, and so remain. This happens when a man is too pleased with himself" (City of God 1984, 14.13; see also Green 1949). In its original context, much of Augustine's polemic was aimed at the heroic values of classical pagan culture, a culture that, for all its sensitivity to the dangers of overreaching, was much less severe on self-regard and had no trouble praising autarceia as a goal. But the Empire had provided ample evidence of the civic and other dangers of such values, and Augustine spoke for a new ethical dispensation from which classical narcissism was to be uprooted: "The earthly city was created by selflove reaching the point of contempt for God, the Heavenly City by the love of God carried as far as contempt of self" (City of God 1984, 14.28). Humility becomes a central standard, and the self's comfort must be understood as depending on something beyond its own borders; under Christian influence, the contrast between self-love and the love of others, Eros and agapê, becomes newly visible as a contrast of profoundly moral urgency.

Petrarch's application of that urgency to the matter of courtship accordingly informs some of the most compelling arguments in the tradition to follow:

Ach, Freundin, scheu der Götter Rache,
dass du dir nicht zu sehr gefällst,

dass Amor nicht einst deiner lache,
den du itzt höhnst und spöttlich hältst.
Dass, weil du nichts von mir wilst wissen,
ich nicht mit Echo lasse mich,
und du denn müssest mit Narzissen
selbst lieben und doch hassen dich.

[Ah, darling, avoid the gods' wrath; do not be too pleased with yourself, do not let Love, whom you now disdain and treat mockingly, some day laugh at you. Do not make me lose myself, like Echo, because you take no notice of me, and so make yourself, like Narcissus, love yourself and yet hate yourself]

(Oden 5.38.25-32, in Fleming 1965)

Addressing the threat of corrosive pride in the woman's resistance is not merely a seducer's ploy; it is nowhere more eloquently rendered than in the tradition's most adroitly Christian sequence:

Ne none so rich or wise, so strong or fayre,
but fayleth trusting on his owne
and he that standeth on the hyghest
fals lowest: for on earth nought hath
Why then doe ye proud fayre, misdeeme so
that to your selfe ye most assured arre.
(Spenset, Amoretti 1926, 58.9-14)

At least as embodied in poetry, however, the moral stand here comes with an acknowledgment of narcissism's indelibility; and what is, at best, in the offing is not a mere humbling of the woman. Other moral issues are still in play; even contaminated with pride, resistance to lust is a virtue, and the most sophisticated Petrarchan sequences trace a complicated response to the strength behind that resistance. The sonnet of Spenser's just quoted is immediately followed by a twin that praises something very close to what the first poem seems to attack:

Thrise happie she, that is so well assured
  Unto her selfe and setled so in hart:
  that nether will for better be allured,
  ne feard with worse to any chaunce to
(Amoretti 1926, 59.1-4)

And Spenser's sequence is in fact moving toward a happy ending in marriage that allows us to say just what the telos of the Petrarchan love story actually is. Petrarch briefly adumbrates that telos in offering himself as the replacement for Laura's mirror; Spenser expands the hint:

Leave lady in your glasse of christall clene,
 Your goodly selfe for evermore to vew:
 and in my selfe, my inward selfe I meane,
 most lively lyke behold your semblant
Within my hart, though hardly it can shew
 thing so divine to vew of earthly eye,
 the fayre Idea of your celestiall hew,
 and every part remaines immortally:
And were it not that through your cruelty,
 with sorrow dimmed and deformd it were:
 the goodly ymage of your visnomy,
 clearer then christall would therein appere.
But if your selfe in me ye playne will see,
 remove the cause by which your fayre
   beames darkned be.
(Amoretti 1926, 45)

The traditional reproach is there, yet the alternative being imagined is not a fundamental alteration of the woman's narcissism, but rather its incorporation into a cooperative endeavor. The lover's bid to replace the mirror in the lady's affections involves a promise to perform the function that his old adversary performs: she can continue to admire herself in the mirror of his admiration. This possibility is itself no more than the fundamental congruence of their situation; the chance for happiness lies in her capacity to acknowledge it and to trust her lover to live up to his role in it. That trust can, as it were, reconcile pride and dependence, and provide a basis for communion within which her self-absorption nevertheless has a privileged place. Milton's Eve follows a similar path. The Petrarchan drama of selfless devotion, in one of its dimensions, is actually a testing of the possible arrangements between narcissistic selfhood and the world around it.

The real truth of that proposition, however, takes us into darker territory, beyond the prospect of any familiar romantic success. If Spenser presents his lady as a narcissist, he offers Narcissus himself as a figure for the poet who loves her:

My hungry eyes through greedy covetize,
 still to behold the object of their paine,
 with no contentment can themselves
 but having pine and having not complaine.
For lacking it they cannot lyfe sustayne,
 and having it they gaze on it the more:
 in their amazement lyke Narcissus vaine
 whose eyes him starv'd: so plenty makes
  me poore.
(Amoretti 1926, 35.1-8; also Amoretti 83)

And the tradition of such references is a rich one, extending back beyond Petrarch:

Come Narcissi, in sua spera mirando,
s'inamorao, per ombra, a la fontana,
veggendo se medesimo pensando

ferissi il core e la sua mente vana,

gittovisi entro, per l'ombria pilgliando,
di quello amore lo prese morte strana;
ed io, vostra bieltate rimembrando,
l'ora ch'io vidi voi, donna sovrana,

inamorato sono sì feramente,
che, poi ch'io volglia non poria partire,
sì m'ha l'amor compreso strettamente.

Tormentami lo giorno e fa languire,
com'a Narcissi parami piagente,
veggendo voi, la morte sofferire.

[As Narcissus, gazing in his mirror, came to love through the shadow in the fountain, and, seeing himself in the midst of regretting—his heart and vain mind smitten—plunged in, to catch the shadow, and then strange death embraced him with that love, so I, remembering how beautiful you were when I saw you, sovereign lady, fall in love so wildly I could not, though I might want to, part from you, love holds me in its grip so tightly. Day torments me, draws off my strength, and, like Narcissus, to me it looks like pleasure, as I gaze on you, to suffer death.]

(Chiaro Davanzati, Sonetti 26, in Goldin 1973, 276-772)

In particular instances one may be less sure than with the poems about the lady's mirror just how far the mythic reference is meant to reach; but cumulatively the examples make too much sense to ignore within a tradition where the beloved, for all one actually gets to see of her, might as well not exist.

An ongoing topos in discussion of Petrarchan poets has been to wonder if the lady in question was, actually, real; the questioning began in fact in Petrarch's own time, with his defensive insistence to Giacomo Colonna that Laura was not merely a literary character (Epistolae familiares, trans. Bernardo 1975-85, 2.9). Enlightened criticism has come to insist that the question is irrelevant to an appreciation of the poems themselves, but it is still impressive how systematically Petrarchan love poems, and especially the Canzoniere, veer away from direct encounter with a substantial presence. As a character, Laura is not called upon to do much work. Most of the poems in which she actually speaks to Petrarch come after her death, in dreams or visions; what few exchanges we have before that are ambiguous in their status:

Chinava a terra il bel guardo gentile
et tacendo dicea, come a me parve:
"Chi m'allontana il mio fedele amico?"

[She bent to earth her lovely noble glance and in her silence said, as it seemed to me: "Who sends away from me my faithful friend?"] (1976, 123.12-14)

The impression of comparative eventlessness in the Canzoniere is generated in great part by this overlay of interpretive subjectivity. Apparent events are seldom followed up; it is possible that this particular poem is answered not much later when the detection of Laura's goodwill turns out to be presumptuous:

Quella ch' amare et sofferir ne 'nsegna
e vol che 'l gran desio, l'accesa spene
ragion, vergogna, et reverenza affrene,
di nostro ardir fra se stessa si sdegna.

Onde Amor paventoso fugge al core,
lasciando ogni sua impresa, et piagne et
ivi s'asconde et non appar più fore.

[She who teaches us to love and to be patient, and wishes my great desire, my kindled hope, to be reined in by reason, shame, and reverence, at our boldness is angry within herself. Wherefore Love flees terrified to my heart, abandoning his every enterprise, and weeps and trembles; there he hides and no more appears outside.]


Yet the rebuke is of a piece with the encouragement: Laura's anger "fra se stessa" is enough to send the lover fleeing (inward) in terror. Indeed, we are not sure his own aggression was anything more than a nuanced look; elsewhere we hear of his virtual inability to speak in Laura's presence:

Ben, si i' non erro, di pietate un raggio
scorgo fra 'l nubiloso altero ciglio,
che 'n parte rasserena il cor doglioso;

allor raccolgo l'alma, et poi ch' i' aggio
di scovrirle il mio mal preso consiglio,
tanto gli ò a dit che 'ncominciar non oso.

[If I do not err, I do perceive a gleam of pity on her cloudy, proud brow, which partly clears my sorrowing heart: then I collect my soul, and, when I have decided to discover my ills to her, I have so much to say to her that I dare not begin.]


The reality of that gleam of pity remains untested, and it should not surprise us to be told in the last poem in the sequence that Laura actually knew nothing of Petrarch's torment; his conviction that she would have refused him out of virtue is entangled with the likelihood that she was not even clearly challenged to do so:

  tale è terra et posto à in doglia
lo mio cor, che vivendo in pianto il tenne
et de mille miei mali un non sapea;
et per saperlo pur quel che n'avenne
fora avvenuto, ch' ogni altra sua voglia
era a me morte et a lei fama rea.

[one is now dust and makes my soul grieve who kept it, while alive, in weeping and of my thousand sufferings did not know one; and though she had known them, what happened would still have happened, for any other desire in her would have been death to me and dishonor to her.]


It seems a fair guess that the lover's frustration is actually self-censorship, and that anything he has to say about his beloved's own state of mind is effectively preempted by his own actions and imaginings.

The general run of poems in the Canzoniere do not essay direct presentation of Laura at all. She shows up obliquely, sometimes through a fetishized object such as a veil or—a particularly influential detail—a glove (Mirollo 1984, 99-159). Most famously, she appears in the abstracted symbols for parts of her body that become the conventional decor by which later Petrarchan verse is most quickly recognized: "La testa or fino, et calda neve il volto, / ebeno i cigli, et gli occhi eran due stelle," "Her head was fine gold, her face warm snow, ebony her eyebrows, and her eyes two stars" (1976, 157.9-10). What is here spelled out is often the merest shorthand, as such metaphors take on a life of their own that can make Petrarch's poetry surreal and baffling at first encounter:

L'oro et le perle e i fior vermigli e i bianchi
che 'l verno devria far languidi et secchi
son per me acerbi et velenosi stecchi
ch' io provo per lo petto et per li fianchi.

[The gold and the pearls, and the red and white flowers that the winter should have made languid and dry, are for me sharp and poisonous thorns that I feel along my breast and my sides.]


A famous seventeenth-century portrait literalizing such conventions—the woman's eyes are suns, her teeth are pearls, her breasts are globes, with the lines of longitude visible on them—makes blatant, after long impatience, a grotesquerie implicit from the start (see the reproduction in Booth 1977, 453). The motifs do not converge but scatter into incongruent areas of metaphorical reference, and do as much to conceal or replace the woman as to present her. They are verbal fetishes, displacements of erotic intent away from its normal object; what they communicate is not the woman's beauty but the fierceness of the energy that fixes on it. They are only the appropriate mode of description for a poetry whose principal business is the hyperbolic dramatizing of the lover's reaction to his condition: "O passi sparsi, o pensier vaghi et pronti, / o tenace memoria, o fero ardore …," "O scattered steps, O yearning, ready thoughts, O tenacious memory, O savage ardor …" (161.1-2). The most important reason for Petrarch's ongoing haziness as to what, if anything, is actually happening is that his real interest is in a private intensity of response most memorable exactly for being able to swamp the lineaments of its particular occasion. This is not the least of the reasons for speaking of him as the first modern lyric poet.

Petrarch's response is, of course, primarily one of distress, yoked to strong feelings of helplessness; yet the distress has its rewards: "in tale stato / è dolce il pianto più ch' altri non crede," "in such a state weeping is sweeter than anyone knows" (1976, 130.7-8). And the most convincing and substantial passages of relief the Canzoniere provides the lover are not the brief moments when a favorable response is (probably) hallucinated from Laura herself, but come rather with a deeper plunge into alienation. The poet of incurable love is also the poet of actively sought solitude:

In una valle chiusa d'ogn' intorno,
ch'è refrigerio de' sospir miei lassi,
giunsi sol con Amor, pensoso et tardo;

ivi non donne ma fontane et sassi
et l'imagine trovo di quel giorno
che 'l pensier mio figura ovunque io

[In a valley closed on all sides, which cools my weary sighs, I arrived alone with Love, full of care, and late; there I find not ladies but fountains and rocks and the image of that day which my thoughts image forth wherever I may glance.]


The cooling of the sighs afforded by such retreat from the object of desire is not a lessening of desire but quite the contrary: away from all human interference, that desire can exercise itself with a new freedom and ease, in the image that the mind can project onto the passive landscape. It is in just this mode that Petrarch can become his most rapturous:

   I' l'ò più volte (or chi fia che mi ''l
ne l'acqua chiara et sopra l'erba verde
veduto viva, et nel troncon d'un faggio
 e 'n bianca nube, sì fatta che Leda
avria ben detto che sua figlia perde
come stella che 'l sol copre col raggio;    et quanto in più selvaggio

loco mi trovo e 'n più deserto lido,
tanto più bella il mio pensier l'adombra.

[I have many times (now who will believe me?) seen her alive in the clear water and on the green grass and in the trunk of a beech tree and in a white cloud, so beautiful that Leda would have said that her daughter faded like a star covered by the sun's ray; and in whatever wildest place and most deserted shore I find myself, so much the more beautiful does my thought shadow her forth.]


The woman's very distance (lontonanza) enables a heady sense of power on the lover's part, of the capacity of his own mind to transform or displace external reality. At its most cogently celebratory. Petrarchan love poetry can seem an exaltation less of the woman herself—"Whose presence, absence, absence presence is" (Sidney, Astrophil and Stella 60.13)—than of the poet's own imagination.

An awareness of the deep connection between love and the imagination is one of Petrarch's most important legacies to the Renaissance. "Love lookes not with the eye, but with the minde" (Shakespeare, Mid-summer Night' s Dream 1968, 1.1.234); the lover's eye learns to see what he wants it to see:

   if it see the rud'st or gentlest sight,
The most sweet-favor or deformedst
The mountaine, or the sea, the day, or
The Croe, or Dove, it shapes them to your
 Incapable of more, repleat with you,
 My most true minde thus maketh m'eyne
(Shakespeare, Sonnets 113.9-14,
Ql emended, see Booth 1977, 374-75)

A major interpretation of Petrarchism is that its experience of frustrated enamorment is, properly handled, the first step into an autonomous mental reality. Erotic enlightenment begins when the absence of the presumed object of desire prompts the lover to replace it with a more secure one of his own making: "To escape the torment of this absence and to enjoy beauty without suffering, the Courtier, aided by reason, must turn his desire entirely away from the body and to beauty alone … and in his imagination give it a shape distinct from all matter; and thus make it loving and dear to his soul, and there enjoy it; and let him keep it with him day and night, in every time and place, without fear of ever losing it" (Castiglione 1959, 351). Loving the woman's image is better than loving the woman herself, on both practical and ontological grounds; and the effort of intellectual abstraction so provoked can lead the lover to the wisdom of a desire wholly independent of worldly objects, leaving his original beloved far behind: "Among such blessings the lover will find another much greater still, if he will make use of this love as a step by which to mount to a love far more sublime … he will no longer contemplate the particular beauty of one woman, but that universal beauty which adorns all bodies; and so, dazzled by this greater light, he will not concern himself with the lesser, and burning with a better flame, he will feel little esteem for what at first he so greatly prized" (352). Petrarchism, in such theorizing, intersects the arc of Neoplatonic philosophy, that great Renaissance recovery of "the Eros of the divine Plato" that nurtures so much of the period's glorification of artistic creativity.

Much of the power of that philosophy lies in its ability to guarantee that a withdrawal from external reality— "instead of going outside himself in thought … let him turn within himself, in order to contemplate that beauty which is seen by the eyes of the mind" (Castiglione 1959, 353)—can in fact give access to the true ground of that reality: "Just as from the particular beauty of one body [love] guides the soul to the universal beauty of all bodies, so in the highest stage of perfection beauty guides it from the particular intellect to the universal intellect" (354). What may be mistaken for self-absorption is in fact the truest route beyond the self. Extrapolated to those levels, however, Neoplatonism—to which Petrarch himself had no direct recourse—does not really give us the Canzoniere. Petrarch's own faith in his visions is never more than poignant:

    Ma mentre tener fiso
posso al primo pensier la mente vaga,
et mirar lei et obliar me stesso,
sento Amor sì da presso
che del suo proprio error l'alma s'appaga;
in tante parti et sì bella la veggio
che se l'error durasse, altro non cheggio.

[But as long as I can hold my yearning mind fixed on the first thought, and look at her and forget myself, I feel Love so close by that my soul is satisfied by its own deception; in so many places and so beautiful I see her, that, if the deception should last, I ask for no more.]

(1976, 129.33-39)

What the mind holds to is still, in the final analysis, an error; it can be argued that the true focus of the Canzoniere is not the erotic vision but its dispersal, when a less exalted but more realistic version of the poet's work than Neoplatonism tends to propagate makes its appearance:

Poi quando il vero sgombra
quel dolce error, pur lì medesmo assido
me freddo, pietra morta in pietra viva,
in guisa d'uom che pensi et pianga et

[Then, when the truth dispels that sweet deception, right there in the same place I sit down, cold, a dead stone on the living rock, like a man who thinks and weeps and writes.]


A pun used elsewhere as well encrypts a signature— "me freddo, pietra": I, Francesco Petrarca—and the residue of the vision is a return to self in a toughened, newly frightening form, whose climactic activity is writing. And for all the torment that Laura seems to impose on him, Petrarch's most telling anguish comes with his consideration of what is involved in a poetic career of the sort he has set for himself.

That anguish is keyed to an even more momentous pun:

Giovene donna sotto un verde lauro
vidi più bianca et più fredda che neve
non percossa dal sol molti et molt'anni;
e 'l suo parlare e 'l bel viso et le chiome
mi piacquen sì ch' i' l' ò dinanzi agli occhi
ed avrò sempre ov' io sia in poggio o 'n

[A youthful lady under a green laurel I saw, whiter and colder than snow not touched by the sun many and many years, and her speech and her lovely face and her locks pleased me so that I have her before my eyes and shall always have wherever I am, on slope or shore.]

(1976, 30.1-6)

Laura the woman is never wholly separable from lauro, the laurel, the crown of poetic fame; and Petrarch's desire for the woman in Avignon grades into the desire for literary immortality. The mythic version of that transformation gives the Canzoniere—indeed, perhaps the whole of Petrarch's oeuvre—its master trope:

Apollo, s' ancor vive il bel desio
che t'infiammava a le tesaliche onde,
et se non ài l'amate chiome bionde,
volgendo gli anni, già poste in oblio,

dal pigro gelo et dal tempo aspro et rio
che dura quanto 'l tuo viso s'asconde
difendi or l'onorata et sacra fronde
ove tu prima et poi fu' invescato io.

[Apollo, if the sweet desire is still alive that inflamed you beside the Thessalian waves, and if you have not forgotten, with the turning of the years, those beloved blond locks; against the slow frost and the harsh and cruel time that lasts as long as your face in hidden, now defend the honored and holy leaves where you first and then I were limed.]


Among the first of the famous stories in the Metamorphoses is that of Apollo's desire for the nymph Daphne, who by Cupid's design flees from him: "auctaque forma fuga est," writes Ovid (1916, 1.530), "her beauty was enhanced by her flight." On appeal to her father, the river-god Peneus, she is transformed into a laurel tree, and Apollo finds recompense for his sexual frustration in appropriating her leaves as his special insigne:

    "at, quoniam coniunx mea non potes
arbor eris certe" dixit "mea! semper
te coma, te citharae, te nostrae, laure,

["Since you cannot be my wife, you will certainly be my tree," he said. "Forever will my hair, my lyres, my quivers carry you, laurel."]


Ovid goes on to rehearse the classical role of the laurel as the honor given to victorious Caesars, but the detail that interests Petrarch is the cithara. For him, Apollo is preeminently the god of poetry, and the laurel crown is most important as the one that certifies poetry as a potential source of public recognition at least as great as that accorded princes and generals: "Since both Caesars and poets move toward the same goal, though by different paths, it is fitting that one and the same reward be prepared for both, namely, a wreath from a fragrant tree, symbolizing the fragrance of good fame and of glory" (Wilkins 1955, 309). So Petrarch on the most momentous public occasion of his life: his own receipt of the laurel crown in 1341, on the Capitoline Hill in Rome, in a ceremony that he himself had done much to reestablish, after a millennial lapse ("non percossa dal sol molti et molt' anni"), as the centerpiece of the program that came to be known as humanism, the revival of classical literary culture as a field both of study and of new endeavor. Fueling that program is the promise of a classical style of heroic recognition—bona fama et gloria—achievable in the process, now by the exercise not merely of physical and political prowess but of intellectual capability as well. Opening onto that possibility, the pun in Laura's name is perhaps the strongest connection between the dazed obsessiveness of the Canzoniere and the agora of normal human business. Frustrated desire and professional success somehow belong together.

Even though (aside from one Mistress Bays in the mid-sixteenth century [Rollins 1966, 1:251-53]) the different names of later Petrarchan ladies cannot supply the same pun, the connection sustains itself throughout the tradition. Adoration of the woman is seldom far from an assertion of the immortalizing powers of the poetry written about her: "Then would I decke her head with glorious bayes, / and fill the world with her victorious prayse" (Spenser, Amoretti 1926, 29.13-14). The topos comes with many valences to fit local situations. The most straightforward rationalization for its persistence is that the loved one's resistance shows her worthy of praise (the mythographers take the myth of Daphne primarily as a celebration of virginity), and in this connection the lover's own posture can reach a special purity of selflessness: "No publike Glorie vainely I pursue, / All that I seeke, is to eternize you" (Drayton, Idea 1931-41, 47.13-14).

Yet the injection of this theme into the tradition also does more than perhaps anything else to queer such protestations; it is on just this point that the shifty politics of the situation declare themselves most obviously. The beloved ostensibly being immortalized is, in simple historical fact, almost invariably unknown, and even when known is not actually being made famous. Elizabeth Boyle (who?) is not famous; Edmund Spenser is. The author of the last lines quoted is also capable of being, to my mind, more honest:

    though in youth, my Youth untimely
To keepe Thee from Oblivion and the Grave,
Ensuing Ages yet my Rimes shall cherish,
Where I intomb'd, my better part shall save;
And though this Earthly Body fade and die.
My Name shall mount upon Eternitie.
(Idea 44.9-14)

This is in a sense only fair, indeed an act of psychic health in making the best of a bad situation: the fulfillment sacrificed to the woman's indifference is recuperated in artistic achievement. One may even cheer the hint of revenge (in some writers more than that) in such a maneuver. But the most challenging intimation is the more duplicitous one that Petrarch reports was put to him by Colonna: "That I invented the splendid name of Laura so that it might be not only something for me to speak about but occasion to have others speak of me; that indeed there was no Laura on my mind except perhaps the poetic one for which I have aspired as is attested by my long and untiring studies" (Epistolae familiares, trans. Bernardo 1975-85, 2.9). The arrangement here posited in its crudest form fits in subtler ways as well with the poetry before us—"deh, ristate a veder quale è 'l mio male," "ah, stay to see what my suffering is" (Canzoniere 1976, 161.14)—and there are good reasons for thinking professional calculation not merely a compensatory response to erotic failure but its partner and even master from the first. The story of the ego's apparent impoverishment may itself be a strategy for its extraordinary enrichment.

It is accordingly not only or even primarily the Petrarchan mistress who lies open to the charge of superbia. Petrarch's Christian heritage is skillfully accusatory toward love such as his, and especially toward the involuted dynamics of the male imagination. An important tradition of late medieval moral thought makes much of the lover's immoderata cogitatio, in a way that can be related to deployment of the Narcissus myth in the age's love poetry. Erotic fascination is actually self-fascination, a sophisticated sin of idolatry that threatens to substitute the lover's own fantasizing for proper devotion to the true creator (Robertson 1962, 65-113; Freccero 1975). Petrarch assents to such language—"l'idolo mio scolpito in vivo lauro," "my idol carved in living laurel" (Canzoniere 1976, 30.27, on which see Durling 1971)—and adding the cult of literary fame (previously only hinted at; see Valency 1982, 95-96) to the thematics of courtly love gears with the accusation and gives it new power, a condemnatory force that outlasts many more transient aspects of Christian morality. Freud himself … felt that force in a quite personal way; unpagan anxiousness over a classical style of personal ambition pushes what little Freud has to say about fame, for all its obvious relevance to the theory of narcissim, into virtually the last of his writings. One may both confirm and extend that theory by listening to Petrarch's articulate fear for the state of his soul, a fear in which the sin of sexual desire is characteristically entangled with the sin of pride.

In his most directly personal work, the Latin prose dialogue De secreto conflictu curarum mearum, Petrarch invokes the very spirit of Augustine ("that other fiction of mine," as he puts it in the letter to Colonna) to interrogate and accuse him, in a scenario of scathing introspection about "the causes that inflate your mind with pride [superbis flatibus]" (1911, 55). The brief opens with superbia in some of its most obvious forms: "Will you perchance be taken in by your own good-looking face, and when you behold in the glass your smooth complexion and comely features are you minded to be smitten, entranced, charmed?" (54-55). Petrarch parries such attacks—"I will not deny that in the days of my youth I took some care to trim my head and to adorn my face; but the taste for that kind of thing has gone with my early years" (57)5—only to confront subtler diagnoses: "I cannot disguise from you one word in your discourse which to you may seem very humble, but to me seems full of pride and arrogance.… To depreciate others is a kind of pride more intolerable than to exalt oneself above one's due measure" (59). And the final chicane, of course, is from Laura to lauro: "As for your boasting that it is she who has made you thirst for glory, I pity your delusion, for I will prove to you that of all the burdens of your soul there is none more fatal than this" (124). A lengthy penultimate denunciation of Petrarch's lust leads to a final assault on his other desire: "Ambition still has too much hold on you. You seek too eagerly the praise of men, and to leave behind you an undying name.… I greatly fear lest this pursuit of a false immortality of fame may shut for you the way that leads to the true immortality of life" (165-66). "I freely confess it," says Petrarch (166), but the admission gains no purchase on the passion itself: "I am not ignorant that … it would be much safer for me to attend only to the care of my soul, to relinquish altogether every bypath and follow the straight path of the way to salvation. But I have not strength to resist that old bent for study altogether" (192). And there the dialogue ends, with a parting shot from Augustine: "uoluntatem impotentiam uocas," "what you call lack of strength is in fact your own doing." In petrarch's own divided understanding, the greatest impediment to his salvation is an insidiously complacent selfishness: "The story of Narcissus has no warning for you" (55).

The point rewards further meditation. Augustine's trajectory of accusation passes through what has, since the nineteenth century, seemed unexpectedly "modern" territory: "You are the victim of a terrible plague of the soul … which the moderns call accidie" (Petrarch 1911, 84; on the term, see Wenzel 1961). The uoluptas dolendi that in the Canzoniere is mainly focused on Laura is here abstracted and generalized:

While other passions attack me only in bouts … this one usually has invested me so closely that it clings to and tortures me for whole days and nights together. In such times I take no pleasure in the light of day, I see nothing, I am as one plunged in the darkness of hell itself, and seem to endure death in its most cruel form. But what one may call the climax of the misery is, that I so feed upon my tears and sufferings with a morbid attraction [atra quadam cum uoluptate] that I can only be rescued from it by main force and in despite of myself. (84-85).

The cryptic pleasurability of such suffering is one of the marks that for Freud distinguishes melancholia from grief; the nearest thing to an explanation that Petrarch himself can muster is his inability to mourn: "In my case there is no wound old enough for it to have been effaced and forgotten: my sufferings are all quite fresh, and if anything by chance were made better through time, Fortune has so soon redoubled her strokes that the open wound has never been perfectly healed over" (86-87). It is well within the spirit of the Secretum to adduce Freud's thesis that what is at work here is a narcissistic regression of an especially powerful sort, the active withdrawal of libido from an object-choice that was itself probably narcissistically based (Freud S.E. 14:249-50). Introjected disaffection with reality is a not altogether paradoxical strategy for denying transience and loss: "By taking flight into the ego love escapes extinction" (257). Petrarch's misery has its links to his drive for self-bestowed immortality.

One may accordingly expect the assertiveness that stirs even as Petrarch catalogues his unhappiness. The blame shifts perceptibly outward from himself to malicious fortune, and accidia—which Dante and Chaucer both linked with the sin of wrath6—passes into the resentment of unacknowledged virtue: "In the pushing and shameless manners of my time, what place is left for modesty, which men now call slackness or sloth?" (Petrarch 1911, 91). Augustine reminds Petrarch of his frequently professed scorn for popular opinion, and has it reaffirmed: "I care as much for what the crowd thinks of me as I care what I am thought of by the beasts of the field." "Well, then?" "What raises my spleen is that having, of all my contemporaries whom I know, the least exalted ambitions, not one of them has encountered so many difficulties as I have in the accomplishment of my desires" (91). Anyone exercising the second part of the Platonic soul should be on guard against claiming humility as his motivation (Braden 1985, 10 ff.). Augustine responds with some sensible remarks about realistic expectations and the control of anger ("first calm down the tumult of your imagination"— 104), but we may well consider the topic open until the subject of reputation comes up again and Petrarch is brought to acknowledge the actual reach of his ambition: "Now see what perversity is this! You let yourself be charmed with the applause of those whose conduct you abominate" (167-68). That is one of Augustine's most skillful thrusts: in dealing with his audience, the writer can find himself in a posture uncannily similar to that of the Petrarchan mistress toward her admirers.

Had Freud had more to say about fame, he might well have dwelt on the narcissistic convolutions of an artist's involvement with his public. It is certainly not hard to recognize Petrarch's case in psychoanalytically inspired critiques of the modern cult of celebrity: "Studies of personality disorders that occupy the border line between neurosis and psychosis . . depict a type of personality that ought to be immediately recognizable … to observers of the contemporary cultural scene: facile at managing the impressions he gives to others, ravenous for admiration but contemptuous of those he manipulates into providing it; unappeasably hungry for emotional experiences with which to fill an inner void; terrified of aging and death" (Lasch 1978, 38). The connection is not merely anachronistic; Petrarch was arguably the first major example of a seductively treacherous kind of literary celebrity. In his later years especially, his fame served him in a very immediate way as his ticket to prestigious but unstable accommodations in a series of northern Italian city-states; and his inner disequilibrium legitimately anticipates fuller experiences of the cost of life lived through a negotiable self-image. (Petrarch left his own polemics against the literary marketplace; their mixture of detachment and involvement is well discussed by Trinkaus 1979, 71-89.) Yet more august problematics loom as well. The isolation within which Petrarch locates himself with his scorn for those on whom he makes his impression manifests something inescapably narcissistic in the career of writing itself: an intersection, if you will, of the myth of Apollo and Daphne with that of Narcissus and Echo.7 Petrarch's own life and work invite us to reflect on the ways in which the literary enterprise, in particular, works to elide its real audience into one that is in some important dimension a figment of the writer's imagination.

Consider this. A writer, sitting alone, facing a blank sheet of paper, puts on that paper words that are the words of speech but are not being spoken, and translates into silence the gestures of speaking to someone who in all but the most peculiar circumstances is not there, but whose presence the writer nevertheless tries in some form to imagine. Similarly, when that writing is read, the writer ostensibly speaking is, in all but very special situations, not there—though one tends to say writers succeed to the extent that they can nevertheless make us feel their presence. Cutting in two the face-to-face encounter that speech (one assumes) originally developed to serve, the skill of writing traffics at both ends in absent presences; a simulacrum of speech, it diverts language from literal to fictive others whose existence depends on the operations of a solitary's fantasy. Most of the important human connections of Petrarch's life seem to have been so mediated, in an immense epistolary corpus that was itself carefully organized and revised with an eye on eventual publication. Within that corpus Petrarch made no firm distinction between actual and imagined recipients, almost filling one book with Herzog-like letters to Cicero, Seneca, Homer, and the like ("do give my greetings to Orpheus and Linus, Euripides and the others"—Epistolae familiares, trans. Bernardo 1975-85, 24.12); a prose autobiographical fragment is in the form of a letter to Posterity. Petrarch was quite attuned to writing as "an unyielding passion" of strange self-sufficiency, indifferent to any external reference: "Incredible as it may seem, I desire to write but I know not about what or to whom to write" (13.7). And on this level we may seek some of the most cogent reasons that Petrarch and his avatars should choose as their great literary theme the otherwise perplexing story of the tongue-tied lover devoted for years to a distant woman to whom he can barely bring himself to speak, and who scarcely deigns to answer him when he does. It is a story in which utterance fails systematically of its ostensible external goal, to double back on its originator.

Such a course is most overtly dramatized in one of Petrarch's most compelling but difficult poems—the longest of the Canzoniere, and at least in appearance the sequence's fullest piece of autobiographical narrative:

canterò com' io vissi in libertade
mentre Amor nel mio albergo a sdegno
 poi seguirò sì come a lui ne 'ncrebbe
troppo altamente e che di ciò m'avenne,
di ch' io son fatto a molta gente esempio.

[I shall sing how then I lived in liberty while Love was scorned in my abode; then I shall pursue how that chagrined him too deeply, and what happened to me for that, by which I have become an example for many people.]

(1976, 23.5-9)

It is also the poem that presents the fullest narrative unfolding of the Laura-laurel pun, in a personalized retelling of Ovid. Yet it is a retelling with a strange twist:

     sentendo il crudel di ch' io ragiono
infin allor percossa di suo strale
non essermi passato oltra la gonna,
prese in sua scorta una possente Donna
ver cui poco giamai mi valse o vale
ingegno o forza o dimandar perdono;
ei duo mi trasformaro in quel ch' i' sono,
facendomi d'uom vivo un lauro verde
che per fredda stagion foglia non perde.

[that cruel one of whom I speak [Love], seeing that as yet no blow of his arrows had gone beyond my garment, took as his patroness a powerful Lady, against whom wit or force or asking pardon has helped or helps me little: those two transformed me into what I am, making me of a living man a green laurel that loses no leaf for all the cold season.]


The lover himself becomes the laurel. His own previous refusal to love mythically identifies him with Daphne to some extent, but Laura does not become identified with Apollo in the process; rather, the lover becomes both pursuer and pursued:

  Qual mi fec' io quando primier m'accorsi
de la trasfigurata mia persona,

e i capei vidi far di quella fronde
di che sperato avea già lor corona.…

[What I became, when I first grew aware of my person being transformed and saw my hairs turning into those leaves which I had formerly hoped would be my crown.… ]


The frightening unexpectedness of the result produces neither the satisfaction nor the resignation that Ovid's Daphne and Apollo respectively feel. Part of what makes Petrarch's poem so difficult is that, however catastrophic, the event is not decisive; the lover is merely beginning a series of wrenching metamorphoses, adapted with similar dark compression from Ovid. Having undergone the fate of Daphne, he swerves into the fate of Cygnus:

Né meno ancor m'agghiaccia
l'esser coverto poi di bianche piume
allor che folminato et morto giacque
il mio sperar che tropp' alto montava

et giamai poi la mia lingua non tacque
mentre poteo del suo cader maligno,
ond' io presi col suon color d'un cigno.

[Nor do I fear less for having been later covered with white feathers, when thunderstruck and dead lay my hope that was mounting too high … and from then on my tongue was never silent about its evil fall, as long as it had power; and I took on with the sound of a swan its color.]

(1976, 50-53, 58-60)

Presumably this myth figures some subsequent act of erotic aggression, obscure in the usual Petrarchan manner. The narrative event is less clear and less important than its role in intensifying the lover's poetic vocation: the failure of his presumption has loosed his tongue, given him his voice. Yet true to its origins, it is a special kind of voice:

  Così lungo l'amate rive andai,
che volendo parlar, cantava sempre,
mercé chiamando con estrania voce;
né mai in sì dolci o in sì soavi tempre
risonar seppi gli amorosi guai
che 'l cor s'umiliasse aspro et feroce.

[Thus I went along the beloved shores, and, wishing to speak, I sang always, calling for mercy with a strange voice; nor was I ever able to make my amorous woes resound in so sweet or soft a temper that her harsh and ferocious heart was humbled.]

(Translation changed, 61-66)

Speech, which aims to persuade its addressee, is diverted into song, a use of language that may ravish with its beauty but makes nothing happen. In the events that follow, what one can recover most clearly is the woman's insistence on denying speech its usual purpose:

Questa che col mirar gli animi fura
m'aperse il petto el' cor prese con mano,
dicendo a me: "Di ciò non far parola."
Poi la rividi in altro abito sola,
tal ch' i' non la conobbi, o senso umano!
anzi le dissi 'l ver pien di paura;
ed ella ne l'usata sua figura
tosto tornando fecemi, oimè lasso!
d'un quasi vivo et sbigottito sasso.

[She, who with her glance steals souls, opened my breast and took my heart with her hand, saying to me: "Make no word of this." Later I saw her alone in another garment such that I did not know her, oh human sense! rather I told her the truth, full of fear, and she to her accustomed form quickly returning made me, alas, an almost living and terrified stone.]


Following the logic of this suppression, the poetic career becomes literary:

le vive voci m'erano interditte,
ond' io gridai con carta et con incostro:
"Non son mio, no; s' io moro il danno è

[Words spoken aloud were forbidden me; so I cried out with paper and ink: "I am not my own, no; if I die, yours is the loss."]


"Interditte" and, in the previous line, "afflitte," take their rhyme, after a long postponement, from line 92: "scritte."

The agenda of that last word's appearance itself bears further thought. To speak in paper and ink is to speak con estrania voce, with an estranged voice that the speaker almost does not recognize as his own; the process of estrangement moves toward a complete split of speech and speaker:

    ancor poi ripregando i nervi et l'ossa
mi volse in dura selce, et così scossa
voce rimasi de l'antiche some,
chiamando Morte et lei sola per nome.

[when I prayed again, she turned my sinews and bones into hard flint, and thus I remained a voice shaken from my former burden, calling Death and only her by name.]

(1976, 137-40)

The voice of his love is simultaneously the voice of death, the inverse of the interdicted vive voci. Again, there is an Ovidian text in the background, and perhaps the most readily Petrarchan of Ovid's stories: "tamen haeret amor crescitque dolore repulsae," "though rejected, her love sticks and grows with her grief" (Metamorphoses 1916, 3.395). The character in question—about to separate into petrified body and abstracted voice—is Echo; and her appearance points us toward the myth that is conspicuously not used in Petrarch's poem but that, as Durling has shown, is almost there in the recurring motifs of the myths that are: "With the exception of the Battus myth they take place near a body of water into which at least one of the characters gazes. With the exception of the Daphne myth they involve characters who are punished for something they have seen. All of them concern frustrated—or even disastrous—speech or writing, and in each case the speech involves deception or confusion or some question about the identity of one of the protagonists" (Petrarch 1976, 28). There are reasons (31-32) for suspecting that the story of Narcissus is about to come up around line 90, when, after some documentable trouble in the composition, Petrarch changes the subject, so: "più cose ne la mente scritte / vo trapassando," "I pass over many things written in my mind" (92-93). The absent presence written in the mind is credibly the myth that hovers over the whole poem like a guilty secret.

Remembering Narcissus at any rate allows us to track the movement between the poem's opening event and its impendingly violent end:

  I' segui' tanto avanti il mio desire
ch' un dì, cacciando sì com' io solea,
mi mossi, e quella fera bella et cruda
in una fonte ignuda
si stava, quando 'l sol più forte ardea.
Io perché d'altra vista non m'appago
stetti a mirarla, ond' ella ebbe vergogna
et per farne vendetta o per celarse
l'acqua nel viso co le man mi sparse.
Vero dirò; forse e' parrà menzogna:
ch' i' senti' trarmi de la propria imago
et in un cervo solitario et vago
di selva in selva ratto mi trasformo,
et ancor de' miei can fuggo lo stormo.

[I followed so far my desire that one day, hunting as I was wont, I went forth, and that lovely cruel wild creature was in a spring naked when the sun burned most strongly. I, who am not appeased by any other sight, stood to gaze on her, whence she felt shame and, to take revenge or to hide herself, sprinkled water in my face with her hand. I shall speak the truth, perhaps it will appear a lie, for I felt myself drawn from my own image and into a solitary wandering stag from wood to wood quickly I am transformed and still I flee the belling of my hounds.]


The myth—from the same book of the Metamorphoses as that of Narcissus—is the story of the hunter Actaeon, who saw the goddess Diana bathing, and in punishment was turned into a stage, to be hunted and torn apart by his own dogs, whom he could not call off:

                         clamare libebat:
"Actaeon ego sum: dominum cognoscite
uerba animo desunt; resonat latratibus

[He wanted to cry, "I am Actaeon! Know your master!" His words failed his spirit; the air resounded with barking.]


Durling attributes the story's appearance here to Petrarch's perception of it as "an inversion of the myth of Daphne. In one, it is the beloved who flees, in the other, the lover. In one, the end result is speech: poetry and fame; in the other, silence. In one, there is evergreen eternizing; in the other, dismemberment. Daphne, as she runs, looks into the water and becomes a tree, takes root; Actaeon, who is standing still, branches into a stag, grows hooves, flees, sees his reflection and flees the more" (Petrarch 1976, 28-29).

But the linkage is not only one of contrast. The story of Actaeon also parallels that of Daphne in Petrarch's alteration of the latter: at the end of the poem as at the beginning, the lover suddenly, catastrophically, becomes the object of his own pursuit. And if the concluding episode allows Laura to take uniquely unguarded, direct action, her motives are intentionally made uncertain—"per farne vendetta o per celarse"—while the verbs describing the metamorphosis become reflexive—"i' senti' trarmi"—as they move from the narrative past to the definitive present: "mi trasformo." The myth becomes a popular one in the tradition to come (Barkan 1980), where it is often moralized as a cautionary fable about the self-destructiveness of lust: "J'ay pour mes chiens l'ardeur & le jeune âge," "For my dogs I have passion and youth" (Ronsard 1966-70, Amours 1.120.7). Within Petrarch's own context, however, it intimates subtler but deeper terrors as a paradigm for the reflexive aggression of narcissistic melancholy; and the roaring that rises toward him at the end—"fuggo lo stormo"—supplies the climax to the trajectory of his estranged new voice. The barking of his hounds, I would argue, is the plaintive song whose development the canzone has narrated, returning to its now speechless creator.8 The terror on the other side of narcissistic beguilement—Freud locates it as the point at which melancholia becomes suicidal (S.E. 14:252)— is the experience of one's own self as the other, the outsider. The lover in Petrarch's poem flees from the sound of his own poetic voice, echoing murderously inside the bell jar.

That horrific climax is one of the reaches of Petrarch's moral self-arraignment, its mythic subtlety—I have tried to show—answerable to a coincidence of Christianity and psychoanalysis in their understanding of what the self is up to in its dealings with the world, and of the dangerousness of its way. Yet a final turn still awaits us; Petrarch's poem itself is not over, and what follows is not entirely the obvious conclusion:

né per nova figura il primo alloro
seppi lassar, ché pur la sua dolce ombra
ogni men bel piacer del cor mi sgombra.

[nor for any new shape could I leave the first laurel, for still its sweet shade turns away from my heart any less beautiful pleasure.]


The allure of the deadly object is suavely reaffirmed, almost as if the lover had learned nothing at all; we might almost wonder if Petrarch is tacking on a commiato written for another, less relentless poem. There is, nevertheless, a continuity of action if not of tone in the sustaining of the present tense, as if to insist on the tenacity of the state to which the lover has come. No mere terror is going to change things. And a further twist to Petrarch's moral thought unfurls in his poem's final disjunction, which has its own meaning within the context of his life and work as a whole. We are led back once more to the standoff at the end of the Secretum.

The irresolution there is felt with particular acuteness because of the counterexample provided by Augustine himself: "A deep meditation at last showed me the root of all my misery and made it plain before my eyes. And then my will after that became fully changed, and my weakness also was changed in that same moment to power, and by a marvellous and most blessed alteration I was transformed instantly and made another man, another Augustine altogether" (1911, 19-20). By the standard set in Augustine's Confessions (which, he goes on to say, I'm sure you've read) Petrarch's self-scrutiny ought to be leading to a summary transformation of the personality, whereby self-love is replaced by the love of God with a definitiveness answerable to that first, profane enamorment. The Canzoniere eventually seeks to give appropriate form to such expectations with a renunciation of Laura and a hymn to the Virgin Mary: at last the suitable object, love for which will not be a screen for something base. Such a prospect lodges in the tradition as in some ways the proper end to the story ("Leave me ô Love, which reachest but to dust …"—Sidney 1962, Certain Sonnets 32.1), and the biographical tradition on Petrarch has sought for a major change of life around the time of the Secretum. There are those who claim to have found it (Tatham 1925-26, 2:277ff.). Yet the evidence is inevitably shifty and a bit wishful, subject to varying interpretation; and among the least uncertain facts is that, whatever Petrarch did or did not purge from his soul, the desiderium gloriae stayed with him (Baron 1971). In the specifically literary terms with which the Secretum finally hardens its conflict, Petrarch's indecisiveness endured almost to the very end; one of the last letters puts by Boccaccio's plea that Petrarch ease up on his studies: "I do hope that death may find me reading or writing, or, if it should so please Christ, in tearful prayer" (Epistolae seniles, book 17, epistle 2, in Wilkins 1959, 248). Scholars now find it credible to read Petrarch's story as a "lifelong wait" for a repeatedly deferred Augustinian conversion, colored by "his growing fear, his growing realization that the miracle of will and grace was not to be vouchsafed him" (Greene 1968, 247).

Learning to live with that realization brings hints of a shift in ethical standards. Greene senses a reaching back behind the Christian dispensation: "Insofar as [Petrarch's] psychology came to focus on the soul's instability without any opening to the divine, he recalls not so much Augustine as those pagan moralists who had earlier recognized the volatility of passion" (1968, 247)—who had, in other words, recognized that desire is intractably prior to its object (Greene is thinking specifically of Horace, Epistolae 1.l.90ff.). And one may, to at least some extent, place Petrarch as a moralist within what Freud, as described in the opening lines of this chapter, delineated as the pre-Christian dimension of psychoanalysis. We are certainly at the point where the intersection of Freud and Augustine ends; for the psychoanalyst as for the virtuous pagan, the ultimate external object of desire that would unclasp us from our specific individuality does not exist, except in our own imagination. This is not to say that such imagining will not be good for us, even essential; but the narcissistic roots of love are never simply extirpated, and the real comfort and obligation toward which we strive is not transcendence but clearheadedness as to what we are doing. The Secretum has occasionally been likened in passing to a series of psychoanalytic sessions, and the analogy can be made fairly specific. Petrarch's positive act is as it were to accept Augustine's diagnosis while avoiding its transcendental imperative, and with that the apparent indecisiveness becomes more clearly a therapeutic achievement. Voluntatem impotentiam uocas: as the speakers find their way to the topic of Petrarch's literary career, they move toward a disclosure of the calculation within what had presented itself as mere helplessness, the psychic purpose behind consequences previously disowned. From such a point we would now extrapolate not successful or failed conversion, but a lifelong conversation with the secret logic of an intimate stranger.


  1. See Petrarch's own austere formulation: "Piacere sibi superbire est," "to be pleased with oneself is to be prideful" (De remediis utriusque fortunae, book 1, chap. 13, in Petrarch 1554, 1:17). The fullest source on the mythography of Narcissus is Vinge 1967; I have tried to respect her caution about overconflating the mythological character and the psychoanalytic concept, but want to argue here for serious continuity of meaning between the two, at least as mediated by Christian moral interpretation. My general perspective in this regard is close to that of Zweig 1980. Zweig also has some acute things to say on the not quite mastered complexities of the Christian position: in being linked to the promise of individual immortality, the ideal of selfless love is really inseparable from its proclaimed opposite, and keeps nourishing its own heresy. For my own purposes, I take Christianity pretty much at its word, but the deconstructive force of its critique of Petrarchan love potentially rebounds against the religion itself.
  2. I choose an Italian sonnet for effect, but the trope is already well established (and just as startling) among the Troubadours. See Vinge 1967, 66-72; Zweig 1980, 85-99; and, at great length, Goldin 1967.
  3. An alternative conclusion is, to be sure, imagined in Petrarch's Trionfi, his other major work in vernacular poetry, where the spirit of Laura informs him that she not only knew of his love but fully returned it, keeping quiet for the good of both their souls (Triumphus mortis 2.76 ff., see Bernardo 1974, 123-27). The dream-vision frame keeps the status of this revelation, at least by the standards of the Canzoniere, uncertain.
  4. This particular poem originally stood first in the collection. On Petrarch's developing involvement with the story, the fullest discussion is still Calcaterra (1942); see especially 35-87. On Daphne's general mythographic history (and the innovative character of Petrarch's role in it), see Stechow (1965) and Giraud (1968).
  5. Those early years are more fully described in a letter to Petrarch's brother Gherardo: "What should I say about the curling irons and the care we took of our hair? How often did the resulting pain interrupt our sleep" (Epistolae familiares, trans. Bernardo 1975-85, 10.3). The claim in the Secretum to have outgrown such things has on inspection an odd spin. Petrarch twice identifies himself in this connection with the psychopathic, prematurely gray emperor Domitian (57, 154), and insists that his own fading hair color provides him moral instruction as a memento mori. There is good reason to credit Petrarch's obsession with that change, which is a recurring topic in the Canzoniere— "Dentro pur foco et for candida neve, / sol con questi pensier, con altre chiome," "Inwardly fire, though outwardly white snow, alone with these thoughts, with changed locks" (30.31-32)—but of course you only stay aware of your hair color if you check the mirror regularly.
  6. Dante, Inferno 7.100-26 (on which see Wenzel 1967, 200-2); Chaucer, The Parson's Tale: "Envye and Ire maken bitternesse in herte, which bitternesse is mooder of Accidie" (1957, 249).
  7. There are visible if not fully articulated signs of contamination between the two stories in late medieval mythography. Several commentators—including Petrarch's friend Boccaccio—allegorize Echo as bona fama (Vinge 1967, 73-76, 102-04); and a twelfth-century French Narcisse replaces Echo by "Dané," that is, Daphne (Thiry-Stassin 1978).
  8. Kilmer's translation is felicitous: "I can hear the dogs while I write this" (Petrarch 1981).

Peter Hainsworth (essay date 1988)

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 10670

SOURCE: Peter Hainsworth, in an introduction to Petrarch the Poet: An Introduction to the Rerum Vulgarium Fragmenta, Routledge, 1988, pp. 1-29.

[In the following essay, Hainsworth focuses on Petrarch's Rerum vulgarium fragmenta, which is commonly known as the Canzoniere or Rime sparse. Hainsworth discusses the context in the which the poems were written and examines Petrarch's concern with humanism and the meaning of poetry.]

Two languages

Italian literature of the Middle Ages and the Renaissance is composed in the shadow of Latin. The shadow may seem sometimes shorter, sometimes longer, but it is inevitably there, evoking an alternately benign and threatening presence whose roots stretch back into antiquity and whose branches extend across Europe. Latin asserts repeatedly that it has the exclusive right to knowledge and excellence, and continually demands that its authors and authority should be attended to. When it seems most displaced, it infiltrates the less prestigious, less stable language with its words, its turns of phrase, its rhetoric and its standards. If there is such a thing as popular literature, the index of popularity is the distance from Latin. Literature which makes implicit or explicit claims to refinement, let alone to greatness, does so in virtue of its power to assimilate what Latin has to offer and to become like it. Only in the sixteenth century does literary culture in Italy make a general commitment to Italian, and even then the result is symbiosis with Latin rather than its eviction. For earlier writers the two languages are mostly in tension. Even Dante, who declared Italian the nobler language in the De vulgari eloquentia and gave an overwhelming demonstration of its power in the Divina commedia, was the victor in a battle, not the war.

There were many reasons, some stemming from the Commedia itself, others from the linguistic and cultural pressures at work in fourteenth-century Italy, why Dante's example could not be wholeheartedly embraced by the generation that followed him. But one of the prime factors was the emergence of a humanist movement which was intent on the recovery and renewal of Latinity, with, at its centre, the figure who dominated the literary culture of his time. Petrarch wrote with equal seriousness in both Latin and Italian and redrew the lines of demarcation between the two languages. In one way the result was a return to orthodoxy, in another it was a radical revision with implications for both literatures. The effects were immediate, deep, widely felt, and, in the longer term, asymmetrically bi-focal in a way that reflected the actual constitution of Petrarch's work. For a century and more after his death humanism evolved within the perspective defined in his Latin writings, whilst Italian retreated to the literary margins. Then in the sixteenth century his Italian poems, which had always been influential within vernacular literature, were pronounced the supreme examples of modern poetry. They were the paradigms of language, style, and, to a lesser degree, of love, and were to exert a profound influence upon poetry inside and outside Italy. By then the Latin works were already fading from view: henceforth it would be the Italian poems which spoke for Petrarch and defined him. Only since the later nineteenth century has the eclipse been slowly rectified. Gradually it has become evident that the whole of Petrarch is not contained within what he wrote in either language considered in isolation, though it has become equally clear that any composite picture has to take as much account of contrasts and contradictions as of similarities or underlying consistencies.

In themselves neither his bilingualism nor his humanism is surprising. His father, Ser Petracco, was a notary who lived and worked in Florence, though his family was from Incisa, a small town not far from Arezzo. In 1302, a few months after Dante, he too was exiled. He first returned to Incisa and Arezzo, where Petrarch was born in 1304. But in 1312 he moved with his family to Provence, where, like other White Guelphs exiled from Florence, he found work and refuge in the ambit of the Papal Court at Avignon. From now until his definitive departure for Northern Italy in 1353, Provence would be Petrarch's base, though a base which he would frequently leave, more often than not, for lengthy visits to Italy. There were also Italian friends, some of whom at least had an interest in vernacular literature, notably the poet Sennuccio del Bene. But Papal Provence was primarily international and its culture was enthusiastically Latinate, particularly amongst its Italian members. Petrarch's father directed him as a boy towards Virgil and Cicero, and, in the light of his ability in the language and his enthusiasm for classical antiquity, brought him to the notice of the Colonna family, whose centre was Rome but whose members were currently important figures in the Church in Southern France. The Colonna were to be Petrarch's patrons and friends until his support for the revolutionary attempts of Cola di Rienzo to recreate the Roman republic led to a cooling of relations during his last years in Provence. With their own humanist interests, their contacts in both France and Italy, and their sheer political and financial power, they provided a springboard for Petrarch's studies and writings. They also provided material support: Petrarch took minor orders and was granted a canonry at Lombez, where Giacomo Colonna was bishop. Like other livings which he acquired later, the canonry made minimal demands. Petrarch always insisted that his means were modest, though they were sufficient for him to acquire, sometime in the early 1330s, the famous villa at Vaucluse which became his country retreat. With Colonna help and careful manipulation of his own myth, the culminating point of which was his coronation as poet laureate in Rome in 1341, he made himself famous and respected. From his thirties onwards, kings, princes, emperors and popes would correspond with him, or at least receive his letters, would welcome him as the greatest adornment of learning in contemporary Europe, would use him as an ambassador or seek his advice. When he moved to Italy in 1353, he had no difficulty in finding support, first from the Visconti in Milan, then from the Venetian republic, and finally from Francescoda Carrara of Padua, who provided him with the land in Arquà in the Euganean hills where he built the house in which he was to die in 1374.

Petrarch's life was a remarkable achievement in itself, and one accomplished in virtue of his work in Latin, not Italian. It marked the emergence of a new kind of writer. Petrarch was not a member of any university or any other institution, and was not directly in the service of any of his patrons, not even the Colonna, or of any state organisation. Though he was continually negotiating his position and continually threatened by the powers amongst which he moved, he created an independence for himself and for his work which no other intellectual had enjoyed since antiquity. With him high literature established a distance between itself and the vocationalism and institutionalism to which it had been subjected throughout the Middle Ages. Its arbiter was the author, a figure who created himself in and through his writing and who was dignified in his own eyes and those of society for his literary excellence and for no other reason.

At the base of Petrarch's work was textual mastery. As a young man he brought together the surviving decades of Livy, which had been separated from each other throughout the medieval period, and emended the text of accretions and corruptions in a way that presupposed a respect both for classical Latin and for the wishes of the author. He went on to emend, copy and make available other texts, including some which had been lost to the intellectual life of Europe for centuries. One of his early discoveries was Cicero's Pro Archia; another, still more important, was the collection of Cicero's letters to Atticus, which he found in the cathedral library of Verona in 1345. These and other texts became part of the largest private library that had existed in Europe since ancient times. Though Petrarch's readings in medieval literature were much more extensive than he cared to admit, the texts he chooses to edit and, even more, those which he values, signal a reaction against literary and intellectual concerns that were dominant in the preceding century. He has no truck with scholastic or Aristotelian thought. In place of speculative metaphysical systems, of scientific, especially medical, investigation, of legal codification, he puts grammar, rhetoric, poetry, history, moral philosophy. Virgil and the other classical poets, Cicero, Seneca, Livy are his authors, not Aristotle, Aquinas, Averroes, let alone the jurists and the decretalists. When he turns to Christian philosophy, it is above all to Augustine, with whose position vis-à-vis pagan thought he felt bound at times to identify. In all this there is evident a desire to recover what had been lost in the Middle Ages (though the term, like the term 'humanism', was still to be invented) and to present a historically accurate version of it to the present, or, given the decadence of the present—which episodes such as that of Cola, and lasting sores such as the exile of the Papacy from Rome, made seem all too apparent—to a future that was yet to take shape.

There was little dissociation of sensibility in Petrarch. Knowing was doing. Though the next generation of humanists would easily surpass him, his Latin was more classical than that of any of his contemporaries or medieval predecessors, and made its classical connections evident through a web of allusions, citations, and reformulations or phrases taken from great and not so great authors. At the same time Petrarch insisted on his individuality. None of his works are totally subservient to ancient models, in some cases perhaps inadvertently. His unfinished epic poem, the Africa, unreleased in his lifetime apart from one short passage and the greatest literary flop when it eventually emerged after his death, was less epic than it was discursive and personal. The large collections of letters, principally the Familiares and the Seniles, which were apparently inspired by his Ciceronian discoveries, were less anecdotal and occasional than measured moral discourses, miniature treatises, self-analyses and self-portraits. But these are only part of a literary production which is amazing in its diversity and abundance. It includes allegorical eclogues, verse epistles, biographies, treatises, polemical defences of humanistic studies and of Petrarch's own position within them, a self-analysis in the form of a dialogue with St Augustine (Secretum), and moral dialogues (De remediis utriusque fortune), as well as relatively minor pieces such as the oration he delivered on his coronation (Collatio laureationis) or the letter addressed to posterity Posteritati).

In that letter, as throughout his writings, Petrarch is primarily concerned with himself, or rather with formulating some version of himself which caters for his continual shifts of perspective on himself and on his work, and for the doubts and contradictions which he never fully resolves. He continually debates the nature of his studies and his writing, exploring their relationship to a truth which his disavowal of metaphysics prevents him from even beginning to express, but which impinges as an absence, or as a matter of faith. In the course of his career he entertains every possibility: he normally dismisses simple restoration of classical glories as something which he foolishly entertained in his youth, but he moves between a humanism which is also Christian, a Christianity which has a humanist colouring, and a Christianity which has nothing to do with the folly of writing. Though he liked to present himself as evolving from a more or less Christian but distinctly humanist poet into a distinctly Christian moral philosopher, the phases blur together. Almost everything we have of Petrarch belongs to his maturity. Although the passage of time and the changes it brings is one of his constant themes, there is a sense in which all his surviving writings are an encyclopaedia which includes as many kinds of writing and as many attitudes to the nature and function of writing as they possibly can, all united not by any reference to some external truth but by a self which is present in all of them, though complete in none, and whose boundaries are determined by the totality of the authorised oeuvre.

Much of Petrarch is incomplete or composed of short units in different states of elaboration. Most betokens a state of unease or even of crisis. But the assurance is also striking. However much rewritten, however much they might have been further revised, the fragments and incomplete works are formally and stylistically accomplished. What is more important, the fundamental decisions are unhesitatingly held to. From the beginning there is a rejection of the conceptual and literary practices of the previous generation of Italian writers (especially those of Dante) and a conviction that all matters of intellectual and moral importance should find expression in a renovated form of Latin. What is left to Italian is poetry, and poetry of a particular kind.

Petrarch's work in Italian falls into three parts. Most important are the 366 lyric poems which make up the collection often called the Canzoniere, sometimes the Rime sparse (from the first line of the first poem), but which Petrarch himself entitled Rerum vulgarium fragmenta, literally 'Fragments of vernacular matters': I shall follow Petrarch, at least to some degree, by using the acronym RVF. Then there are some poems excluded from the major collection: at least twenty-nine of these Rime disperse (RD), as they are conventionally called, are genuine, though there may well be others amongst the vast body of poems attributed to Petrarch between the fourteenth and the sixteenth century. Lastly there are the Triumphi (Triumphs), a sequence of six visionary poems which was never quite completed. It is a substantial body of work: the RVF alone is larger than the total surviving production of any earlier lyric poet, except perhaps Guittone d'Arezzo, and at least as large as the production of some of his prolific contemporaries. But it is dwarfed by the Latin writings. In the Basle edition of 1554, which is still the only comprehensive, if not quite complete, edition of his works, the Italian poems are crammed into some 78 pages: the Latin writings fill nearly 1,400.

The contrast is not solely of scale. In Latin Petrarch looks to the ancient world, in Italian to the lyric tradition of Tuscany and Provence, and to the love-poetry that had always been at its centre. Though the poems are much more than the expression of passion and at least some turn explicitly away from love, the great majority centre on Petrarch's love for the woman he called Laura, whom he claims to have first seen in 1327 and to have loved from then until long after her death in 1348. Love is largely absent from the Latin works. There are love-poems for Laura amongst the verse epistles (Epistole metrice): she is allegorised as the laurel in some of the eclogues (Bucolicum carmen)' but she becomes a major issue only in the dialogue with Augustine in the Secretum, which debates some of the dangers of love in a comparable way to some of the poems. In the self-portrait given in the letter to posterity there is only a cursory dismissal of a passion which, to judge by the Italian poems, obsessed their author from the ages of twenty-three until at least his sixties.

Laura may or may not have existed as an individual. But poetically the obsession was certainly real and long-lasting. Some of the poems in the RVF were written in the 1330s or perhaps even earlier, though Petrarch probably began work on making a collection in the 1340s at the earliest. But it was in his later years that he did most of the work on the composition of the whole, and, in all probability, wrote a considerable number of the individual poems. He gave the arrangement of the collection its final form something less than a year before his death.

His Latin work offers a different picture. By the 1350s he was presenting himself as having abandoned poetry altogether, and, so far as poetry in Latin was concerned, this was true. As for the work on his Italian poetry, he declares that he is merely collecting together youthful trifles: he is now ashamed of them, but they are in demand from friends whom he cannot refuse: he also wishes to protect them from abuse and distortion. But the disparities are comprehensible. Italian poetry, as he conceived and wrote it, was not to be reconciled with humanism in any intellectually coherent fashion, even if humanists and their patrons enjoyed writing and reading it. There could be no justification for indulgence in sexual love, however refined, nor for love-poetry. It was available to the vulgar at large, and, what was perhaps worse, available to women. It had to be judged frivolous, immoral, and, as literature, inferior in every way to what might be written in Latin. Such a poetry might perhaps have been justified if it were allegorical—if, that is, Laura were indeed the laurel, the symbol of glory and poetry, which she became in the Bucolicum carmen. But that was a step whose ambiguous possibilities Petrarch explored in the RVF without totally committing himself. Instead he risked the absurdity and ridicule of being a man in his fifties and sixties who wrote love-poetry. Contemporaries seem to have been indifferent to this contradiction of the equation between love and youth which goes back to antiquity and which had been particularly strong in Provençal poetry. Petrarch himself was not. For him there had to be some degree of shame in such a display, as the poems themselves indicate. In spite of public appreciation and the protracted work of composition, it was unthinkable that the results could be called poetry: had that been done, they would have entered the same category as the Aeneid or the Africa, with implications for the possible status of the vernacular generally which Petrarch the humanist was anxious to avoid.

Clearly he was also anxious to orient writing in the two languages in two separate, even opposed directions. That does not mean that what he writes in the one is radically different from what he writes in the other. The very professions of shame, the slighting dismissals as trifles of works on which he spent years, are applied to his Latin writings as well as to the Italian. And the more we look, the more the points of contact proliferate, ranging from turns of phrase, favoured images, direct cross-references to fundamental concerns. If Petrarch writes in Italian of despair, confusion, frustration, that is only a reformulation in the terms of the lyric of much that appears in his Latin works. If he puts at the centre of his Latin works a self who is continually reshaped and re-examined, it is a similar fluctuating and uncertain self which is created and explored in Italian. If he voices and investigates in Latin various contradictory positions vis-à-vis the purposes and nature of writing, so in Italian he articulates and examines a series of poetic possibilities, embracing all and settling for none. As in Latin, writing is less a way of making statements about the world or reality than an area in which multiple pathways alternately diverge and cross each other, their contradictions being reconciled (though not annulled) in the writing itself rather than in any point of arrival or final judgment. The difference is one of quality; for Italian, in Petrarch's hands, has the advantage: in a way that he could not quite achieve in Latin, he is able, in the inferior language, to create a style which is consistent whilst constantly varied, which can absorb literature of the past whilst retaining its own identity, which is always beautiful in a convincing, if sometimes bewildering way. There is no disparity of aspiration or literary attention between the Latin and the Italian Petrarch: but the latter presupposes the former in a way that is not true if we invert the terms. As Petrarch's Latin title suggests, the Rerum vulgarium fragmenta are the vernacular poems of a humanist.

The Italian context

Though there are important difference of perspective between them, Dante and Petrarch both make historical interpretations of Italian poetry which, taken together, suggest the idea of a poetic tradition running fairly smoothly from the Sicilians, or perhaps even from Provence, through to Petrarch. But in many ways the tradition was, and is, a retrospective construction. In reality continuity was neither automatic nor linear. At any point—and at some more than others—connections with the past had to be affirmed or denied, interferences had to be assimilated or rejected, and the past itself reassessed. There were always risks of rupture or dispersal. In the first half of the fourteenth century they were particularly intense. For Petrarch and his contemporaries, writing poetry in Italian was a quite different enterprise from what it had been in thirteenth-century Tuscany. At the same time the later poetry came into being largely in the shadow of the earlier. Petrarch was able to reshape the past in the light of the contradictory exigencies at work in himself and in fourteenth-century culture generally. His contemporaries often had similar aspirations, but were repeatedly thrown into confusion or confined to epigonal roles.

The tradition was no more than a hundred years old when Petrarch wrote the earliest poems which he included in the RVF. It had been initiated, quite abruptly it seems, by a loose-knit group of administrators, lawyers and notaries connected with the court of the Emperor Frederick II in Sicily and Southern Italy. Perhaps the Emperor himself encouraged, or ordered, the production in an Italian language of a poetry similar in kind and quality to that produced by the minnesinger and troubadours whom he patronised. At all events the Sicilians (as they have been called since at least the time of Petrarch, though not all of them were from Sicily) produced a quite sophisticated love-poetry which owed a great deal to Provençal fin' amors. They made the Sicilian language in which they wrote acceptable by giving it a Provençal and, to a lesser extent, a Latin flavour, as well as by importing idioms, images and conventions from the troubadours. So Italian poetry began on the elevated level which it was to maintain up to and beyond Petrarch. It also acquired its fundamental poetic forms—the major form, the canzone, deriving from the Provençal canso; the minor one, the sonnet, being an invention of the Sicilians, and probably of the dominant figure amongst them, the notary Giacomo da Lentini.

Sicilian poetry came to an abrupt end when the German power on which it depended was shattered by the French at the battles of Benevento (1265) and Tagliacozzo (1267). But by then it had long penetrated Central Italy. Bologna and the cities of Tuscany were to be the centres in which it developed and to which it was confined until almost exactly the end of the thirteenth century. Broadly speaking, the first phase was one of expansion. It was centred around Guittone d'Arezzo (c. 1230-94), who produced the first sizeable body of work in Italian lyric poetry and who was considerably more ambitious than the Sicilians had been, drawing on some of the techniques of the Provencal trobar clus and also on the refinements of the Ars dictaminis. Guittone also wrote political and moral poetry, eventually denouncing love as carnal and adulterous when he became one of the new lay order of Frati gaudenti in the early 1260s. Nor was the expansion simply internal. Canzoni and sonnets in the Sicilian and Guittonian mode proliferated amongst notaries, merchants, bankers in the various Tuscan towns. There may even have been a woman poet, the socalled 'Compiuta Donzella'.

This too was sophisticated poetry, aware of its own conventions and aware of European ideas of literary hierarchy. Overall the Tuscans aimed to be elevated, whether celebrating or denouncing love. But they also made moves in the direction of a more colloquial register in political and occasional verse, whilst in Florence, probably in the 1270s, the antithesis of high poetry suddenly appeared in some of the poems of Rustico Filippi. Vulgar, idiomatic, morally perverse, what is now called poesia giocosa was less a questioning of high poetry than its parasitical inversion, written in complete accordance with the accepted rules for low-style poetry.

But the limitations were evident, at least by contemporary standards. The early Tuscans were the voices of a provincial culture which had emerged quite suddenly into literacy as a result of rapid commercial expansion. Their points of reference were principally Sicilian and Provençal poetry and contemporary Latin rhetoric. Though the debates about the nature of love echo scholastic procedures of argument and suggest some acquaintance with contemporary medical and psychological thought, intellectual vitality is largely limited to the manipulation of commonplaces. The practitioners, whether we call them poets or not, were in contemporary parlance rimatori, dettatori, trovatori, not poeti or auctores whose names were to be respected and whose texts were to be commented on or glossed. In a sense their poetry was public property. Though it was certainly literate and, to judge from the evidence, it differed from Provençal poetry in not being directly associated with music, it quickly passed outside its authors' control into anthologies where it was at the mercy of scribal whim and regional variation.

This last problem would continue into Petrarch's time. But in the later years of the century there were major revisions of Tuscan poetic habits. What is now generally called the dolce stil novo (though Dante's phrase may well have a different emphasis in its original context in Purg. 24. 57) began in Bologna with Guido Guinizzelli (?1230-?1276), whose slender surviving oeuvre includes poems in the Guittonian style, but also some others which are conspicuously both more harmonious and more complex intellectually. What Bonagiunta da Lucca, one of his contemporary critics from the old school, considered an excess of Bolognese learning (Poeti 2. 481) is especially strong in the famous canzone on the nature of love, Al cor gentil rempaira sempre Amore. But it was in Florence in the work of Guido Cavalcanti (c. 1259-1300) that the new style really developed both its characteristic 'sweetness' and its conceptual scope, the latter being formidably displayed in Cavalcanti's philosophical canzone Donna me prega, the former being more apparent in his other poems. The new poetry was aimed at a circle of initiates, presupposing an intellectual and literary sophistication far exceeding that demanded by the run of previous poets. In other words with Cavalcanti the modes of high literature began to be reproduced in the vernacular.

It was Dante (1265-1321) who made the claims of the vernacular explicit. In the Vita nuova (c. 1294) he gathered together a selection of his youthful poetry and, with the help of a prose commentary, made its coherence evident. Love, reason and vernacular poetry were, he argued, complementary. At this stage he thought poetry in Italian should restrict itself thematically to love, but, since there was as much sense and order in the best vernacular poetry as traditional theory held there to be in the Latin masters, it followed that there was no difference in kind between the rimatori and the poeti (VN 25).

The rest of Dante's work is, amongst other things, a demonstration of the truth of this radical proposition. He had already gone beyond Cavalcanti in the Vita nuova. Over the next decade or so he wrote a series of poems which were conceptually more substantial and technically stricter than anything so far written in Italian. Concurrently he supported practice with theory, moving from the relatively restricted claims of his first book to the eventual proclamation of the De vulgari eloquentia (1. 1. 4) that 'nobilior est vulgaris' (the vernacular is the nobler language), and that meant that it could deal with the noblest of themes—moral and spiritual well-being, political and military struggle, as well as love.

For all his theoretical pronouncements, all the poetry which Dante had written was just about containable within the confines of the tradition and within traditional ways of seeing the relationship between Latin and the vernacular. The Divina commedia was not. It was finished not long before Dante died in Ravenna in 1321. Within ten years it was well known and widely read in Northern and Central Italy. Though one or two dissenters were to be heard, it was quickly recognised that here was a work in Italian which rivalled any work of ancient poetry. It satisfied all criteria for poetic excellence. It showed a complete mastery of rhetoric: it was immensely learned in philosophy, science and theology: and it was rich in moral lessons for its readers' improvement. If it quickly became popular with the people at large, it was also clear that its appealing surface concealed difficult, even arcane truths. Learned commentaries began to appear almost at once. By 1333 there were at least four in existence which have survived (Jacopo di Dante, Graziolo Bambaglioli, il Lana and l'Ottimo), indicating a de facto recognition that the text required the same depth of exegesis as, say, the Aeneid. The theoretical recognition was voiced most forcefully by Boccaccio. Dante, he proclaimed in his celebratory biography, is a great and glorious poeta: his work has the sweetness and beauty which appeals to everyone, including women and young people, but it also has a wealth of deep meaning which first puzzles and then 'refreshes and nourishes serious minds' ('ricrea e pasce gli solenni intelletti': Opere 384).

Boccaccio may have been right, but the Commedia posed enormous problems for any subsequent poet. Apart from its assault upon linguistic certainties which had been presumed valid for centuries, there was the question of how Italian poetry was to deal with a literary father who seemed simultaneously to have created the poetic language and to have exhausted all its resources. Indeed, if the implications of his poem are taken seriously, he had said everything worth saying. One response was to attempt encyclopaedical poems on the Dantesque model, but with different matter; another, already evident in Dante's friend, the canon lawyer Cino da Pistoia (c. 1270-1336/7), was to incorporate phrases, words, images from the Commedia into lyric poems of a familiar kind, in Cino's case a generally more subdued dolce stil novo.

Both responses are signs that Dante's great synthesis could only collapse. Perhaps it was in any case a more fragile, idiosyncratic creation than it pretended: the attempt to demonstrate the truth of the assumption that everything which existed did somehow cohere could perhaps only convince within the terms of the poem. Outside there were too many disruptive forces. Dante's universalist politics were already outmoded when he was writing. The exile of the Papacy to Avignon, the weakness of successive emperors, the increasing importance of national monarchs, the rise of the new signorie in Northern Italy—all these political realities made one of the major struts of his work outmoded except as literature. The republican city-states of Central Italy which had obsessed him were reduced in numbers in the course of the fourteenth century, and the strongest of them, Florence, developed in precisely the direction he wished it not to take. The commercialism which Dante detested was absorbed into a culture which found its image in the human world of the Decameron. Philosophically, too, the unity was broken. Dante made a unique fusion of Aristotelian and Neo-Platonic thinking: in the fourteenth century the two divided again, with humanists of the Petrarchan stamp rejecting out of hand all the speculative thought that was fundamental to the Commedia. If its commentators are anything to go by, even the poem itself could only be read as a series of episodes or of difficulties whose place in the whole was not to be considered.

Cultural and political fragmentation was linked with geographic dispersal. In the early years of the century lyric poetry spread out of Tuscany to the North, partly, it seems, as a result of the banishment of the White Guelphs from Florence in 1302. According to Boccaccio's biography (Opere 338), Dante himself made converts to the cause of poetry in general and vernacular poetry in particular during his last years in Ravenna. Already between 1325 and 1335 Niccolò de' Rossi, a notary in Treviso, assembled an anthology of poems that ran back through Dante and Cavalcanti all the way to goliardic Latin. Niccolò also wrote a great deal of largely old-fashioned lyric verse of his own. His manuscript of his poems, completed probably before 1330, is the earliest example we have of an Italian poet making an 'edition' of his own work (see Brugnolo ed.).

As in the previous century, many poets were notaries, like Niccolò, or merchants. But they were not dominant voices as their Tuscan equivalents had been. There is an immense profusion of fourteenth-century poetry, in which many conflicting tendencies are visible. A major one is the rise of court-poetry, which to all intents and purposes did not exist in thirteenth-century Tuscany. The rule of absolute signori meant a return to the situation of the troubadours or even of their jongleurs, at least for some of the most important Northern poets. Dante himself had become a dependant of princes, though protected by his prestige against the worst indignities of such a position, in spite of his gloomy comments in Paradiso (17. 58-60). Some of his successors, such as Antonio da Ferrara (1315-71/ 4) and Francesco di Vannozzo (c. 1340-90?), were less fortunate. Of poor birth, with relatively little education and no material resources, they found themselves continually moving from court to court, looking for support and patronage, and often producing poems at their patrons' requests. As Francesco di Vannozzo put it in one of his poems, 'vo cantando fole / su per 1e tole altrui / con questo e con colui / per un bicchier di vino' ('I go singing fables / at others' tables / with this fellow and that / for a glass of wine': ed. Medin, p. 248).

In this kind of poetry, and in much written by sober notaries and merchants, the sense of poetry as a means of investigating and articulating serious and complex issues has all but evaporated. So too has the linguistic and stylistic homogeneity of Tuscan poetry, with its strict distinction between styles and its careful cultivation of the high style as the supreme form of poetic expression. Antonio da Tempo, a Paduan who wrote a pedantic treatise on vernacular lyric forms, datable to 1332, said that the Tuscan language was more appropriate to literature ('ad literam sive literaturam') than other idioms, because it was 'magis communis et intelligibilis', that is, because it had more features that were general and hence was more widely understood, though he also allowed that other idioms could be used too (ed. Andrews, p. 99). Other Northern poets would probably have agreed with Antonio, although they did not have the means to act on even this uncertain programme. There was no grammar detailing the rules and forms of Tuscan. In practice Northerners were limited to reworking Tuscan poems and to embedding words and phrases from Dante and the other poets in a language based on their own usage, with ad libitum admixtures from Latin. Much is written in a more or less conversational vein, with overtly autobiographical or occasional content (such as the lines from Vannozzo given above). Much too is written expressly to be set to music, especially madrigali, which were probably not cultivated by the earlier Tuscan poets, if they existed at all.

Though these developments suggest a resurgence of orality, poetry was also becoming more distinctly literate, as the example of Niccolò de' Rossi shows. Manuscript collections, both of earlier and contemporary poetry proliferate in the course of the century. There were also clear aspirations towards higher styles of writing. Dante, the new learning of humanism and, from at least the middle of the century and perhaps before, Petrarch's own Italian poetry, all had their effects. But the results often flaunt classical learning, or else become heterogeneous mixtures which, by Petrarchan standards, are medieval rather than humanist. Brizio Visconti (d. 1357), the bastard son of Luchino, wrote a canzone on the beauty of his donna, Mal d'Amor parla chi d'amor non sente ('He who has no feeling of love speaks ill of love': Rimatori 184). Each stanza ends with a comparison to a famous figure: viz. Ovid's Actaeon, St Paul, Apuleius' Psyche, Absalom, the Polyxena of Daretes Phrygius, Virgil's Lavinia, Solomon, Isolde, Aristotle, Polycletus (the sculptor), and St Augustine. Brizio has mixed together the classical, the vernacular, the biblical, in a sequence that has no rationale which I can discover. But he does give his poem more of a structure than this. He described the lady in accordance with the rules for female description laid down in textbooks of poetics: he begins with her hair and works downwards feature by feature until the limits of decency are reached. There is nothing comparable in thirteenth-century poetry, nor will there be in Petrarch, but such curious combinations of haphazard learning and rigid structuring are quite frequent amongst other fourteenth-century poets.

To a large extent it is the context of Northern poetry which is relevant to Petrarch. He composed the RVF largely in Northern Italy and it was for Northern signori that he made various intermediate versions of the collection. His contacts with contemporary Tuscan poets, other than Boccaccio, belong principally to the earlier phases of his career. The most important of these was probably with Sennuccio del Bene (see section 4 below), though he certainly knew the work of Cino da Pistoia, and may even have known him personally. In any case, whilst Florentines and Tuscans were protected against linguistic heterogeneity to some degree, their poetry shows many of the same tendencies as that of the Northerners. Cino, Sennuccio and others continued to write in the manner of the stil novo, though in less exalted vein than their predecessors. There were also Dantesque imitations, classicising poetry of various kinds, and, increasingly as the century went on, homely occasional verse, speaking good sense in colloquial language. The most important Tuscan writer is of course Boccaccio (1313-75), who was a personal friend of Petrarch from 1351 until the end of his life. Before he largely abandoned the vernacular, Boccaccio continually opened up new avenues in prose and verse, principally in the area of narrative, exploiting his large, unsystematic readings in medieval and classical literature to produce a series of works which combined the two in unprecedented amalgamations. Within the terms of the mercantile culture in which he worked, he, like Petrarch, found a series of solutions, some perhaps more successful than others, to the problem of reconciling different cultural pressures and energies in complex wholes. His surviving lyric poetry is largely occasional, sometimes classicising, sometimes popularising, even casual from a technical point of view.

The story that Boccaccio burnt his poems after seeing Petrarch's may or may not be true, but the letter by Petrarch (Sen. 5.2) consoling him for his sense of literary inferiority affirms what will become the dominant perspective on Italian literature of the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries. In whatever order of precedence they are to be arranged, the three authors are Dante, Petrarch and Boccaccio. For the rest there is silence. The historical reality was of course much less clear cut. In the last section of this chapter I shall look briefly at what can be deduced of Petrarch's involvement in the common situation of the poets of his time and at his relations with other poets.

The Rerum vulgarium fragmenta

The RVF was a major poetic enterprise beyond the powers of any of Petrarch's contemporaries, none of whom had a comparable experience of literature, or an equivalent critical and historical awareness. It is conditioned throughout by Petrarch's humanism. Though the poems do not flaunt classicism, it is in the light of his work in Latin that he carries through a reassessment of the possibilities of poetry in Italian. Alone of fourteenth-century poets, Petrarch rethinks and remakes the tradition, finding solutions to some of the major problems which poetry faced in his own time, whilst recognising that some of the fundamental ones were, unhappily, intractable, except, perhaps, in the contradictions of which poetry itself is made. At the same time he absorbs into his work the main tendencies evident in his contemporaries, even, when it suited him (or his poetry), drawing directly on their work. For, in spite of his sheer egocentricity and the effacement which he inflicted on them, Petrarch spoke for, not against, other Italian poets of his time.

The foundation of the work was the making of a text. Whilst at least one partly autograph collection (by Niccolò de' Rossi) predates the RVF, it is Petrarch's text which is historically significant. Here we have a major author expressly recognising the destruction that his poems were exposed to at the hands of performers to whom he released them (Fam. 21. 15 and Sen. 5. 3.) In the manuscript which he made in the last years of his life Petrarch created a defence against the absorption of his poetry into an oral culture, and also made a humanist resolution of the textual problems of contemporary and preceding poetry generally. He takes control as author of his production, making the same provisions as he makes with any of his Latin works to resist the forces of dispersal and corruption, and presuming implicitly that the poems have the same status as his works in Latin. It is on this act of control and preservation that everything about his poetry depends, from the finest and most subtle of musical effects, to the complexities of the relations between poems. In the fullest sense these are literary poems.

Within the collection the poems are autonomous. Petrarch excludes poems by others and refuses to specify any of the occasions which gave rise to poems, whether these are tenzoni with other poets, incidents in his life, or the ups and downs, true or invented, of a peculiarly protracted love-affair. At the same time the autobiographical and occasional character of poetry after Dante is not denied. The RVF tells a story, but it does so indirectly in the full recognition that poetic narrative, especially that of lyric poetry, is subject to other pressures, some of which run counter to narrative demands. As well as the partial autobiography which a collection of lyric poems might easily furnish, Petrarch creates a complex interplay between poems, in which narrative possibilities, formal and thematic patterning, and variety (or disorder) compete with each other. On the whole the poems are abstracted from history. When they do display a sense of poetry having an active role to play, it is primarily with reference to some moment in the future which they themselves can only anticipate.…

Like his contemporaries Petrarch looks to the past. Unlike them, he makes a serious and lucid recuperation of the central features of the tradition. Although he admits political poems and poems of other kinds, he gives overwhelming priority to love-poetry, almost as if he were following Dante's dictates in the Vita nuova, and certainly in accordance with the general practice of thirteenth-century poets. And with the choice of the canonical theme he makes a choice of language and poetic forms which also looks back to the earlier Tuscan lyric. The hybridism and outrageous classicism of his contemporaries, their liking for extended or irregular forms, their conversational tone are all discarded. So too are they; the references, the echoes, the different varieties of metrical organisation are all cast primarily as reassessments of the past, not the present.

All the same there are fundamental modifications. In Italian, as in Latin, Petrarch rejects the scholastic and speculative tendency which had been the strength of later thirteenth-century poetry, and re-forms the style or styles of his predecessors in the light of his own criteria of selfhood, recasting the figure of the donna and creating a psychological complexity in poetry for which there were no precedents. He also finds a solution to the problem of Dante. Beatrice is remade as Laura and questions of transcendental love and transcendental poetry are re-formed in a poetry which is far more sceptical, although unhappily so. The Commedia itself is ousted. It becomes the prodigy which it had to be, something quite distinct from lyric poetry, not its point of arrival. In its place there is a reaffirmation of order: the progress of the lyric in Italian ran (as we still tend to think it does) from the Sicilians through the lyric Dante to Petrarch, who in his turn became its culmination. The RVF is a representation of the poet's self, but the self represented is also poetic. The changes and fluctuations which the collection represents make up a selective encyclopaedia of Italian poetry, which absorbs and reinterprets the practices of earlier poets, simultaneously casting them as having no greater role than that of being its precursors.

All is accomplished by accepting even more than his contemporaries the cultural dispersal in which they and Petrarch wrote. Earlier poetry in Provencal and Italian reappears in the RVF in fragmentory, even pulverised form. So too do fragments from the full range of Petrarch's vast reading. The difference lies in the reconstitution: in the RVF there is no literary pastiche, no embedding of literary jewels in drab or uncertain language. Everything is re-formed as an aspect of the self, which is constantly changing but constantly the same, and which finds poetic identity in all the forms it takes, however uncertain it may be about their meaning or status.

The combination of order and disorder, of resolution and indecision, is one of the most disquieting and deep-rooted attractions of the RVF. Thematically the poems raise questions about the meaning and scope of poetry which had been voiced by earlier poets (though not, it seems, by other poets of the fourteenth century) and by Petrarch himself in Latin. Simultaneously, they reshape those questions and answer them in some measure, only to discard the answers as provisional, or as only the material of a poetry which can never find a single formulation to embrace its multiple ambiguities.… The very stylistic and formal brilliance of the poetry, so evidently not present in the work of his contemporaries, is itself dependent on conflicts and unresolved contrasts, on elements of language which are never rid of their irrational and ambiguous overtones, as much as it is dependent on the creation of lucidly balanced structures. In the course of the Renaissance the RVF will become a paradigm of aesthetic achievement in poetry. As we look at the collection now, it betrays constant unease as well as pleasure in the artefacts of which it is made. In some sense it recognises and includes its own negativity, never excluding the aura of death and vanity which surrounds all of Petrarch's work. A combination of the uncombinable, in what may or may not be an integrated whole, is achieved in each poem of the RVF and in the totality of the collection, with resonances which extend far beyond the specific personal and cultural crises from which the work historically evolved.

Petrarch's career as an Italian poet

Whilst it is possible to outline the general context from which the RVF emerged, the specifics largely elude us. It is hard to speak with any confidence about Petrarch's evolution as a vernacular poet or his personal and literary relations with contemporaries who wrote in Italian. The main collection of poems is at best an ambiguous guide, and other evidence—principally the Rime disperse(RD)—is fragmentary and insubstantial. All the same, it is possible to map out a little of the itinerary which Petrarch must have traced, and to explore one or two points of contact with a poetic culture from which he was clearly not so divorced as the RVF as a whole seems to suggest.

We do not know when Petrarch began to write Italian poems. His earliest surviving poem is a Latin elegy on the death of his mother written when he was eighteen (Ep. met. 1.7), though a letter to his brother Gherardo probably written in 1348 (Fam. 10.3) talks disparagingly of love-poems which they wrote during their student days. None of these have survived, if indeed they ever existed. The earliest poems we can identify belong to a group of twenty-five which Petrarch copied out into his rough manuscript in the years 1336-8, forming what Wilkins called a 'reference collection' on the grounds that the poems seem to have been transcribed in no significant order for personal use (1951: 81-92). Eighteen of the poems would eventually enter the RVF as 23, 34-6, 41-6, 49, 58, 60, 64, 69, 77, 78, 179. According to a later note, RVF 23 (Nel dolce tempo de la prima etade) was one of the earliest poems which Petrarch wrote (Romanò 1955: 169…). The discarded poems comprise five by Petrarch himself (RD 1-5), and two poems by a certain Geri dei Gianfigliazzi and the equally obscure figure of Ser Pietro Dietisalvi, to which two of his own poems were originally replies. In all probability two other excluded poems (RD 17 and 18), addressed to Sennuccio del Bene, which were not amongst those transcribed in 1336-8, are also very early.

Taken as a group, these poems are less distinct from much other poetry of their time than are the RVF as a whole. Although the poems admitted into the collection are fully integrated, they make a more open display of classical mythology than most of the RVF. In the rejected poems myth seems to be used relatively or uncertainly. Quando talor, da giusta ira commosso (RD 1) uneasily fits the myth of Hercules into a generally Cavalcantian poem: from its first line Se Febo al primo amor non è bugiardo (RD 5) introduces the myth of Apollo, which is fundamental to much of the RVF, in an emphatic conversational register which the later Petrarch avoids: Sí come il padre del folle Fetonte (RD 17) strings together one Ovidian myth after another, with an explicit mention of the name Daphne, which is to be excluded from the RVF.… This poem is also exceptional in apparently making a pun between Laura's name and 'l'ora' (time), and, like one or two other excluded poems (and many poems by other fourteenth-century poets) in being an extended sonnet.

At this stage, or at least in the poems he rejected, Petrarch has not completely established the voice which he will have in the RVF. He is also and quite so autonomous. He is willing to write poems on request: RD 3 and 4, which are love-poems of a sort, have notes saying that they were written to order, the second note making it plain that the unknown commissioner also told him what matter ('materiam') to put into the poem. At least two other poems were written, if not to order, with the express purpose of furthering his patrons' interests. The sonnet Vinse Hanibàl (RVF 103), urging Stefano Colonna to press on and destroy the Orsini after his victory over them in 1333, is almost certainly the short piece ('breve quiddam') which, according to a letter on the same theme (Fam. 4.3), was composed in the vernacular so that his feelings would be known to the soldiers in Stefano's army. The canzone Quel c'ha nostra natura in sé piú degno (RD 29), written after the bloody recovery of Parma by Azzo da Correggio and his brothers in 1341, makes it plain in its congedo that it is intended to celebrate their achievement and to make it known particularly in Tuscany. But perhaps these are exceptional. Taken together, poems to patrons included in the RVF suggest a picture, perhaps somewhat idealised, of relations between a great humanist and the powerful. Those to the Colonna, Agapito (58), Stefano (10, 103) and Giovanni (266, 269, 322), like those to Orso dell'Anguillara (38) and Pandolfo Malatesta (104), suggest a shared interest in Roman virtue and in ancient poetry. Here there are no requests for gifts, no indignities, but instead a friendship not so distant in tone from that of Ennius and Scipio in the Africa.

The poems from the 1330s also include poetic exchanges (tenzoni). It appears that Petrarch was willing to continue taking part in these until well into the 1340s. Two are with friends in humanist circles or on its edges, whose poems (often printed at the end of the RVF in Renaissance editions) show that they too can turn a reasonable sonnet. One friend was the schoolmaster Stramazzo da Perugia, mentioned in Fam. 14.12 as one of the few men in Italy to know Greek, the other Giovanni Dondi, the Paduan mathematician and astronomer; RVF 24 was originally a reply to the first, 244 to the second. But Petrarch's principal poetic correspondents are Sennuccio del Bene and Antonio da Ferrara, two figures who represent quite different trends in fourteenth-century poetry and whose relations with Petrarch are of rather different kinds.

Sennuccio (c. 1275-1349) wrote in the somewhat toned-down version of the stil novo which had become common amongst Tuscans in the early part of the fourteenth century, although it is significant, in the light of Petrarch's development, that amongst the small number of his surviving poems are two on the theme of the elderly lover (Canz. 9 and 10). He is probably Petrarch's main direct link with poetry of the previous century. The two became friends when Petrarch was quite young. The older poet was exiled from Florence as a result of his involvement with other Whites in Henry VII's siege of the city in 1312. From 1316 to 1326 he was in Avignon, where he too entered humanist circles and was also a protégé of the Colonna. He also made at least one further visit after being allowed to return to Florence. Petrarch addressed seven poems to him which have survived, five of them (the last on his death) being included in the RVF (108, 112, 113, 114, 287 …), the two classicising poems already mentioned being excluded (RD 17 and 18). The poems on both sides have a tone of relaxed intimacy that does not appear elsewhere in the RVF, though one of the poems by Sennuccio is written in the name of Giovanni Colonna as a reply to Petrarch's poem to the latter, Signor mio caro (RVF 266). Petrarch thought enough of his work to mention him, with another friend and minor poet, Franceschino degli Albizzi (who died of the plague in 1348), at the end of his selective survey of Italian poets in the Triumphus Cupidinis (4. 37-8), though admittedly in words that suggest personal rather than poetic excellence: 'Senneccio e Franceschin, che fur sí umani, / come ogni uom vide' ('Sennuccio and Franceschino, who were so human, / as every man saw). As always on poetic matters, Petrarch was ruthless but right.

Petrarch's exchanges with Antonio da Ferrara belong to a time when his position as an eminent writer was assured. To a large extent they reflect the differences in prestige and education between the two, but they also show Petrarch stepping outside his familiar persona. Antonio (1315-71/74) was the son of a butcher, an autodidact, and, throughout his life, a second- or third-grade courtier, dependent on the various Northern signori for whom he wrote. The acquaintance with Petrarch began in 1343 when a report spread that he had died of an illness in Sicily. Antonio wrote a fullsome canzone of lament and celebration, I' ho già letto el pianto d'i Troiani ('I have read in the past the lament of the Trjoans': Rime 67a), the first line of which gives a hint of the display of text-book erudition which is to follow, though the canzone ends with a characteristically forthright and modest admonition to the poem to say that it is by 'Antonio Beccar, un da Ferrara, / che poco sa ma volenter impara' ('Antonio Beccari, one from Ferrara, / who knows little, but learns willingly'). Antonio eventually received a sonnet in return (to become RVF 120), in which Petrarch assured him that he was still alive though he had been ill, and disclaimed his worthiness to receive such a tribute. Sooner or later there followed other tenzoni (texts in Antonio, Rime, 78-82). In the first two Petrarch is surprisingly willing to debate—playfully, no doubt—worn commonplaces about love and hope, and the difference between honourable love and carnal passion, though the authenticity of the second poem (Rime 79b) has been doubted, in part because it ends with the statement that he has been in love himself more than twenty-two times. Another tenzone is initiated by Petrarch: in a poem beginning 'Antonio cos' ha fatto 1a tua terra?' (RD 15: Antonio, Rime 80a) Petrarch says that he has fallen passionately in love with a Ferrarese girl and asks Antonio who she is. In his reply (Rime 80b) Antonio regrets that Petrarch has become so enamoured that he has forgotten their friendship, but hopes that the outcome will be that he will stay in Ferrara, so that he can enjoy his company once again. Obviously enough we are a long way here from the serious, complex figure of the RVF, though it may just be that the Ferrarese girl is the new love who appears in RVF 270 and 271, from which Petrarch is glad to say he is quickly liberated, once again by death.

The tenzoni are not all there is to Petrarch's poetic relationship with Antonio. There are three sonnets, one by Antonio (Rime 11), one by Petrarch (RVF 102), and one attributed to Boccaccio (Rime 41) (though its authenticity has been doubted), which rework the same material in almost exactly the same order. The texts of all three are given at the end of this section. The first quattrain of each begins with the example of Caesar concealing his joy at receiving the head of Pompey; the second takes the opposite case of Hannibal concealing his grief when the head of his brother Hasdrubal was sent to him; in the sestet the poet applies the examples to himself, saying that he is obliged to present to the world the image of someone happier than he really is. It is quite possible that the original sonnet was by Antonio. An early biography of Petrarch by Lelio de'Lelii (quoted by Bellucci in her notes to Antonio, Rime 11) says that Antonio's sonnet came into his hands, and, feeling that the idea was a good one ('l'invenzione era buona') but that the sound of the verse was inadequate, he wrote another, much better sonnet which followed Antonio 'verse by verse with different and much more ornate words' ('verso per verso con diverse e molto piú ornate parole').

The interdependence of the three poems is not simply a matter of the use they make of classical history or the organisation of their material. They also seem to demonstrate a shared sense of what is poetically desirable. All three are based on antitheses of thought and expression which they attempt to integrate with flowing syntax and imagery to give an impression of ease and yet decorum. Antonio has grave difficulties: hampered by Northern forms ('fazzol', 'pianƷendo', 'soa' etc) which contrast uneasily with the Tuscan of the greater part of the poem, he is also semantically loose (eg 1.3), melodically awkward (eg in the rhyme between the two proper names in 11.6 and 7), uncertain in his Latinisms (eg 'intrinseche' in 1.14) and clumsy in some of his phrases ('la gran testa reverente' in 1.5). His main technique for enriching the texture of his verse is lexical repetition ('testa', 'allegrezza', 'canto', 'celar', etc), which gives the poem an air of old-fashioned rigidity, particularly since some of the repeated items appear at the same point in the line. The sonnet attributed to Boccaccio errs in the contrary direction, that is, towards becoming excessively conversational, even causal. In spite of elevated moments (especially 1.2), it is willing to be dully prosaic (above all 11.6-7), and, like some poems of Boccaccio which certainly are genuine, it can accept a quite imperfect rhyme (1.8). Petrarch alone maintains throughout his poem (certainly not one of his most important) an evenness of register and tone, which is at the same time subtly varied, creating a whole which is complex, musical and apparently effortless. As elsewhere, he appears not so much to depart from the aesthetic implicit in the work of his fellow-poets as to realise their aspirations more successfully.

There is a point in the RVF where we can trace the outlines of another victory over the poetically unfortunate Antonio, a victory which also betrays some of the basic dynamics of the collection. I said above that relations between the two poets began with Antonio's canzone of lament on Petrarch's reported death in 1343, in response to which Petrarch wrote the sonnet which was to become RVF 120. In the RVF there is no hint of the destinatee or of the occasion of the poem, but the issue is not forgotten. This sonnet of self-deprecation is placed immediately after the canzone in which Petrarch presents his coronation of 1341 in allegorical form. A donna, representing Glory, appears to Petrarch, and enters into a dialogue with him, in the course of which another donna representing Virtue also appears. The dialogue is measured, decorous, raising questions of moral and cultural decline and presenting Petrarch as a lonely and devoted aspirant who is eventually symbolically rewarded with the laurel crown. The contrasts with Antonio's poem are striking: for Antonio had simply packed in allegorical figures and authoritative names ranging from Priscian to the Muses, all of whom he represents as coming to pay tribute to the dead Petrarch. There may or may not be any connection so far as the actual composition of Petrarch's canzone is concerned. But it effectively corrects what Antonio had written, and demonstrates how a celebratory poem might be managed. When it is put together with the following sonnet, Antonio's effacement is complete: the issues of celebration and modest refusal of celebration are poetically counterposed within the collection. The link with another poet is reduced to an imprecise occasion preceding the second poem: the poems are now internally related and autonomous. Poetry outside the RVF has been absorbed and excluded.

It may be that some of Boccaccio's poetry underwent a similar fate. The friendship between the two writers was largely a humanist one, in which Petrarch played the senior role, and Boccaccio that of admiring disciple. In Italian, although there are broad analogies to be drawn between their treatment of the problem of variety and disorder, their paths mostly diverge. However, in some ways Petrarch was willing to be the learner. His principal model for the Triumphi is the Amorosa visione and he probably drew on other poems for one or two sonnets in the RVF. More importantly, Boccaccio's enthusiasm seems to have made him write directly about the issue of Dante in the late 1350s, which he had previously hoped to pass over in silence, and, more important still, to have confirmed the making of the RVF as a serious enterprise. So far as the RVF are concerned, Boccaccio's shadowy presence is not to be underestimated.


[Two languages] For P's reputation see Bonora (1954), Sozzi (1963), Dionisotti (1974). For general studies on P see Bosco (1961), Noferi (1962), Quaglio (1967), Foster (1984), Mann (1984), and specifically on P's humanism, De Nolhac (1907), Billanovich (1947 and 1965), Trinkaus (1979). For the development of P's thought see also Baron (1968). For P as scholar see also Reynolds and Wilson (1974: 113-17). On P's life see Wilkins (1961). For a survey of recent criticism see Turchi (1978).

[The Italian context] For the Sicilians see Folena (1973). For Guittone see Marguéron (1966). For poesia giocosa see Marti (1953). For the dolce stil novo see Marti (1973), Favati (1975). For the diffusion of the Divina commedia see the introduction to Petrocchi ed. (1966). For the general situation in fourteenth-century Italy see Larner (1980). For fourteenth-century poetry see Dionisotti (1967), Tartaro (1971), Balduino (1973), Lanza (1978), Russell (1982). For Niccolò de' Rossi see Brugnolo ed. (1974-7). For music and poetry see Roncaglia (1978).…

[Petrarch's career as an Italian poet] For Sennuccio see Altamura ed. (1950) and Billanovich (1965). For P and Sennuccio and see also Barber (1982). For Antonio da Ferrara and texts of tenzoni with P see Bellucci ed. (1972). For P and vernacular Boccaccio see Branca (1981: 300-32). For a discussion of Boccaccio's lyrics see Branca (1981: 250-76).

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