(Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)

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."

Principal Works

(Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)

*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.

Ugo Foscolo (essay date 1823)

(Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 8969 words.)

Littell's Living Age (essay date 1878)

(Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 13540 words.)

Henry Dwight Sedgwick (essay date 1904)

(Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 6320 words.)

Annie Russell Marble (essay date 1904)

(Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 3912 words.)

Nathan Haskell Dole (essay date 1908)

(Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 5570 words.)

Theodor E. Mommsen (essay date 1946)

(Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 10366 words.)

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

(Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 6838 words.)

Francis X. Murphy (essay date 1974)

(Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 8954 words.)

Concetta Carestia Greenfield (essay date 1975)

(Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 4283 words.)

Robert M. Durling (essay date 1976)

(Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 12774 words.)

Charles Trinkaus (essay date 1979)

(Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 7890 words.)

Mariann Sanders Regan (essay date 1982)

(Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 14040 words.)

Gordon Braden (essay date 1986)

(Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 12381 words.)

Peter Hainsworth (essay date 1988)

(Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 10670 words.)

Further Reading

(Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)


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.


(The entire section is 389 words.)