(Literary Essentials: Great Poems of the World)

0111201570-Petrarch.jpg Petrarch (Library of Congress) Published by Salem Press, Inc.

Other Literary Forms

Petrarch’s other writings, except for some prayers in Latin hexameters, are all in Latin prose and consist of epistles, biographies, a collection of exempla, autobiographical works, psalms, orations, invectives, assorted treatises, and even a guidebook to the Holy Land, which he never visited and knew only through the eyes and books of others. Ironically, although the author believed that he would achieve lasting fame because of his Latin compositions, he is remembered today largely for his vernacular poetry. Contemporary scholars do study his Latin works, but primarily to gain insight into his Italian poems. A knowledge of his classically inspired writings, however, is essential to anyone who would understand the cultural milieu that led to the birth of the Renaissance in Italy.


Two words sum up Petrarch’s profound historical legacy: Petrarchianism and Humanism. The first stands for the widespread influence of the author’s vernacular poetry, especially his love sonnets but also Triumphs, on Western European culture from the late fourteenth century to the mid-seventeenth century. It refers to the imitation in literature and the representation in art of the themes and images so carefully crafted in Petrarch’s Italian verse: in literature, for example, the expression of the lover’s torment through the use of antithesis, oxymoron, hyperbole, and other appropriate rhetorical figures, or the description of the beloved as an ideal yet real lady with golden hair, ivory skin, and pearl teeth; in art, the reproduction of Triumphs on canvas and wedding chests and in other media, such as woodcuts, enamels, tapestries, and stained glass, as well as in pageants, ballets, and theatricals. The second term, with a capital H, refers to the intellectual and cultural movement that derived from the study of classical literature and civilization during the late Middle Ages and that was one of the main factors contributing to the rise of the Renaissance. Petrarch is commonly called the “Father of Humanism” because his intense interest in antiquity led him to be the first in modern times to collect ancient manuscripts, compose letters to great Roman and Greek figures of the past, imitate Cicero in his prose and Vergil in his epic poetry, and examine classical writings in their own context, with waning regard for accrued medieval traditions and superstitions. Early fifteenth century Italian Humanists, such as Coluccio Salutati and Leonardo Bruni, were followers of Petrarch and saw him as the enlightened initiator of a new age, the epoch now known as the Renaissance. In reality, although Petrarch does embody many of the qualities of a “Renaissance man” because of his well-rounded nature and aried accomplishments, he is neither wholly in the Renaissance nor entirely in the Middle Ages. Rather, he is a transitional or pivotal figure. His vernacular amorous poetry, with its emphasis on the unreciprocated love for an idealized woman, is in many ways only a culmination of the Provençal troubadour tradition; his Triumphs, written in Dante’s terza rima could hardly be more medieval; and his psalms and autobiographical dialogues mirror the Middle Ages’ confessional literature. Yet the genres and classical style of most of his Latin compositions, his anti-Scholastic attitudes, and his love of secular learning for its moral and civic teachings clearly place him in what would become the mainstream of the Renaissance cultural tradition.


Francesco Petrarca was born in Arezzo, Italy, on July 20, 1304, the oldest child of Pietro di Parenzo, an exiled Florentine notary. Di Parenzo, more commonly called Ser Petracco (“Ser” indicates a notary), was a White Guelph and, like Dante, had been exiled from Florence and its territory in 1302. (Petrarch later formed his own surname by ingeniously reworking Petracco into an elegant Latinate form.) Early in 1305, Petrarch’s mother, Eletta Canigiani, took her son to her father-in-law’s home in Incisa, north of Arezzo and in Florentine territory. There, she and Petrarch lived until 1311, when her husband moved them to the independent state of Pisa. In 1312, the family moved to Carpentras, in Provence, to be near the papal seat, which Clement V had moved to Avignon in 1309. In Carpentras, Petrarch began his study of the trivium with Convenevole da Prato and continued his studies there until 1316, when, at the tender age of twelve, he was sent to the University of Montpellier to study law. In 1320, he and his younger brother Gherardo, of whom he was very fond, moved to Bologna to continue their legal studies. Petrarch, however, never completed the work for his degree because of his many varied interests. Upon the death of his father in 1326, he abandoned forever his pursuit of law and returned with his brother to Avignon. There, the two of them began ecclesiastical careers in order to improve their financial situations. Petrarch received the tonsure, but he never went further than the minor orders. Gherardo, on the other hand, later became a Carthusian monk.

On Good Friday, 1327, Petrarch saw a woman in the Church of Santa Chiara in Avignon and fell in love with her. The poet identifies her only as Laura, except once when he calls her “Laureta”; her exact identity has never been definitively established. While many critics believe her to be Laura de Noves, who married Hugues de Sade in 1325, others question her very existence. Whatever the case, the figure of Laura, ever reluctant to return the poet’s love, is the inspiration or motivation for most of Petrarch’s Italian poetry. He even records her death from the plague on April 6, 1348, in his precious copy of Vergil, an indication of the reality and depth of his devotion to her.

In 1330, Petrarch entered the service of Cardinal Giovanni Colonna and remained under that family’s patronage for almost two decades. Petrarch soon became, as he characterized himself, a peregrinus ubique (pilgrim everywhere). In 1333, he traveled through northern France, Flanders, and Germany. He visited Paris, where Dionigi da Borgo San Sepolcro gave him a copy of Saint Augustine’s Confessions (c. 397); Liège, where he discovered two new orations by Cicero; and Aachen, where he visited the tomb of Charlemagne. In 1336, he climbed Mount Ventoux with his brother. At the top, he read from his copy of the Confessions a passage on the vanity of man. He meditated at length on what he had read, and the experience marked the beginning of the serious introspection which characterized the rest of his life. From the top of the mountain he also looked down on Italy and felt a strong desire to return to his native country. This he accomplished in a trip to Rome, where he visited Giacomo Colonna toward the end of that year.

Petrarch returned to Avignon in 1337, desirous of solitude, which he found fifteen miles away, in Vaucluse, a valley which afforded him a quiet place to study and write. In that same year his first illegitimate child, Giovanni, was born. The mother is unknown, and the son died from the plague in 1361. By Petrarch’s mid-thirties, he was well-known in Italy and France for his Latin verse, and in 1340, he received letters from the Senate in Rome and the University of Paris offering him the poet laureate’s crown. He chose to receive the honor in Rome and left the next year for Naples, where King Robert examined him on various questions and proclaimed him worthy of the prize. On Easter Sunday, 1341, he accepted the laurel crown in Rome and delivered a coronation speech on the nature of poetry. It was the first time that such a ceremony had been held since classical times, and it dramatized the significance that the literary models of antiquity were assuming. From Rome, he traveled to Pisa, then to Parma, where he spent about a year working on his epic Africa.

In 1342, Petrarch was back in Avignon, where the following year his illegitimate daughter Francesca was born. In October, 1343, he traveled again in Italy, this time as ambassador of the new pope, Clement VI, to the new queen, Joan I. In December, he left Naples, disgusted with the corruption of the court, and went to Parma, where his stay was cut short by the outbreak of war. He escaped through enemy lines and visited Modena, Bologna, and Verona before returning to Avignon by the end of 1345. Soon after arriving in Avignon, he retired to Vaucluse, where he spent all of 1346. In the summer of 1347, he learned that Cola di Rienzo had been elected tribune of Rome. Delighted with the election, Petrarch wrote him a congratulatory Latin eclogue in which he rebuffed all the Roman nobles, including members of the Colonna family, who were hostile to the tribune. At this time, he became entirely independent of Colonna patronage. In November, he headed toward Rome, but in Genoa he learned of the despotic actions of the tribune and decided to interrupt his trip. He selected Parma as his main residence but traveled around Italy at will for three years. In the autumn of 1350, on his way to Rome for the Jubilee, he stopped in Florence, where he visited Giovanni Boccaccio. They met again in Padua in April of the following year. In June, 1351, Petrarch was back in Vaucluse, whence he traveled back and forth to Avignon in hope of papal assistance. The death of Clement VI and the election of Innocent VI to the Papacy in December, 1352, caused Petrarch to lose all hope of support from the Papacy, as Pope Innocent suspected him of necromancy. Petrarch bid his brother farewell for the last time in April of the next year and left in May for Italy.

Back in his native land, Petrarch accepted an offer from the Visconti family to live in Milan, where he remained for eight years (1353-1361). In June, 1361, he left Milan because of the spread of the plague and traveled to Padua, where he was a guest of Francesco da Carrara. In early 1362, he returned to Milan, but because of renewed danger from the plague, he was back in Padua in the spring. In September, he went to Venice, where he remained until 1368, alternating his sojourn there with repeated trips to Padua, Milan, and Pavia. In 1363, Boccaccio paid him a visit in Venice that lasted for a few months. In 1368, Petrarch moved to Padua and from there, in 1370, to nearby Arquà with his daughter Francesca and her family. He spent his final years in Padua and in Arquà, where he died during the night on July 18, 1374.


Francesco Petrarca, known in English as Petrarch, was both an Italian and a Latin poet, and any analysis of his poetry must take into consideration both aspects of his career. Petrarch revised continually and extensively most of his compositions; the exact chronology of his works, therefore, whether poetry or prose, is difficult to establish. His first book in Italian is Canzoniere, poems written and revised between 1336 and 1374 but not printed until 1470, almost a full century after his death. Any “publication” prior to that date refers, more precisely, to the circulation of a manuscript. The earliest edition of Petrarch’s collected Latin works dates from 1496; his complete works, including Italian verse, titled Opera quae extant omnia, were first published in Basel in 1554 and later reprinted there in 1581. No modern edition of the complete works exists, although a national edition has been in progress since 1926.

While he longed to be remembered, as has been indicated, for his prodigious production in Latin, the smaller body of his Italian verse has been much more widely appreciated since the end...

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Discussion Topics

(Masterpieces of World Literature, Critical Edition)

Why has Petrarch’s Laura influenced subsequent love poetry more than Dante’s Beatrice?

What besides the subject of Laura has made Petrarch’s Canzoniere so important?

What makes Petrarch’s sonnet form difficult to accomplish in English?

Why have writers on Petrarch attached such importance to the fact that he climbed Mt. Ventoux?

Describe the influence of Petrarch on Giovanni Boccaccio.

Millions of people have read Petrarch’s Canzoniere in Italian or in translation; in general, only scholars read his Latin works. Why are the latter so important?