Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3189
Article abstract: Petrarch’s scholarship stimulated a revival of interest in classical studies, and his vernacular poetry created a veritable Petrarchan school of sonneteers.
Petrarch’s father, Pietro di Parenzo—more commonly known as Ser Petracco—was, like Dante, a member of the White Guelph Party in Florence. Following the victory of the Black Guelphs, he was condemned to a heavy fine and the loss of a hand. He fled with his wife, Eletta Canigiani, to Arezzo in October of 1302, and there, on July 20, 1304, Francesco Petrarca was born. The following year, Petrarch and his mother moved to Incisa, where his brother, Gherardo, was born in 1307.
Because Incisa was under Florentine rule, Pietro could visit his wife and children only surreptitiously, so in 1311 the family moved again, this time to Pisa. There Petrarch saw for the first and only time that other famous Florentine exile, Dante. Apparently it was at Pisa, too, that Petrarch began his studies under yet another exile, Convenevole da Prato. In 1312, the family again relocated, settling in Carpentras, France, fifteen miles northeast of Avignon, to be close to the papal seat. Many years later, Petrarch wrote to Guido Sette, recalling his life in the French village: “Do you remember those four years? What happiness we had, what security, what peace at home, what freedom in the town, what quietness and silence in the country!” Sette, who became Archbishop of Genoa, was to be a lifelong friend and correspondent.
In 1316, Petrarch was sent to the University of Montpellier to study law, the family profession. He was already showing far more interest in the classics than in legal matters; according to his own account, his father discovered his Latin library and threw all but two books, one by Vergil and one by Cicero, into the fire, sparing this pair only because of his son’s pleas. Like so many other of Petrarch’s autobiographical accounts, this anecdote seems too pat to be true, for throughout his life Petrarch took Vergil and Cicero as his models, seeking to surpass the one in poetry, the other in prose. While Petrarch was still at Montpellier, his mother died; the event called forth his earliest surviving poem, a moving Latin elegy of thirty-eight hexameter lines, one for each year of her life.
To complete his legal studies, Petrarch was sent to the University of Bologna in 1320, the most celebrated law school in Europe. Again, Petrarch showed more interest in Latin literature than in law, recording in February, 1325, his purchase of Saint Augustine’s De civitate Dei (413-427; The City of God); this copy is now at the University of Padua. His father’s hostility to classical studies seems to have vanished, if it ever existed, for from Paris he brought his son that compendium of medieval learning, Saint Isidore of Seville’s Etymologiae (late sixth century to early seventh century). The acquisition of the volume by Augustine also belies Petrarch’s claim that in his youth he read only secular works.
The death of his father in April, 1326, freed Petrarch to pursue his own interests. He returned to Avignon and studied literature. In his Posteritati (1370-1372; Epistle to Posterity, 1966), he describes himself as having been a good-looking youth, with bright eyes and a medium complexion. He had two illegitimate children—a son, Giovanni, born in 1337, and a daughter, Francesca, born six years later—and sustained many enduring friendships throughout his life.
About a year after his return from Bologna, Petrarch had one of the most important encounters of his life. As he wrote in 1348 in his copy of Vergil that served as a diary,
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.
Virtually all of his vernacular poetry was to revolve around this woman: The verses of the Rerum vulgarium fragmenta (1470, also known as Canzoniere; The Sonnets and Stanzas of Petrarch, 1879) celebrate his love for her both during her life and after her death; the various Trionfi (1470; Tryumphs, 1565, best known as Triumphs, 1962) reveal her power over Petrarch, Cupid, mortality, and even time itself.
Petrarch’s father had left his two sons enough money to free them from the need to work, but by 1330 the peculations of feckless executors and dishonest servants forced the young men to seek some occupation. Since Petrarch despised law and hated medicine, as he would make clear in a later diatribe against the profession (Invective contra medicum, 1352-1355), he took minor religious orders, and, in the autumn of 1330, he entered the household of Cardinal Giovanni Colonna. Subsequently, he received various benefices, among them the canonries of Lombez, Pisa, Parma, Padua, and Monselice. Neither pluralism nor nonresidency troubled him; he treated these posts as sinecures, though he was willing to trade them for less lucrative offices to oblige his friends. Though at various times throughout his life he was offered papal secretaryships and even bishoprics, he always refused, preferring the freedom to read and write over power and money.
During the early 1330’s, he traveled widely and added to his library. A list of his favorite books, compiled in 1333 (Libri mei peculiares), already contained some fifty entries, about twenty of them by Cicero and Seneca. A 1346 letter to Giovanni dell’ Incisa makes clear his sentiment: “I am possessed by one insatiable passion, which I cannot restrain—nor would I if I could. . . . I cannot get enough books.”
Among the Ciceronian works he may have owned was De gloria, of which no copy is now extant. He certainly owned the Pro Archia (62 b.c.e.), which he found in Liège in 1333; the discovery added an important speech to the known canon, and this defense of poetry treated a subject of lifelong interest to Petrarch himself. Sometime before 1337, his collecting led to his preparing the first scholarly edition of Livy’s history of Rome, Ab urbe condita (27 b.c.e.-17 c.e.; The Roman History). Originally composed of 142 books arranged in groups of ten (called decades), by the Middle Ages this monumental work had been scattered. During his travels, Petrarch had found manuscripts in Chartres and Verona, and he recognized that they belonged together. His own transcript, now in the British Museum, united the first, third, and fourth decades to create the most complete copy then known. Moreover, his philological knowledge allowed him to complete certain gaps and choose the best among various readings. His text served as the basis of subsequent editions, and his comments remain useful to scholars of the Roman historian.
In these years, he was writing lyrics, sonnets, and canzoni in Italian, as well as a comedy, Philologia, now lost. About one hundred of these vernacular poems were to be incorporated into the 366 that constitute the final version of the Canzoniere. His Latin works of the period are fewer, but he did address an appeal to Pope Benedict XII to return to Rome. Throughout his life, he regarded the Eternal City as the only fit place for the seat of the papacy and the Holy Roman Emperor, and he repeatedly urged popes and kings to return there.
His own visit to Rome in 1337 marked a milestone in his life, for thereafter he devoted an increasing amount of effort to Latin compositions. He began De viris illustribus (1351-1353; reorganized as Quorundam virorum illustrium epithoma), a biographical compendium of classical and more recent figures; in 1338 or 1339, he started work on Africa (1396; English translation, 1977), an epic about Scipio Africanus. The former was his attempt to create a historical work to rival Livy’s, while with the latter he hoped to imitate, indeed surpass, Vergil’s Aeneid (c. 29-19 b.c.e.). Neither work was ever finished, but both circulated in manuscript during his lifetime and earned for him much fame. Indeed, by September, 1340, his reputation was such that both the University of Paris and the Roman senate invited him to be crowned poet laureate.
Petrarch rejected the medieval Scholasticism that the university represented, and he regarded Rome as the true center of culture. On April 8, 1341, he was crowned with a laurel wreath in the Senatorial Palace on the Capitoline, where he delivered a speech praising poetry. While in Rome, he began his collection of antique coins, which he treasured not for their monetary value but for their historical information.
He was now living in the country in Vaucluse, not far from Avignon but still removed from crowds and the papal court. Perhaps, again, he was imitating such classical models as Horace, who had retired to his Sabine farm, or his beloved Cicero at Tusculum. Certainly he was the first person since antiquity to retreat from the city to write. He seems genuinely to have loved nature, choosing to live in rural seclusion whenever possible. In a poetic epistle to Giacomo Colonna he wrote, “How delightful it is to imbibe the silence of the deep forest.” Elsewhere he speaks of rising at midnight to wander in the moonlit landscape, and in his introspective Secretum meum (1353-1358; My Secret, 1911), a supposed dialogue between Augustinus (Saint Augustine) and Franciscus (Petrarch) that defends the pursuit of secular literature and scholarship, Augustinus speaks of the days when, “lying upon the grass in the meadows, you [that is, Petrarch] listened to the murmur of the stream as it broke over the pebbles: Now, sitting on the bare hills, you measured freely the plain extended at your feet.”
Petrarch’s aversion to Avignon was certainly sincere. In one of his metrical epistles he complains of “The uproar that resounds within the walls/ Of the straitened city, where the very ground/ Cannot contain the crowds, nor the very sky/ Contain the clamor.” He hated the intrigues of the papal court, and in his Sine nomine (1359-1360; Book Without a Name, 1973), so called because he deleted the names of the addressees, he described Avignon as a place
in which no piety, no charity, and no faith dwell; where pride, envy, debauchery, and avarice reign with all their arts; where the worst man is promoted and the munificent robber is exalted and the just man is trampled on; where honesty is called foolishness and cunning is called wisdom; where God is mocked, the sesterce [money] is adored, the laws are trodden under foot, and the good are scorned.
Much as he loved the seclusion of Vaucluse, he frequently traveled through northern Italy on papal missions, and in 1344, he bought and refurbished a house in Parma, apparently with the intention of remaining permanently. He would leave France for good in 1353, and in his letters as well as in Invectiva contra eum qui maledixit Italiae (1373) and in poems such as “Italia mia” (“My Italy”), he revealed himself as a true Italian patriot. His residence in Parma was short-lived; in December, 1344, the Marquess of Mantua and the Visconti brothers of Milan laid siege to the city. Petrarch fled the fighting on February 23, 1345, and traveled to Modena, Bologna, and Verona.
In Verona, he found a volume of letters from Cicero to his brothers Quintus and Brutus and to the literary patron and critic Atticus. This discovery marked yet another of Petrarch’s contributions to the world’s knowledge of the Roman orator, and it led directly to Petrarch’s decision to preserve and collect his own letters in the twenty-four books of Rerum familiarium libri (wr. 1325-1366; English translation, 1975-1985) and the eighteen of Senilium rerum libri (wr. 1361-1374; Letters of Old Age, 1966).
Back in Vaucluse, he wrote the first draft of De vita solitaria (1346; The Life of Solitude, 1924), praising the country life, and began his Bucolicum carmen (1364; Eclogues, 1974), writing four of the twelve eclogues of this collection modeled on Vergil’s pastorals. A visit to his brother at Montrieux, where Gherardo had entered the Carthusian monastery in 1343, prompted De otio religioso (1376), a celebration of monasticism. While Petrarch’s writings before this date were not exclusively secular, these works suggest a deepening interest in religion.
In 1348, Petrarch was again living in Parma, where he learned of Laura’s death. In response to this news, he wrote three more eclogues, two dealing with the Black Plague that had killed Laura and a third specifically treating her death. He also began the third of his six Triumphs, the triumph of Death, with Laura once more the theme.
Following several years of travel between France and Italy, Petrarch settled in Milan in 1353, residing there until 1361. There he completed his De remediis utriusque fortunae (1366; Physicke Against Fortune, 1597). He explained its contents in a letter to Guido Sette:
All philosophers, all experience, and truth itself agree in this: that in times of adversity . . . the one remedy is patience . . . and that in times of prosperity the one remedy is moderation. I have had it in mind, of late, to write at some length about both these remedies, and now have I done so.
In his dedicatory preface, Petrarch notes that of good fortune and bad, the former is the more dangerous.
During this period, Petrarch undertook various missions for the Visconti brothers. In 1354, he attempted to effect peace with the doge of Venice and Genoa, and when that effort failed, he was sent to Emperor Charles IV to enlist his support against the Venetians. Another embassy took him to France to welcome King John back from English captivity; the king was so impressed with Petrarch that he tried to dissuade him from returning to Italy. Emperor Charles IV had also wanted Petrarch to remain with him in Prague, but Petrarch’s Italian patriotism impelled him to reply, “In the whole world there is nothing under heaven that can be compared to Italy, in respect either to the gifts of nature or to human worth.”
Through his scholarship he was, however, able to serve the emperor. Duke Rudolf IV of Austria was claiming autonomy from the Holy Roman Empire because of certain privileges he claimed that his country had been granted in patents by Julius Caesar and Nero. Charles sent the documents to Petrarch, who exposed them as forgeries.
In 1362, Petrarch moved to Venice, offering to bequeath his extensive collection of books to the city in return for a house during his lifetime. Although the proposal eventually fell through, it marks the first attempt to establish a public library for “those ingenious and noble men . . . who may delight in such things.” Again, one sees that Petrarch was well ahead of his age.
After several years of moving between Venice, Pavia, Milan, and Padua, he settled in Padua in 1368, before moving in 1370 to rural Arquà, about ten miles to the southwest, where he spent the remainder of his life in the care of his daughter. Until his death on July 18, 1374, he continued to revise his earlier works and to add new ones, such as the last of the Triumphs and a Latin translation of the story of Griselda by his friend Giovanni Boccaccio.
In his Epistle to Posterity, Petrarch writes, “Perhaps you will have heard something of me.” Posterity has, indeed. Rodolphus Agricola, the Dutch Humanist who was Petrarch’s first biographer, claimed that Petrarch initiated the study of classical literature, and Boccaccio told him that “because of your example, many within and perhaps without Italy are cultivating studies neglected for centuries.” His interest in classical antiquity led to the recovery of many previously lost or obscure works, thus aiding in the modern study of Cicero, Sextus Propertius, and the ancient geographer Pomponius Mela.
Petrarch claimed, “I never liked this present age. . . . I am alive now, yet I would rather have been born at some other time.” One assumes he would have preferred the age of Cicero. Certainly, it was as a classicist that he hoped to earn his reputation. In 1359, he rejected Boccaccio’s suspicions that he (Petrarch) harbored any jealousy toward Dante:
I ask you, is it likely that I should envy a man who devoted his whole life to things to which I gave myself only in the first flush of youth; so that what for him was, if not the only, certainly the most important branch of literary art, has for me been only a pastime and relaxation and a first exercise in the rudiments of my craft.
This dismissal of the Canzoniere, which he disparagingly called Rerum vulgarium fragmenta, is disingenuous, for he continued to add to these vernacular poems and polish them throughout his life. However Petrarch may have felt about these works, posterity has regarded them as his major literary achievement. These poems have been translated into more than a dozen languages and influenced the poets of the French Pléiade, the English Renaissance, and Italy. Among the progeny of this first sonnet cycle in the West are Sir Philip Sidney’s Astrophel and Stella (1591), Edmund Spenser’s Amoretti (1595), and William Shakespeare’s Sonnets (1609).
Even as a classicist, Petrarch was more modern than he allowed, for he adapted rather than imitated classical models. His eclogues treat contemporary themes; his epic Africa sought to portray Scipio as a fusion of classical heroism and Christian saintliness; his unfinished Rerum memorandum libri (1343-1345) classifies the deeds and writings of the ancients under the four cardinal Christian virtues of Prudence, Justice, Fortitude, and Temperance. He was thus the first of the Christian Humanists, as he was the first Humanist to study Greek (though he made little progress in the language), the first modern historian, and, as he repeatedly reveals in his letters, the first person to analyze himself so carefully. In sum, Petrarch may be called the first modern man.
Bergin, Thomas G. Petrarch. New York: Twayne Publishers, 1970. A critical biography by a leading translator of Petrarch’s Latin writings. Covers the life and works, with detailed discussions of the Canzoniere and the Triumphs.
Bishop, Morris. Petrarch and His World. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1963. A lively work that gives much information on the history of the fourteenth century. Includes numerous quotations from Petrarch in Bishop’s own elegant translations. Offers a balanced view, neither idolizing Petrarch nor condemning him, but pointing out his failings, such as accepting the patronage of the tyrannical Visconti.
Forster, Leonard. The Icy Fire: Five Studies in European Petrarchism. London: Cambridge University Press, 1969. Examines the widespread influence of Petrarch’s works, especially the vernacular poetry.
Mann, Nicholas. Petrarch. New York: Oxford University Press, 1984. This brief book talks about Petrarch’s writings as a lifelong effort to create and explain a self. Includes a useful bibliography of primary and secondary sources.
Potter, Murray A. Four Essays. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1917. Of these four essays, three relate to Petrarch—as author, as creator of his own image, and as critic/reader. Keen insights, elegantly presented. Still useful despite its age.
Wilkins, Ernest H. The Life of Petrarch. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1961. A detailed biography based on Petrarch’s letters. Helpful for the political background of fourteenth century France and Italy that affected Petrarch’s life and writing. Includes some discussion of the works and traces the stages of their composition and revision.