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...
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