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Francesco Petrarch

Francesco Petrarch

1304–1374

Poet and scholar

Sources

Beginnings. Born in Arezzo, Italy, to a family in exile from its native city of Florence, Francesco Petrarch was raised in Avignon, France, where his father, a lawyer, gained a position at the papal court in 1312. He studied law at the University of Bologna until the death of his father in 1326, and then he returned to Avignon. There at church on Good Friday in 1327, he first saw Laura, a married Frenchwoman whose name he immortalized in his poems and who inspired him with a passion that has become proverbial for its constancy and purity. Despite his love for her, or perhaps because of it, he entered the clergy but was never ordained a priest. He received an income from his church position, although he lived as a layman. As a young man he traveled widely in the Low Countries and Germany as well as Italy and France. His travels helped convince him that Italy was the cultural heir of the Roman Empire, which persuaded him to abandon law and develop his interest in the study of classical Latin literature. He embarked on a career as a writer and scholar.

Love for Laura. Petrarch first gained recognition as a poet in Tuscan Italian, thereby helping, along with his Florentine predecessor Dante, to make that dialect the literary language of Italy. His early love poems to Laura were collected in //Canzoniere (The Songbook), which are regarded as the first examples of the sonnet. He was influenced both by the French chivalric romance and Dante's poems to Beatrice, but Petrarch's poetry is about a real woman, albeit one with whom he never became as intimate as he wished, rather than the idealized lady of French feudalism or Dante's personification of divine truth. His poems differ also because they are as much about his own reflections on his frustrated love for Laura as about the lady herself. When she died during the Black Death in 1348, Petrarch wrote another set of poems about her, collected in/Trionfi. They are more similar to Dante's poems to Beatrice in that Laura becomes an allegorical figure of love and truth. Largely because of his early Italian poems, the Senate of Rome named him poet laureate in 1341.

Classical Latin. Petrarch also tried his hand at writing poetry in classical Latin. He regarded as his masterpiece the epic poem Africa, finished in 1342, about the Roman commander Scipio who defeated Hannibal. Literary critics agree that his genius was in lyrical rather than epic poetry and do not have a high opinion of Africa. He wrote extensively in classical Latin, both poetry and prose. Among his notable works in that language were a set of biographies of illustrious men of the ancient world and a dialogue titled the Secretum (1343) between himself and St. Augustine, in which Petrarch has the great theologian chastise him for his love of fame and pleasure. Among the things in which Petrarch took great pleasure was classical Latin itself. He believed that the language as used by the ancients was the purest and most beautiful form of expression and contrasted it with the corrupted Latin in use in the Middle Ages, which was a term he had a significant role in creating.

Proper Education. Petrarch, however, did not ignore the content of the classical works, especially those written before the end of the Roman republic. He possessed the attitudes and prejudices of the Italian bourgeoisie, even if he spent much of his life in France; so he looked to Rome as the ideal city-state, which he hoped could be reestablished in the Italian city-states. Thus, he believed that Roman literature had a great deal to say to the wealthy, secular, and urbane merchants who governed the Italian city-states about how to run a successful city-state in respect to politics, the economy, and society. According to Petrarch and other humanists, the proper form of education and culture for the successful businessman/politician of a city-state was studia humanitas, the study of the classics.

Italian Humanism. The man called the “Father of Humanism” contributed greatly to the creation of Italian humanism both by his praise of ancient learning and his search for the manuscripts of the classics. What he and his fellow humanists of the first generation did was to ferret out the manuscripts of the classics, which were found mostly in monastery libraries, and make copies available to a larger and more eager reading public. It was not that the monks failed to recognize the value of their manuscripts, but they were making little use of them. The search for the classical manuscripts received a large boost when in 1350 Petrarch met the poet Giovanni Boccaccio at Florence, with whom he had been corresponding. The two humanists, enlisting the help of several like-minded men, embarked on a more systematic hunt throughout Italy and across Europe, which succeeded in putting most of the extant Latin classics into the hands of humanists by 1400.

Last Years. Petrarch lived in Italy the last twenty years of his life, first in Milan and then on a small farm near Padua, where he died in 1374. During his last years an illegitimate daughter and her family lived with him. The last production of an enormously busy literary life was a collection of his letters to other humanists, the Familiares. They provide clear evidence of both his love of the Latin language and classical literature and his largely unrealized goal of fusing classical ethics with Christian morality.

Sources

John Whitfield, Petrarch and the Renascence (New York: Russell & Russell, 1965).

Ernest Wilkins, Life of Petrarch (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1961).

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