Petrarch 1304–1374 Italian Poet and Scholar

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Italian poet and scholar

The poet and scholar known as Petrarch played a major role in launching the Renaissance in literature. One of the great scholars of his age, Petrarch had a deep commitment to the revival of classical* learning and culture. The products of his imaginative mind played a central role in Renaissance cultural life. His poetry, in particular, not only reflected the changes in the world around him but also influenced the work of many later generations of writers.

Early Life. Francesco Petrarca was born in Arezzo, in central Italy, in 1304, but his family eventually moved to southern France. When Petrarch was 12 years old his father sent him to study law at the University of Montpellier. While Petrarch was there, his mother died, and he wrote an elegy* in Latin, the earliest of his works that still survives. Petrarch continued his law studies in Bologna, Italy, before deciding that he did not want to pursue a legal career.

In 1327 Petrarch saw and fell in love with a woman who inspired his poetic imagination for the rest of his life. In his poems he called her Laura—a name suggesting both the evergreen laurel tree, which was sacred to the Greek god Apollo, and the crown of poetic glory made from the leaves of the laurel tree. Petrarch gathered his love poems to Laura in a collection known as the Canzoniere (Book of Songs). In these poems, which he worked on all his life, Laura symbolized Petrarch's vision of ideal love.

Petrarch spent much of the 1330s working as a member of the staff of a Roman Catholic cardinal. In this position, Petrarch traveled around Europe and began his lifelong search for the manuscripts of works by ancient Greek and Roman authors. A trip to Rome in 1336 fed Petrarch's love for classical culture. In a letter he said that he found the city "greater than I thought" and full of "abundant marvels."

Although he admired Rome and felt an attachment to Italy, Petrarch settled in southeastern France, near the papal* court at Avignon. There he began a number of works inspired by his classical readings. These writings included his epic* poem Africa and more of his poems in the Canzoniere. In 1341 the Roman Senate crowned Petrarch as poet laureate, an honorary title that reflected their esteem for his work. Petrarch's acceptance speech, known as the Oration, revealed his broad knowledge of classical authors. In the speech, he referred to such ancient Roman writers as Virgil, Ovid, and Cicero.

The honor of becoming poet laureate turned Petrarch into one of the first true celebrities of the Renaissance. He became an honored guest in cities throughout Europe. His fame led to the development of what scholars refer to as "Petrarchism"—the imitation of Petrarch's style in poetry.

Later Works. In 1345, during another period of travel throughout Europe, Petrarch discovered and copied the letters of Cicero. These letters inspired Petrarch to begin his own collection of letters addressed to friends and to classical authors. This series included Letters on Familiar Matters, Letters of Riper Years, and Book Without a Name. One of his most famous letters, the Letter to Posterity, described Petrarch's interests and views for future generations of readers. This letter reveals that Petrarch was well aware of his unique place in history and actively sought to promote himself. His focus on his own identity hints at the emphasis on individualism that would surface in the next few centuries.

During a visit to Florence in 1350, Petrarch first met the Italian author Giovanni Boccaccio, who became his friend. The two writers shared a passion for classical culture and for collecting books. Over the years, Petrarch amassed what may have been the largest private library in Europe. When Boccaccio, believing his life was near an end, considered abandoning his studies, Petrarch persuaded him not to do so—although he also expressed an interest in buying his friend's books if he chose to sell them.

From 1353 until 1361, Petrarch lived mostly in the northern Italian city of Milan with the support of the wealthy Visconti family. One of the projects Petrarch began in Milan turned into his longest work, two books about morality titled Remedies for Good and Bad Fortune. Petrarch organized this work as a series of dialogues between characters who represented certain ideas. In the first book, Joy and Hope debate the dangers of good fortune with Reason. In the second book, Sorrow and Fear oppose Reason, discussing the perils of bad luck. Petrarch also continued to revise the Canzoniere during his eight years in Milan.

In 1367 Petrarch composed On His Own Ignorance and That of Many Others. This piece was a response to four Italian philosophers who had described Petrarch as "a good man, but uneducated." The work attacked outdated modes of thinking and pointed the way toward the new learning of humanism*. Petrarch argued that the source of true knowledge lay in a strong awareness of the self, an idea central to Renaissance thought.

During the last years of his life, Petrarch completed the final revisions to the Canzoniere. The finished version contained 366 poems, which the author separated into two sections. One part honored the life of his beloved "Laura," while the other honored her death. The poems treat some of the most important themes of the Renaissance, including love, art, morality, and religion. Their unique blend of the psychological and the poetic became a central feature of Petrarchism.

Lasting Influence. Petrarch's verses, especially his sonnets*, had a great influence on later writers. Although Petrarch did not invent the sonnet, he developed a distinct version of it that became the standard form for Italian sonnets. In the first half of the 1500s many writers of sonnets and other types of poems followed Petrarch's style for love poetry, which presented the beloved in ideal terms. After the Catholic Counter-Reformation* began in Italy, poets turned more toward Petrarch's work on religious themes. Many writers took inspiration from his thoughts on such topics as suffering, sin, and death.

Petrarch's works inspired several female poets in Europe during the Renaissance. These authors adapted Petrarch's style to a female viewpoint. For example, the Italian poet Gaspara Stampa closely followed Petrarch's use of symbolism in her poems. She also used Petrarch's lyric style to describe a woman's experiences of ecstasy, sorrow, jealousy, and passion. Another Italian poet, Vittoria Colonna, modeled love poems to her dead husband after Petrarch's sonnets in praise of Laura.

For more than three centuries, scholars throughout Europe praised Petrarch as the ideal poet to imitate. Petrarch's influence spread far beyond Italy. In England, for instance, noted authors such as Edmund Spenser and William Shakespeare turned to the humanist scholar for inspiration.

(See alsoClassical Scholarship; Humanism; Italian Language and Literature; Latin Language and Literature; Poetry. )

* classical

in the tradition of ancient Greece and Rome

* elegy

type of poem often used to express sorrow for one who has died

* papal

referring to the office and authority of the pope

* epic

long poem about the adventures of a hero

* humanism

Renaissance cultural movement promoting the study of the humanities (the languages, literature, and history of ancient Greece and Rome) as a guide to living

* sonnet

poem of 14 lines with a fixed pattern of meter and rhyme

* Counter-Reformation

actions taken by the Roman Catholic Church after 1540 to oppose Protestantism