Italian poet and humanist; b. Arezzo, July 20, 1304;d. Arquà, July 19, 1374. He was the son of one of the Florentine Whites who were banished with dante (see guelfs and ghibellines). His father, a notary, frustrated in his hope that the coming of Emperor Henry VII would open the way for his return to Florence, moved (1312) to Avignon, the seat of the papacy, after Henry's failure. The town, however, was so overcrowded that the family had to find a home in Carpentras, about 15 miles from the court. There young Francesco attended grammar school under Convenevole da Prato; it was probably he who aroused in the youth a lifelong love for Latin eloquence. At the age of 12, Francesco was sent to the famous university at Montpellier to begin the study of civil law. He remained there four years and then with his brother, Gherardo, went to Bologna to continue his law studies, remaining there until his 21st year. How much progress he made in the legal studies to which his father had set him is not known, but it is clear that he was attracted by other interests: as early as Montpellier he had acquired some works of Latin literature, including the works of Cicero; his father had opposed this interest and even burned some of the books but finally allowed Francesco to have Vergil and the Rhetorica ad Herennium, falsely ascribed to Cicero. In 1325 he bought a copy of De civitate Dei of St. Augustine, the author who (with Cicero) was to dominate his thought.
At that time the association between classical studies and religious aspirations that became the central theme of his life was probably to some degree already established in his mind. He stated later that the harmonious beauty of the classic language was at first the chief attraction and that he was to discover, "under the cortex," the fruit, the moral value, only some years later. But then the conviction that the classics could be the basic element of Christian perfection became firm and ineradicable in his mind. During those years in Bologna, literature, especially poetry, was his chief love, and that stay was above all decisive in his formation as a poet in the vernacular. He encountered the poetry of Guido Guinizelli (1230?–76) and Cino da Postoia (c. 1270–1337) and probably began to write poems in Italian. His father's death (1326) marked the end of young Petrarch's life of intimate literary friendships in a prosperous, cultured, and peaceful town. Upon his return to Avignon he abandoned any thought of a legal career and for some years spent his time in fashionable ease, writing verses, meeting people, and taking an excessive care of his own appearance in an effort to attract attention. In 1327 he met a young woman, Laura, who became his lifelong love. His affection was unreciprocated but endured as a dream-fantasy to be ceaselessly relived in poetry.
Abandonment of Neoplatonism. Realizing the need to order his life, Petrarch became a cleric and probably took minor orders in 1330. Perhaps he thus sought refuge from unhappy love; perhaps he thought that a dream-love was not incompatible with a clerical status. At any rate, he shared for a time the view of the poets of the dolce stil nuovo that beauty and love lead to perfection. At a certain point, however, he fully realized that love can be an estrangement from God and not a ladder to Heaven. With deep Christian awareness he refuted the neoplatonic, pagan theories of the dolcestinovist poets in his Secretum (1342), yet he was not able, at that time, to free himself from the passion that had so affected him. Finally, after Laura's death in the plague of 1348, he was reluctant to dismiss thoughts then tempered with a deep sense of remorse and repentance and a sincere longing for God's mercy. Laura had become the symbol of the fascination of the beauties of the world and at the same time a challenge God had given him to prove his soul.
Petrarch entered the service of Cardinal Giovanni Colonna, serving as a household chaplain until 1337 and later enjoying the cardinal's friendship and generous patronage. He traveled widely, searching for books in monastic libraries; in Liège, for instance, he found copies of two orations of Cicero. About 1333 Petrarch had become a friend of the Augustinian monk Dionigi da San Sepolcro, the man who probably most deeply influenced his life. Dionigi gave him a miniature copy of the Confessions of St. Augustine, which he carried about with him until his death. The Augustinian, a man of vast erudition and deep piety, probably encouraged Petrarch in his love for classical literature. Petrarch had discovered by himself, however, the sterility of late scholastic culture. In contrast to the syllogisms and the garrulous arguments of
scholastic dialecticians, the works of the ancients appeared to him to be full of concrete examples of humanity, virtue, and human dignity. The beauty and elegance of classical literature became for him synonymous with humanitas —moral value, illumination. A list made by the poet himself (1333) of libri mei peculiares shows clearly that the works of Cicero, Vergil, and Horace, together with those of St. Augustine and St. Jerome, were, to the complete exclusion of any scholastic book, his preferred reading.
Espousal of the Classics. The Christian world of Petrarch's epoch was in a state of degenerate turmoil: war, superstition, ignorance, violent outbreaks of extreme mysticism, heresy, despair, rebellion, and brutal materialism were rampant. The papacy itself was wholly absorbed in secular matters. To Petrarch this sad state of affairs was related to the disappearance of the classical heritage, the advent of Aristotelian scholasticism, the corruption of taste, the spread of atheistic naturalism, the forgetfulness of the great ancient examples of virtue, magnanimity, and human dignity. Against the culture of the "schools" and the prevailing Aristotelianism, the study of the great classical works appeared to him to be the only means to restore spiritual values in the world. These classical studies were to be called litterae humanae, a school for being humane, but certainly they did
not imply any rejection of religious beliefs or attitudes; they rested on the assumption, and indeed on the explicit statements (clearest and most uncompromising in Petrarch himself), that the effort to perfect what is humanly most noble is acceptable to God and a way to perfection. It is known, however, that anti-Christian attitudes were to be found, in fact, only in those writers and scientists who did not accept or who rejected the culture of litterae humanae, men such as Leonardo da Vinci, Pulci, Pomponazzi, and machiavelli.
A good part of Petrarch's work could form a treatise or an anthology on the theme "Christianity and Culture," pointing out the indispensable connection between the two. If his familiarity with and appreciation of Cicero's work were so great that he inevitably felt resounding in his own conscience the warning that St. Jerome had once heard, "tu es ciceronianus," his answer was as assured and as sincere: he was and intended to remain a Christian; he was a Ciceronian in the sense that "Cicero himself would have been a Christian had he known Christ" (De sui ipsius ignorantia ). With the same confidence and with an honesty that should forestall speculation about his personal failures, he proclaimed: "licet peccator, certe christianus sum" (ibid. ).
Petrarch is too frequently thought of merely as the author of love sonnets and the founder of modern lyricism. He was both, but far more important, he was one of the authors who have exercised the deepest influence on the culture of the Christian world. As a matter of fact, there resulted from this renewed contact with the Ancients a new Christian attitude divorced from despair, anxiety, and dialectical subtleties, and based upon confidence in nature and in human forces. His work revealed the Christian vision that not only inspired most of the literature and art of the Renaissance but also led to the martyrdom of St. Thomas more, supported the action of St. ignatius loyola, opened the way to the recovery of the great teaching of St. Thomas, and resulted in the vast Catholic synthesis that the Council of trent was to codify. He was really a teacher to Christian Europe.
A New Christian Vision. Economic and political forces that gave birth to what has been called the essor of Europe were obviously independent of Petrarch and were at work long before him. Indeed, many elements of the civilization of the 15th and 16th centuries were unaffected by Petrarch's humanism or even ran counter to it. The world of politics with its violence and restless ambitions, the world of Cesare Borgia and of the other condottieri, for instance, were untouched by Petrarch's ideals of virtue and piety. It was, in brief, the world of the Counter-Renaissance. But the moral and religious ideas, together with the artistic and literary ideals of the epoch, had their source for the most part in the work of Petrarch. Probably in no other instance can a new epoch of the Christian world be traced so distinctly to the work of one man. Further, Petrarch's own spiritual career was most coherent. He has been described as a man continually in doubt, divided between his attachment to the old faith of the Middle Ages and to the new secularism of the Renaissance. The facts are quite different. On the one hand, Petrarch rejected the Middle Ages, judging them to be a period in which religion had been adulterated, especially in the preceding century, by dialecticism, Arab naturalism, heresy, and superstition—in a word, immanitas. On the other hand, Petrarch did not hide, either from himself or others, his own failures: his fondness for poetry, human beauty, and glory. He spoke at length of his ardors, of his vanity, of his real passion for Laura. His major Latin work, the Secretum, is a sincere, soul-searching, courageous, and public confession of his folly. But it is not simply an ascetic work. To St. Augustine, who, in the imaginary dialogues reported in the Secretum, urges him to think on death and the salvation of his soul and to renounce the vanities of the world, he confesses the weakness of his will but goes on to express his hope that even amidst the occupations and errors of the world one may find a way to God. Too often overlooked by critics, this humanistic conclusion contains the true meaning and value of the Secretum; it is the definitive expression of Petrarch's vision.
Petrarch wrote the Secretum about 1342, after his brother Gherardo had become a Carthusian monk, as a kind of justification of his decision not to follow his brother's steps. The opinion that it was written in a period of asceticism following a spiritual crisis does not correspond to the character of the work. Moreover, the letter in which the poet gave an allegorical description of the ascent of Mont Ventoux in France, made by Gherardo and himself in 1336, expresses the same thought.
Previously, in his early 30s, Petrarch had written many sonnets and canzoni, in which substantially he was still faithful to the manner of the stilnovist poets, writing verse as a manifestation of literary skill and praising the ennobling influence of his lady. But his deepening familiarity with the ancient poets, chiefly Propertius, soon turned him from the abstractions of the dolce stil nuovo and taught him to speak of his real experiences, of the aspects of nature, of a true woman. At the same time he realized how delusive were the neoplatonistic views about love as a ladder to perfection. The beauty of the world and of women, he recognized, was all too prone to divert one from God. He was not able to free himself from a passion that, despite the fact that it was not returned, had become extremely ardent. Yet he was willing to accept the test that was given him for his soul's sake. He lived this experience with the full awareness of its limits and its dangers, through moments of abandon and deep feelings of repentance, finding himself in a state of mundane ecstasy and then awakening to the sense of his failure and his misery, with "shame being the fruit of his raving." Petrarch's attitude, therefore, reflected a true Christian concept of love: something made of acceptance and penance, joy and sadness, entirely distant both from the fearful condemnations of medieval asceticism and from the pagan idealizations of the poets of the 13th century. His sonnets are full of expressions of pain caused by the unresponsiveness of Laura. But other poems that reveal his feeling of shame are filled with deep sorrow and fervent prayer to Christ to be delivered from his bondage.
It is this alternation of moments of weakness and moments of repentance, an essential characteristic of a Christian life, that is the substance of Petrarch's poetry. After the death of Laura in 1348, he continued to think of and to write poems about her. Some part of his soul was linked to the memory of his beloved, and he did not want or was not able to heal the wound that was for him a reminder of his weakness and of his need for God's help. He had begun to make collections of his poems in Italian. They were to him, then, only "fragments in the vernacular." After Laura's death, however, he began to regard them as fragments of his own soul and decided to divide them into Rime in vita and Rime in morte (for Laura, after her death). He finally assembled 366 of them to signify that all the days of his life were there gathered. He included among them poems about politics and other matters: Il Canzoniere, as the work was later called, was to be the testimony of his whole life. It begins with an introductory sonnet that summarizes the entire story and concludes with the Canzone alla Vergine, probably the most sublime poem ever dedicated to the Virgin Mary. It is on the whole his "confession," a revelation of his life that is pervaded with the final sense of misery, repentance, and hope.
Writing in Latin. Petrarch labored at this work to the last days of his life. From the beginning, however, Petrarch's creative work in Italian had been accompanied by, and had even given place for long periods to, an extraordinary amount of work in Latin. When he realized (c. 1337) the insidiousness of the courtly theories on love and had read Le Roman de la Rose, he wrote a Triumphus Cupidinis in Italian to show, in contrast with the French work, the slavery and the misery caused by love. Later he added other Triumphs: those of Pudicitiae, Mortis, Famae, Temporis, and Aeternitatis. He worked on these separate parts until his last years. But he was never completely satisfied with it, realizing that he had not succeeded in composing an organic, wholly inspired work.
Petrarch gathered a great number of letters in various collections: Familiares (24 books), Seniles (17 books), and Sine nomine. Two other collections were assembled posthumously: Variae and Miscellaneae. In 1337 Petrarch started a vast work, De viris illustribus, on which he labored intermittently until his last years. It was to be a collection of biographies, mainly of Roman heroes. By 1343, Petrarch had written 23; later he added other biographies, devoting extended treatment to Scipio and Caesar. Scipio was also chosen as the protagonist of the epic Latin poem Africa, the most ambitious of all of Petrarch's works. The inspiration came from the very core of the humanistic vision of the poet. Dealing with the war between Rome and Carthage, the pious Scipio and the dire Hannibal, Africa was to exalt the humanitas of Rome and its providential mission: the work was intended to evoke for Italy and the world the great pre-Christian values of the Roman world.
Petrarch began Africa in 1338–39, pinning his hopes for literary immortality on it. In 1341, thanks to the fame he had already achieved but not without solicitation on his part, he was given the laurel crown at the Roman Capitol. Africa, however, remained unfinished and Petrarch was not satisfied with what he did complete: he realized that he had not transfused the subject matter with a vivifying historical imagination. The poem reflected only a part of Petrarch's larger dream that Rome, the city, would be restored to its ancient glory and that the spirit of Roman civilization would renew the world. In this hope Petrarch supported the attempt of Cola di Rienzo to found a free Roman republic in 1347. He heard the news of the successful revolution with deep excitement, immediately wrote several letters in Cola's behalf and others to offer him his services. He was profoundly distressed at Cola's failure. Other political events won Petrarch's interest and intervention. Several passionate poems included in the Canzon iere, many poems in Latin (Epistolae metricae), and a great number of letters manifest his moral and religious concern with the problems of the time and his effort to mediate for peace. As it had for Dante, religion for Petrarch entailed concern for the political and moral condition of the world; yet there was nothing in Petrarch of the eschatological, prophetic element so characteristic of the author of the Divina Commedia. Yet this fact does not mean that Petrarch's faith was less profound.
One of Petrarch's last important works was Invectiva de sui ipsius ignorantia (1367), an answer to the charge made by four young Venetian Averroists that he was a "good but uneducated man." He admitted his ignorance of science and natural philosophy but opposed to such knowledge his ceaseless search for the moral and religious wisdom necessary to the soul. The treatise typically exalted humanistic studies in opposition to science and natural philosophy and opposed Augustine and Cicero to Aristotle and Averroës. It was Petrarch's last and most vigorous battle against naturalism in defense of classical learning and Christian values, a superb example of what is called littérature engagée.
His Achievement. Yet Petrarch did not subordinate poetry to politics or ethics. The remarkable characteristic of his personality is that contrasting attitudes somehow found in him an extraordinary fusion and harmony. He had not only St. Augustine's sense of human misery and of the transience of life but also his deep consciousness of personal failure; together with these there were the clarity and reasonableness, the sense of human relationship of Cicero. He was perhaps as great a thinker, writer, and promoter of ideas as either erasmus or montaigne. More original than they, he was one of the most delicate and elegant poets of world literature. Petrarch gave to European poetry themes, movements, expressions, and above all, examples of classic style that were to be imitated for centuries in Spain, France, and England, as well as Italy.
From both the theoretical and the practical points of view, Petrarch's work also marked one of the most decisive evolutions in the history of aesthetics and taste. With it one passes from the aesthetic ideals of the Middle Ages, with their search for complication, artfulness, and subtlety, to the aspirations for simple elegance and naturalness. The Gothic yielded to classicism. Even for Dante, some few decades before, poetry was still "something made with rhetoric and music"; beauty consisted in correspondence of sounds and was the result of art, technique, the use of rules. For Petrarch, beauty resided in measure, purity, and simplicity. Art gave way to imitation; Petrarch completely rejected the artes, the colors, the figures, alliterations, and metrical complexities that had been the characteristics of Gothic literature, and he exalted constant familiarity with the great authors, the assimilation of their taste, the imitation of their direct example. Poetry became the "remembrance of experienced things." It was a very definite shift and one of which he was fully aware. From it also stemmed Petrarch's detachment front Dante, which has too often been explained by historians on the grounds of Petrarch's jealousy and weakness of character. His letters constantly return to the great theme of imitation. Classicism, the essence of the new artistic and literary civilization, had in Petrarch's Canzoniere and the theoretical statements of the Epistolae its clear, unmistakable foundation.
Other works of Petrarch were: De otio religiosorum, De remediis utriusque fortunae, De vita solitaria, Invectivae, Rerum memorandarum libri, and Psalmi penitentiales.
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