Petrarch (1304-74)

Francesco Petrarca (originally Petracchi) was born at Arezzo, the son of a Florentine notary banished by the 'Black' Guelfs. After a few years at Incisa in the Valdarno, the family moved in 1311 to Provence, following in the wake of the Avignonese Papacy. In spite of extensive travels in Italy and France, Petrarch's base until 1353 was Provence and above all the villa which he acquired at Vaucluse. After a grounding in grammar and rhetoric from the Tuscan Convenevole da Prato, Petrarch was made to study law at Montpellier and Bologna, but abandoned it for a freer life in Avignon. Here in the church of St Clare, on 6 April 1327, he saw the woman he calls Laura, about whom we know little more than that he loved and celebrated her in his Italian poetry and in some of his Latin writings. But Petrarch also inserted himself into the nascent humanism of the papal court, and already in his twenties was committed to the study and emendation of ancient texts, particularly Livy, though he also studied the poets and to some extent the Church Fathers.

In 1330, probably for financial reasons, he took minor orders, and began to receive benefices, as well as protection and friendship, from the Colonna family: but, though committed to celibacy and the tonsure, he pe formed merely nominal duties, and his position did not prevent the birth of a son, Giovanni, in 1337, and a daughter, Francesca, in 1343. During the 1330s and 1340s Petrarch wrote Italian poetry, but also became a pivotal figure for humanist culture. He made available neglected texts, particularly Cicero's Pro Archia, found at Liège in 1333, and Cicero's letters, which he found at Verona in 1345, and which led him to make collections of his own letters (Familiares and, towards the end of his life, Seniles). And he embarked on a number of innovatory works - a series of biographies, initially of famous Romans (De viris illustribus), an epic, the Africa, based on the life of Scipio Africanus, and a major historical work, Rerum memorandarum libri (Of memorable things). None of these was completed, in spite of further work on the first two: but the Africa and Petrarch's reputation were sufficient to win him the Poet Laureate's crown, which, after an examination in Naples by Robert of Anjou, he delightedly received on the Capitoline on 8 April 1341, the first modern poet to do so.

The coronation was the extreme point of Petrarch's 'Roman' orientation, though he went on to give his support to Cola di Rienzo's attempt to restore the ancient constitution of Rome. Difficulties with the Colonna and Cola's failure in 1347 led him to withdraw from active political involvement and to accept the power and patronage of the princes of the day, somewhat to the dismay a little later of friends in republican Florence (who included, from 1350 onwards, Boccaccio). But the 1340s also saw him writing poems in Italian in which an already noticeable existential uncertainty becomes more insistent, and in addition works in Latin which attempted to reconcile humanistic study with Christian practice (De vita solitaria, 1346); or else to reject the former for an ascetic form of the latter (Secretum, 1342-43). The crisis was accentuated by the death of Laura in the plague of 1348, but continued unresolved except in aesthetic or literary terms. However the fluctuations in Petrarch's thought enabled him to create in his writings a complex, slightly fictional self-portrait, which is also a document of the equally complex shifts in the culture of his time.

From 1353 onwards Petrarch lived in Italy, first in Milan under the patronage of the Visconti, and then in Padua, Venice and Pavia: he spent the last 6 years of his life at Arquà in the Euganean hills, where Francesco da Carrara had given him some land. It was there that he died and was buried. In these years Petrarch continued work on writings begun earlier, wrote the influential dialogues of De remediis utriusque fortuna (Remedies against both kinds of fortune), and completed a number of invectives defending himself and the studies he favoured against criticism, the most important of which, Invective contra medicum (Invectives against a doctor), had been begun in Provence in 1352. Though he never finished his allegorical Triumphs, the great body of his Italian poetry, the Rerum vulgarium fragmenta (Fragments of vernacular poetry), better known as the Canzoniere, was given what appears to be its final form not long before his death.

This poetry (and beyond one trivial letter no Italian prose by Petrarch survives) had enormous influence on European literature: though he did not invent the 'Petrarchan' sonnet or introduce other striking novelties, he created a synthesis of preceding vernacular traditions that was new in its subtlety, musicality, cohesion and classicism. This is a poetry which has held its fascination. It seems to have a unique formal perfection, to explore the hidden riches of a select but not 'recherché' language, and yet, for all its clarity, intelligence and at times playfulness, to be enticing and elusive. Given the example of Dante, his emphasis on Latin culture (in spite of efforts to the contrary he had no Greek) may seem regressive; yet it was the scope and depth of Petrarch's practice as a Latin scholar and writer that provided the essential material and the primary example for the flowering of humanism in the next century. For those strands in his thought which have led to his being dubbed 'the first modern man'.


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