The illustrious Italian poet, scholar and humanist, Francesco Petrarca or Petrarch is inarguably one of the most influential poets in the world literature and has been rightly deemed as the father of ‘Renaissance Humanism’. Best celebrated for his anthology of works addressed to Laura, his idealized ladylove, his work is considered as a classic of sorts in the literary world. He perfected the Italian sonnet pattern and founded the Petrarchan sonnet that became the standard verse pattern among his contemporaries and inspired poets like William Shakespeare and William Wordsworth. Deeply influenced by Saint Augustine, Petrarch spent later part of his life in religious contemplation. Petrarch’s attempts to conciliate humanism with Christian faith and his deep admiration for classical philosophy are well evident in his works. He wrote many love poems, which were largely exclamatory than persuasive. Petrarch’s blessed pen gave birth to many romantic poems, sonnets, letters, essays, histories and philosophical essays. Read on to know more about Petrarch and his life.
Francesco Petrarch Childhood and Early Life
Francesco Petrarch was born to Eletta and Ser Petracco in Arezzo, Italy, on 20th of July 1304. His father, Ser Petracco, a notary by profession, was booted out of his job and ousted from Florence by the Black Guelfs owing to political reprisals. Petrarch grew up in Carpentras, a small town near Avignon. Later, he was sent to the University of Montpellier and then to the University of Bologna along with his brother to study law, much against his will or interest. As his father was a legal representative, he wanted his sons to follow suit. However, Petrarch was more interested in literature, writing, and Latin and spent considerable hours studying the works of the classical writers. This enraged his father, who burned down his library, except for the works by Vergil and Cicero. It was during this time that Petrarch lost his mother and he wrote a poem as a tribute to her, which was among the very first poems written by him. Petrarch spent the next two years at Montpellier. He moved to Bologna along with his brother Gherardo to pursue law. He left law school and returned to Avignon in 1326. Petrarch lost his father around this time. He worked in some clerical office at Avignon before returning to the world of literature. It was during this time he completed his first big work. His first comprehensive work ‘Africa’ was an epic written in Latin, describing the great Roman general Scipio Africanus. The publication of this great work made Petrarch a celebrity in Europe. Petrarch contested for ecclesiastical career later and became private chaplain to Cardinal Giovanni Colonna in 1330, a designation he held for twenty long years.
It was on 6 April 1327 that he met his love, Laura, for the first time, in the church of Sainte-Claire d' Avignon. He was so moved by her beauty that he ended up dedicating endless number of poems to her. His love for Laura was the essence and inspiration of his life and works. Though his work describes Laura as a 19-year-old, lovely, fair-haired, modest and dignified girl, they do not reveal her real identity. Some assume her as Laura de Noves, who was married to Count Hugues de Sade. Petrarch work "Secretum" says that she refused to marry Petrarch as she was married to another man.
Towards the later stage of his life, he underwent a great change and started a nomadic life, wandering from place to place. It was during these days that he was exposed to Latin classics. Inspired by those works, he travelled through France, Germany, Italy, and Spain and amassed valuable Latin manuscripts and classics. Such explorations helped him discover a collection of letters that belonged to Cicero. During his jaunt, he reached Rome. He went to Rome with great expectation to see the prodigious city with a number of palaces, as described in old scripts. However, he was disappointed by what he saw and in utter despair he wrote, “Where are the numerous constructions erected by Agrippa, of which only the Pantheon remains? Where are the splendorous palaces of the emperors?” Being utterly disappointed, he wandered through the ruins of the ancient city. His graceful, rhythmic and expressive works stirred the minds of many poetic buffs and he received two invitations for the crown of “Poet Laureate” — one from the University of Paris and the other from the Roman Senate. Later, he was conferred with the title of “poet laureate” at Palace of the Senate on Capitoline Hill in Rome, in 1341. After going through a migratory phase, Petrarch decided to settle down in Padua in 1367 and spent the rest of his life engaging in religious exercises. Petrarch had a ‘modernized’ view about the external world; he always did self-analysis to develop his own values and philosophies and because of this, he is considered as the first modern man.
Petrarch’s talented hands gave birth to several literary works, which are now considered as masterpieces. His works based on classical culture and Christianity influenced many in Western Europe. Although his favorite language was Latin, his sonnets and canzoni were composed in Italian. Petrarch had a thing for the antiquity and put in deliberate efforts to learn more about ancient works. He always expressed discontent on being born in his time and said "I would have preferred to have been born in any other time than our own." He was much disappointed with the ignorance associated with his era and is believed to be the origin of the concept “Dark Ages”.
Marriage And Family
Petrarch was engaged in a Church career and this restricted him from getting married. Even then, he fathered two children from a woman who is unknown to the posterity. He fathered a son named Giovanni in 1337 and a daughter named Francesca in 1343 and he legitimized both of them later. His son died of plague in 1361 and his daughter married Francescuolo da Brossanoin the same year. The couple had a daughter named Eletta. They joined Petrarch in Venice due to ravaging plague across Europe. Petrarch’s daughter Francesca and her family lived with him in Venice for five years (1362-1367). During these days, Petrarch lost his second grandchild Francesco. He moved to a small town called Aqua, near Padua, along with his daughter and spent his remaining life engaging in religious practices.
Death And Testament
Petrarch died on July 18, 1374, in Arquà. As per a popular myth, he suffered a stroke and was found dead in his library, with his head bend over a book. Petrarch had set his testament even before his death and according to that Boccaccio, who served him for a period of time, received 50 florins "to buy a warm winter dressing gown". Petrarch’s brother and friends inherited his horse, silver cup, lute, Madonna, etc. and his house in Vaucluse was given away to his caretaker. Majority of his estate was inherited by his son-in-law, half of which he had to share with Francesca, his wife i.e. Petrarch’s daughter. It is said that his library, which was the first ever public library of Western Europe, belonged to Venice, but was seized by the Lords of Padua and consequently, his valuable books and other manuscripts were scattered over Europe. Petrarch’s tomb was sacked for his bones in 1630.
Petrarch was a staunch admirer of classical philosophy and a follower of Christianity. He constantly tried to combine both in his literary works. He strongly believed that humans have enormous intellectual powers and it is their duty to use their abilities to their fullest. He was highly introspective and believed in moral and practical importance of learning history and ancient literature.
Though esteemed as a poet of unparalleled talents, Petrarch was censured for concentrating more on Latin than Italian. He was acclaimed for reviving traditional poetic forms. Critics have studied and noticed the relationship between form and meaning, use of complex syntax, and wonderful imagery in his works. His used extensive use of classical mythology in his works. His works carries his views about statesmen and leaders from the classical period.
- Il Canzoniere: Better known as the ‘Rime Sparse’, this anthology boasts of 366 poems, mostly sonnets, and revolves around one central theme — Laura, a women he adored.
- Secretum: This book was written in Latin between 1347 and 1353. In this book, Petrarch tests his faith with the help of Saint Augustine who chastise him for not accepting mortality and ignoring the faith in afterlife. He expressed his ideas as dialogues, filled with self-criticism and self-examination, which shows how deeply Saint Augustine influenced Petrarch.
- De Viris Illustribus: This book is a collection of biographies, written in Latin.
- Rerum Memorandarum Libri: It consists of two books — the first one consists of 24-36 moral biographies of historical heroes of Greece and Rome, while the second one has 12 moral biographies based on mythical figures and Bible.
- De Remediis Utriusque Fortunae: This book contains a humungous collection of 253 Latin dialogues, based on moral philosophy.
- Other famous literary works of Petrarch include ‘Trionfi’, ‘De OtioReligiosorum’, ‘Africa’, ‘Triumphs’, ‘Remedies against Fortune’, ‘Letters’ and more.
Collection Of Letters
- Other noted works of Petrarch include collections of letter including those written by historic figures like Cicero and Virgil, which Petrarch picked up during his explorations.
- Epistolae Familiares contains 19 controversial letters written by Cicero called “Liber sine nomine” that contains criticism of Avignon papacy.
Apart from literary works and collection of letters, Petrarch has written a slew of historical, philosophical, Christian and Pagan ideologies and much more.