Francesco Petrarca (b. July 20, 1304, Arezzo, Tuscany; d. July 18, 1374, Arqua, near Padua) was an Italian scholar and poet who is regarded by many scholars as being among the first humanists. He contributed to the Renaissance flowering of lyric poetry and literature through his poems addressed to Laura, his idealized beloved. Petrarch's love of classical authors and learning inspired him to visit men of learning and search monastic libraries for classical texts. His discovery of several of Cicero's letters encouraged the revival of the Ciceronian style that characterized Renaissance humanistic education.
Although Petrarch was far more interested in literature, he studied law at his father's insistence. Like Augustine in his youth, the young Petrarch had a reputation of being a sophisticated dandy accustomed to the attentions of the ladies, but he was recognized for his poetic talents even then. With his father's death, Petrarch was freed to pursue his literary interests, but the only way open to him was through the church. Consequently, in 1326 he entered a minor ecclesiastical order in Avignon and joined the household of the influential Cardinal Giovanni Colonna.
Petrarch at first justified his decision to enter the order on the grounds that he was honoring the beauty of God's creation through poetry, but he later confessed that it was more for the worship of earthly objects than of God. This fact, once admitted, troubled him. His ultimate resolution of this moral problem formed the basis of the humanist perspective he helped initiate.
Nonetheless, Petrarch's efforts to revive an interest in classical verse were recognized by Pope Benedict XII (r. 1334-1342), who awarded him a laurel crown at the Capitoline Hill on April 8, 1341. As a symbolic gesture, Petrarch placed the laurel on the Tomb of the Apostle in Saint Peter's Basilica, in the hope of linking the classical and Christian traditions. Two years later, he left Rome and returned to Avignon to confront his selfish love of poetry. Delving into Augustine's Confessions, Petrarch found much in common with his own life. It was during this period that he composed the autobiographical treatise, Secretum meum (My solitude).
Petrarch's religious and intellectual struggle centered on the possibility of living a spiritual life in a corrupt world and the validity of including the classical tradition in religion. In his own case, it was his love of classical learning and beauty in the form of poetry that caused him deep pain. Petrarch came to accept the idea that a person might still find the way to God despite involvement in worldly affairs, personal preoccupations, and the imperfections of this world. The sonnets of Petrarch are a fine illustration of the humanist position. They focus on the individual, with notions of beauty, love, and knowledge illustrating the revival of Neoplatonic thought.
Works by the Author
Higginson, Thomas Wentworth, ed. Fifteen Sonnets of Petrarch. Boston: Houghton-Mifflin Co., 1903.
Auslander, Joseph, ed. The Sonnets of Petrarch. New York: Longmans, Green, & Company, 1932.
The biographical material about the author originally appeared on The Goodrich Room: Interactive Tour website.
Last modified April 13, 2016
(Born Francesco Petracco; changed to Petrarca; also referred to as Francis Petrarch) Italian poet, philosopher, and biographer.
One of the most prominent and influential poets in world literature, Petrarch is a major figure in humanist philosophy and the early Italian Renaissance. Through his Canzoniere (begun 1330s), a collection of poems expressing his unrequited love for a woman named Laura, he popularized the Italian, or Petrarchan, sonnet and influenced poets throughout Europe with his imagery, themes, and diction for more than three hundred years.
Biographical InformationBorn in Arezzo, Italy, in 1304, Petrarch was the eldest son of a notary who had been banished from Florence two years earlier for his political activities. In 1312 the family moved to Avignon, France, where Petrarch's father established a successful law practice. Petrarch was privately educated by tutors, and in 1316 he began studying civil law in Montpellier. While there Petrarch's habit of spending his allowance on the works of classical poets led his father on one occasion to burn Petrarch's library except for copies of works by Vergil and Cicero. Around this time Petrarch's mother died, and he composed his earliest known poem as a tribute to her. Petrarch and his younger brother, Gherardo, who later became a monk, entered law school in Bologna, Italy, in 1320, where—except for interruptions caused by student riots—they remained until the death of their father in 1326. After abandoning his legal studies and exhausting his inheritance, Petrarch settled in Avignon and took the minor orders necessary to pursue an ecclesiastical career. While attending services on Good Friday, 1327, Petrarch purportedly saw and fell in love with a woman he called Laura. For the remainder of his life Petrarch wrote lyrics about his unrequited love for her, initially gathering them in a volume around 1336 and revising and expanding the collection thereafter. In 1330 Petrarch became a private chaplain to Cardinal Giovanni Colonna and remained in the service of the Colonna family for almost twenty years. During this time he composed or revised most of his major works, traveled on diplomatic missions, and maintained extensive correspondence with friends, scholars, and nobility throughout Europe. Because his works were widely distributed, Petrarch's passion for Laura and his talents as a lyric poet became well known and admired. In 1340 Petrarch received simultaneous invitations to be poet laureate in Paris and in Rome; after some deliberation he accepted the invitation to Rome. On Easter Sunday in 1341 an elaborate ceremony was held in the Palace of the Senate on Capitoline Hill to coronate Petrarch as poet laureate of Rome; the last ceremony of this magnitude is thought to have been held more than a thousand years earlier. Over the next three decades Petrarch continued to travel widely on diplomatic missions and personal business while continuing his literary endeavors. In 1370 he settled in the village of Arqua, Italy, and focused much of his efforts on revising and collecting his earlier works. Petrarch died on July 18, 1374.
Although best known for his Italian poetry—Trionfi (The Triumphs; begun 1338) and Rerum vulgarium fragmenta (Canzoniere)—Petrarch composed most of his writings in Latin. His major poetic works include the Africa (begun 1338-39), The Triumphs, and Canzoniere. The Africa is an epic poem in Latin hexameter celebrating the victory of the Roman general Scipio Africanus over the Carthaginian general Hannibal in the Second Punic War. During the Renaissance, Petrarch's most popular work was The Triumphs, a long allegorical poem in six parts—Love, Chastity, Death, Fame, Time, and Eternity—that portrayed the spiritual journey of the soul from the temporal world to eternity. Written in Italian terza rima verse, The Triumphs was particularly esteemed for its encyclopedic catalogs of famous persons, its visionary outlook, concern with worldly vanities, and emphasis on salvation through God. Petrarch called his most lasting poetic work Rerum vulgarium fragmenta ("Fragments in the Vernacular"), but since his time this work has been variously referred to as the Rime, Rime sparse, Rhymes, and, most commonly, the Canzoniere. In its final form the Canzoniere consists of 366 poems: 317 sonnets, 29 canzone, 9 sestinas, 7 ballads, and 4 madrigals. The collection is divided into two parts; the first section contains 266 poems—the majority of which focus on Laura during her lifetime, with some political, moral, and miscellaneous poems interspersed, while the poems in the second section of the Canzoniere are reminiscences about Laura after her death. Throughout the Canzoniere the narrator reflects upon his passion for Laura, the suffering caused by his unrequited love, and his efforts to free himself from his desire. The final poem of the Canzoniere closes with a plea to the Virgin Mary to end the narrator's heartache. While Laura's existence and identity remain uncertain, critics have observed that she has served as the epitome of feminine virtue and beauty for generations of poets. Petrarch's major prose works include De viris illustrious (On Illustrious Men; begun 1337); Secretum (Petrarch's Secret; begun 1342-43); De otio religioso (On Religious Idleness; 1345-47); and De remediis utriusque fortunae (Remedies for Fortune Fair and Foul; begun 1353). On Illustrious Men is a collection of biographies covering such famous Romans as Romulus, Cincinnatus, and Scipio. Petrarch's Secret consists of three dialogues in which Augustine, who personifies the religious ideal, scolds Petrarch for failing to achieve the ideal. Dedicated to the Carthusian religious order, of which Petrarch's brother Gherardo was a member, On Religious Idleness examines the benefits of the religious life, particularly the ability to resist temptation. Remedies for Fortune Fair and Foul discusses the proper way to live and die under varied circumstances. Petrarch characterizes life as difficult and fraught with troubles and argues that human weakness springs from our abandonment of virtue. Stressing Christian values, self-examination, and individual responsibility, Remedies for Fortune Fair and Foul was immensely popular during the early Renaissance.
Petrarch is credited with popularizing—but not inventing—the Italian sonnet, a poetic form with an octet rhyming in the pattern abbaabba and a sestet that usually follows the pattern cdecde. His works in this form are generally regarded as his most significant contribution to literature, and numerous critics have credited Petrarch with reviving traditional poetic forms. Commentators have noted the relationship between form and meaning in his poetry, his use of complex syntax, and his imagery. Scholars have also frequently discussed the theme of tension between the body and spirit in Petrarch's works, his extensive use of classical mythology, his celebration of statesmen and leaders from the classical period, and his contributions to humanist philosophy, particularly his efforts to reconcile Christian and pagan ideals. As Christopher Kleinhenz observed, "The 317 sonnets that provide the form and essence of the poetic corpus of the Canzoniere are without doubt one of the finest literary legacies ever bequeathed to mankind. In their attempts to define the excellence of the Petrarchan sonnet, critics praise it for its precision and compactness, for its graceful symmetry and vibrant musicality, and for its noble sentiments and intimate tones."