The Italian poet Petrarch (1304-1374), or Francesco Petrarca, is best known for the Iyric poetry of his Canzoniere and is considered one of the greatest love poets of world literature. A scholar of classical antiquity, he was the founder of humanism.

Petrarch has been called the first modern man. He observed the external world and analyzed his own interior life with a new awareness of values. Painfully conscious of human transience, he felt it his mission to bridge the ages and to save the classical authors from the ravages of time for posterity. He also longed for fame and for permanence in the future. Petrarch attained a vast direct knowledge of classical texts, subjecting them to critical evaluation and prizing them as an expression of the living human spirit. His attitude provided the first great stimulus to the cultural movement that culminated in the Renaissance.

Petrarch's life was marked by restlessness, yet one of its constant motives was his devotion to cherished friends. Equally constant was an unresolved interior conflict between the attractions of earthly life, particularly love and glory, and his aspirations toward higher religious goals.


Early Years and Education

Petrarch was born on July 20, 1304, in Arezzo, where his family was living in political exile. His parents were the Florentine notary Ser Petracco and Eletta Canigiani. His childhood was spent at Incisa and Pisa until 1312, when his family moved to Avignon, then the papal residence. A housing shortage there obliged Petrarch, his younger brother Gherardo, and their mother to settle in nearby Carpentras, where he began to study grammar and rhetoric. Beginning in 1316, Petrarch pursued legal studies at the University of Montpellier. But already he preferred classical poets to the study of law. During one surprise visit Petrarch's father discovered some hidden books and began to burn them; however, moved by his son's pleading, he spared Cicero's Rhetoric and a copy of Virgil from the fire. About this time Petrarch's mother died.

In 1320 Petrarch and Gherardo went to Bologna to attend the law schools. They remained in Bologna—with two interruptions caused by student riots—until their father's death in 1326. Free to pursue his own interests, Petrarch then abandoned law and participated in the fashionable social life of Avignon.


Laura and the Canzoniere

On April 6, 1327, in the church of St. Clare, Petrarch saw and fell in love with the young woman whom he called Laura. She did not return his love. The true identity of Laura is not known; there is, however, no doubt regarding her reality or the intensity of the poet's passion, which endured after her death as a melancholy longing. Petrarch composed and revised the love lyrics inspired by Laura until his very last years. The Canzoniere, or Rerum vulgarum fragmenta, contains 366 poems (mostly sonnets, with a few canzoni and compositions in other meters) and is divided into two sections: the first is devoted to Laura in life (1-263) and the second to Laura in death (264-366). Petrarch became a model for Italian poets. The influence of his art and introspective sensibility was felt for more than 3 centuries in all European literatures.

When the income of Petrarch's family was depleted, he took the four Minor Orders required for an ecclesiastical career, and in the fall of 1330 he entered the service of Cardinal Giovanni Colonna. In 1333, motivated by intellectual curiosity, Petrarch traveled to Paris, Flanders (where he discovered two of Cicero's unknown orations), and Germany. Upon returning to Avignon, he met the Augustinian scholar Dionigi di Borgo San Sepolcro, who directed him toward a greater awareness of the importance of Christian patristic literature. Until the end of his life, Petrarch carried with him a tiny copy of St. Augustine's Confessions, a gift from Dionigi. In 1336 Petrarch climbed Mt. Ventoux in Provence; on the summit, opening the Confessions at random, he read that men admire mountains and rivers and seas and stars, yet neglect themselves. He described this experience in spiritual terms in a letter that he wrote to Dionigi (Familiares IV, 1).


Major Works in Latin

Petrarch's reputation as a man of letters and the canonries to which he was appointed at various times assured him the ease and freedom necessary for his studies and writing. He participated during this period in the polemic concerning the papal residence, expressing in two Epistolae metricae his conviction that the papacy must return to Rome. Early in 1337 Petrarch visited Rome for the first time. The ancient ruins of the city deepened his admiration for the classical age. In the summer he returned to Avignon, where his son, Giovanni, had been born, and then went to live at Vaucluse (Fontaine-de-Vaucluse) near the source of the Sorgue River. There he led a life of solitude and simplicity, and he also conceived his major Latin works. In 1338 Petrarch began his De viris illustribus, and about that time he also started his Latin epic on Scipio Africanus, the Africa. In Vaucluse, Petrarch probably also worked on his Triumphus Cupidinis, a poetic "procession, " written in Italian, in which Cupid leads his captive lovers. In 1340 Petrarch received invitations simultaneously from Paris and Rome to be crowned as poet. He chose Rome. His coronation on April 8, 1341, was a personal victory and a triumph for art and knowledge as well.


Middle Years

On returning from Rome, Petrarch stopped at Parma. There, on the wooded plateau of Selvapiana, he continued his Africa with renewed inspiration. In April 1343, shortly after Petrarch had returned to Avignon, Gherardo became a Carthusian monk. That same year Petrarch's daughter, Francesca, was born. Gherardo's decision to become a monk deeply moved Petrarch, leading him to reexamine his own spiritual state. Though his Christian faith was unquestionably sincere, he felt incapable of his brother's renunciation. His inner conflict inspired the Secretuma dialogue in three books between St. Augustine and Petrarch. In it Petrarch expressed his awareness of his failure to realize his religious ideal and his inability to renounce the temporal values that motivated his life. That year Petrarch also began a treatise on the cardinal virtues, Rerum memorandarum libri.

In the fall of 1343 Petrarch went to Naples on a diplomatic mission for Cardinal Colonna. He recorded his travel impressions in several letters (Familiares V, 3, 6). Upon his return he stopped at Parma, hoping to settle at Selvapiana. But a siege of Parma by Milanese and Mantuan troops forced him to flee to Verona in February 1345. There, in the cathedral library, he discovered the first 16 books of Cicero's letters to Atticus and his letters to Quintus and Brutus. Petrarch personally transcribed them, and these letters of Cicero stimulated Petrarch to plan a formal collection of his own letters.

From 1345 to 1347 Petrarch lived at Vaucluse and undertook his De vita solitaria and the Bucolicum carmen the latter a collection of 12 Latin eclogues. Early in 1347 a visit to Gherardo's monastery inspired Petrarch to write his De otio religioso. In May of that year an event occurred in Rome that aroused his greatest enthusiasm. Cola di Rienzi, who shared Petrarch's fervent desire for the rebirth of Rome, gained control of the Roman government through a successful revolution. Petrarch encouraged Cola with his pen, exhorting him to persevere in his task of restoring Rome to its universal political and cultural missions. Petrarch then started out for Rome. But Cola's dictatorial acts soon brought down upon himself the hostility of the Pope and the antagonism of the Roman nobles. News of Cola's downfall, before the year was over, prompted Petrarch to write his famous letter of reproach (Familiares VII, 7), which tells of his bitter disillusionment.


The Black Death and Milanese Period

Rather than proceed to Rome, Petrarch remained in Parma, where in May 1348 news of Laura's death reached him. The Black Death deprived Petrarch of several of his close friends that year, among them Cardinal Colonna. His grief is reflected in the poems he then wrote to Laura and in his letters of this period, one of the most desolate letters being addressed to himself (Ad se ipsum). Three eclogues and the Triumphus mortis (following the Triumph of Love and the Triumph of Chastity) were also inspired by the pestilence.

Because of the losses Petrarch had suffered, a period of his life seemed to have ended. In 1350 he began to make the formal collection of his Latin prose letters called Familiares. Since 1350 was a Year of Jubilee, Petrarch also made a pilgrimage to Rome. On his way he stopped in Florence, where he made new friends, among whom was Giovanni Boccaccio. After a brief stay in Rome, Petrarch returned northward and arrived in Parma in January 1351. In the meantime, Pope Clement VI was soliciting Petrarch's return to Avignon, and Florence sent Boccaccio with a letter of invitation promising Petrarch a professorship at the university and the restitution of his father's property. Petrarch chose Provence, where he hoped to complete some of his major works. He arrived in Vaucluse in June 1351, accompanied by his son. In Avignon that August he refused a papal secretaryship and a bishopric offered to him. Petrarch was impatient to leave the papal "Babylon" and wrote a series of violent letters against the Curia (Epistolae sine nomine).

In the spring of 1352, Petrarch returned to Vaucluse, resolved to leave Provence. The following spring, after visiting Gherardo, he crossed the Alps and greeted Italy (Epistolae metricae III, 24). For 8 years he stayed in Milan under the patronage of Giovanni Visconti and later Galeazzo II Visconti, enjoying seclusion and freedom for study while using his pen to urge peace among Italian cities and states. He worked on the Canzoniere, took up old works (De viris illustribus), and began the treatise De remediis utriusque fortunae. Petrarch was also entrusted with diplomatic missions that brought him into direct relationship with heads of state, including the emperor Charles IV.

Padua, Venice, and Arquà

In June 1361 Petrarch went to Padua because the plague (which took the life of his son and the lives of several friends) had broken out in Milan. In Padua he terminated the Familiares and initiated a new collection, Seniles. In the fall of 1362 Petrarch settled in Venice, where he had been given a house in exchange for the bequest of his library to the city. From Venice he made numerous trips until his definitive return to Padua in 1368. During this period a controversy with several Averroists gave rise to an Invective on his own ignorance.

Petrarch's Paduan patron, Francesco da Carrara, gave him some land at Arquà in the Euganean Hills near Padua. There Petrarch built a house to which he retired in 1370. He received friends, studied, and wrote, and there his daughter, Francesca, now married, joined him with her family. Despite poor health, Petrarch attempted a trip to Rome in 1370, but he had to turn back at Ferrara. Except for a few brief absences, Petrarch spent his last years at Arquà, working on the Seniles and on the Canzoniere, for the latter of which he wrote a concluding canzone to the Virgin Mary. The Posteritati, a biographical letter intended to terminate the Seniles, remained incomplete at Petrarch's death. He revised his four Triumphs (of Love, Chastity, Death, and Fame), adding two more (of Time and of Eternity). Petrarch died on the night of July 18/19, 1374, and he was ceremonially buried beside the church of Arquà.

Further Reading on Petrarch

The major critical biography of Petrarch is Ernest H. Wilkins, Life of Petrarch (1961). A more entertaining work is Morris Bishop, Petrarch and His World (1963). A standard study of Petrarch's poetry is Ernest H. Wilkins, The Making of the "Canzoniere" and Other Petrarchan Studies (1951). Petrarch's correspondence can be studied in James H. Robinson and Henry W. Rolfe, Petrarch: The First Modern Scholar and Man of Letters (1898; rev. ed. 1914); Ernest H. Wilkins, Petrach's Correspondence (1960); and Morris Bishop, Letters (1966).