|Fransisco Petraca or Petrarch, and honored priest, scholar, and poet.|
National Poetry Month has got off to a fast start here, but it has been dominated by political poetry and women poets. Today, we strike a balance with perhaps the oldest, deadest White Man we have ever featured and his obsessive, love sick verse about a woman he never even spoke to. Francesco Petrarca known as Petrarch was an Italian scholar and poet in early Renaissance Italy, who is sometimes credited as the Father of humanists. As a classical Latin scholar his rediscovery of Cicero’s letters and contemplations on Virgil are often credited with initiating the 14th-century Renaissance.
Pretty heavy stuff, and usually out of my league. Although I got part of a Great Books Education at Shimer College lo those many years ago, I never read Latin and left the school before I might have encountered Petrarch in an advance Humanities class. I only knew of him from references to him as a significant cultural figure in the Renaissance and like Dante, a key figure in legitimizing literature in the vulgate and the development and codification of modern Italian.
Buy when I discovered a tantalizing detail in my research on this date. According to Wikipedia—and would it lie?—on April 6, 1327 “The poet Petrarch first sees his idealized love, Laura, in the Church of Saint Clare in Avignon.” That seemed worthy of investigation.
Petrarch was born in the Tuscan city of Arezzo in 1304, the son of an influential Doctor of Law. He grew up mostly in a village near Florence, but his family also spent time in Avignon in France as part of the retinue of Pope Clement V. Petrarch would also go into the Pontiff’s service as a priest, clerk, functionary, and diplomat after completing seven “wasted years” getting his Doctorate in Law at his father’s insistence. Thus, one of the foundational figures of Italian culture and identity was a supporter of the French capture of the Papacy which began a 67-year abandonment of Rome, and event regarded as a dark episode in Italian history.
Whatever his varied duties as he rose in importance in the Papal Court, Petrarch had plenty of time to exercise his scholarly bent undoubtedly with the beguine encouragement of the Pope. His first major opus, Africa, was an epic in Latin about the great Roman general Scipio Africanus. His discovery of a cache of Cicero’s letters, which he circulated in manuscript in intellectual circles, cemented his reputation. As a sort of European celebrity, he gave birth to Renaissance Humanism. On April 8, 1341, he became only the second poet laureate since antiquity and was on the holy grounds of Rome’s Capitol.
|Drawing of Perach in latter years.|
As a star diplomat Petrarch traveled widely in Europe. But he also did something virtually unheard of—traveling for his personal pleasure and edification at a time when roads were bad, ships apt to sink, seaports notoriously disease ridden, and brigands and warlords way laid travelers or seized them for ransom. For instance, he climbed Mount Ventoux, the tallest mountain in Provence for no good reason other than the exercise and enjoy the view from the summit. He wrote about the experience in Ascent of Mont Ventoux, a detailed letter published as one of his Epistolae familiars in which he reveled in the glories and wonder of nature. That represented a departure from the prevailing cultural attitude which was that nature was hostile, dangerous, and a damnable inconvenience to be avoided, tamed, or conquered.
In his travels Petrarch also collected documents or copies of documents from classical antiquity that had been scattered and lost to the culture. That included a copy of Homer’s Odyssey in Greek which he could not read. His personal library became one of the most important troves of such documents in Europe. Lamenting on how much had been lost and wasted from the Fall of Rome through the era feudalism and war lords, he invented the term Dark Ages to describe the times he felt civilization was finally emerging from. That definition was crucial to the idea of the Renaissance.
|Laura de Noves, thought to be Petrarch's Laura.|
So, you see what kind of a guy Petrarch was, a, you should pardon the expression, real Renaissance Man. Now let’s return to that church in Avignon on a fine April Good Friday when he was just 23 years old and not yet famous but pledged to the Church. That day he espied a young woman he called Laura in the chapel. She was young and very beautiful with cascading golden curls, yet her demeanor was that of self-possessed modesty and natural grace. Petrarch was not only love-struck, he was gob smacked. He began to record his impressions of her in encounters over the years and contemplation of her perfections in a series of 366 sonnets written in Italian, not Church Latin, and later gathered and published as Il Canzoniere—The Songbook.
|A page from an Il Canoniere featuring five sonnets.|
Petrarch never identified who Laura was, but most scholars now believe that she was Laura de Noves, the young wife of Count Hugues de Sade, an ancestor of the Marquis de Sade. She was in the right places at the right time and judging by a surviving portraits was indeed beautiful and blonde. As far as we know her admirer never approached or spoke to her. Nor did she acknowledge him.
Yet it is hard to believe that she was unaware of his moonstruck presence so often when she was in public. These days we might consider him a stalker, however harmless. If she did notice, was she flattered, a little frightened, or just plain creeped out. We will never know unless some diary or letters are uncovered.
We do know that when his Laura died at a young age Petrarch was struck with a grief from which he never totally recovered. We know that Laura de Noves died in 1348 leaving a large family and a reputation as a spotless and virtuous wife. In his old age in in his Letter to Posterity, Petrarch wrote:
In my younger days I struggled constantly with an overwhelming but pure love affair—my only one, and I would have struggled with it longer had not premature death, bitter but salutary for me, extinguished the cooling flames. I certainly wish I could say that I have always been entirely free from desires of the flesh, but I would be lying if I did.
The poet did not, however, remain chaste through his life. Although he never married first because of his priestly vows and later having left the clergy in honor of his love for Laura, he did father two children, a son and a daughter, with two different women. At the time this was neither unusual or particularly scandalous for a priest. Moreover, he acknowledged both children and raised them in his household.
As fir those poems for Laura, they turned out to have vast cultural significance. Along with Dante’s Divine Comedy, which featured its own object of the author’s obsessive love, Beatrice, Il Canzoniere was among the earliest widely read books in the vernacular and encouraged the development of literature in national languages across Europe. Moreover, while Dante’s famous work was a moral and religious allegory, Petrarch’s verses were entirely secular. Previously love songs and ballads were the lowly products of bards and bawdy inns. His prestige helped make it an acceptable topic of literature.
|Petrarch Crowned by Laura, an illustration from a 16th century minture edition of Il Canoniere.|
His chaste idealization of Laura was held up as a pure example of courtly love, a much-idealized relationship from Medieval times and the alleged Age of Chivalry that enchanted and fascinated writers from the Renaissance down the Romantic Age centuries later.
Petrarch’s predominant form, was named for him—the Petrarchan Sonnet—a fourteen-line rhymed poem broken in to two parts, octave and sestet. The form spread across Europe and was soon in use, with modifications, in French, English, and German dialects among others. Due to the differences in the languages and structure, the English sonnet evolved into fairly standard iambic pentameter with a concluding rhymed couplet. But in whatever form Petrarch is regarded as a father of lyric rather than religious, epic, or bardic poetry traditions in the West.
As for the poet, he spent his later years as a cannon of a church in a village near Padua and then in Venice with his daughter and her family. They often moved to avoid the plague sweeping Europe but finally settled on a modest estate in Arquà near Padua. He spent his final years of retirement in religious contemplation—and perhaps dreaming of Laura—before dying on his 70th birthday, July 20, 1374. His house is now a museum there is an impressive tomb surmounted by a bust in the style of Roman antiquity.
Now for three samples of his devotions to Laura, in English translation, of course.
It was on that day when the sun’s ray
was darkened in pity for its Maker,
that I was captured, and did not defend myself,
because your lovely eyes had bound me, Lady.
It did not seem to me to be a time to guard myself
against Love’s blows: so I went on
confident, unsuspecting; from that, my troubles
started, amongst the public sorrows.
Love discovered me all weaponless,
and opened the way to the heart through the eyes,
which are made the passageways and doors of tears:
so that it seems to me it does him little honor
to wound me with his arrow, in that state,
he not showing his bow at all to you who are armed.
Breeze, blowing that blonde curling hair,
stirring it, and being softly stirred in turn,
scattering that sweet gold about, then
gathering it, in a lovely knot of curls again,
you linger around bright eyes whose loving sting
pierces me so, till I feel it and weep,
and I wander searching for my treasure,
like a creature that often shies and kicks:
now I seem to find her, now I realize
she’s far away, now I’m comforted, now despair,
now longing for her, now truly seeing her.
Happy air, remain here with your
living rays: and you, clear running stream,
why can’t I exchange my path for yours?
That nightingale who weeps so sweetly,
perhaps for his brood, or his dear companion,
fills the sky and country round with sweetness
with so many piteous, bright notes,
and it seems all night he stays beside me,
and reminds me of my harsh fate:
for I have no one to grieve for but myself,
who believed that Death could not take a goddess.
Oh how easy it is to cheat one who feels safe!
Who would have ever thought to see two lights,
clearer than the sun, make earth darken?
Now I know that my fierce fate
wishes me to learn, as I live and weep:
nothing that delights us here is lasting.