Petrarch (Francesco Petrarcha)

Petrarch (Francesco Petrarcha)

Petrarch regarded his own era as an age of decadence and darkness. He yearned for a better future and turned to the study of classical antiquity for consolation and intellectual enlightenment. His enthusiasm for antiquity and his Latin writings made him the central figure in the classical revival that began in 14th-century Italy and laid the foundation for Renaissance humanism.

Petrarch’s humanism was a blend of the ethical teachings of pagan writers and the moral and spiritual works of the church fathers. He was crowned poet laureate in Rome in 1341 for his achievements in Latin literature. His vernacular poems, often expressed in sonnets, also won him acclaim and were emulated by other poets.

Petrarch was born in Arezzo, Italy, on July 20, 1304, to parents exiled from Florence for political reasons. The family moved to Carpentras near Avignon, the seat of the papacy, where his father was employed in the papal curia. In his early years, Petrarch was educated in Latin grammar and rhetoric and in touch with the cultural life of Avignon.

He studied law at Montpellier and Bologna but rejected law after his father’s death. Petrarch turned to his true interests, the literature of classical antiquity and patristic Christianity. Peripatetic by nature, he traveled extensively in Europe but often returned to Avignon and nearby Vaucluse.

While on these excursions, he recovered several of Cicero’s orations and a number of his letters. A visit to Rome and its ruins energized his interest in the revival of antiquity and he envisioned Rome as the cultural and spiritual center of a renewed Italy. He expressed these thoughts in his vernacular poem, Italia mia.

Petrarch statue
Petrarch statue

As Petrarch gained in stature from his writings and his study of antiquity, he was welcomed by secular and religious leaders and was sustained by their patronage. He left Avignon and Vaucluse in 1353 and resided for several years at Milan before moving on to Venice and Padua. He died and was buried in 1374 in Arqua, a village south of Padua.

Petrarch’s Latin works deal with a number of themes pertinent to an understanding of the nature of his humanism. His epic poem, Africa, narrates the victory of Scipio Africanus over Hannibal.

De viris illustribus is a study of famous men. Secretum consists of three imaginary dialogues between Petrarch and Saint Augustine. They demonstrate Petrarch’s struggle to maintain a balance between his temporal and spiritual interests.

De otio religioso justifies monastic solitude and De vita solitaria defends a life of contemplation for the scholar. Many of his letters to contemporaries as well as those to Livy and his autobiographical Letter to Posterity express his discontent with his own age. Petrarch’s vernacular works have outlasted those in Latin.

His Canzoniere, a collection of 366 poems, mainly sonnets, focus on his unrequited love for Laura, a woman he met in Avignon whose allure haunted him throughout his life. In Trionfi, figures from legend and history encounter the allegorical forms of Love, Chastity, Death, Fame, Time, and Eternity.