Infobox Writer
name = Francesco Petrarca

imagesize = 150 px
caption =
pseudonym =
birthdate = Birth date|1304|7|20|df=yes
birthplace = Arezzo
deathdate = Death date and age|1374|7|19|1304|7|20|df=yes
deathplace = Arquà Petrarca
occupation = Renaissance humanist
nationality = Italian
period = Early Renaissance

Francesco Petrarca (July 20, 1304July 19, 1374), known in English as Petrarch, was an Italian scholar, poet, and one of the earliest Renaissance humanists. Petrarch is often popularly called the "father of humanism". [There are many popular examples, for a recent one [ this review] of Carol Quillen's "Rereading the Renaissance" ] Based on Petrarch's works, and to a lesser extent those of Dante Alighieri and Giovanni Boccaccio, Pietro Bembo in the 16th century created the model for the modern Italian language, later endorsed by the Accademia della Crusca. Petrarch is credited with developing the sonnet. His sonnets were admired and imitated throughout Europe during the Renaissance and became a model for lyrical poems.Petrarch was also known for being one of the first people to call the Middle Ages the Dark Ages.


Petrarch says he was born on "Garden Street" of the city of Arezzo, just at the dawn on a Monday. He was the son of Ser Petracco. He spent his early childhood in the village of Incisa, near Florence. Petrarch spent much of his early life at Avignon and nearby Carpentras, where his family moved to follow Pope Clement V who moved there in 1309 to begin the Avignon Papacy. He studied law at Montpellier (1316–20) and Bologna (1320–23) with a lifelong friend and schoolmate called Guido Sette. Because his father was in the profession of law he insisted that he and his brother study law also. Petrarch however was primarily interested in writing and Latin literature and considered this seven years wasted. Additionally he proclaimed that through legal manipulation his guardians robbed him of his small property inheritance in Florence which only reinforced his dislike for the legal system. Protesting he declared, "I couldn't face making a merchandise of my mind", as he viewed the legal system as the art of selling justice. [J.H. Plumb, "The Italian Renaissance", 1961; Chapter XI by Morris Bishop "Petrarch", pp. 161-162; New York, publisher American Heritage ISBN 0-618-12738-0]

Petrarch was a prolific letter writer and counted Boccaccio among his notable friends to whom he wrote often. After the death of their parents, Petrarch and his brother Gherardo went back to Avignon in 1326, where he worked in numerous different clerical offices. This work gave him much time to devote to his writing. With his first large scale work, "Africa", an epic in Latin about the great Roman general Scipio Africanus, Petrarch emerged as a European celebrity. On April 8, 1341, he became the first poet laureate since antiquity and was crowned on the holy grounds of Rome's Capitol. He was the first laureate of the tradition in modern times to be given this honor. [Plumb, p. 164]

He traveled widely in Europe and served as an ambassador and has been called "the first tourist" [NSA Family Encyclopedia, "Petrarch, Francesco", Volume 11, page 240, Standard Education Corp. 1992] because he traveled just for the pleasure alone, [Bishop, Morris "Petrarch and his World", p. 92; Indiana University Press 1963, ISBN 0804617309] which was the basic reason why he climbed Mont Ventoux.Plumb, p. 163] During his travels, he collected crumbling Latin manuscripts and was a prime mover in the recovery of knowledge from writers of Rome and Greece. He encouraged and advised Leontius Pilatus's translation of Homer, from a manuscript purchased by Boccaccio; although he was severely critical of the result. Petrarch had acquired a copy, which he did not entrust to Leontius, [Vittore Branca, "Boccaccio; The Man and His Works", tr. Richard Monges, p.113-118] but he knew no Greek; Homer, Petrarch said, "was dumb to him, while he was deaf to Homer". [" Ep. Fam." 18.2 §9] In 1345 he personally discovered a collection of Cicero's letters not previously known to have existed, the collection "ad Atticum". He remarked:

:"Each famous author of antiquity whom I recover places a new offence and another cause of dishonor to the charge of earlier generations, who, not satisfied with their own disgraceful barrenness, permitted the fruit of other minds, and the writings that their ancestors had produced by toil and application, to perish through insufferable neglect. Although they had nothing of their own to hand down to those who were to come after, they robbed posterity of its ancestral heritage."

Disdaining what he believed to be the ignorance of the centuries preceding the era in which he lived, Petrarch is credited with creating the concept of a historical "Dark Ages". [ [ Renaissance or Prenaissance] , "Journal of the History of Ideas", Vol. 4, No. 1. (Jan., 1943), pp. 69-74; Theodore E. Mommsen, "Petrarch's Conception of the 'Dark Ages" "Speculum" 17.2 (April 1942:226-242); JSTOR link to a collection of several letters in the same issue. ] Petrarch claimed that on April 26, 1336, with his brother and two servants, he climbed to the top of Mont Ventoux (1,909 m; 6,263 ft). He wrote an account of the trip, composed considerably later as a letter to his friend Dionigi di Borgo San Sepolcro. The accuracy of Petrarch's account is open to question; particularly the assertion that he was the first to climb a mountain for pleasure since Philip V of Macedon, and that an aged peasant had warned him off the unclimbable mountain. Jean Buridan had climbed the same mountain a few years before, and other ascents are recorded from the Middle Ages, including Anno II, Archbishop of Cologne. Jakob Burckhardt's rhapsody on the subject has been often repeated since. [Lynn Thorndike, [ Renaissance or Prenaissance] , "Journal of the History of Ideas", Vol. 4, No. 1. (Jan., 1943), pp. 69-74. JSTOR link to a collection of several letters in the same issue. ]

Mont Ventoux

J.H. Plumb writes in his book "The Italian Renaissance" of Morris Bishop's version of Petrarch's Ascent of Mont Ventoux showing Petrarch's climb in 1336 was epoch making. [Nicolson, Marjorie Hope; "Mountain Gloom and Mountain Glory: The Development of the Aesthetics of the Infinite," p. 49; ISBN 0295975776] This was because Petrarch did this climb on his own volition and not because anything was forced upon him.dubious Petrarch's letter of the ascent to his confessor, [ Familiares 4.1] ] the monk Dionigi di Borgo San Sepolcro, rings of aesthetic gratification to grandeur and majesty, [ [ JSTOR: Petrarch at the Peak of Fame] ] a modern attitude that is quoted to this day in many books and journals pertaining to mountaineering. [McLaughlin, Edward Tompkins; "Studies in Medieval Life and Literature," p. 6, New York G.P. Putnam's Sons 1894]

"For pleasure alone he climbed Mount Ventoux, which rises to more than six thousand feet, beyond Vaucluse. It was no great feat, of course; but he was the first recorded Alpinist of modern times, the first to climb a mountain merely for the delight of looking from its top. (Or almost the first; for in a high pasture he met an old shepherd, who said that fifty years before he had attained the summit, and had got nothing from it save toil and repentance and torn clothing.) Petrarch was dazed and stirred by the view of the Alps, the mountains around Lyons, the Rhone, the Bay of Marseilles. He took St Augustine's "Confessions" from his pocket and reflected that his climb was merely an allegory of aspiration towards a better life."
In the "Confessions", Petrarch's eyes are immediately drawn to the following words:

"And men go about to wonder at the heights of the mountains, and the mighty waves of the sea, and the wide sweep of rivers, and the circuit of the ocean, and the revolution of the stars, but themselves they consider not."

Petrarch's response is to turn from the outer world of nature to the inner world of 'soul':

I closed the book, angry with myself that I should still be admiring earthly things who might long ago have learned from even the pagan philosophers that nothing is wonderful but the soul, which, when great itself, finds nothing great outside itself. Then, in truth, I was satisfied that I had seen enough of the mountain; I turned my inward eye upon myself, and from that time not a syllable fell from my lips until we reached the bottom again. .... [W] e look about us for what is to be found only within. .... How many times, think you, did I turn back that day, to glance at the summit of the mountain which seemed scarcely a cubit high compared with the range of human contemplation ...

James Hillman, in Re-Visioning Psychologycite book | first=James | last=Hillman | authorlink=James Hillman | year=1977 | title=Re-Visioning Psychology | ISBN=0-06-090563-8 | publisher=Harper & Row | pages=197] argues that this rediscovery of the inner world is the real significance of the Ventoux event. The Renaissance begins not with the ascent of Mont Ventoux but with the subsequent descent -- the "return ... to the valley of soul", as Hillman puts it. See also Ascent of Mont Ventoux.

Whether Petrarch's focus on 'soul' is 'modern' depends on what is meant by 'modern', since much of 'modernity' would deny the very existence of subjectivity.

Later years

The later part of his life he spent in journeying through northern Italy as an international scholar and poet-diplomat. Petrarch's career in the Church did not allow him to marry, but he did father two children by a woman or women unknown to posterity. A son, Giovanni, was born in 1337, and a daughter, Francesca, was born in 1343. Both he later legitimized. [Plumb, p. 165]

Giovanni died of the plague in 1361. Francesca married Francescuolo da Brossano (who was later named executor of Petrarch's Last Will and Testament) that same year. In 1362, shortly after the birth of a daughter, Eletta (same name as Petrarch's mother), they joined Petrarch in Venice, to flee the plague then ravaging parts of Europe. A second grandchild, Francesco, was born in 1366, but died before his second birthday. Francesca and her family lived with Petrarch in Venice for five years from 1362 - 1367 at Palazzo Molina; although Petrarch continued to travel in those years.

About 1368 Petrarch and his daughter Francesca (with her family) moved and settled in Padua, where he passed his remaining years in religious contemplation. He died in Arquà in the Euganean Hills on July 19, 1374 - just one day short of his seventieth birthday.

Petrarch's will (dated April 4, 1370) leaves 50 florins to Boccaccio "to buy a warm winter dressing gown"; various legacies (a horse, a silver cup, a lute, a Madonna) to his brother and his friends; his house in Vaucluse to its caretaker; for his soul, and for the poor; and the bulk of his estate to his son-in-law, Francescuolo da Brossano, who is to give half of it to "the person to whom, as he knows, I wish it to go"; presumably his daughter, Francesca, Brossano's wife. The will mentions neither the property in Arquà, nor his library; Petrarch's library of notable manuscripts was already promised to Venice, in exchange for the Palazzo Molina. This arrangement was probably cancelled when he moved to Padua, the enemy of Venice, in 1368. The library was seized by the lords of Padua, and his books and manuscripts are now widely divided over Europe. [Bishop, pp. 360, 366. Francesca and the quotes from there; Bishop adds that the dressing-gown was a piece of tact: "fifty florins would have bought twenty dressing-gowns".] Nevertheless, the Biblioteca Marciana traditionally claimed this bequest as its founding; although it was in fact founded by Cardinal Bessarion in 1468. [Encyclopedia Britannica, 11th edition, [ Libraries] " §Italy.]


Petrarch is best known for his Italian poetry: notably the "Canzoniere" and the "Trionfi" ("Triumphs"). However, Petrarch was an enthusiastic Latin scholar and did most of his writing in this language. His Latin writings are quite varied and include scholarly works, introspective essays, letters, and more poetry. Among them are "Secretum" ("My Secret Book"), an intensely personal guilt-ridden imaginary dialogue with Augustine of Hippo; "De Viris Illustribus" ("On Famous Men"), a series of moral biographies; "Rerum Memorandarum Libri", an incomplete treatise on the cardinal virtues; "De Otio Religiosorum" ("On Religious Leisure") and "De Vita Solitaria" ("On the Solitary Life"), which praise the contemplative life; "De Remediis Utriusque Fortunae" ("Remedies for Fortune Fair and Foul"), a self-help book which remained popular for hundreds of years; "Itinerarium" ("Petrarch's Guide to the Holy Land"), a distant ancestor of Fodor's and Lonely Planet; a number of invectives against opponents such as doctors, scholastics, and the French; the "Carmen Bucolicum", a collection of 12 pastoral poems; and the unfinished epic "Africa". Petrarch also published many volumes of his letters, including a few written to his long-dead friends from history like Cicero and Virgil. Cicero, Virgil, and Seneca were his literary models. Unfortunately most of his Latin writings are difficult to find today. However, several of his works are scheduled to appear in the Harvard University Press series I Tatti, [] . It is difficult to assign any precise dates to his writings because he tended to revise them throughout his life.

In addition Petrarch collected his letters into two major sets of books called "Epistolae familiares" and "Seniles", a plan suggested to him by knowledge of Cicero's letters. He kept out of "Epistolae familiares" a special set of 19 controversial letters called Liber sine nomine that had much criticism against the Avignon papacy. These were published "without names" to protect the recipients, all of whom had close relationships to Petrarch. The recipients of these letters included Philippe de Cabassoles, bishop of Cavaillon; Ildebrandino Conti, bishop of Padua; Cola di Rienzo, tribune of Rome; Francesco Nelli, priest of the Prior of the Church of the Holy Apostles in Florence; and Niccolà di Capoccia, a cardinal and priest of Saint Vitalis.

His "Letter to Posterity" (the last letter in "Seniles") [ [ Petrarch's Letter to Posterity] (1909 English translation, with notes, by James Harvey Robinson)] gives an [ autobiography] and a synopsis of his philosophy in life. It was written originally in Latin and was completed in 1371 or 1372. [Ernest H. Wilkins, "On the Evolution of Petrarch's Letter to Posterity," "Speculum" 39, pp. 304-308.]

While Petrarch's poetry was set to music frequently after his death, especially by Italian madrigal composers of the Renaissance in the 16th century, only one musical setting composed during Petrarch's lifetime survives. This is "Non al suo amante" by Jacopo da Bologna, written ca. 1350.

Laura and poetry

On April 6, 1327, Good Friday, after giving up his vocation as a priest, the sight of a woman called "Laura" in the church of Sainte-Claire d'Avignon awoke in him a lasting passion, celebrated in the "Rime sparse" ("Scattered rhymes"). Later, Renaissance poets who copied Petrarch's style named this collection of 366 poems "Il Canzoniere" ("Song Book"). Laura may have been Laura de Noves, the wife of Count Hugues de Sade (ancestor of the Marquis de Sade). There is little definite information in Petrarch's work concerning Laura, except that she is lovely to look at, fair-haired, with a modest, dignified bearing. Laura and Petrarch had little or no personal contact. According to his "Secretum", she refused him for the very proper reason that she was already married to another man. He channeled his feelings into love poems that were exclamatory rather than persuasive, and wrote prose that showed his contempt for men who pursue women. Upon her death in 1348, the poet finds that his grief is as difficult to live with as was his former despair. Later 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."

While it is possible she was an idealized or pseudonymous character - particularly since the name "Laura" has a linguistic connection to the poetic "laurels" Petrarch coveted - Petrarch himself always denied it. His frequent use of "l'aura", as in "Erano i capei d'oro a "l'aura" sparsi" is also remarkable: for example, the line may both mean "her hair was all over Laura's body", and "the wind ("l'aura") blew through her hair". There is psychological realism in the description of Laura and Petrarch's love is nothing conventional - unlike some cliché women of troubadours and courtly love. Her presence causes him unspeakable joy, but his unrequited love creates unendurable desires, inner conflicts between the ardent lover and the mystic Christian, making it impossible to reconcile the two, his quest for love a hopeless, endless agony.

Laura is unreachable - the few physical descriptions are vague, almost unpalpable as the love pines for, and such is perhaps the power of his verse, which lives off the melodies it evokes against the fading, diaphane image that is no more consistent than a ghost. Francesco De Sanctis remarks much the same thing in his "Storia della letteratura italiana", and contemporary critics agree on the powerful music of his verse: Gianfranco Contini, in a famous essay on Petrarch's language ("Preliminari sulla lingua del Petrarca". Petrarca, Canzoniere. Turin, Einaudi, 1964) has spoken of linguistic indetermination - Petrarch never rises above the "bel pié" (her lovely foot): Laura is too holy to be painted, it is an awe-inspiring goddess. Sensuality and passion are rather suggested by the rhythm and music that shape the vague contours of the lady.


Petrarch's is a world apart from Dante, and the "Divina Commedia". In spite of the metaphysical subject, the Commedia is deeply rooted in the cultural and social milieu of turn-of-the-century Florence: Dante's rise to power (1300) and exile (1302), his political passions call for a "violent" use of language, where he uses all the registers, from low and trivial to sublime and philosophical. Petrarch confessed to Boccaccio to have never read the "Commedia", remarks Contini, wondering whether this was true or if Petrarch wanted to distance himself from Dante. Dante 's language evolves as he grows old, from the courtly love of "Dolce Stil Novo (Vita Nuova)" to the "Convivio" and "Divina Commedia", where Beatrice is sanctified as the goddess of philosophy - the philosophy announced by the Donna Gentile at the death of Beatrice.

Petrarch's thought and style is relatively uniform throughout his life - he spent much of it revising the songs and sonnets of the Canzoniere rather than moving to new subject — matters or poetry. Here, poetry alone provides a consolation to personal grief, much less philosophy or politics (as in Dante), for Petrarch fights within himself (sensuality vs. mysticism, profane verse vs. Christian literature), not without. The strong moral and political convictions which had inspired belong to the Middle Ages and the libertarian spirit of the commune, but Petrarch's moral dilemmas, his refusal to take a stand in politics, his reclusive life point to a different direction, or time. One in which moral values and faith are giving way and are constantly questioned. The free commune, the place that had made Dante an eminent politician and scholar is being dismantled: the "signoria" is taking its place. Humanism and its spirit of empirical enquiry, however, are making progress - but papacy (especially after Avignon) and the empire (Henry VII, the last hope of the white Guelphs, dies near Siena in 1313) have lost much of their original prestige.

Petrarch polished and perfected the known sonnet form inherited from Giacomo da Lentini and which Dante widely used in his "Vita Nova" to popularise the new courtly love of "Dolce Stil Novo". The tercet benefits from Dante's terza rima (cfr. "Divine Comedy"), the quatrains prefer the ABBA-ABBA to the ABAB-ABAB scheme of the Sicilians. The imperfect rhymes in u / closed o and i /closed e (inherited from Guittone's mistaken rendering of Sicilian verse) are excluded, but the rhyming of open and closed o is kept. Finally, Petrarch's enjambement creates longer semantic unities by connecting one verse to the following. Many of Petrarch's poems collected in the "Canzoniere" (dedicated to Laura) were indeed sonnets, and the Petrarchan sonnet still bears his name. Romantic composer Franz Liszt set three of Petrarch's Sonnets (47, 104, and 123) to music for voice, "Tre sonetti del Petrarca", which he later would transcribe for solo piano for inclusion in the suite "Années de Pèlerinage".


Petrarch is traditionally called the father of Humanism and considered by many to be the "father of the Renaissance." He was the first to offer a combining of abstract entities of classical culture and Christian philosophy. In his work "Secretum meum" he points out that secular achievements didn't necessarily preclude an authentic relationship with God. Petrarch argued instead that God had given humans their vast intellectual and creative potential to be used to their fullest. [Famous First Facts International, H. W. Wilson Company, New York 2000, ISBN 0-8242-0958-3, page 303, item 4567.] He inspired humanist philosophy which led to the intellectual flowering of the Renaissance. He believed in the immense moral and practical value of the study of ancient history and literature - that is, the study of human thought and action. Petrarch was a devout Catholic and did not see a conflict between realizing humanity's potential and having religious faith. A highly introspective man, he shaped the nascent humanist movement a great deal because many of the internal conflicts and musings expressed in his writings were seized upon by Renaissance humanist philosophers and argued continually for the next 200 years. For example, Petrarch struggled with the proper relation between the active and contemplative life, and tended to emphasize the importance of solitude and study. Later politician and thinker Leonardo Bruni argued for the active life, or "civic humanism." As a result, a number of political, military, and religious leaders during the Renaissance were inculcated with the notion that their pursuit of personal glory should be grounded in classical example and philosophical contemplation.


In November 2003, it was announced that pathological anatomists would be exhuming Petrarch's body from his casket in Arquà Petrarca, in order to verify 19th century reports that he had stood 1.83 meters (about six feet), which would have made him very tall for his period. The team from the University of Padua also hoped to reconstruct his cranium in order to obtain a computerized image of his features to coincide with the poet's 700th birthday. The tomb had been opened previously in 1873 by Professor Giovanni Canestrini, also of Padua University. When the tomb was opened, the skull was discovered in fragments and a DNA test revealed that the skull was not Petrarch's, [ [ Genetic analysis of the skeletal remains attribute... [Forensic Sci Int. 2007 - PubMed Result ] ] prompting calls for the return of Petrarch's skull.

The researchers are fairly certain that the body in the tomb is Petrarch's due to the fact that the skeleton bears evidence of injuries mentioned by Petrarch in his writings, including a kick from a donkey when he was 42. []



*Bartlett, Kenneth R. (1992). "The Civilization of the Italian Renaissance; a Source Book". Lexington: D.C. Heath and Company. ISBN 0-669-209000-7
*Bishop, Morris (1961). "Petrarch." In J. H. Plumb (Ed.), "Renaissance Profiles", pp. 1-17. New York: Harper & Row. ISBN 0-06-131162-6 .
*Kallendorf, Craig. "The Historical Petrarch," The American Historical Review, Vol 101, No. 1 (Feb. 1996): <130-141.>
*Hanawalt, A. Barbara. "The Middle Ages:An Illustrated History" pp. 131-132 Oxford University Press New York 1998

Further reading

*Bernardo, Aldo (1983). "Petrarch." In "Dictionary of the Middle Ages", volume 9.
*Hollway-Calthrop, Henry (1907). [ "Petrarch: His Life and Times"] , Methuen. From Google Books.
*Kohl, Benjamin G. (1978). "Francesco Petrarcha: Introduction; How a Ruler Ought to Govern His State," in "The Earthly Republic: Italian Humanists on Government and Society", ed. Benjamin G. Kohl and Ronald G. Witt, 25-78. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press. ISBN 0-8122-1097-2
*Nauert, Charles G. (2006). "Humanism and the Culture of Renaissance Europe: Second Edition". Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. ISBN 0-521-54781-4
*Rawski, Conrad H. (1991). "Petrarch's Remedies for Fortune Fair and Foul" A Modern English Translation of "De remediis utriusque Fortune", with a Commentary. ISBN 0-253-34849-8
*Robinson, James Harvey (1898). [ "Petrarch, the First Modern Scholar and Man of Letters"] [] , Greenwood Press. From Google Books.

External links

* [ Canzoniere (different edition) and other works]
* [ Petrarch and Laura] Multi-lingual site including many translated works (letters, poems, books) in the public domain and biography, pictures, music.
* [ Petrarch] from the "Catholic Encyclopedia".
* [ Excerpts from his works and letters]
* [ The Petrarchan Grotto]
* [ Francesco Petrarca (Petrarch) (1304-1374)]
*gutenberg author|id=Petrarch|name=Petrarch
* [ Poems From The Canzoniere] , translated by Tony Kline.
* [,6109,1186654,00.html Petrarch - the poet who lost his head] April 6, 2004 article in "The Guardian" regarding the exhumation of Petrarch's remains.
* [ Francesco Petrarca] at "The Online Library of Liberty"
* (Vicifons)

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