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Francesco Petrarca or Petrarch (1304 - July 19, 1374) was an Italian scholar, poet, and early humanist. Petrarch and Dante are considered the fathers of the Renaissance.



Petrarch was born in Arezzo the son of a notary, and spent his early childhood in the village of Incisa , near Florence. His father, Ser Petracco, had been banished from Florence in 1302 by the Black Guelphs, due to his political connections with Dante. Petrarch spent much of his early life at Avignon, where his family moved to follow Pope Clement V who moved there in 1309 during a papal schism, and nearby Carpentras, both in Vaucluse. He studied at Montpellier (1319 - 23) and moved to Bologna, where he studied law in 1323-25. Though trained in law and religion, Petrarch was primarily interested in writing and Latin literature, sharing this passion with his friend Giovanni Boccaccio. In search for old Latin classics and manuscripts, he traveled through France, Germany, Italy, and Spain. With his first large scale work, Africa -- an epic in Latin -- Petrarch emerged as a European celebrity.

When his father died in 1326, Petrarch returned to Avignon, where he worked in numerous different clerical offices. As a scholar and poet, Petrarch soon grew famous, and in 1341 he was crowned as a poet laureate in Rome. He traveled widely in Europe, served as an ambassador, and was a prolific letter writer. He collected manuscripts on his travels and was a prime mover in the recovery of knowledge from writers of Rome and Greece. 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." Thus, Petrarch had created the concept of the Dark Ages.

On April 26th, 1336 Petrarch together with his brother and two other companions 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 Francesco Dionigi . At the time, it was unusual to climb a mountain for no other reason than the experience itself. Therefore, April 26th, 1336 is regarded as the "birthday of alpinism", and Petrarch (Petrarca alpinista) as the "father of alpinism".

The latter part of his life he spent in journeying through northern Italy as an international scholar and renowned traveler. Petrarch never married, but he did father three children by a woman or women unknown to posterity. A son, Giovanni, was born in Avignon in 1337 and a daughter, Francesca, was born in Vaucluse in 1343. Giovanni died of the plague in 1361. Francesca married Francescuolo da Brossano (who was later named executor of Petrarch's testament). In 1362, shortly after the birth of a daughter, Eletta, 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.

Petrarch settled about 1367 in Padua, where he passed his remaining years in religious contemplation. He died in Arquà in the Euganean Hills on July 18, 1374.

Laura and poetry

In 1327, 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 the Canzoniere ("Song Book"). She may have been Laure de Noves , the wife of Hugues de Sade (an ancestor of the Marquis de Sade), or perhaps an idealized or pseudonymous character. Her realistic presentation in his poems contrasts with the clichés of troubadours and courtly love. Her presence causes him unspeakable joy, but his unrequited love creates unendurable desires. 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 never met. 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 "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 Petrarchan sonnet 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 transcribed for solo piano for inclusion in the suite Années de Pélerinage.


Among Petrarch's Latin works are De Viris Illustribus, the dialogue Secretum, a debate with St. Augustine, an Rerum Memorandarum Libri, an incomplete treatise on the cardinal virtues, De Remediis Utriusque Fortunae, his most popular Latin prose work, Itinerarium, a guide book to the Holy Land, and De Sui Ipsius Et Multorum Ignorantia, against Aristotelians. He wrote his scholarly works and epic poetry in Latin, and his sonnets and canzoni in Italian.


In November of 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, which would have made him very tall for his period. The team also hoped to reconstruct his cranium in order to obtain a computerized image of his features. Unfortunately, DNA testing in 2004 revealed that the skull found in the casket was not his, prompting calls for the return of Petrarch's skull.

External links

  • Petrarch and Laura Wonderful multi-lingual site including many translated works (letters, poems, books) in the public domain and biography, pictures, music. [1] is also good.

Last updated: 02-05-2005 07:44:04
Last updated: 02-20-2005 19:47:52