Petrarch: Sonnets


Youth and early career

Petrarch was born in the Tuscan city of Arezzo in 1304. He was the son of Ser Petracco and his wife Eletta Canigiani. His given name was Francesco Petracco. The name was Latinized to Petrarca. Petrarch's younger brother was born in Incisa in Val d'Arno in 1307. Dante was a friend of his father.[4]

Petrarch spent his early childhood in the village of Incisa, near Florence. He 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 the University of 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 Petrarch and his brother study law also. Petrarch however was primarily interested in writing and Latin literature and considered these 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. He protested, "I couldn't face making a merchandise of my mind", as he viewed the legal system as the art of selling justice.[4]

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 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 by Roman Senatori Giordano Orsini and Orso dell'Anguillara on the holy grounds of Rome's Capitol.[5][6][7]

He traveled widely in Europe and served as an ambassador and has been called "the first tourist"[8] because he traveled just for pleasure,[9] which was the basic reason he climbed Mont Ventoux.[10] 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,[11] but he knew no Greek; Homer, Petrarch said, "was dumb to him, while he was deaf to Homer".[12] In 1345 he personally discovered a collection of Cicero's letters not previously known to have existed, the collection ad Atticum.

Disdaining what he believed to be the ignorance of the centuries preceding the era in which he lived, Petrarch is credited or charged with creating the concept of a historical "Dark Ages".[3]

Mount Ventoux

Petrarch recounts that on April 26, 1336, with his brother and two servants, he climbed to the top of Mont Ventoux (1,912 meters (6,273 ft)), a feat which he undertook for recreation rather than necessity.[13] The exploit is described in a celebrated letter addressed to his friend and confessor, the monk Dionigi di Borgo San Sepolcro, composed some time after the fact. In it Petrarch claimed to have been inspired by Philip V of Macedon's ascent of Mount Haemo and that an aged peasant had told him that nobody had ascended Ventoux before or after himself, 50 years before, and warned him against attempting to do so. The nineteenth-century Swiss historian Jacob Burckhardt noted that Jean Buridan had climbed the same mountain a few years before, and ascents accomplished during the Middle Ages have been recorded, including that of Anno II, Archbishop of Cologne.[14][15]

Scholars[16] note that Petrarch's letter[17][18] to Dionigi displays a strikingly "modern" attitude of aesthetic gratification in the grandeur of the scenery and is still often cited in books and journals devoted to the sport of mountaineering. In Petrarch, this attitude is coupled with an aspiration for a virtuous Christian life, and on reaching the summit, he took from his pocket a volume by his beloved mentor, Saint Augustine, that he always carried with him.[19]

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.[10]

As the book fell open, Petrarch's eyes were 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.[17]

Petrarch's response was 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 [...][17]

James Hillman argues that this rediscovery of the inner world is the real significance of the Ventoux event.[20] 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. Arguing against such a singular and hyperbolic periodization, Paul James suggests a different reading:

In the alternative argument that I want to make, these emotional responses, marked by the changing senses of space and time in Petrarch’s writing, suggest a person caught in unsettled tension between two different but contemporaneous ontological formations: the traditional and the modern.[21]

Later years

Petrarch spent the later part of his life journeying through northern Italy as an international scholar and poet-diplomat. His career in the Church did not allow him to marry, but he is believed to have fathered 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.[22]

Giovanni died of the plague in 1361. In the same year Petrarch was named canon in Monselice near Padua. Francesca married Francescuolo da Brossano (who was later named executor of Petrarch's will) that same year. In 1362, shortly after the birth of a daughter, Eletta (the 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 to 1367 at Palazzo Molina; although Petrarch continued to travel in those years. Between 1361 and 1369 the younger Boccaccio paid the older Petrarch two visits. The first was in Venice, the second was in Padua.

About 1368 Petrarch and his daughter Francesca (with her family) moved to the small town of Arquà in the Euganean Hills near Padua, where he passed his remaining years in religious contemplation. He died in his house in Arquà on July 19, 1374 – one day short of his seventieth birthday. The house hosts now a permanent exhibition of Petrarchian works and curiosities; among others you find the famous tomb of Petrarch's beloved cat who was embalmed. On the marble slab there is a Latin inscription written by Antonio Quarenghi:

Etruscus gemino vates ardebat amore:

Maximus ignis ego; Laura secundus erat. Quid rides? divinæ illam si gratia formæ, Me dignam eximio fecit amante fides. Si numeros geniumque sacris dedit illa libellis Causa ego ne sævis muribus esca forent. Arcebam sacro vivens a limine mures, Ne domini exitio scripta diserta forent; Incutio trepidis eadem defuncta pavorem,

Et viget exanimi in corpore prisca fides.[23]

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 scattered over Europe.[24] Nevertheless, the Biblioteca Marciana traditionally claimed this bequest as its founding, although it was in fact founded by Cardinal Bessarion in 1468.[25]

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