1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Petrarch
PETRARCH (1304–1374). Francesco Petrarca, the great Italian poet and first true reviver of learning in medieval Europe, was born at Arezzo on the 20th of July 1304. His father Petracco held a post of notary in the Florentine Rolls Court of the Riformagioni; but, having espoused the same cause as Dante during the quarrels of the Blacks and Whites, Petracco was expelled from Florence by that decree of the 27th of January 1302 which condemned Dante to lifelong exile. With his wife he took refuge in the Ghibelline township of Arezzo; and it was here, on the very night when his father, in company with other members of the White party, made an unsuccessful attempt to enter Florence by force, the Francesco first saw the light. He did not remain long in his birthplace His mother, having obtained permission to return from banishment, settled at Incisa, a httle village on the Arno above Florence, in February 1305. Here Petrarch spent seven years of boyhood, acquiring that pure Tuscan idiom which afterwards he used with such consummate mastery in ode and sonnet. Here too, in 1307, his brother Gherardo was born. In 1312 Petracco set up a house for his family at Pisa, but soon afterwards, finding no scope there for the exercise of his profession as jurist, he removed them all in 1313 to Avignon. This was a step of no small importance for the future poet-scholar. Avignon at that period still belonged to Provence, and owned King Robert of Naples as sovereign But the popes had made it their residence after the insults offered to Boniface VIII. at Anagni in 1303. Avignon was therefore the centre of that varied society which the high pontiffs of Christendom have ever gathered round them Nowhere else could the youth of genius who was destined to impress a cosmopolitan stamp on medieval culture and to begin the modern era have grown up under conditions more favourable to his task. At Incisa and at Pisa he had learned his mother-tongue. At Carpentras, under the direction of Convennole of Prato, he studied the humanities between the years 1315 and 1319. Avignon, at a distance from the party strife and somewhat parochial politics of the Italian commonwealths, impressed his mind with an ideal of civility raised far above Provincial prejudices.
Petrarch’s real name according to Tuscan usage was Francesco di Petracco. But he altered this patronymic, for the sake of euphony, to Petrarca, proving by this slight change his emancipation from usages which, had he dwelt at Florence, would most probably have been imposed on him. Petracco, who was very anxious that his eldest son should become an eminent jurist, sent him at the age of fifteen to study law at Montpellier. Like Ovid and many other poets, Petrarch felt no inclination for his father’s profession. His intellect, indeed, was not incapable of understanding and admiring the majestic edifice of Roman law, but he shrank with disgust from the illiberal technicalities of practice. There is an authentic story of Petracco’s flinging the young student’s books of poetry and rhetoric upon the fire, but saving Virgil and Cicero half-burned from the flames at his son’s passionate entreaties Notwithstanding Petrarch’s firm determination to make himself a scholar and a man of letters rather than a lawyer, he so far submitted to his father’s wishes as to remove about the year 1323 to Bologna, which was then the headquarters of juristic learning There he stayed with his brother Gherardo until 1326, when his father died, and he returned to Avignon. Banishment and change of place had already diminished Petracco’s fortune, which was never large, and a fraudulent administration of his estate after his death left the two heirs in almost complete destitution. The most precious remnant of Petrarch’s inheritance was a MS. of Cicero. There remained no course open for him but to take orders. This he did at once on his arrival in Provence; and we have good reason to believe that he advanced in due time to the rank of priest. A great Roman noble and ecclesiastic, Giacomo Colonna, afterwards bishop of Lombez, now befriended him, and Petrarch lived for some years in partial dependence on this patron.
On the 6th of April 1327 happened the most famous event of Petrarch’s history He saw Laura for the first time in the church of St Clara at Avignon. Who Laura was remains uncertain still. That she was the daughter of Audibert de Noves and the wife of Hugh de Sade rests partly on tradition and partly on documents which the abbé de Sade professed to have copied from originals in the 18th century. Nothing is now extant to prove that, if this lady really existed, she was the Laura of the Canzoniere, while there are reasons for suspecting that the abbé was either the fabricator of a romance flattering to his own family, or the dupe of some previous impostor We may, however, reject the sceptical hypothesis that Laura was a mere figment of Petrarch’s fancy, and, if we accept her personal reality, the poems of her lover demonstrate that she was a married woman with whom he enjoyed a respectful and not very intimate friendship.
Petrarch’s inner life after this date is mainly occupied with the passion which he celebrated in his Italian poems, and with the friendships which his Latin epistles dimly reveal to us Besides the bishop of Lombez he was now on terms of intimacy with another member of the great Colonna family, the cardinal Giovanni. A German, Ludwig, whom he called Socrates, and a Roman, Lello, who received from him the classic name of Laellius were among his best-loved associates. Avignon was the chief seat of his residence up to the year of 1333, when he became restless and undertook his first long journey. On this occasion he visited Paris, Ghent, Liege, Cologne, making the acquaintance of learned men and copying the manuscripts of classical authors. On his return to Avignon he engaged in public affairs, pleaded the cause of the Scaligers in their lawsuit with the Rossi for the lordship of Parma, and addressed two poetical epistles to Pope Benedict XII. upon the restoration of the papal see to Rome His eloquence on behalf of the tyrants of Verona was successful It won him the friendship of their ambassador, Azzo di Correggio—a fact which subsequently influenced his life in no small measure. Not very long after these events Petrarch made his first journey to Rome, a journey memorable from the account which he has left us of the impression he received from its ruins.
It was some time in the year 1337 that he established himself at Vaucluse and began that life of solitary study, heightened by communion with nature in her loneliest and wildest moods, which distinguished him in so remarkable a degree from the common herd of medieval scholars. Here he spent his time partly among books, meditating on Roman history, and preparing himself for the Latin epic of Africa. In his hours of recreation he climbed the hills or traced the Sorgues from its fountain under those tall limestone cliffs, while odes and sonnets to Madonna Laura were committed from his memory to paper. We may also refer many of his most important treatises in prose, as well as a large portion of his Latin correspondence, to the leisure he enjoyed in this retreat. Some woman, unknown to us by name, made him the father of a son, Giovanni, in the year 1337; and she was probably the same who brought him a daughter, Francesca, in 1343. Both children were afterwards legitimized by papal bulls Meanwhile his fame as a poet in the Latin and the vulgar tongues steadily increased, until, when the first draughts of the Africa began to circulate about the year 1339, it became manifest that no one had a better right to the laurel crown than Petrarch. A desire for glory was one of the most deeply-rooted passions of his nature, and one of the points in which he most strikingly anticipated the humanistic scholars who succeeded him. It is not, therefore, surprising to find that he exerted his influence in several quarters with the view to obtaining the honours of a public coronation. The result of his intrigues was that on a single day in 1340, the first of September, he received two invitations, from the university of Paris and from King Robert of Naples respectively. He chose to accept the latter, journeyed in February 1341 to Naples, was honourably entertained by the king, and, after some formal disputations on matters touching the poet’s art, was sent with magnificent credentials to Rome. There, in the month of April, Petrarch assumed the poet’s crown upon the Capitol from the hand of the Roman senator amid the plaudits of the people and the patricians. The oration which he delivered on this occasion was composed upon these words of Virgil—
The ancient and the modern eras met together on the Capitol at Petrarch’s coronation, and a new stadium for the human spirit, that which we are wont to style Renaissance, was opened.
With the coronation in Rome a fresh chapter in the biography of Petrarch may be said to have begun. Henceforth he ranked as a rhetorician and a poet of European celebrity, the guest of princes, and the ambassador to royal courts During the spring months of 1341 his friend Azzo di Correggio had succeeded in freeing Parma from subjugation to the Scaligers, and was laying the foundations of his own tyranny in that city. He invited Petrarch to attend him when he made his triumphal entry at the end of May; and from this time forward for a considerable period Parma and Vaucluse were the two headquarters of the poet. The one he called his Transalpine, the other his Cisalpine Parnassus. The events of the next six years of his life, from May 1341 to May 1347, may be briefly recapitulated. He lost his old friend the bishop of Lombez by death and his brother Gherardo by the entrance of the latter into a Carthusian monastery. Various small benefices were conferred upon him; and repeated offers of a papal secretaryship, which would have raised him to the highest dignities, were made and rejected. Petrarch remained true to the instinct of his own vocation, and had no intention of sacrificing his studies and his glory to ecclesiastical ambition. In January 1343 his old friend and patron Robert, king of Naples, died, and Petrarch was sent on an embassy from the papal court to his successor ]oan. The notices which he has left us of Neapolitan society at this epoch are interesting, and, it was now, perhaps, that he met Boccaccio for the first time. The beginning of the year 1345 was marked by an event more interesting in the scholar's eyes than any change in dynasties. This was no less than a discovery at Verona of Cicero's Familiar Letters. It is much to be regretted that Petrarch found the precious MS. so late in life, when the style of his own epistles had been already modelled upon that of Seneca and St Augustine. In the month of May 1347 Cola di Rienzi accomplished that extraordinary revolution which for a short space revived the republic in Rome, and raised this enthusiast to titular equality with kings. Petrarch, who in politics was no less visionary than Rienzi, hailed the advent of a founder and deliverer in the self-styled tribune. Without considering the impossibility of restoring the majesty of ancient Rome, or the absurdity of dignifying the medieval Roman rabble by the name of Populus Romanus, he threw himself with passion into the republican movement, and sacrificed his old friends of the Colonna family to what he judged a patriotic duty.
Petrarch built himself a house at Parma in the autumn of 1347. Here he hoped to pursue the tranquil avocations of a poet honoured by men of the world and men of letters throughout Europe, and of an idealistic politician, whose effusions on the questions of the day were read with pleasure for their style. But in the course of the next two years this agreeable prospect was overclouded by a series of calamities. Laura died of the plague on the 6th of April 1348. Francesco degli Albizzi, Mainardo Accursio, Roberto de' Bardi, Se11nuccio del Bene, Luchino Visconti, the cardinal Giovanni Colonna and several other friends followed to the grave in rapid succession. All of these had been intimate acquaintances and correspondents of the poet. Friendship with him was a passion; or, what is more true perhaps, he needed friends for the maintenance of his intellectual activity at the highest point of its effectiveness. Therefore he felt the loss of these men acutely. We may say with certainty that Laura's death, accompanied by that of so many distinguished associates, was the turning-point in Petrarcl1's inner life. He began to think of quitting the world, and pondered a plan for establishing a kind of humanistic convent, where he might dedicate himself, in the company of kindred spirits, to still severer studies and a closer communion with God. Though nothing came of this scheme, a marked change was henceforth perceptible in Petrarch's literary compositions. The poems written In Marte di Madonna Laura are graver and of more religious tone. The prose works touch on retrospective topics or deal with subjects of deep meditation. At the same time his renown, continually spreading, opened to him ever fresh relations with Italian despots. The noble houses of Gonzaga at Mantua, it Carrara at Padua, of Este at Ferrara, of Malatesta at Rimini, of Visconti at Milan, vied with Azzo di Correggio in entertaining the illustrious man of letters. It was in vain that his correspondents pointed out the discrepancy between his professed zeal for Italian liberties, his 1'ecent enthusiasm for the Roman republic, and this alliance with tyrants who were destroying the freedom of the Lombard cities Petrarch remained an incurable rhetorician; and, while he stigmatized the despots in his ode to Italy and in his epistles to the emperor he accepted their hospitality They, on their part, seem to have understood his temperament, and to have agreed to recognize his political theories as of no practical importance. The tendency to honour men of letters and to patronize the arts which distinguished Italian princes throughout the Renaissance period first manifested itself in the attitude assumed by Visconti and Carraresi to Petrarch. When the jubilee of 1350 was proclaimed, Petrarch made a pilgrimage to Rome, passing and returning through Florence, where he established a firm friendship with Boccaccio. It has been well remarked that, while all his other friendships are shadowy and dim, this one alone stands out with clearness. Each of the two friends had a distinguished personality. Each played a foremost part in the revival of learning. Boccaccio carried his admiration for Petrarch to the point of worship Petrarch repaid him with sympathy, counsel in literary studies, and moral support which helped to elevate and purify the younger poet's over sensuous nature. It was Boccaccio who in the spring of 1351 brought to Petrarch, then resident with the Carrara family at Padua, an invitation from the seignior of Florence to accept the rector ship of their recently founded university. This was accompanied by a diploma of restoration to his rights as citizen and restitution of his patrimony. But, flattering as was the ofier, Petrarch declined it. He preferred his literary leisure at Vaucluse, at Parma, in the courts of princes, to a post which would have brought him into contact with jealous priors and have reduced him to the position of the servant of a commonwealth. Accordingly, we find him journeying again in 1351 to Vaucluse, again refusing the office of papal secretary, again planning visionary reforms for the Roman people, and beginning that curious fragment of an autobiography which is known as the Epistle to Posterity. Early in 1353 he left Avignon for the last time, and entered Lombardy by the pass of Mont Genevre, making his way immediately to Milan. The archbishop Giovanni Visconti was at this period virtually despot of Milan. He induced Petrarch, who had long been a friend of the Visconti family, to establish himself at his court, where he found employment for him as ambassador and orator. The most memorable of his diplomatic missions was to Venice in the autumn of 1353. Towards the close of the long struggle between Genoa and the republic of St Mark the Genoese entreated Giovanni Visconti to mediate on their behalf with the Venetians. Petrarch was entrusted with the office; and on the 8th of November he delivered a studied oration before the doge Andrea Dandolo and the great council. His eloquence had no effect; but the orator entered into relations with the Venetian aristocracy which were afterwards extended and confirmed. Meanwhile, Milan continued to be his place of residence. After Giovanni's death he remained in the court of Bernabo and Galeazzo Visconti, closing his eyes to their cruelties and ex actions, serving them as a diplomatist, making speeches for them on ceremonial occasions, and partaking of the splendid hospitality they ofiered to emperors and princes. It was in this capacity of an independent man of letters, highly placed and favoured at one of the most wealthy courts of Europe, that he addressed epistles to the emperor Charles IV. upon the distracted state of Italy, and entreated him to resume the old Ghibelline policy of Imperial interference. Charles IV. passed through Mantua in the autumn of 1354. There Petrarch made his acquaintance, and, finding him a man unfit for any noble enterprise, declined attending him to Rome. When Charles returned to Germany, after assuming the crowns in Rome and Milan. Petrarch addressed a letter of vehement invective and reproach to the emperor who was so negligent of the duties imposed on him by his high office. This did not prevent the Visconti sending him on an embassy to Charles in 1356. Petrarch found him at Prague, and, after pleading the cause of his masters, was dispatched with honour and the diploma of count palatine. His student's life at Milan was again interrupted in 1360 by a mission on which Galeazzo Visconti sent him to King John of France. The tyrants of Milan were aspiring to royal alliances; Gian Galeazzo Visconti had been married to Isabella of France; Violante Visconti, a few years later, was wedded to the English duke of Clarence. Petrarch was now commissioned to congratulate King John upon his liberation from captivity to England. This duty performed, he returned to Milan, where in 1361 he received news of the deaths of his son Giovanni and his old friend Socrates. Both had been carried off by plague.
The remaining years of Petrarch’s life, important as they were for the furtherance of humanistic studies, may be briefly condensed. On the 11th of May 1362 he settled at Padua, from the neighbourhood of which he never moved again to any great distance. The same year saw him at Venice, making a donation of his library to the republic of St Mark. Here his friend Boccaccio introduced to him the Greek teacher Leontius Pilatus. Petrarch, who possessed a MS. of Homer and a portion of Plato, never acquired the Greek language, although he attempted to gain some little knowledge of it in his later years. Homer, he said, was dumb to him, while he was deaf to Homer; and he could only approach the Iliad in Boccaccio’s rude Latin version. About this period he saw his daughter Francesca happily married, and undertook the education of a young scholar from Ravenna, whose sudden disappearance from his household caused him the deepest grief This youth has been identified, but on insufficient grounds, with that Giovanni Malpaghini of Ravenna who was destined to form a most important link between Petrarch and the humanists of the next age of culture. Gradually his oldest friends dropped off. Azzo di Correggio died in 1362, and Laelius, Simonides, Barbato, in the following year. His own death was reported in 1365, but he survived another decade. Much of this last stage of his life was occupied at Padua in a controversy with the Averroists, whom he regarded as dangerous antagonists both to sound religion and to sound culture. A curious treatise, which grew in part out of this dispute and out of a previous duel with physicians, was the book Upon his own Ignorance and that of many others. At last, in 1369, tired with the bustle of a town so big as Padua, he retired to Arqua, a village in Euganean hills, where he continued his usual train of literary occupations, employing several secretaries, and studying unremittingly. All through these declining years his friendship with Boccaccio was maintained and strengthened. It rested on a solid basis of mutual affection and of common studies, the different temperaments of the two scholars securing them against the disagreements of rivalry or jealousy. One of Petrarch’s last compositions was a Latin version of Boccaccio’s story of Griselda. On the 18th of July 1374 his people found the old poet and scholar dead among his books in the library of that little house which looks across the hills and lowlands towards the Adriatic.
When we attempt to estimate Petrarch’s position in the history of modern culture, the first thing which strikes us is that he was even less eminent as an Italian poet than as the founder of Humanism, the inaugurator of the Renaissance in Italy. What he achieved for the modern world was not merely to bequeath to his Italian imitators masterpieces of lyrical art unrivalled for perfection of workmanship, but also, and far more, to open out for Europe a new sphere of mental activity. Standing within the threshold of the middle ages, he surveyed the kingdom of the modern spirit, and, by his own inexhaustible industry in the field of scholarship and study, he determined what we call the revival of learning. By bringing the men of his own generation into sympathetic contact with antiquity, he gave a decisive impulse to that European movement which restored freedom. self-consciousness, and the faculty of progress to the human intellect. He was the first man to collect libraries, to accumulate coins, to advocate the preservation of MSS. For him the authors of the Greek and Latin world were living men—more real, in fact, than those with whom he corresponded; and the rhetorical epistles he addressed to Cicero, Seneca and Varro prove that he dwelt with them on terms of sympathetic intimacy. So far-reaching were the interests controlled by him in this capacity of humanist that his achievement as an Italian lyrist seems by comparison insignificant.
Petrarch’s ideal of humanism was essentially a noble one He regarded the orator and the poet as teachers, bound to complete themselves by education, and to exhibit to the world an image of perfected personality in prose and verse of studied beauty. Self-culture and self-effectuation seemed to him the highest aims of man. Everything which contributed to the formation of a free, impassioned, liberal individuality he regarded as praiseworthy. Everything which retarded the attainment of that end was contemptible in his eyes. The authors of antiquity, the Holy Scriptures and the fathers of the Church were valued by him as one common source of intellectual enlightenment. Eminently religious, and orthodox in his convictions, he did not seek to substitute a pagan for the Christian ideal. This was left for the scholars of the 15th and 16th centuries in Italy. At the same time, the Latin orators, historians and poets were venerated by him as depositories of a tradition only second in importance to revelation. For him there was no schism between Rome and Galilee, between classical genius and sacred inspiration. Though the latter took the first rank in relation to man’s eternal welfare, the former was necessary for the perfection of his intellect and the civilization of his manners. With this double ideal in view, Petrarch poured scorn upon the French physicians and the Italian Averroists for their illiberal philistinism, no less than for their materialistic impiety. True to his conception of independent intellectual activity, he abstained from a legal career, refused important ecclesiastical office, and contented himself with paltry benefices which implied no spiritual or administrative duties, because he was resolved to follow the one purpose of his life—self-culture. Whatever in literature revealed the hearts of men was infinitely precious to him; and for this reason he professed almost a cult for St Augustine. It was to Augustine, as to a friend or a confessor, that he poured forth the secrets of his own soul in the book De contemptu mundi.
In this effort to realize his truest self Petrarch was eminently successful. Much as he effected by restoring to the world a sound conception of learning, and by rousing that genuine love and curiosity which led to the revival, he did even more by impressing on the age his own full-formed and striking personality. In all things he was original. Whether we regard him as a priest who published poem after poem in praise of an adored mistress, as a plebeian man of letters who conversed on equal terms with kings and princes, as a solitary dedicated to the love of nature, as an amateur diplomatist treating affairs of state with pompous eloquence in missives sent to popes and emperors, or again as a traveller eager for change of scene, ready to climb mountains for the enjoyment of broad prospects over spreading campaigns; in all these divers manifestations of his peculiar genius we trace some contrast with the manners of the 14th century, some emphatic anticipation of the 16th. The defects of Petrarch’s character were no less striking than its qualities, and were indeed their complement and counterpart. That vivid conception of intellectual and moral self-culture which determined his ideal took the form in actual life of all-absorbing egotism. He was not content with knowing himself to be the leader of the age. He claimed autocracy, suffered no rival near his throne, brooked no contradiction, demanded unconditional submission to his will and judgment. Petrarch was made up of contradictions. Praising solitude, playing the hermit at Vaucluse, he only loved seclusion as a contrast to the society of courts. While he penned dissertations on the futility of fame and the burden of celebrity he was trimming his sails to catch the breeze of popular applause. No one professed a more austere morality, and few medieval writers indulged in cruder satire on the female sex; yet he passed some years in the society of a concubine, and his living masterpiece of art is the apotheosis of chivalrous passion for a woman. These discords of an undecided nature displayed themselves in his political theories and in his philosophy of conduct. In one mood he was fain to ape the antique patriot; in another he affected the monastic saint. He was clamorous for the freedom of the Roman people; yet at one time he called upon the popes to re-establish themselves in the Eternal City; at another he besought the emperor to make it his headquarters; at a third he hailed in Rienzi the founder of a new republic. He did not perceive that all these plans were incompatible. His relations to the Lombard nobles were equally at variance with his professed patriotism; and, while still a housemate of Visconti and Correggi, he kept on issuing invectives against the tyrants who divided Italy. It would not be difficult to multiply these antitheses in the character and the opinions of this singular man But it is more to the purpose to remark that they were harmonized in a personality of potent and enduring force
The point to notice in this complex personality is that Petrarch’s ideal remained always literary. As philosopher, politician, historian, essayist, orator, he aimed at lucid and harmonious expression-not, indeed, neglecting the importance of the material he undertook to treat, but approaching his task in the spirit of an artist rather than a thinker or a man of action. This accounts for his bewildering versatility, and for his apparent want of grasp on conditions of fact. Viewed in this light Petrarch anticipated the Italian Renaissance in its weakness that philosophical superticiahty, that tendency to ornate rhetoric, that preoccupation with stylistic trifies, that want of profound conviction and stern sincerity, which stamp its minor literary products with the note of mediocrity. Had Petrarch been possessed with a passion for some commanding principle in politics, morality or science, instead of with the thirst for self glorification and the ideal of artistic culture, it is not wholly impossible that Italian humanism might have assumed a manlier and more conscientious tone. But this is not a question which admits of discussion, for the conditions which made Petrarch what he was were already potent in Italian society He did but express the spirit of the period he opened, and it may also be added that his own ideal was higher and severer than that of the illustrious humanists who followed him.
As an author Petrarch must be considered from two points of view-first as a writer of Latin verse and prose, secondly as an Italian lyrist. In the former capacity he was speedily outstripped by more fortunate scholars His eclogues and epistles and the epic of Africa, on which he set such store, exhibit a comparatively limited command of Latin metre. His treatises, orations, and familiar letters, though remarkable for a prose style which is eminently characteristic of the man, are not distinguished by purity of diction. Much as he admired Cicero, it is clear that he had not freed himself from current medieval Latinity. Seneca and Augustine had been too much used by him as models of composition. At the same time it will be conceded that he possessed a copious vocabulary, a fine ear for cadence, and the faculty of expressing every shade of thought or feeling What he lacked was that insight into the best classical masterpieces, that command of the best classical diction, which is the product of successive generations of scholarship. To attain to this, Giovanni da Ravenna, Colluccio Salutato, Poggio and Filelfo had to labour, before a Pohziano and a Bembo finally prepared the path for an Erasmus. Had Petrarch been born at the close of the 15th instead of at the opening of the 14th century there is no doubt that his Latinity would have been as pure, as versatile, and as pointed as that of the witty stylist of Rotterdam.
With regard to his Italian poetry Petrarch occupies a very different position. The Rime in Vita e Morte di Madonna Laura cannot become obsolete, for perfect metrical form has here been married to language of the choicest and the purest. It is true that even in the Canzoniere, as Italians prefer to call that collection of lyrics, Petrarch is not devoid of faults belonging to his age, and affectations which have imposed themselves with disastrous effect through his authority upon the literature of Europe. He appealed in his odes and sonnets to a restricted audience already educated by the chivalrous love-poetry of Provence and by Italian imitations of that style He was not careful to exclude the commonplaces of the school, nor anxious to finish a work of art wholly free from fashionable graces and from contemporary conceits. There is therefore a certain element of artificiality in his treatment, and this, since it is easier to copy defects than excellencies, has been perpetuated with wearisome monotony by versifiers who chose him for their model But, after making due allowance for peculiarities, the abuse of which has brought the name of Petrarchist into contempt, we can agree with Shelley that the lyrics of the Canzonzere “are as spells which unseal the inmost enchanted fountains of the delight which is the grief of love”. Much might be written about the peculiar position held by Petrarch between the metaphysical lyrists of Tuscany and the more realistic amorists of succeeding generations. True in this respect also to his anticipation of the coming age, he was the first Italian poet of love to free himself from allegory and mysticism. Yet he was far from approaching the analysis of emotion with the directness of a Heine or De Musset. Though we believe in the reality of Laura, we derive no clear conception either of her person or her character. She is not so much a woman as woman in the abstract; and perhaps on this very account the poems written for her by her lover have been taken to the heart by countless lovers who came after him. The method of his art is so generalizing, while his feeling is so natural, that every man can see himself reflected in the singer and his mistress shadowed forth in Laura. The same criticism might be passed on Petrarch’s descriptions of nature. That he felt the beauties of nature keenly is certain, and he frequently touches them with obvious appreciation Yet he has written nothing so characteristic of Vaucluse as to be inapplicable to any solitude where there are woods and water The Canzoniere is therefore one long melodious monody poured from the poet’s soul, with the indefinite form of a beautiful woman seated in a lovely landscape, a perpetual object of delightful contemplation This disengagement from local circumstance without the sacrifice of emotional sincerity is a merit in Petrarch, but it became a fault in his imitators. Lacking his intensity of passion and his admirable faculty for seizing the most evanescent shades of difference in feeling, they degenerated into colourless and lifeless insipidities made insupportable by the frigid repetition of tropes and conceits which we are fain to pardon in the master.
Petrarch did not distinguish himself by love-poetry alone in the Italian language. His odes to Giacomo Colonna, to Cola di Rienzi and to the princes of Italy display him in another light. They exhibit the oratorical fervour, the pleader’s eloquence in its most perfect lustre, which Petrarch possessed in no less measure than subjective passion. Modern literature has nothing nobler, nothing more harmonious in the declamatory style than these three patriotic effusions. Their spirit itself is epoch-making in the history of Europe. Up to this point Italy had scarcely begun to exist. There were Florentines and Lombards, Guelfs and Ghibellines; but even Dante had scarcely conceived of Italy as a nation, independent of the empire, inclusive of her several component commonwealths. To the high conception of Italian nationality, to the belief in that spiritual unity which underlay her many discords and divisions, Petrai ch attained partly through his disengagement from civic and local partisanship, partly through his large and liberal ideal of culture.
verse close the list. In Italian we possess the Canzoniere, which includes odes and sonnets written for Laura during her lifetime, those written for her after her death, and a miscellaneous section containing the three patriotic odes and three famous poetical invectives against the papal court. Besides these lyrical compositions are the semi-epical or allegorical Trionfi—Triumphs of Love, Chastity, Death, Fame, Time and Divinity, written in terza rima of smooth and limpid quality. Though these Triumphs, as a whole, are deficient in poetic inspiration, the second canto of the Trionfo della morte, in which Petrarch describes a vision of his dead love Laura, is justly famous for reserved passion and pathos tempered to a tranquil harmony.
The complete bibliography of Petrarch forms a considerable volume. Such a work was attempted by Domenico Rossetti (Trieste, 1828). It will be enough here to mention the Basel edition of 1581, in folio, as the basis for all subsequent editions of his collected works. Among editions of the Canzoniere special mention may be made of those of Marsand (Padua, 1820), Leopardi in Le Monnier’s collection, Mestica (1895), and Cardnui (1899). Nor must Fracassetti’s Italian version of the Letters (published in 5 vols. by Le Monnier) be neglected. De Sade’s Life of the poet (Amsterdam, 1764–1767) marks an epoch in the history of his numerous biographies, but this is in many important points untrustworthy, and it has been superseded by Gustav Koerting’s exhaustive volume on Petrarcas Leben und Werke (Leipzig, 1878). Georg Voigt’s Wiederbelebung des classischen Alterthums (Berlin, 1859) contains a well-digested estimate of Petrarch’s relation to the revival of learning. Mezière’s Petrarque (1868) is a monograph of merit. English readers may be referred to a little book on Petrarch by Henry Reeve, and to vols ii. and iv. of Symond’s Renaissance in Italy. See also Maud F. Jerrold, Francesco Petrarca, poet andhumanist (1909).
(J. A. S.)