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C.D. Warner, et al., comp. The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes. 1917.

Critical and Biographical Introduction by Joel Foote Bingham (1827–1914)

By Petrarch (1304–1374)

THE SECOND of the “Great Four” poets of Italy occupied with his more than two-thirds of the fourteenth century: being at once widely influential in its affairs of State, as well as its leading man of letters, and by far its most illustrious poet. He was for his first seventeen years a contemporary with the first and greatest of the four, and like him, by inheritance, of the party of the Bianchi and an exile from Florence; and affected, though in a milder measure, by political vicissitudes, which to a large extent determined, as in the case of his great predecessor, the direction of his activities and the destiny and happiness of his life.

The times, of which both were in an important sense the product, were fast changing, and already much changed from those which had shaped Dante’s career. Clement V. in 1305 transferred the seat of the popes to Avignon. The Empire, the shadow of a great name, had begun its decline in Italy. It made its last struggles in the chivalrous enterprises of Henry VII. of Luxemburg; failed in 1313 by the successful resistance of the Florentines; and the coming of Louis of Bavaria in 1323 did not avail to raise it up. The Guelfs were strong again by the power of Florence, and of Robert, King of Naples. The national arms were declining; and the volunteer “companies” (le compagnie di ventura) were getting a greater footing in Italy—composed at first of foreigners, later also of Italians, affecting and worrying Petrarch to the last degree. They were mercenary bands, to whom warfare was a trade to live by, and who hired themselves out to various princes, dukes, etc.; and many cities by their aid were setting out to become independent dominions, lordships, marquisates, dukedoms, etc. The Visconti, victorious over the Torriani, were coming to the front in Milan; at Verona, the Scaligers, the family of Este—with whom, two hundred years later, the destiny of Tasso is to be so tragically commingled—were establishing their splendid marquisate at Ferrara. At Florence, the Duke of Athens, attempting to secure the lordship there, was put down; and with him the nobles went under, the common people and the merchants came uppermost, and the supremacy of the Medici was gradually prepared. The republics of Genoa and Venice contended in bitter warfare, and the latter rose to supremacy upon the land as well as by sea.

In these troublous times of transition and tumult, though an exile and wanderer like Dante before him (with less suffering indeed from external causes), his remarkable personal beauty, his natural bonhomie, his enormous learning, his vast general knowledge, his intense patriotism, and his marvelous industry, brought him to exert an astonishing influence over the great and powerful, and to live in the veneration and friendship of the noblest and most exalted in the world. He could count among personal friends several popes; the Correggios, lords of Parma, the Colonnas of Rome, the Visconti of Milan, the Carraras of Padua, the Gonzagas of Mantua; Robert, King of Naples; the Emperor Charles IV. He was invited in turn by them all, was consulted by them, was employed by them on important matters of State. He was sent by the nobles and people of Rome to Clement VI. on the great endeavor to persuade him to remove his residence from Avignon to Rome. Although this effort was unsuccessful, he afterward wrote a letter in Latin to Clement’s successor, Urban V., urging the same request; and he soon after removed to Rome. In short, his opportunities in the character of the age, and his own qualifications in respect of statesmanship, learning, and the poetic gift, were so extraordinary, and were improved by him with such tireless activity, that his influence upon his contemporaries in each direction was prodigious and unique, and his contemporary reputation almost or quite unparalleled.

The family of Petrarch came from Incisa nel Valdarno, a little hamlet some twenty-five miles southeast of Florence; and was of the gente nuova (new folk) of Florence. Francesco’s father was Master Petracco or Petraccolo (Peter), son of Garzo, of whom our Petrarch speaks reverently.

Petracco, whose name the son afterwards Latinized as his own cognomen into Petrarca, was “cancelliere delle riformagione”; an officer of the law somewhat corresponding to the modern English “clerk of court,” but with larger duties. As a “Guelfo Bianco” (White Guelph), or moderate partisan of the Pope, he had been banished in 1302, and had fled for refuge to Arezzo, some thirty-five miles beyond Incisa in the same direction; and here on the 20th of July, 1304, was born to him the son Francesco,—it is uncertain whether by Niccolosa Sigoli or by Eletta Canigiani, or whether in either case the nuptials were ever blessed by the Church. In those days of confusion there was much irregularity in such matters even among fairly good people. Francesco passed the first seven years with the mother at Incisa; afterward he followed the father and the family to Pisa.

Here he began his first studies, which were to tower to such a marvelous height, under the famous grammarian Convonevole da Prato; then, so happily for him, living in Pisa. Whether from choice, or being still too near to Florence for safety, the exiled father and partisan churchman removed, and established his family, consisting of the mother and certainly one brother of Francesco, in Avignon in France, the then home of the wandering popes. Happily again for Francesco, now between twelve and fifteen years of age, Convonevole had come into France, and settled at Carpentras, some fifteen miles northeast of Avignon. Here he was sent by the father to pursue his studies under his old preceptor. In 1319 he was sent to Montpellier, to begin the study of jurisprudence, which he afterward carried forward in Bologna. He had never felt any inclination toward legal science, but was to the highest degree fond of the study of literature. Absorbed in this, his legal studies naturally suffered. By abstemious living and denying himself many comforts, he had also acquired a considerable number of valuable manuscripts of the Greek and Latin authors, which were rare and costly in that age. His father, however, was not pleased that for the sake of these classics he should neglect the legal studies, which were then the principal road to preferment and wealth: and during a visit to his father in 1325 (as the poet himself relates in his ‘Old Man’s Memories’), the father burned many of these precious books, and only left, through the prayers and tears of the son, Cicero’s ‘De Oratore’ and the works of Virgil; which books became, from that moment to his dying day, those which he loved above all others. After the death of his father, which happened in 1326 while he was still a student at Bologna, he returned to make his home at Avignon; and soon entered into the ecclesiastical state. Although he was never in any but minor orders, he obtained during his life many benefices. The indispensable requirements of this condition were the tonsure, the clerical dress, and the daily recitation of the “Divine office.” His breviary is still preserved in the library of the Vatican. He continued his favorite studies in Avignon; solacing himself in a youthful way, he regretfully tells us, in the gallant and licentious life of that city.

During the first year of his settled residence here occurred the event which was destined, more than any other through the rest of his life, to influence his thoughts, his writings, and his happiness. He himself tells us that on Good Friday, in the year 1327, being in the church of the convent of St. Claire, in Avignon, he was struck by the beauty of a young lady near him, younger than himself, in a green mantle sprinkled with violets, on which her golden hair fell in plaited tresses. She was distinguished from all others by her proud and delicate carriage. From this moment was conceived in his heart an infinite admiration and love for her. He says her name was Laura, but her family name he never mentions. There has been much discussion and controversy as to who this lady was, or even whether she ever had any other reality than the fervid allegorical idea in the poet’s brain. But he tells us that she was nineteen years old and had been two years married; and from many allusions of his own and the words of contemporaries, it seems almost certain that she was in fact the daughter of Audibert de Noves, and the wife of Hugues de Sade, and became the mother of fully eleven children. She died in 1348, a victim of the plague.

When the news of her death reached Petrarch, at the time traveling in Italy, he wrote in Latin the following notice of her as a marginal note in his own favorite copy of Virgil, still preserved in the Ambrosian Library at Milan:—

  • “It was in the prime of my youth, on the 6th of April, at the first hour of the day [the variable ecclesiastical day] in the year 1327, that Laura, distinguished by her virtues, and celebrated in my verses, in the Church of St. Clara at Avignon first appeared to my eyes. In the same city and at the same hour, in the year 1348, this bright luminary disappeared from the world. Alas, I was then at Verona, ignorant of my wretchedness! Her chaste and beautiful body was laid, the same day, after vespers, in the Church of the Cordeliers. Her soul returned to its home in heaven. I have written this with mingled pleasure and pain, retracing in this book, so often before my eyes, the sad memory of my great loss; that I may constantly remember that there is nothing more left me to live for, since my strongest tie to life has been broken, and may easily renounce this empty and transitory world, and consider, being freed from my bonds, that it is time for me to flee from Babylon.”
  • He had endeavored from the first to stifle his passion, or at least to restrain it within the limits of peaceful admiration and friendship, by a prodigious intensity of serious studies, and at the same time by giving vent to it through a continual stream of sonnets, in which her beauty and worth constituted the supporting thread, around which was woven an ever new and incredible variety of elegant poetic conceits. Unappeased by these means, he sought relief from the tempestuous disquiet of his soul in gathering an extensive library of classical manuscripts, traveling abroad in Italy, France, Germany, Spain, in search of such especially as were accounted lost. He discovered in these journeys the ‘Institutions’ of Quintilian at Arezzo; Cicero’s ‘Familiar Letters’ at Verona; his ‘Letters to Atticus’ somewhere else, and some lost ‘Orations’ at Liège; and he speaks of having seen, though they have not come down to us, Cicero’s treatise ‘On Fame,’ and Varro’s ‘On Divine and Human Things,’ and the ‘Letters of Augustus.’

    In these prodigious and useful and beautiful activities he became everywhere known, and was the wonder and admiration of his age. But the wound of his heart was not to be cured by the ecstasies of poetry, nor the refinements of literature, nor the curiosities of learning, nor the admiration of men. The beautiful magnet at Avignon drew him always back; and that he might be near her, and at the same time be relieved of the presence of the revelry and vice of that shameful court, he built a home in the beautiful and romantic neighboring valley of Vaucluse. This home, which he called such for fully eleven years, became to him the dearest of all, and excited his best inspirations.

    However strange to us to-day (especially us of northern blood), it was and is beyond doubt that the external relations of these celebrated lovers to one another were unimpeachable. Moreover, there are the strongest reasons to believe, from recorded facts and from what we know of his external life and of the intimate workings of his heart, that after some possible weaknesses in the ebullitions of youth,—particularly at Avignon, before his first sight of Laura,—he lived ever afterward with conscientious jealousy against all the excesses of luxury of every sort.

    As an ecclesiastic, he was debarred from matrimony accompanied with the lawful benediction of the Church. But it is well known, from his writings, that Petrarch did not in his heart accept all the teachings of the Church in his day, especially in matters of discipline; and this was only a matter of discipline, not of faith. At all events, among his other struggles for external innocence and heart rest he formed a permanent connection with another woman, who bore him a son and a daughter, whom he publicly recognized and treated with the greatest tenderness. The son, whom he placed under the most celebrated teachers, and from whom he hoped great things but realized only regrets, died in early manhood. The daughter Tullia, characteristically named after Cicero’s famous daughter, who became a great comfort to him in his old age, was well married in Milan; and by his will he made her husband, Francesco da Brossano, his principal heir.

    For the next ten years, though always in motion, he called Vaucluse his home; and from thence poured forth many of his most noted productions. Among these was the Latin heroic poem ‘Africa,’ which shook with applause the learned world, and gained for him the most highly prized honor of his life,—his coronation, on the Campidoglio at Rome, laureate of the Christian world. On the 1st of September, 1340, this honor was offered him by the University of Paris; and a vote of the Roman Senate invited him to receive it on the Capitol Hill. It filled his heart most of all with infinite joy that it came in Laura’s lifetime, and that she sweetly and proudly sympathized in this his unparalleled glory. He went by way of Naples, where his royal friend Robert added a sort of ad eundem; and then he passed on to the capital of the world. On the 8th of April, Easter Day, 1341, in the square in front of the remains of the temple of Jupiter Capitolinus, the crown of laurel, with great solemnity, was placed upon his head by the hands of a Senator of Rome, in the presence and amid the tremendous acclamations of a vast and distinguished assembly, the braying of trumpets, and strains of martial music. Petrarch then pronounced an oration on ‘Poetry and Fame.’ When all was over, he carried the crown to St. Peter’s and set it upon the altar, an offering of pious gratitude and joy.

    The remainder of his external life is mostly a record of journeys and removals and brief sojourns in France and Northern Italy. Besides Vaucluse, he had houses at Parma, at Modena, at Bologna, at Verona, at Milan, at Venice, at Padua; whence he made his last removal in 1370 to Arquà del Monte, a most romantic little village among the Euganean Hills. In the outskirts even of this sequestered hamlet, he set an orchard, planted a garden, and built a modest house, which, with some reminiscences of its illustrious owner, such as faded frescoes in allusion to his poems, is still accessible to visitors,—the only one of all his residences which can to-day be identified. Here, on the 20th day of July, 1374, his seventieth birthday, he was found by his friend Lombardo da Serico dead in his study, with his head reclined on a book. He had a grand funeral, and was buried in front of the village church. His monument is a sarcophagus on short columns of red marble. Upon it is a more recent bust of the poet. Beneath is the following rhymed hexameter triplet:—

  • “Frigida Francisci lapis hic tegit ossa Petrarci.
  • Suscipe Virgo parens animam! Sate virgine, parce!
  • Fessaque nam terris cœli requiescat in arce.”
  • The substance of which is:—
  • This stone covers the mortal remains of Francis Petrarch;
  • O Virgin mother, receive his soul! Son of the Virgin, have mercy on it!
  • His earthly life was weary; let him have rest in the heavenly temple.
  • In enormous and almost incredible learning, as well as in contemporary and succeeding poetical fame, Petrarch was and is only second to Dante. He differed greatly from him, however, in several capital qualities. The temper of Dante was pre-eminently democratic; and the spirit of all his writings aimed at instructing and elevating the people, and in particular at building up the vulgar tongue. Petrarch was a literary aristocrat, and despised the vulgar tongue; but his labors in behalf of the Latin classics—in which he was no doubt even more deeply learned than his great predecessor—were unparalleled and invaluable; and so great, indeed, was the encouragement which he gave to the studies in Latin, that he may fairly be regarded as the father of the revival of the vulgar literature, and of the classic art which became transfused into it.

    Judged by the cold blood of later times, Petrarch was an over-enthusiastic admirer of ancient Rome and her glories. It was an exaggerated picture, perhaps (if that were possible), which he drew of her grandeur in his ‘Africa,’ written in Latin hexameters, where he paints with superb eloquence Scipio, Lælius, Masinissa, Ennius, and other great characters; ornamenting his poem with splendid descriptions and artificial orations. But by it he won his laureateship; and it was through the possession of this “exaggerated” zeal that he became the admirer and friend of Cola di Rienzo, and was inspired to write that immortal canzone which still kindles every true Italian heart, ‘Spirto Gentil,’ given at the end of this article in Major Macgregor’s very good translation. That this sentiment was founded in loyal patriotism, as he understood it, would be sufficiently evinced, if we had nothing more, by the celebrated canzone ‘Italia Mia,’ which is here given in the almost perfect translation of Lady Dacre. Surely never has patriotic affection been clothed in warmer or more exquisite numbers.

    Without deciding whether it was a cause or a consequence of his “exaggerated” love and admiration of Roman antiquity, it is a fact that in familiarity with, and in abundance and elegance of writing in, the Latin tongue, he has not even been approached by any other modern. He left a very great number of works in Latin, both prose and verse, upon a very great variety of subjects, religious, political, philosophical; for the most part of no inherent interest to-day, and far too numerous to be even named here. Some of the more famous and curious will show their drift by their titles: ‘De Remediis Utriusque Fortunæ’ (Concerning the Remedies for Either Fortune), developing the doctrine of the Stoics, that “Not the good things of life are truly good, nor the ills truly bad, but that the good consists in subduing the passions”; ‘De Vita Solitaria’ (On Solitude); ‘De Otio Religiosorum’ (On the Soul-Rest of the Religious), written after his visit to his brother, who was a monk; ‘Secretum’ (Private), a confession to St. Augustine in the presence of personified Truth,—an important work for understanding the mind of Petrarch, and the true nature of his love for the lady Laura. There are many volumes of letters in Latin, sometimes in prose, sometimes in verse, often really a short treatise or oration: the ‘Familiari’ (To a Friend); ‘Senili’ (To an Old Man), one of which is really a Latin translation of the story of Griselda in the ‘Decameron’; ‘Variæ’ (Miscellanies); one, ‘Ad Posteros’ (To Posterity), brings his autobiography up to the year 1351. He says he had burned more than he preserved.

    Petrarch differed from Dante in another aspect, which is twofold. Dante is often rough and sometimes imperfect in his numbers; but his invention is Homeric, and never sleeps. Petrarch’s invention is often dull; but the utmost refinement and perfection of poetic style, and the extreme finish of every line, are never absent.

    Still another distinction between them, though each was marvelous in his own way, is that Dante is a universal poet, embracing in his matter the whole sphere of theology, science, and politics, as well as all places from the center of the earth to the zenith of the highest heaven, and all times from the creation of the world to the final Judgment Day; whereas the only matter of Petrarch in his Italian poetry is the passion of human love, and this all centered about one beautiful woman. The ‘Canzoniere,’ on which his immortal fame depends, consist of more than three hundred sonnets, canzoni, sestine, dancing-songs, and pastorals, and with a half-dozen exceptions, chiefly patriotic. There is not one in which his love for Laura is not wrought in, either as foundation or ornament.

    This might well enough be expected to produce an intolerable monotony; and theoretically, the more familiar one should become with them the more sensibly the monotony would be felt. Except in the work of an extraordinary genius, equipped with superlative art, this must undoubtedly hold good. But in fact, in the case of Petrarch the opposite is true. The character of monotony is not really there; and the more often one reads the “Rhymes,” the less of monotony is felt, and the more particular and individual each sonnet and canzone is perceived to be. Of this curious paradox the poet Campbell has given a very ingenious and pretty explanation, as follows:—

  • “This monotony,” he says, “impresses the reader exactly in proportion to the slenderness of his acquaintance with the poet. Approaching the sonnets for the first time, they may probably appear to him as like to each other as the sheep of a flock; but when he has become familiar with them, he will perceive an interesting individuality in every sonnet, and will discriminate their individual character as precisely as the shepherd can distinguish every single sheep of his flock by its voice and its face.”
  • Yet again, Dante wrote his great poem in all the panoply of the poetic art, precisely anticipating immortality for himself and his work, with posterity distinctly in his view,—as he tells us over and over again in the ‘Vita Nuova’: while Petrarch calls his Italian poems ‘Nugæ’ (Trifles), which he threw off, in the fugitive transports of his soul, for the eye of one dear lady, according to the varying moods of passion and the changing circumstances of life; of necessity leaving, under all their glittering poetic armor, here and there a vulnerable spot, through which the critics could shoot their querulous shafts, and have often done so. Among these the poet Campbell—whom we have just quoted, and who is as querulous as any—closes his criticisms on what he calls Petrarch’s “affected refinements” and “unnatural conceits” with refreshing frankness, saying: “If I could make out the strongest critical case against him, I should still have to answer this question,—How comes it that Petrarch’s poetry, in spite of all these faults, has been the favorite of the world for five hundred years? So strong a regard for Petrarch is rooted in the mind of Italy, that his renown has grown up like an oak which has reached maturity amidst the storms of ages, and fears not decay from revolving centuries.”

    This answer is very true. But the question returns, “From what extraordinary particulars has arisen this overtopping regard for Petrarch’s poetry in the mind of Italy?” We confidently answer, first, from the “melting melody” of his verse; in which, taking into account the quantity he has left, he easily surpasses all others who have used that harmonious speech. Secondly, that he has treated the tenderest sentiment of universal humanity not only far more copiously, in the mere number of touching lines, than any other Italian poet, but with a marvelous absence of repetition he goes ever on and on with his delicious numbers, drawing ever new similitudes and pictures, which are continually bringing silent thoughts of sweetness to the reader’s mind. Finally, there is in his handiwork a tone all his own, an unwonted and peculiar way of expressing the sentiment of love; not sensual, not conventional, not over-metaphysical, but natural and truly human: in still other words, while clothed with a purity fit for the most virtuous and modest lady’s ear, his lines, radiant with beauty and of bewitching melody, yet breathe a tenderness, a sincerity, a manliness, not surpassed by Tibullus, or any of the most objectionable of the famous old classic pagans.

    It is this quality, so bewitching in the original, of Petrarch’s Italian poetry,—subtle and evanescent as the fragrance of a rose,—in which perhaps lies the greatest difference of all between the two supreme poets of Italy, and renders the stanzas of Petrarch the despair of every translator into a foreign tongue. Not only are the unparalleled melodies of his delicious numbers impossible to be carried over into other measures and other sounds, but the sweet images, as ethereal as the fleecy clouds of June, are shy of another zone.

    No English poet has attempted a complete translation of Petrarch’s Italian poetry. Such translations as exist are fragmentary, by different hands, and of very unequal merit. We have selected the most celebrated morsels, and in the translations which seemed to bring to us the most successfully that which Petrarch has given to those who are native to the language and the scenery of Italy.