Petrarch, Francis (Francesco Petrarca, 1304–1374)
Francesco Petrarca, known in English as Francis Petrarch, was born in Arezzo in 1304. His father, ser Petracco, had been exiled like Dante Alighieri* (1265–1321) from his native Florence in 1301; in 1312 he moved his family to Provence, near the new papal site of Avignon, where Petrarch intermittently spent most of his life and where, on April 6, 1327, he encountered Laura. Whether this was a real or imaginary experience, Laura (and Provence) became the source of his poetic inspiration. Although Petrarch was trained as a lawyer, he took the path of clerical preferment to be free of any utilitarian obligation and devote himself wholeheartedly to the study of classical antiquity—in particular Cicero, Ovid, Livy, and Virgil (he unearthed an important Ciceronian manuscript in Verona)— and to the examination of the writings by the Church fathers, above all St. Augustine (Petrarch was less interested in the scholastic sources of Dante’s thought). Avignon was a religious, political, and intellectual center, where Petrarch received a cosmopolitan upbringing; under the patronage of the powerful Colonna family, he traveled extensively through France, Rhineland, Bohemia, and Italy, which he visited in 1336, 1341, 1343–1345, and 1347–1351, and where he died in 1374.
While Petrarch is principally remembered and celebrated as the
author of Italian poetry—the Rerum vulgarium fragmenta (also known as Canzoniere and Rime sparse), which absorbed him much of his life, and, to a lesser extent, the allegorical dream vision of Trionfi (1340–1374)—it was the unfinished epic poem in Latin Africa, on the second Punic War, that earned him the crown of poet laureate in a solemn ceremony held in Rome in 1341. An ardent admirer of classical culture who is customarily regarded as the precursor of the humanist movement, Petrarch expected his copious literary output in Latin to transmit his worldview and moral legacy, and earn him fame throughout posterity. His devotion to classical antiquity and aspiration to revive it are evident in his Latin works: Africa, written to celebrate the glory of Rome, De viribus illustribus, a biographical compilation of illustrious men of the past, Rerum familiarum, an epistolary collection in twenty-four books modeled on the Ciceronian epistolary
Manuscript he had found in Verona, and Rerum senilium, seventeen additional books of letters.
His Latin works also reveal Petrarch’s aspiration to synthesize classical learning and asceticism with Christianity: De vita solitaria (1346) and De otio reli-gioso (1347) celebrate solitary life and are clearly influenced by the example of religious fervor of Petrarch’s brother, Gherardo, who had become a Carthusian monk in 1342. In his spiritual autobiography, Secretum (De secreto conflictu curarum mearum, 1342–1343), Petrarch displays a keen awareness of his moral situation. The text consists of a dialogue between Petrarch and his spiritual mentor, St. Augustine, which takes place over three days under the silent and watchful eye of Lady Truth. This is a text of supreme importance for the interpretation of Petrarch’s vernacular works; it unveils the extent of the conflict between his immoderate worldly desires (fame, glory, love) and his yearning to repent and espouse a secluded and restrained life. The knowledge of the obstacles facing him, however, did not inspire in Petrarch the kind of radical and permanent change encouraged by Augustine. His lack of resolution is underscored by the strategy he adopted to organize his lyrical sequence, which hinges on the conflict between collecting and scattering (the Fragmenta, fragments, are clearly antithetical to the image of a gathered self championed by Augustine). His position, moreover, is candidly confessed in the concluding line of a poem from the Fragmenta that echoes the Secretum and closes with a failed conversion: ‘‘et veggio ’l meglio, et al peggior m’appiglio’’ (I know what is best but I do the worst) (264.136).
Despite the disparaging tones occasionally used by Petrarch to describe his endeavors as a writer of vernacular poetry, the close affiliation of laurels and Laura extends to his Latin work (Secretum, Africa, and Bucolicum Carmen). He lavished intense attention on his Italian poetry, adding to and revising the Frag-menta most of his life; he was still renumbering the last thirty poems of the collection at the end of his life. While exposing the most intimate and seemingly individual nuances of a moral crisis and insisting on the uniqueness of the poet’s predicament, the Fragmenta include poems on themes other than his passion for Laura—politics and friendships, for instance. The love poems employed standard vocabulary, images, and situations—love at first sight, obsessive passion for a virtuous and detached lady, frustration, moral impasse, etc.—derived from an established literary tradition, which included the troubadours, the Roman de la Rose, the dolce stil novo, and Dante. Petrarch espoused existing forms, but employed them with new intensity. He also endowed his collection with an order and a fictional chronology in order to tantalize the reader to discover an elusive story, and contributed to literary history by developing the lyrical sequence.
Feminist critics have focused on the frustrated but constant and all-consuming devotion of Petrarch for Laura, on her implacable indifference, and on his fixation on her unavailability; they have scrutinized her representation, reviewed the distinguishing elements of her physical description as well as her confined
Repertoire of actions. The range of Laura’s expressions is narrow: she speaks, she laughs, she sighs, and sometimes she sings. We hardly hear her voice; when we do, it is either mediated by the poet’s memory of past encounters or, more frequently, part of his dreams. Her loquacity grows paradoxically more substantial after her death, when she becomes increasingly talkative in the poet’s visions. Laura withholds her voice while the poet implores her for a reply to his amorous requests. This causes him to grow obsessed with his mental image of the lady, the sensual basis of his love, which denotes his inability to sublimate it into a symbolic occasion for elevation. Although in intermittent penitential moments the poet, engrossed in Augustinian sentiments, recognizes the danger of a desire that has caused his own spiritual degeneration into a fragmented nonbeing, his recurrent posture is that of Actaeon, as established in the paradigmatic canzone delle metamorfosi (no. 23). Petrarch’s hunter, unlike his Ovi-dian predecessor, watches Diana bathe naked with impunity. Petrarch’s self-assertion as a poet hinges on the suppression of a meaningful element in Ovid’s story: as a punishment for his trangression, Diana angrily sentences Ac-taeon to be transformed into a stag, and he is torn apart by his own dogs. Petrarch’s Diana/Laura is silenced and disempowered; while the poet’s body is not mutilated, he repeatedly scatters hers throughout his Rime sparse or scattered rhymes. The rhetorical convention of the blazon, employed by Petrarch to praise his lady, entails the description and celebration of each part of the female body and ultimately aspires to the domination of the woman through her fragmentation. Laura appears only obliquely, at times just as a fetishized object (a veil or a glove); at the most, she is viewed through a limited and highly formalized repertoire of fixed and endlessly praised attributes: her ‘‘bella mano’’ (beautiful hand), ‘‘bel piede’’ (beautiful foot), ‘‘angelico seno’’ (angelic breast), ‘‘capelli d’oro’’ (golden hair), and ‘‘occhi leggiadri’’ (lovely eyes). This descriptive tactic dissects the woman’s body into its parts for maximum visibility, and the poet finally shares the voyeuristic gratification he attains with his reader/listener. This is a transaction negotiated between the poet and his audience in a merchandizing framework: it hinges on the enumeration and itemization of the woman’s fragments, from which the poet gains rhetorical plenty; this translates, pragmatically, into poetic success, renown, and material compensation—hence the meaning of his linguistic play of Laura, lauro, l’auro (Laura, laurel, gold): commerce of sex supplies currency of fame.
In the Renaissance,* when both the depiction of the ideal woman and the legislation of a suitable behavior for her became all-consuming endeavors, Petrarch’s portrait of Laura was elevated to be an enduring model and was revered by painters and imitated by writers. Petrarch’s absolute hegemony was sanctioned by Pietro Bembo (1470–1547) in Prose della volgar lingua (1525), which became the basis for the canonization of the Italian vernacular and celebrated Petrarch’s Fragmenta as the model for all subsequent poetic language. This move singlehandedly determined the course of Italian letters, by sanctioning a system organized around a privileged male voice and the implicit silence of all
Women, a tradition that curtailed women’s aspirations as writers in the following centuries. The cultural prejudice faced by women poets in the Renaissance (Veronica Franco* and Gaspara Stampa* among others) is symptomatic of the tension encoded in Bembo’s Italian canon* and in Petrarchism*.
See also: Lyric Poetry: Thirteenth and Fourteenth Centuries.
Bibliography: Freccero, John. ‘‘The Fig Tree and the Laurel: Petrarch’s Poetics.’’ Diacritics 5 (1975). 33–40; Durling, Robert M. ‘‘Introduction.’’ In Petrarch’s Lyric Poems: The Rime Sparse and Other Lyric. Ed. and trans. Robert M. Durling. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1976. 1–33; Waller, Margaret. Petrarch’s Poetics and Literary History. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1980; Vickers, Nancy. ‘‘Diana Described: Scattered Woman and Scattered Rhyme.’’ In Writing and Sexual Difference. Ed. Elizabeth Abel. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1982. 95–109; ———. ‘‘The Body Remembered: Petrarchan Lyric and the Strategies of Description.’’ In Mimesis: From Mirror to Method. Augustine to Descartes. Ed. John D. Lyons and Stephen G. Nichols, Jr. Hanover N. H.: University Press of New England, 1982. 100– 109; Zancan, Marina, ed. Nel cerchio della luna: Figure di donna in alcuni testi del XVI secolo. Venice: Marsilio, 1983; Parker, Patricia. ‘‘Rhetorics of Property: Exploration, Inventory, Blazon.’’ In Literary Fat Ladies: Rhetoric, Gender, Property. New York: Methuen, 1987. 126–260; Sturm-Maddox, Sara. Petrarch’s Laurels. Pennsylvania: Pennsylvania State University, 1992; Mazzotta, Giuseppe. The Worlds of Petrarch. Durham, N. C.: Duke University Press, 1993; Estrin, Barbara L. ‘‘Petrarch.’’ In Laura: Uncovering Gender and Genre in Wyatt, Donne, and Marvell. Durham, N. C.: Duke University Press, 1994. 39– 90.
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