Francesco Petrarca–Last of the “Three Crowns”

Francesco Petrarca
(aka Petrarch)
Francesco Petrarca (aka Petrarch)

This month’s essay deals with the last of the “Three Crowns” of Italian literature—Francesco Petrarca, or simply, Petrarch. I have written earlier essays on the other two “Crowns”: Dante Alighieri (c. 1265-1321), and Giovanni Boccaccio (1313-1375). All three served as the basis of Italian literature written in the vernacular—in their case, the Tuscan dialect. In so doing, they also began the development of a common Italian language through these vernacular literary works. Petrarch was a scholar and poet of early Renaissance Italy. He is often regarded as the Father of Renaissance Humanism because he helped popularize the classical world and the study of classical literature. He rediscovered many ancient manuscripts in monasteries and had Greek works translated into Latin so that they could be more readily read and studied. He is often credited with initiating the 14th-century Italian Renaissance.

CELEBRATED: literature, language
ASSOCIATIONS: One of the “Three Crowns”
Lived 14th

Petrarch was born in the Tuscan town of Arezzo on July 20, 1304, where his parents had taken refuge after being exiled from Florence in 1302 for supporting the Guelphs—the same unsuccessful faction that Dante supported and who was also banished at the same time. He was given the name Francesco Petracco, which was later Latinized to Petrarca. His father, Ser Petracco, was a lawyer and notary; his mother was Eletta Canigiani. He had a younger brother, Gherardo, who was born in Incisa in Val d’Arno, near Florence, in 1307. It was in Incisa and Pisa that Petrarch spent his early childhood. After Pope Clement V established the Papal Court in Avignon in 1309 to escape the anarchy into which Rome had sunk, Petrarch’s family moved to Avignon in 1312 and then to nearby Carpentras; Ser hoping to find legal work at the newly established Papal Court. It was in Carpentras that Petrarch began to study grammar and rhetoric.

At the insistence of his lawyer father, Petrarch studied law at the University of Montpellier in France (1316-20). He returned to Italy in 1320 with his younger brother to continue these legal studies at the University of Bologna until 1323. He, however, was primarily interested in writing and in the works of Latin classical poets, and he considered these seven years of legal study as a waste of time. He was developing what, in a later letter, he described as “an unquenchable thirst for literature.”  (During one surprise visit, his father discovered some hidden books and began to burn them. However, moved by his son’s pleading, he spared Cicero’s Rhetoric and copies of Virgil’s Eclogues, Georgics, and Aeneid from the fire).

Petrarch’s earliest surviving poems, especially several on the death of his mother in 1319, date from the Montpellier and Bologna periods, though like all Petrarch’s work they were heavily revised later. Around this time, he also discovered the new vernacular poetry that was being written, and he tried his own hand at composing poetry in the Tuscan dialect. With the death of his father in 1326, Petrarch was finally free to abandon his law studies. He returned to Avignon with Gherardo to pursue his literary and scholarly interests. However, the income from his family was depleted, and so he took four Minor Orders in the Church that were required for an ecclesiastical career. (The required commitment to celibacy, however, did not stop him from later fathering two illegitimate children, Giovanni in 1337 and Francesca in 1343). In the fall of 1330, he entered the household of an old influential friend from Bologna, Cardinal Giacomo Colonna.

He worked in numerous clerical offices as a lawyer and notary, just as his father had done. Such work, though not to his liking, did give him a salary and a great deal of time to devote to his own writing and scholarship, in which he was making quite a name for himself. It also gave him time to participate in the fashionable social life of Avignon, which he enjoyed immensely. He lived with the Cardinal until 1337.

Laura and the Canzoniere

On April 6, 1327, in the Church of St. Clare in Avignon, Petrarch saw and fell in love with the young woman whom he simply called Laura. The true identity of Laura is not known, and scholars have tried over the centuries to identify her. The fact that Petrarch does not identify her shows that it was not important to him that she be identified as a particular person. She served, like Dante’s Beatrice and Boccaccio’s “Fiammetta” (Maria d’Aquino), as the true, perfect ideal of love. As was the case of Dante and Beatrice, Laura did not return Petrarch’s love. Only Boccaccio’s “Fiammetta” had a physical relationship with the poet. (There is no doubt that Laura was a real person nor is there any doubt of the intensity of Petrarch’s passion for her, which endured after her death as a melancholy longing). From 1327 to 1368, Petrarch wrote 366 poems in the Tuscan dialect as part of a sequence, centered on the theme of his love for Laura. The sequence—collected in Canzoniere (Songbook), also titled Rime Sparse (Scattered Rhymes) was written in the vernacular and contained 366 poems (317 sonnets, with a few canzoni and compositions in other meters). The sonnet was a fairly new form of poetic structure based on rules established by the 13th-century Italian poet, Guittone of Arezzo. Petrarch was the earliest major practitioner of the sonnet, and with his Rime collected in the Canzoniere, he became a model for Italian poets. He is credited with the development and popularization of the Italian sonnet (which became known as the Petrarchan Sonnet) in all European literatures for more than three centuries.

Quite apart from his love for Laura, this period was an important developmental time for Petrarch. These were years of ambition and unremitting study (notably in the field of Classical Latin). In 1333, he connected with his fellow Italian poet Giovanni Boccaccio, who became a close life-long friend and with whom he engaged in regular correspondence, including an exchange of their writings, over the rest of his life.

These years were spent in travel. In 1333, motivated by intellectual curiosity, he traveled to visit men of learning and searched monastic libraries for “lost” classical manuscripts in Paris, Flanders (where he discovered two of Cicero’s unknown orations), and Germany. When he returned to Avignon, he met the Augustinian scholar Dionigi di Borgo San Sepolcro, who became his spiritual confessor and directed him toward a greater awareness of the importance of Christian patristic literature. Dionigi gave him a copy of St. Augustine’s Confessions, a gift that Petrarch used as a breviary for his spiritual life until his death.

These experiences made Petrarch an important advocate of the continuity between Classical culture and the Christian message. By making a synthesis of the two seemingly conflicting ideals—regarding the one as the rich promise and the other as its divine fulfillment—he can claim to be the founder and great representative of the movement that came to be known as “European Humanism.” Petrarch rejected the sterile argumentation and endless dialectical subtleties into which medieval Scholasticism had devolved. He looked back to the Classical Age for values to illuminate contemporary issues and problems.

In 1337 he visited Rome for the first time, and was inspired by the manifest grandeur of its past that he saw among its ruins. On his return to Avignon, he sought a refuge from its corrupt life—the papacy at this time was wholly absorbed in secular matters—and a few miles to the east found his “fair transalpine solitude” in Vaucluse. He found a house there, which became his countryside abode away from Avignon and also his much-loved place of retreat, where he was able to get away from the hectic nature of city life. One of his favorite places for experiencing this solitude for contemplation was Mount Ventoux, a 6,273-foot peak in Vaucluse, which he often enjoyed scaling. He made his first ascent of Mount Ventoux, along with his brother and two servants, on April 26, 1336. In a letter composed at a much later date to Dionigi, he described undertaking the climb for recreation, inspired by Philip V of Macedon’s ascent of Mount Haemo. When he reached the summit, as he related in the letter, he opened the Confessions at random and read that men admire mountains and rivers and seas and stars, yet neglect themselves. He described this experience in his letter to Dionigi as a spiritual awakening.

It was during this time after his return from Rome, where he had been tremendously moved by the history and culture of Classical Rome, that Petrarch began composing his great epic poem, Africa, and his collection of biographies—De Viris Illustribus (Concerning Famous Men). He tells us that he began working on his poetry while walking in solitude in the valleys and climbing the mountains of Vaucluse. However, by the time he had discovered the seclusion of Vaucluse, he had written a good many of the individual poems that he included in his Epistolae Metricae (Metrical Letters), comprising 66 “letters” in Latin hexameter verse, and had also composed some of the vernacular Rimeincluded in his Canzoniere that were inspired by his love for Laura.

Africa, written in Latin, was dedicated to Robert of Naples, the king of Sicily. The epic poem told the story of the Second Punic War, in which the Carthaginian general Hannibal invaded Italy, but Roman forces were eventually victorious after their invasion of Carthage in North Africa under the leadership of Publius Cornelius Scipio Africanus, the epic poem’s hero. The main story focused on the time period from the Spanish campaign (205 BCE) to the end of the Battle of Zama (202 BCE). It was modeled on Virgil’s Aeneid in form, and it used Cicero’s “Dream of Scipio” from his De Republica (Concerning the Republic) as the starting point in Books 1 and 2, and Livy’s third decade of his History of Rome for the following Books. (Petrarch worked on Africa over the course of his life; however, it was not made public until 1396-97, two decades after his death).

De Viris Illustribus was an unfinished collection of biographies, written in Latin, that were similar in idea to Plutarch’s Lives of the Noble Greeks and Romans, what today is commonly called Parallel Lives. The work remained unfinished in his lifetime. What we know about it was that it comprised two books:  “Liber I” consisted of 24-36 moral biographies of heroes of Greece and Rome, most of whom appeared in his Africa. Petrarch revised the list many times during his lifetime in different “plans” so the number of figures changed with each version. “Liber II,” added later, included 12 moral biographies of Biblical and Mythical figures (much like that found in the Hebrew Bible, Greek mythology, and Islamic prophets).

Meanwhile, his reputation as a scholar was spreading because of these and other works, and in September, 1340 he received invitations from both Paris University and the Roman Senate to be crowned poet laureate. He had perhaps sought out this honor, partly from ambition but mainly in order to celebrate the rebirth of the art of poetry and knowledge after more than 1,000 years. He had no hesitation in choosing the Roman invitation. Accordingly, he became the second poet laureate since classical antiquity when he was crowned in the audience hall of the medieval senatorial palazzo on the holy ground of Rome’s Capitoline Hill on April 8, 1341 (Easter Sunday) by the powerful Roman Senators Giordano Orsini and Orso dell’Anguillara. (Because the Renaissance figures who were attempting to revive the Classical tradition lacked detailed knowledge of the Roman “laureate” ceremony they were trying to emulate, the ceremony took on the character of a contemporary doctoral candidature).

During the ceremony, Petrarch delivered his “Coronation Oration,” considered the first manifesto of the Renaissance, in which he recalled: “there was a time, there was an age, that was happier for poets, an age when they were held in the highest honor, first in Greece and then in Italy, and especially when Caesar Augustus held imperial sway, under whom there flourished excellent poets: Virgil, Varius, Ovid, Horace, and many others.”  After the ceremony, he placed his laurel wreath on the tomb of St. Peter in St. Peter’s Basilica: a symbolic gesture that he believed would show the linking of the Classical tradition with the Christian message.

In April 1343, shortly after Petrarch had returned to Avignon, his brother, Gherardo, became a Carthusian monk. That same year Petrarch’s daughter, Francesca, was born. Gherardo’s decision to become a monk deeply moved Petrarch. It is generally believed that he went through some kind of moral crisis at this time, rooted in his inability to make his life conform to his religious faith. Possibly heightened by Gherardo’s decision, he began to reexamine his own spiritual state.

Though his Christian faith was unquestionably sincere, he felt incapable of following his brother’s renunciation of the world. His inner conflict inspired the Secretum Meum (My Secret, 1342-43), a dialogue in three books between St. Augustine and Petrarch, in the presence of Truth. In the dialogue, Petrarch expressed his awareness of his failure to realize his religious ideal and his inability to renounce the temporal values that motivated his life. He maintained the hope that, even with these worldly preoccupations and errors, even while absorbed in himself and his own affairs, a man might still find a way to God.

Thus, Petrarch’s spiritual “problem” found a coherent solution, one that can be said to express the Petrarchan vision and the humanist’s religious and moral outlook. It was therefore an evolution, both moral and literary, that made Petrarch decide his love for Laura was love for the creature rather than for the Creator and therefore wrong—a proof of his attachment to the world. It was an evolution in his thinking that led him to break through the barriers of his too-exclusive admiration for and reliance on antiquity and to admit other authoritative voices. It was at this time, for example, that his De Viris was enlarged to include “Libro II” with material from sacred history in addition to the secular history of “Libro I.” He also wrote De Vita Solitaria (The Solitary Life, 1346) in which he developed the theoretical basis and description of the “solitary life” whereby man enjoys the consolations of nature and study together with those of prayer.

In the fall of 1343, Petrarch went to Naples on a diplomatic mission for Cardinal Colonna. He recorded his travel impressions in several letters, Familiares (Family and Friends) V, 3, 6. Upon his return, he stopped at Parma, hoping to move on to settle for a time on the wooded plateau of Selvapiana, outside Florence. But a siege of Parma by Milanese and Mantuan troops forced him to flee to Verona in February 1345. There, in the cathedral library, he discovered the first 16 books of Cicero’s letters to Atticus, to Quintus and to Brutus. Petrarch personally transcribed the letters, which allowed him to penetrate the surface of the great orator and see the man himself. These letters also spurred him on to write epistles to the ancient authors whom he loved, and to make a collection of his own letters that he had scattered among his friends. These great collections of Petrarch record not only his genius for friendship, but also all the shifts in attitude by which he left behind the Middle Ages and prepared for the Renaissance.

From 1345 to 1347 Petrarch lived at Vaucluse and undertook his De Vita Solitaria (1346) and the Bucolicum Carmen(Bucolic Poem, 1346-47, published in 1357), a collection of 12 Latin eclogues inspired by Virgil. Early in 1347, a visit to Gherardo’s monastery inspired Petrarch to write his De Otio Religioso (On Religious Leisure), a letter to Gherardo that expounded upon the very concept of leisure and Petrarch’s own feelings of attachment to the world that made his visit to the monks all the more poignant, and made his involvement in the affairs of the world and in his own literary and intellectual pursuits all the more regrettable and shameful.

In May, 1347 an event occurred in Rome that aroused Petrarch’s enthusiasm. Cola di Rienzi, who shared Petrarch’s fervent desire for reviving the Roman Republic and for restoring popular government in Rome, gained control of the Roman government through a successful revolution. Petrarch encouraged Cola with his pen, exhorting him to persevere in his task of restoring Rome to its universal political and cultural missions. This support divided Petrarch sharply from the Avignon Papal court, which saw Cola as a usurper of Papal power, and the Roman nobles, who saw a popular uprising as a threat to their own political power and status. (The support Petrarch gave to Cola also led to the loss of his close friendship with Cardinal Colonna, one of his major supporters). But Cola’s dictatorial acts soon brought about his downfall. News of Cola’s defeat before the year was over, prompted Petrarch to write his famous letter of reproach (Familiares VII, 7), which tells of his bitter disillusionment with Cola and his movement.

In May 1348, the news of Laura’s death reached him. She had died of the plague of 1348, known as the Black Death, on April 6; ironically, the 21st anniversary of Petrarch’s first seeing her. Besides Laura, the Black Death deprived Petrarch of several of his close friends that year, among them Cardinal Colonna. The grief he felt is reflected in the poems he then wrote to Laura in his Canzoniere and in his letters of this period, one of the most desolate letters being Ad Se Ipsum (To Himself). Three eclogues and the first three of Petrarch’s six Trionfi (Triumphs):  Triumphus Cupidinis(Triumph of Love), Triumphus Pudicitie (Triumph of Chastity), and Triumphus Mortis (Triumph of Death) were also inspired by the pestilence. (The Trionfi was a more generalized version of the story of the human soul in its progress from earthly passion toward fulfillment in God).

Because of the losses Petrarch had suffered, a period of his life seemed to have ended. In 1350 he began to make the formal collection of his Latin prose letters, the Familiares. Since 1350 was a Year of Jubilee, Petrarch also made a pilgrimage to Rome. On his way he stopped in Florence, where he made new friends, and visited his old friend and fellow-correspondent, Boccaccio. After a brief stay in Rome, Petrarch returned northward and arrived in Parma in January 1351. In the meantime, Pope Clement VI was soliciting Petrarch’s return to his Papal court in Avignon, and Florence sent Boccaccio with a letter of invitation offering him a chair to be established for him in the University of Florence and also promising the restitution of his father’s property.

Petrarch chose to return to his countryside residence in Vaucluse, where he hoped to complete some of his major works. He arrived in Vaucluse in June 1351, accompanied by his son, Giovanni. In Avignon that August, he refused an offer to serve as a papal secretary and also a bishopric that was offered to him. Petrarch was impatient to leave “Babylon,” what he called the corrupt papal court in Avignon, and wrote a series of violent letters, Epistolae Sine Nomine (Letters Without a Name), against the Curia (the papal bureaucracy). He also had a strong dislike of Pope Innocent VI, who was elected in December, 1352.

So, in the spring of 1353, after visiting Gherardo in his monastery, he left Vaucluse for the final time, crossed the Alps, and, as he says in his Epistolae Metricae (Metrical Letters) III, 24, greeted Italy. For 8 years he stayed in an apartment in Milan under the patronage of Giovanni Visconti and later Galeazzo II Visconti, enjoying seclusion and freedom for study while using his pen to urge peace among the Italian cities. He worked on a new plan for the Canzoniere. The project was divided into two parts: the Rime in Vita di Laura (Poems During Laura’s Life) consisting of poems 1-263; and the Rime in Morte di Laura (Poems After Laura’s Death), consisting of poems 264-366. He revised earlier poems and composed new ones for the work, arranging all of them to illustrate the story of his own spiritual growth.

He also took up his old works in Latin (e.g. De Viris Illustribus, in which he added new biographies and descriptions), and revised and organized many other earlier writings. He began the Latin treatise De Remediis Utriusque Fortunae(Concerning Remedies for Fortune), a collection of 254 Latin dialogues, lucidly and cogently expressing how thought and deed can generate happiness on the one hand, or sorrow and disillusionment on the other. The recurring theme throughout was Petrarch’s advice for humility in prosperity and fortitude in adversity.

He also embarked on a polemic against the conservative enemies of his new conception of education. He rejected the prevailing Aristotelianism of the schools and argued to restore the spiritual worth of the Classical writers—the new studies to be called litterae humanae (humane letters). This was the first argument for the new education that would transform Renaissance learning and culture. He also worked further on his Trionfi, completing the last three parts of the work. In addition to these scholarly pursuits, he was entrusted with diplomatic missions that brought him into direct contact with heads of state, including one to Emperor Charles IV.

In June 1361, Petrarch went to Padua to escape the plague that had broken out in Milan and had taken the life of his son and the lives of several close friends. In Padua he kept up his intellectual pursuits. He ended the Familiares and began a new collection of letters, Seniles (Letters of Old Age). It eventually contained 128 letters written between 1361 and 1373, sorted and organized into 18 volumes. The final letter, the first and only one of the 18th volume, is his incompletePosteritati (For Posterity), a biographical letter intended to terminate the Seniles.

In the fall of 1362 Petrarch settled in Venice, where he had been given a palazzo on condition that he leave his library to the Republic on his death. (In the course of his lifelong travels, Petrarch had amassed the most valuable private library of the age). However, he could not find in Venice the kind of company he craved. This scholar, who was generally esteemed to be the most cultivated and eloquent man of his times, found himself under attack by some local Venetian aristocrats and by several Averroists, who followed the Aristotelian commentator, Averroes, and were angry with Petrarch’s polemic against using Aristotle in the schools,  all describing him as “un brav’uomo, ma ignorante” (a good man, but ignorant).

Final Years and Death

So Petrarch moved back to Padua in 1368. His Paduan patron, Francesco da Carrara, gave him some land at Arquà in the Euganean Hills near Padua. There Petrarch built a house to which he retired in 1370. (Since 1868, the town has been called Arquà Petrarca, in his honor). He received friends (Boccaccio visited him and presented him with a long-desired Latin translation of Homer’s poems; Petrarch, like most scholars of his age, had never learned Classical Greek), and worked peacefully but with great concentration on the definitive versions of his various writings. His daughter Francesca, now married, joined him with her family and he thoroughly enjoyed their company and playing the role of nonno to their children.

He was still in great demand as a diplomat; in 1370 he was called to Rome by Pope Urban V, and he set off eager to see the fulfillment of his great dream of a new papacy established again in Rome, but he had to turn back at Ferrara because he was seized by a stroke. He returned to Padua for recovery but he did not stop working. Except for a few brief absences, Petrarch spent his last years at Arquà, where in addition to his work of revisions, he composed more minor works and added new sections to his Posteritati in his Seniles. He also continued to work on revisions to the final sections of the Trionfi and composed a concluding canzone to the Virgin Mary for his Canzoniere.

Francesco Petrarca (Petrarch) died while working at his desk in his home in Arquà early in the morning of July 19, 1374, one day before his 70th birthday. When his body was discovered, his head was resting appropriately on a manuscript of Virgil. His funeral was held at the Church of Santa Maria Assunta in Arquà, and he was originally buried in the cemetery next to the church. In 1381, his body was moved to a sarcophagus in the public square of the town. Most of his library was bequeathed to his patron, Padua’s ruler, Francesco da Carrara. But the manuscripts of his own works remained at Arquà, where they long continued to be copied and sent out to Petrarch’s ever-expanding army of admirers.


Adapted by James J. Boitano, PhD from:

Cartwright, Mark. “Petrarch.”  World History Encyclopedia website;

Morris, Roderick Conway. “Petrarch:  The First Humanist.”  New York Times website, originally published on March 29, 2004; website;

Whitfield, John Humphreys. “Petrarch:  Italian Poet.” Encyclopedia Britannica website;

Wikipedia website;

YourDictionary website.

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