- Ode to Petrarch
- Introduction and Biography
- Love Songs of Petrarch
- Era Il Giorno Ch’al Sol Si Scoloraro
- Ballad I: Lassare Il Velo O Per Sole O Per Ombra
- Orso, E’ Non Furon Mai Fiumi Nè Stagni
- Mille Fiate, O Dolce Mia Guerrera
- Non Al Suo Amante Più Dïana Piacque
- Nova Angeletta Sovra L’ale Accorta
- Or Vedi, Amor, Che Giovenetta Donna
- Il Mio Adversario, In Cui Veder Solete
- Due Rose Fresche E Còlte In Paradiso
- In Mezzo Di Duo Amanti, Onesta, Altera
- Quando Fra L’altre Donne Ad Ora Ad Ora
- Sestine I: A Qualunque Animale Alberga In Terra
- E Perchè Un Poco Nel Parlar Mi Sfogo
- Già Fiammeggiava L’amorosa Stella
- Gentil Mia Donna, I’ Veggio
- La Donna Che ’l Mio Cor Nel Viso Porta
- L’aspetto Sacro De La Terra Vostra
- Padre Del Ciel; Dopo I Perduti Giorni
- La Bella Donna Che Cotanto Amavi
- Poi Che Voi Et Io Più Volte Abbiam Provato
- Io Son Sì Stanco Sotto Il Fascio Antico
- Passa La Nave Mia Colma D’oblio
- Per Ch’ Al Viso D’amor Portava Insegna
- Fuggendo La Pregionc Ove Amor M’ebbe
- Quando Giunse a Simon L’alto Concetto
- Volgendo Gli Occhi Al Mio Novo Colore
- Quel Vago Impallidir, Che ’l Dolce Riso
- Per Mezz’ I Boschi Inospiti E Selvaggi
- Di Pensier In Pensier, Di Monte In Monte
- Ovunque Gli Occhi Volgo
- Chiare, Fresche E Dolci Acque
- Pommi Ove ’l Sole Occide I Fiori E L’erba
- I’ Vidi In Terra Angelici Costumi
- In Qual Parte Del Ciel, In Quale Idea
- Amor Et Io Sì Pien’ Di Meraviglia
- Stiamo, Amor, a Veder La Gloria Nostra
- In Nobil Sangue Vita Umile E Queta
- Quanto Più M’avicino Al Giorno Extremo
- Pace Non Trovo, E Non Ho Da Far Guerra
- Erano I Capei D’oro a L’aura Sparsi
- Beato In Sogno, E Di Languir Contento
- Qual Paura Ho Quando Mi Torna a Mente
- Solea Lontana In Sonno Consolarme
- Oimè Il Bel Viso, Oimè Il Soave Sguardo
- Quanta Invidia Io Ti Porto, Avara Terra
- Occhi Miei, Oscurato è ’l Nostro Sole
- Rotta è L’alta Colonna E ’l Verde Lauro
- Zefiro Torna, E ’l Bel Tempo Rimena
- Nè Per Sereno Ciel Ir Vaghe Stelle
- Sento L’aura Mia Antica, E I Dolci Colli
- Tutta La Mia Fiorita E Verde Etade
- Amor, Se Vuo’ Ch’ I’ Torni Al Giogo Antico
- S’ Io Avesse Pensato Che Sì Care
- Solea Da La Fontana Di Mia Vita
- Il Dì Che Costei Nacque, Eran Le Stelle
- Quel Rosigniuol, Che Sì Soave Piagne
- Vago Augelletto Che Cantando Vai
- Ite, Rime Dolenti, Al Duro Sasso
- Ripensando a Quel Ch’ Oggi Il Cielo Onora
- Dolce Mio Caro E Precïoso Pegno
- Deh Qual Pietà, Qual Angel Fu Sì Presto
- Levommi Il Mio Penser In Parte Ov’ Era
- Li Angeli Eletti, E L’anime Beate
- I’ Vo Piangendo I Miei Passati Tempi
- Vergine Bella, Che Di Sol Vestita
- Voi Ch’ Ascoltate In Rime Sparse Il Suono
- Appendix I Laura
- Appendix Ii ‘epistle to Posterity’ 1
- Appendix Iii Catalogue of Petrarch’s Works
- Index of First Lines
Who was Laura? This question has given rise to the liveliest controversies. Some of the commentators say that she was not flesh and blood at all, but a symbol, an abstraction, an allegorical representation of poetry, of virtue, of philosophy, or what you will. Others declare that there were many Lauras, the objects of Petrarch’s love poems. Others can give her age, her birthplace, and her characteristics, but do not assume to know her name or her ancestry. Some say she was unmarried, others that she was a matron, the mother of many children. Some declare she was the daughter of Henry of Chiabaux, Lord of Cabrières, others that she belonged to the family of the Baux Adhemar de Cavaillon, &c. Probably the majority of the students of Petrarch accept the results of the arguments and documents of the Abbé de Sade in his Memoirs for the Life of Petrarch, and believe she was the daughter of Audibert de Noves and the wife of Hugues de Sade. Among these divergent views, which is correct?
That Laura was not a mere creation of Petrarch’s fancy is shown by Petrarch himself in a letter, written December 21, 1335, to his friend, Bishop James Colonna, who had jestingly denied her existence.
‘Would to God’, he says, ‘that my Laura were an imaginary person and that my passion for her were only feigned! Alas, it is a madness! How difficult and grievous it would be to feign it for a long time, and what extravagance to act a play like this! One can counterfeit illness in conduct, voice, and gesture, but one cannot give himself the air and colour of a sick person. How many times have you been a witness to my pallor and my torments! I know well that you only speak in irony.’
Laura’s actual existence is also shown in a poetical epistle to this same friend, written in Latin, probably in 1338, shortly after Petrarch’s return from Rome and his emigration to Vaucluse.
‘Exceedingly dear to me is a woman (mulier) who is known for her virtue and her noble blood. My songs have glorified and have spread her fame afar. My mind ever returns to her and she ever assails me with new grief of love, and it does not seem as if she will ever renounce her dominion over me.’
He describes his efforts to shake off the yoke, and his wanderings through distant lands and his flight to the sequestered valley he has chosen for his abode. Yet even here his beloved one visits him in sleep and demands him back as her slave. Then his limbs stiffen and the blood runs to his heart from all his veins, and he awakens in consternation bathed in tears, springs from his couch, and before the dawn, flees from the house and wanders over mountains and groves, looking around him in fear lest he should meet her in his wandering.
Equally conclusive as to the actual existence of Laura are the three books written by Petrarch in 1343, De Contemptu Mundi, in the form of dialogues between himself and St. Augustine. This work, which he also called his ‘Secret’, was not originally intended for publication, and it was in the nature of an intimate and frank confession of his own shortcomings and weaknesses. St. Augustine, after exhorting him to meditate on death, and after reproaching him for his vanity, ambition, cupidity, and incontinence, as well as a certain pessimism in his nature (acidia), expresses his astonishment that a man of Petrarch’s talent could devote a great part of his life to the adoration of a mere mortal woman. Petrarch answers with enthusiastic praise of his beloved, and Augustine replies that if he were once to see her lying dead he would be ashamed of his passion. Petrarch declares he hopes this dreadful sight will be spared him as he is the elder of the two, and Augustine answers that the body of his beloved has been already greatly weakened by her illnesses and her frequent anxieties.
Petrarch answers that his own health is also shaken by cares and that he hopes to die before her. He insists that his love is pure and believes that he sins only in its excess. All that he has been he owes to her. Augustine declares that this belief is a dangerous illusion, and that his mortal love had separated him from the love of heavenly things. Petrarch declared that it is not the body but the soul of his beloved with which he is enamoured, that with her increasing age her body became less beautiful but her spirit constantly developed and his love increased. Augustine asks if he would have loved her if she had been ugly. Petrarch answers that he would have done this only if the beauty of her spirit could have been set before his eyes. ‘Therefore’, answers Augustine, ‘you have loved only her visible body although her spiritual graces have helped to maintain your passion.’ Petrarch finally admits that he loves her body as well as her soul. Augustine reminds him that in his youth his fear of God and his love of religion was much greater than at present, and says Petrarch must admit that the change occurred when his love began. Augustine asks how it happened that his beloved did not lift him again to virtue. Petrarch answers that she had done all she could by example, admonition and reproaches, that in spite of his efforts he had never obtained from her the least favour to the disparagement of her honour, and that when she saw that nothing could restrain him and that he was going headlong to destruction, she preferred to abandon rather than to follow him. Augustine now reminds Petrarch that he has admitted his unlawful desires which he had just now denied, and adds that lovers know not what they will nor what they say. Petrarch declared that these desires had ceased, and that for this he is grateful to this lady. Augustine says that his flame is perhaps enfeebled but that it is not extinguished, and he reminds the poet that he has had a portrait of the lady made by a skilful painter and that he carries it everywhere with him, and that he extends his affection to everything that bears her name, and goes about with the laurel tree in his head and on his lips as if he were a priest of Apollo or a dweller on the banks of the Peneus. Why did he seek with such eagerness that laurel crown which was formerly the reward of the poets? It was the connexion of laurel and Laura which made him cross the seas and mountains and submit to an examination at Naples and receive this crown at Rome. How can a man with such a passion be mindful of God? Petrarch now admits all and asks what he shall do not to despair of salvation. Augustine answers that he must seek all other means of cure, and recommends a change of scene. Petrarch says he has already tried this in vain. But Augustine insists he has done this without the necessary resolution not to look back and to break finally with the past. Petrarch asks if there are not other remedies. Augustine answers that Cicero names satiety, shame, and reflection. The first he will not consider, but under the second head he asks Petrarch if he has not seen himself in a mirror and has not perceived any change in his appearance. Petrarch admits his grey hairs, and Augustine seeks to shame him into the belief that he is too old to play the rôle of a lover.
The saint also recommends reflection. Petrarch should consider the loftiness of the spirit, the weakness of the body, and the shortness of life. He should further reflect how inflexible his beloved has shown herself toward him, and he should encourage himself to devote his life to better things.
Augustine next reproaches Petrarch for his excessive desire for fame and immortality and admonishes him not to prefer this to virtue. Finally he urges the poet to let his epic Africa remain unfinished and devote himself to the contemplation of his approaching death and the transitory character of all earthly things.
After Petrarch had gone to Italy, ‘Socrates’, the poet’s intimate friend, urgently entreats him to return to Avignon, and Petrarch thus replies in a letter written in 1345. ‘To make me change my purpose, you put before my eyes the errors of my youth, which I ought to forget, a passion whose torments have made me take flight because I had no other resource, the frivolous attractions of a perishable beauty with which I have occupied myself far too much.’
The love poems of Petrarch themselves testify to Laura’s actual existence in a way he could hardly simulate with such effect if she were an imaginary being. A mere ‘symbol’ would hardly be born and die at a particular day of a particular year, nor wear gloves, nor be kissed by a prince at a public festival, nor be kept at home by jealousy, nor tempt its lover to suicide, nor be the subject of a score of incidents in his poems which are applicable to a woman only and not to a spirit nor an imaginary being.
Moreover, after these poems had long since been written and after the woman they celebrated had long been mourned in them as dead, the poet tells us near the close of his own life, in his ‘Letter to Posterity’, that in his youth he had been the prey of a very ardent love, but honourable, and his only one, and that he would have suffered from it still longer if death, cruel but salutary, had not extinguished it.
The foregoing extracts clearly demonstrate that Laura actually existed, and show us quite plainly the character of Petrarch’s passion for her.
Nor was she multifarious, but single. There is no good reason to believe that Petrarch in his poems intended to designate, as several commentators believe, now one person and now another as the object of his passion. The evidence is the other way. His incontinence, indeed, he confesses in his letters, in his dialogue with St. Augustine, in his epistle to posterity, and elsewhere, but he recognizes only a single ideal love worthy to be celebrated in his poems.
Another controversy exists among the commentators of Petrarch as to whether Laura was married or single. Those who insist that she was a young girl when he first saw her and remained unmarried, refer to a sonnet (cxc), Una candida cerva: ‘A white doe, with golden horns, appeared to me above the green meadow between two streams int he shade of a laurel at sunrise in the springtime. . . . She had written around her fair collar, “Let no one touch me, my Caesar saw fit to make me free.” ’ The deer was sacred to Diana, and this sonnet doubtless referred to Laura’s chastity and to the resistance which she offered to Petrarch’s passion. The inscription might well mean that her Caesar (God) had freed her from human frailty, and it need not at all follow that she was unmarried. To deduce a biographical fact from an obscure allegory like this may be very misleading.
Another sonnet speaks of the time when Love gave Petrarch his first wound, and the ‘tresses now wound in pearls and gems, but then unbound, which she scattered so sweetly and gathered again in such graceful ways that his mind trembles as he thinks of it. Afterwards’, he adds, ‘time twisted it in stronger knots.’ This might be construed into an inference that she was then unmarried, and that it was only afterwards that she was bedecked with the pearls and gems that matrons might wear. But are there no times when even those who are entitled to bedeck themselves with jewels may still go without them? The unsatisfactory nature of such conclusions is apparent.
Another argument is this: Would her husband have suffered Petrarch during a long period of years thus to testify to his passion in these numerous poems, most of which were well known at the time? Would the Church have permitted it in one who had already taken holy orders? At the present day such an argument would be a strong one, but the fourteenth century in France was quite different from the twentieth century in England and America. In France even to-day a young girl of the higher classes, educated usually in a convent, sees nothing of the world before her marriage. Marriage is usually an affair of convenience managed by the parents, and whatever there be for her of love or romance in life comes afterwards. This was so at that time in Provence. The marriage settlements still preserved show the business character of matrimony as then existing. We find that the adoration and the songs of the troubadours and the minnesingers were directed almost without exception to married women and not to maidens. This was the day of the tourney and the courts of love.
The Abbé de Sade gives an instance. Agnes of Navarre, wife of Phoebus, Count of Foix, is in love with William of Machaut, one of the best French poets of the age of Petrarch. She makes verses for him which breathe her passion. She desires him to publish in his own the circumstances of their love. He is jealous without reason. She sends to him a priest to whom she has confessed, who certifies not only to the truth of her feeling toward him but also her fidelity and the injustice of his suspicions. Yet Agnes of Navarre was a virtuous princess of unblemished reputation. Such was the spirit of the age, and Petrarch has in many instances taken the lays of the troubadours as the models of his love poems.
Those who recall the cicisbeo of later Venetian days and the cavaliere servente who attended upon almost every lady of fashion in Italy in still more recent times, will find little difficulty in understanding that there was nothing extraordinary in Petrarch’s love for a married woman during the corrupt period when the Roman court was at Avignon and when even those in clerical orders took part in the gallantries which were all but universal.
Petrarch himself in another place reproaches the men of Avignon who quietly let their wives be carried off from them. The husband of Laura, however, as we shall see elsewhere, does not appear to have been quite so indifferent as this.
The reasons for believing that Laura was a married woman are very strong. As Hallam says, there is no passage in Petrarch whether in poetry or prose which speaks of Laura as a maiden or gives her the usual appellations of an unmarried woman, puella in Latin or donzella in Italian, not even in his poem ‘The Triumph of Chastity’, where so obvious an opportunity presented itself of celebrating her virginity. On the contrary she is always called donna or madonna in Italian and mulier in Latin, the generic names for ‘woman’ and ‘lady’. Dante, just before Petrarch’s time, distinguishes clearly between donna and donaella, and Petrarch somewhere would certainly have called Laura donzella had she been unmarried. Moreover, Laura’s resistance to the passion of her lover during more than twenty years of devotion, retaining his affection yet denying her favours, is much more easily explained by the insurmountable obstacle of her marriage than in any other way. As Hallam remarks, ‘From all we know of the age of Petrarch the only astonishment is the persevering virtue of Laura. The troubadours boast of much better success with Provençal ladies.’
But far more conclusive are two sonnets in which Petrarch complains of the jealousy which deprives him of her company. One of these is the following:
Liete e pensose, accompagnate e sole
- ‘Ye dames, who go conversing on your way,
- Joyous yet sad, together, yet alone,
- O tell me of my life, my death, my own;
- Why is she absent? Whither doth she stray?’
- ‘Joyous our memories of her, but to-day
- We sorrow for her gracious company,
- Which envy keeps from us and jealousy,
- Those passions that on others’ welfare prey.’
- ‘Who shall make laws to fetter lovers true?’
- ‘Their bodies, not their souls, can anger bind,
- This doth she know and this we too may find,
- Oft in the face the heart is plain to view,
- Now doth her beauty fade in grief and fears,
- And her fair eyes are wet with dew of tears.’
Now who could be jealous of her and at the same time have the power to restrain her liberty except her husband?
In the dialogue between Petrarch and St. Augustine, the saint says, ‘Corpus eius crebris ptbus exhaustum.’ The contracted word ptbus has been rendered perturbationibus, ‘anxieties’, and partubus, ‘child-bearings’, and Hallam in his Middle Ages insists that partubus is much the better Latin. If Petrarch’s Laura was indeed Laura de Sade, who had eleven children, this interpretation of the words of St. Augustine would be appropriate.
In several of Petrarch’s sonnets he speaks of the precious stones which she wears, of the pearls which she bound in her hair, and of her rich and costly dresses. At the time when he wrote, the unmarried woman did not usually wear pearls nor precious stones. They were simply clothed and appeared but little in the world. Taken all together, the reasons for believing Laura to be a married woman seem quite conclusive.
But to what family did she belong, where was she born, where did she live, what was her age when she and Petrarch met? There is a curious silence upon these matters in the writings of Petrarch both in prose and verse. He describes certain incidents which must have identified her to her contemporaries, as for instance in the following sonnet, when, upon a festal occasion, a certain prince, in whose honour it was given (perhaps Charles of Luxemburg, afterwards Emperor of Germany), selected her from among the other guests, drew her to him, and kissed her forehead and her eyes as a tribute to her beauty.
Real natura, angelico intelletto
- It was a royal heart, a noble mind,
- Clear soul, and ready eye with vision keen,
- Quick foresight and a happy thought combined,
- And all most worthy of his state serene.
- Amid a goodly group of women fair
- Chosen to deck a stately festal day,
- His eye discerned what face beyond compare
- Was the most perfect in that cluster gay.
- Others, in rank and fortune proud and high,
- He, with the motion of his hand, dismissed,
- Then drew her to himself and graciously,
- In fair salute, her eyes and brow he kissed.
- While, mid the applause and joy of all the rest,
- This sweet strange deed with envy filled my breast.
But these contemporaries, as well as Petrarch himself, have said so little from which we can at this time determine her identity that they could hardly have concealed it better if there had been a conspiracy of silence. Subsequent investigators have laboured with great diligence to unravel the mystery.
Among the first of these was Velutello of Lucca, who travelled to Avignon near the beginning of the sixteenth century and found that there was a tradition in that city that Laura belonged to the family of De Sade. Velutello had several conferences with Gabriel de Sade, a man very old and very noble, who told him that Laura was the daughter of John de Sade, who had his property at Gravesand, two leagues from Avignon, where he passed the summer; but as his informant said she lived about the year 1360 or 1370, Velutello prematurely gave up his inquiries in that direction, and visiting the little village of Cabrières, he examined the baptismal register there, and among several Lauras, found one, the daughter of Henry of Chiabaux, who was baptized June 14, 1314, and he concluded that this was the Laura in question, and placed her meeting with Petrarch at L’Isle, a town between the two arms of the Sorgue, on Good Friday, 1327, upon her return from a pilgrimage to Vaucluse. But there are several reasons against such a conclusion. If this was Petrarch’s Laura, she was only twelve years and nine months old when Petrarch met her, a very early age for her to inspire such a passion.
In Petrarch’s dialogue with St. Augustine, Petrarch says, ‘She will grow old with me,’ and the saint refers to the small number of years in which he is her senior. But at the time of the meeting in 1327, Petrarch, who was born in 1304, would have been nearly twice her age and the words of St. Augustine would have been inappropriate. Moreover, in the note written by Petrarch, shortly after her death, on the manuscript copy of his Virgil, now in the Ambrosian Library at Milan, he says: ‘Laura, distinguished by her own virtues and long celebrated in my songs, first appeared to my eyes in the days of my youth in the year of our Lord 1327, the 6th day of the month of April, in the church of Santa Clara at Avignon in the morning hour; and in the same city, in the same month of April, on the same 6th day and at the same first hour but in the year 1348, that light was withdrawn from the light of day when I by chance was then at Verona, ignorant, alas! of my fate.’
If this note is genuine (as seems now established) Petrarch did not meet her at L’Isle. Moreover, the calendar shows that the 6th of April of that year was not Good Friday and hence there would have been no returning group of pilgrims from Vaucluse on that morning. Moreover, Velutello discovered that Henry of Chiabaux was a man of slender means, while Petrarch all through his poems describes everywhere the rich garb and jewellery worn by his lady. Velutello declared, moreover, that Laura de Chiabaux remained unmarried. We have already seen that this in all probability was not true of Petrarch’s Laura.
The views of the Abbé de Sade appear to be better sustained. They are in brief as follows. Laura was the daughter of a nobleman, Audibert de Noves and his wife Ermessende. She was born at Avignon in 1307, and married January 16, 1325, Hugues de Sade, the son of a prominent man who had been repeatedly mayor of Avignon, and she received as a legacy from her father the sum of 6,000 tournois, about $15,000, then a large amount, as well as two dresses, one green and one scarlet, a silver wreath, &c. Laura de Sade had eleven children, and died, a victim to the plague, April 6, 1348, having made her will three days before. She was buried in the Franciscan church in the suburbs of Avignon.
This hypothesis is supported by the following facts. Firstly, the age of Laura de Noves appears to correspond with the observation made in the dialogue with St. Augustine that she was but few years his junior. The contract of marriage, which the Abbé de Sade claims to have copied from the family records, is dated January 16, 1325, and she would probably have been about 18 years of age at that time, being born not far from 1307.
Secondly, Petrarch speaks of her green dress with violets when he first saw her, and there are many allusions to this green dress in his sonnets. In the marriage contract two dresses were given her, one green, the other scarlet, and Paul de Sade, her father-in-law, in his will acknowledges that he received these dresses.
Thirdly, Petrarch tells us that his Laura was of noble blood. Now the father of Laura de Noves was the descendant of an earlier Audibert de Noves, who was, up to the year 1222, chancellor of Raymond, sixth Count of Toulouse. He held the first rank at Noves, a town two leagues from Avignon, and also had a house in that city.
Fourthly, in Petrarch’s note on the Virgil manuscript, he says she died at Avignon, April 6, 1348, and was buried the same day at evening in the Franciscan church. In one of his sonnets he also gives the same date for her death, and in his eleventh eclogue, as well as in one of his letters and in one of his odes, he gives us to understand that she died of the plague, which seems confirmed by the fact that in his manuscript note he says she was buried on the day of her death, which would only occur if there were some special reason, such as an epidemic.
On April 3, Laura de Sade made her will, stating that she was sound in mind though ill in body. The family records also show that she could not have lived very long after this, because on November 19, 1348, her husband married Verdaine de Trentelivres.
In her will she chooses as her burial-place the Church of the Lesser Brothers (the Franciscans) in the city of Avignon, in which church the family of De Sade had built a chapel dedicated to St. Anne, and under this Hugues de Sade had built another, the Chapel of the Cross, where the family arms were sculptured, a star with eight rays. Here he was buried, and here also was buried Verdaine, his second wife.
In 1533 a body was exhumed in this chapel and a leaden box found in the grave, containing a medal bearing the figure of a woman with the letters M. L. M. J., and also a sonnet of which the following is a close but unrhymed translation:
Qui riposan quei caste e felici ossa
- Here do repose those chaste and blessed bones
- Of a spirit gentle and unique on earth.
- Hard stone! thou hast with thee beneath the earth
- True honour, fame, and beauty! Death hath shaken,
- Moved and uprooted from the laurel green
- Its fresh root and the prize of my long strife
- Of twenty years (and more, if my sad thought
- Errs not) and shuts it in a narrow grave.
- A blessed plant in town of Avignon
- Was born and died, and here with her doth lie
- The pen, the stylus, ink and power of thought.
- O delicate limbs! and thou, O living face,
- Which dost inflame and slay me while I kneel,
- Let each pray God He welcome thee in peace.
This sonnet sounds like an impudent forgery. Cardinal Bembo, to whom it was submitted in 1533, declared that these verses were not only below the marvellous and almost divine genius of Petrarch, but that even the most mediocre poet would disavow them, and that the most common laws of Italian poetry were violated. Moreover, Petrarch was far away in Italy at the time Laura was buried.
The interpretation given to the four letters on the medal, M. L. M. J., Madonna Laura morta jace, ‘Madonna Laura lies dead’, also seems absurd.
Moreover, the originals of the family records and other documents by which the Abbé de Sade supports all his contentions, and verbatim copies of which he inserts in his memoirs, no longer exist. He had the copies certified by lawyers and citizens of Avignon as genuine, but this fact, as well as their great detail and their remarkable concurrence with what is known of Laura’s personality and life, has awakened mistrust rather than confidence. Laura de Sade was the ancestor of the family to which the Abbé belonged, and there has been a strong suspicion that these documents are not all genuine, although their manufacture may not have been due to the Abbé himself but to those from whom he may have innocently received them.
The fact of the De Sade chapel, however, in the Franciscan church seems established, and that Petrarch’s Laura was buried in that church appears from the memorandum on the Virgil manuscript.
Velutello, as we have seen, says that some two hundred years after her death he found that the opinion was current in Avignon that Petrarch’s Laura was Laura de Sade, which of itself is a pretty strong circumstance, and even if the documents are fictitious it may well be that they were manufactured in order to give conclusive proof of that which was only a probability without them. On the whole, the De Sade hypothesis seems more likely to be true than any other.
Where was Laura born? This question, too, is contested. In one of his earlier sonnets (iv,Quel ch’ infinita providenzia et arte) Petrarch compares the birth of Laura to that of the Messiah. Bethlehem, he says, was preferred to Rome as the birthplace of the Saviour, so now from a little town, piccolo borgo, God gives this new light to the world.
- He showed no grace to Rome when He was born,
- But to Judea. Thus it ever pleased Him
- To lift humility to the highest station.
- Now from a little town a sun He gave us
- Such that both nature and the place give thanks
- So fair a woman to the world was born.
What was the ‘little town’ to which Petrarch refers in these lines? His biographer, Dr. Gustav Koerting, believes that it was Avignon, for which the poet had so great a contempt in comparison with his beloved Rome, with which it is here contrasted, and this may have been the case, though at the beginning of the fourteenth century, when Laura was born, it was still a considerable city and it was greatly extended and largely rebuilt after it became the seat of the papal Court. La Crusca defines a borgo as a street or collection of houses not surrounded by city walls, and more properly the suburbs or faubourg of a walled city. Villani gives the name of borgi to the faubourgs of Florence, therefore the Abbé de Sade claims that Laura was born in that faubourg of Avignon where the Franciscan convent was located, and he says that near the city gate leading to this faubourg, and close to an inn called the ‘White Horse’, there was still existing in the sixteenth century a house built of yellow stone, before which the Sorgue passed, which was called the house of Madame Laura, and where tradition said she was born.
Lorenzo Mascetta, in his work The Canzoniere of Petrarch arranged chronologically, has an elaborate and laboured introductory article on Laura, in which he seeks to deduce the principal events of her life from the poems of Petrarch, taking certain lines from one poem and putting them side by side with lines from another in a very ingenious manner. His arguments are far from convincing, however, since they imply too great precision on the part of Petrarch in poems where the poet’s fancy as well as the demands of verse and rhyme require much latitude. He believes that it was impossible that Avignon was the small town referred to, although in a letter in Latin verse to Bishop Colonna Petrarch speaks of her birthplace as a ‘beloved city’. Neither of these terms Mascetta considers applicable to Avignon, and after considering many other extracts he concludes that she was born in the spring of 1314, in the town of L’Isle, not far from Avignon, where the two branches of the Sorgue separate and form an island, and that she was buried also in the Franciscan convent there. The difficulty with this hypothesis is that the latter part of it contradicts entirely the memorandum of Petrarch in his Virgil manuscript.
In some of the old texts and editions certain verses are found beginning thus:
- Where Sorgue and Durance into a greater vessel
- Together join their waters, clear and turbid,
- There once was my academy and Parnassus
- And there unto my eyes that light was born, &c.
Since the Sorgue and Durance both flow into the Rhône close to Avignon, De Sade believes that Avignon is intended. Mascetta insists that the verses are an imposture, and that the family of De Sade was very generous in securing literary support to its claims of descent from Petrarch’s Laura. While it cannot be said, even if she was the daughter of Audibert de Noves, that the place of her birth has been satisfactorily established, yet here too the probabilities would seem to favour the contention of De Sade, that Avignon, the city where she lived and died, was also the place where she was born.