Petrarca, Francesco (1304-1374)

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Francesco Petrarca (b. July 20, 1304, Arezzo, Tuscany; d. July 18, 1374, Arqua, near Padua) was an Italian scholar and poet who is regarded by many scholars as being among the first humanists. He contributed to the Renaissance flowering of lyric poetry and literature through his poems addressed to Laura, his idealized beloved. Petrarch's love of classical authors and learning inspired him to visit men of learning and search monastic libraries for classical texts. His discovery of several of Cicero's letters encouraged the revival of the Ciceronian style that characterized Renaissance humanistic education.

Although Petrarch was far more interested in literature, he studied law at his father's insistence. Like Augustine in his youth, the young Petrarch had a reputation of being a sophisticated dandy accustomed to the attentions of the ladies, but he was recognized for his poetic talents even then. With his father's death, Petrarch was freed to pursue his literary interests, but the only way open to him was through the church. Consequently, in 1326 he entered a minor ecclesiastical order in Avignon and joined the household of the influential Cardinal Giovanni Colonna.

Petrarch at first justified his decision to enter the order on the grounds that he was honoring the beauty of God's creation through poetry, but he later confessed that it was more for the worship of earthly objects than of God. This fact, once admitted, troubled him. His ultimate resolution of this moral problem formed the basis of the humanist perspective he helped initiate.

Nonetheless, Petrarch's efforts to revive an interest in classical verse were recognized by Pope Benedict XII (r. 1334-1342), who awarded him a laurel crown at the Capitoline Hill on April 8, 1341. As a symbolic gesture, Petrarch placed the laurel on the Tomb of the Apostle in Saint Peter's Basilica, in the hope of linking the classical and Christian traditions. Two years later, he left Rome and returned to Avignon to confront his selfish love of poetry. Delving into Augustine's Confessions, Petrarch found much in common with his own life. It was during this period that he composed the autobiographical treatise, Secretum meum (My solitude).

Petrarch's religious and intellectual struggle centered on the possibility of living a spiritual life in a corrupt world and the validity of including the classical tradition in religion. In his own case, it was his love of classical learning and beauty in the form of poetry that caused him deep pain. Petrarch came to accept the idea that a person might still find the way to God despite involvement in worldly affairs, personal preoccupations, and the imperfections of this world. The sonnets of Petrarch are a fine illustration of the humanist position. They focus on the individual, with notions of beauty, love, and knowledge illustrating the revival of Neoplatonic thought.


Works by the Author

Higginson, Thomas Wentworth, ed. Fifteen Sonnets of Petrarch. Boston: Houghton-Mifflin Co., 1903.

Auslander, Joseph, ed. The Sonnets of Petrarch. New York: Longmans, Green, & Company, 1932.


The biographical material about the author originally appeared on The Goodrich Room: Interactive Tour website.

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