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"Petrarch" is the English rendition of the surname of Francesco Petrarca, the Italian poet and humanist. Born 1304, in Arezzo. Died 1374 at Arqua.

Francesco Petrarca was the son of a notary named Petracco, who had been expelled from Florence by the Guelph party. While Francesco was still a child, in 1313, Petracco migrated, with his family, to Avignon. Here, in 1327, Petrarch first met Laura, the woman for whom his unrequited love was to inspire so much great poetry (she was married to another man, Count Hugues de Sade). Inspired by Laura, Petrarch wrote numerous love poems, titled Rime in Vita e Morte di Madonna Laura (or Canzoniere).

Apart from his poetry, Petrarch was widely famed as a classical scholar and humanist, in particular as a student of the works of Cicero and Virgil. In 1341, Petrarch was crowned poet laureate at Rome.

Throughout his life, Petrarch was deeply concerned with civil liberties in Italy, championing the republican cause of Rienzi - yet paradoxically, he remained (perhaps because of his accomplishment as an poet) welcome as a guest in the palazzi of the princes and nobles of Italy.

As one of the earliest exponents of the Italian Renaissance, Petrarch was and is much admired by his posterity, and his influence has been enormous.


"Think you, if Laura had been Petrarch's wife
He would have written sonnets all his life?"

- Lord Byron: Don Juan, canto 3, sonnet 8

Petrarch was famous – almost infamous – for writing a certain type of poem. The following example, from my World Lit textbook, should demonstrate ably.

(Transcribed from the excerpts from Petrarch's Rhymes, reprinted in Literature of the Western World, edited by Brian Wilkie and James Hurt, published by Prentice Hall):

XC
Upon the breeze she spread her golden hair
that in a thousand gentle knots was turned
and the sweet light beyond all radiance burned
in eyes where now that radiance is rare;

and in her face there seemed to come an air
of pity, true or false, that I discerned:
I had love's tinder in my breast unburned,
was it a wonder if it kindled there?

She moved not like a mortal, but as though
she bore an angel's form, her words had then
a sound that simple human voices lack;

a heavenly spirit, a living sun
was what I saw; now, if it is not so,
the wound's not healed because the bow goes slack.

In particular, notice the extreme hyperbole concerning Petrarch's lover's features. He did this a lot, and a lot of people copied him, to the extent that Shakespeare parodies this sort of thing a couple hundred years later in his Sonnet 130, with lines such as "My mistress' eyes are nothing like the sun; / coral is far more red than her lips' red;"

Here is the original of poem 90 of the Rime sparse, quoted above in translation.
Erano i capei d'oro a l'aura sparsi
che 'n mille dolci nodi gli avolgea,
e 'l vago lume oltra misura ardea
di quei begli occhi, ch' or ne son sì scarsi;

e 'l viso di pietosi color farsi
(non so se vero o falso) mi parea:
i' che l'esca amorosa al petto avea,
qual meraviglia se di subito arsi?

Non era l'andar suo cosa mortale
ma d'angelica forma, et le parole
sonavan altro che pur voce umana:

uno spirto celeste, un vivo sole
fu quel ch' i' vidi, et se non fosse or tale,
piaga per allentar d'arco non sana.

I don't think there's any wild exaggeration in this. Capei d'oro = golden hair; oltra misura = beyond measure; these are reasonable.

Non era... cosa mortale / ma d'angelica forma = was not a mortal thing / but of angelic form. Well, can't you say that about someone you know? Le parole / sonavan altro che pur voce umana = Her words / sounded different from a human voice. Again, that sounds like a lover's sensitive perception, not a misperception.

Un spirto celeste, un vivo sole / fu quel ch' i' vidi = A heavenly spirit, a living sun, was what I saw. This is metaphor, but hardly extravagant. He loved her, that was all.

Some of this imagery is taken from Virgil, in book I of the Aeneid, when Aeneas sees his mother Venus disguised as a mortal huntress. She carried a bow and her hair was knotted and her gown disordered in the wind. She asks him whether he's seen a sister huntress, but he answers her in awe, seeing in her look and her voice a sign that she must be some god or nymph. She tells him the story of Dido (on whose coast Aeneas and his crew have just been cast up) and sends him on his way. Only with her final departing movements is it clear that she is the goddess his mother. Petrarch is saying that Laura touches his heart with that sudden realization of something awesome and beautiful beyond all reason.

I recommend knowing someone who can take your breath away like that. :-)

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