Petrarch Laura Francesco Petrarch and Laura For a woman he would never know
For a woman he could never have
He should change the world forever
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All my critics, however, are not like you, for they do not all think the same, nor do they all love me as you do. But how can I hope to please everybody, when I have always striven to gratify a few only? There are three poisons which kill sound criticism, love, hate, and envy. Beware lest through too much love you should make public what might better be kept concealed. As you are guided by love, so others may be influenced by other passions. Between the blindness of love and that of jealousy there is indeed a great difference in origin, but not always in effect.

Francesco Petrarch: Biography

by: Peter Sadlon

Many people come here looking for a simple answer to the question "Who was Francesco Petrarch?". If you want a simple answer it is, "He was a man."

Others seek an answer to the question, "What did Petrarch do?". The simple answer is, "Petrarch wrote a letter."

Born in exile in the town of Arezzo on July 20th, 1304 he was the first son of Pietro di Parenzo di Garzo (Ser Petracco dell'Incisa) and Eletta Canigiani. His family exiled by the same people who exiled Dante shortly before from Florence, Petrarch spent the first few years of his life in Incisa (Ancisa) not all that far away.

In 1307 his brother Gherardo was born. A few years later in 1311 the family moved to Pisa to meet the new Emperor and in 1312 to Avignon following the Holy See. But because of the popularity of the city at the time and not being able to find accomodations in Avignon the family settled in Carentras, a small town just outside the city.

In 1316 he went to study in Montpellier with Gherardo. Shortly after in 1319 his mother died of unknown causes. In 1320 he was studying law in Bologna. Petrarch despised the profession of lawyers. Although the logic of law appealed to him, the dishonest associated with the profession made his stomach turn.

In 1326 when his father dies, Petrarch abandons his study of law and turns to the classics of which he studied in small amounts during his schooling. His brother, Gherardo, enters the service of the church as Petrarch does as well. Their family moneys all gone the church would support him for the rest of his life.

On April 6th, 1327, Good Friday by the older calendar, and at an Easter mass Petrarch sees Laura for the first time. Who Laura really was, and even if she really existed is a little bit of a mystery, but she is thought to be Laura de Noves, born in 1310 and married to Hugues II de Sade in 1325. Falling madly in love with a woman he may have never even talked to, Petrarch would go on to write hundreds of poems to her; which in years to come would get transported around the world and translated into just about every known language.

By 1330 Petrarch finishes his Minor Orders of the church and enters the service of Cardinal Colonna. He will spend the rest of his life in the service of the Church under different Cardinals and Bishops. He will undertake many diplomatic missions across Europe for various reasons. He will become ambassadors and be instrumental in bringing about Italian unity by fulfilling these roles.

In 1333 Petrarch takes a trip across France and the Netherlands and into Germany. Petrarch spent a great deal of his life in foreign lands and often wrote on how life itself was a journey, an all to common theme in today's literature, but one which was not fully explored before Petrarch's time.

While in Liege he comes across Cicero's Pro Archia. Petrarch's love for the classics only grows stronger. He begins to attempt to revive classical writings believing that their teachings have been lost.

By 1336 Petrarch begins to compile Rerum vulgarium fragmenta also called Il Canzoniere, or in English, The Song Book. By 1374 when Petrarch dies it contains 366 poems, mostly sonnets to and about the love of his life which he could never have, Laura. Of the 366 poems 263 would be written while she was alive and 103 after her death. Laura would die while Petrarch was traveling later in 1348, on Good Friday. As Petrarch writes: on the same hour of the same day but 21 years after he first saw her. She would leave behind 11 children and a husband who would remarry within a year.

A year later in 1337, and on the road again he travels to Flanders and the Brabant and then to Rome for the first time in his life. Later that year, his first child, Giovanni is born out of wedlock. Who the mother was is unknown, but by Petrarch's own account he did not treat her as well as he should have. The relationship between Petrarch and his son was a disappointment to Francesco. He describes Giovanni as "Intelligent, perhaps even exceptionally intelligent, but he hates books".

Giovanni will stay with Petrarch until he was 20 years old (1357), at which time living in Italy, Petrarch will send his son to Avignon and in 1361 Giovanni would die from the plague.

In 1340, as Petrarch writes, on the same day he received two invitations, one from Rome and one from Paris, each asking him to accept the crown as poet laureate. He choses Rome and on April 8th, 1341 (Easter Sunday) he is crowned by Orso dell'Anguillara, a roman noble. Petrarch's speech calls on a rebirth of classical wisdom and poetry. He develops the idea of the laurel being the symbol for poetic and literary immortality.

By 1343 Petrarch's second child, Francesca is born, again to an unnamed mother out of wedlock. Francesca later marries Francescuolo da Brossano and bares two children of her own, a daughter named Eletta in 1362 and a son, Francesco whom Petrarch adored. Francesco, the grandson, will die in 1368, probably of the plague.

In April of the same year (1343) Gherardo, Petrarch's brother, becomes a Carthusian monk. This causes Petrarch to examine his faith and write Secretum. It is composed of three imaginary dialogues between Petrarch and St. Augustine, who speak in the presence of Lady Truth. The Secretum is a "secret" book, intended for private meditation; Petrarch kept it by him for the rest of his life. It reflects his sense of inner crisis and depression, resolved by Augustine's wise counsel and recollection of his readings, particularly Virgil, Ovid, and Augustine's Confessions.

In 1345 and living in Verona Petrarch discovers a collection of letters written by Cicero and collected by him over 1000 years ago. Petrarch begins to follow Cicero's lead and starts a collection of his own letters which he called Familiares (Familiar Letters). His Familiares will end up being a collection of 350 letters in 24 books spanning from 1325 to 1366.

Petrarch would terminate Familiares years later and begin Seniles (Letters of the elder years). That collection would contain 128 letters in 18 books written between 1361 and 1373. Petrarch would spend a considerable amount of time in these collections, rewriting letters and sometimes composing new ones on the fly. He would write to kings and queens, he would write to popes and cardinals. He would write to the ghosts of Cicero and Homer.

Petrarch would live out the rest of his life in Italy. Still in the service of the church and going on diplomatic missions from time to time.

On the morning of July 19th, 1374, a day before his 70th birthday, Francesca who's family was living with him at the time, would walk into Francesco's study and find him slumped over his desk having died sometime during the night with a pen in his hand and Laura in his heart. He was buried in the parish church. Six years later, his remains were transferred to a sarcophagus built in Arquà by his son-in-law.

His writings influenced countless others during his lifetime, others such as Boccaccio to write his own great works. And centuries later others such as Shakespeare would study his works and copy his sonnets.

Petrarch lived through the harshest bouts of the plague and lost nearly everyone he knew to it. His mother and father had died in his early years but his son, his grandson, numerous friends, and of course Laura, for which his writings of her will live on forever, all died as victims of the disease.

So great were his writings that royalty treated him, the son of exiled nobles, like a king and in a letter to a friend he even goes as far as to say that he has caused his own plague to spread over Europe, one which has caused people to take up pen and paper and write and read.

And so ended the dark ages and the start of Humanism.

© Copyright 1999-2006
Peter Sadlon
Updated Sept 10th 2007

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