This Day In Literary History
On July 20th, 1304, the legendary Italian poet, philosopher, and scholar Petrarch was born. He was born Francesco Petrarca in Arezzo, Italy. Petrarch's father was in the legal profession, so he demanded that his sons study law as well.
Petrarch spent seven years in law school, but he considered it a waste of time - his main interests were writing and Latin literature and he hated the practice of law, which he considered to be the art of selling justice.
After the death of their parents, Petrarch and his brother Gherardo went back to Avignon, where they spent most of their early years. To support himself, Petrarch worked in clerical offices. This gave him time to write.
He became friends with the legendary writer Boccaccio and corresponded with him frequently. Petrarch also completed his first major work, Africa - an epic poem written in Latin that told the story of the great Roman general, Scipio Africanus.
Petrarch's epic poem made him a celebrity throughout Europe. He became a priest and continued his work as a scholar and writer. He wrote mostly in Latin, but his most famous collection of poems, Il Canzoniere, (The Songbook) was written in Italian.
This work contained over 300 sonnets, a form his name would always be associated with. Though he is sometimes mistakenly credited as being the inventor of the sonnet, he was not. He did, however, invent the particular rhyme scheme for the form that came to be known as the Petrarchan sonnet.
The sonnets in Petrarch's book were inspired by a mysterious young woman known only as Laura. When Petrarch was 24 years old, after he had left the priesthood, he first saw Laura in church on Good Friday.
It was love at first sight for Petrarch, but alas, Laura was a married noblewoman who could not return his affection. Although an aristocrat, Laura was also a sweet-natured and humble girl, which endeared her to Petrarch.
Unable to realize his love for Laura, Petrarch wrote over 300 sonnets secretly professing his unrequited love for her. They are among the greatest love poems ever written. Not much is known to history about Laura.
Some scholars believe that she may have been Laura de Noves, wife of Count Hugues de Sade - an ancestor of the Marquis de Sade. When she died in 1348, Petrarch was wracked with grief.
The legendary composer Franz Liszt would set three of Petrarch's sonnets to music for voice in his work Tre Sonnetti Di Petrarca, and later transcribe them for solo piano in his suite Annees De Pelerinage.
In 1341, Petrarch was crowned the first poet laureate of Rome since antiquity. He traveled all over Europe as an ambassador. During his travels, he collected old, crumbling Latin manuscripts and became a leader in the movement to recover and restore the manuscripts of ancient Roman and Greek writers.
He advised Leontius Pilatus in his translation of a Homer manuscript acquired from Boccaccio, but was greatly displeased with the result. In 1345, Petrarch himself discovered a previously unknown collection of Cicero's letters, the Ad Atticum.
During the Italian Renaissance, Petrarch became a respected and influential philosopher. He is credited with founding the Humanist movement and describing the ignorant times that preceded the Renaissance as the "Dark Ages." But he will always be known as one of the greatest writers and poets of all time.
Throughout his remarkable life, he wrote poetry collections, essays, numerous scholarly works, and a large volume of correspondence. He brought the sonnet to prominence long before the birth of Shakespeare, and his love poems were magnificent. One of his most beloved sonnets is Sonnet #140:
She ruled in beauty o'er this heart of mine,
A noble lady in a humble home,
And now her time for heavenly bliss has come,
'Tis I am mortal proved, and she divine.
The soul that all its blessings must resign,
And love whose light no more on earth finds room,
Might rend the rocks with pity for their doom,
Yet none their sorrows can in words enshrine;
They weep within my heart; and ears are deaf
Save mine alone, and I am crushed with care,
And naught remains to me save mournful breath.
Assuredly but dust and shade we are,
Assuredly desire is blind and brief,
Assuredly its hope but ends in death.
Petrarch died in July of 1374, just before his 70th birthday.
Quote Of The Day
"There is no lighter burden, nor more agreeable, than a pen. Other pleasures fail us or wound, us while they charm, but the pen we take up rejoicing and lay down with satisfaction, for it has the power to advantage not only its lord and master, but many others as well, even though they be far away- sometimes, indeed, though they be not born for thousands of years to come. I believe I speak but the strict truth when I claim that as there is none among earthly delights more noble than literature, so there is none so lasting, none gentler, or more faithful; there is none which accompanies its possessor through the vicissitudes of life at so small a cost of effort or anxiety." - Petrarch
Today's video features a documentary on Petrarch and his contribution to the sonnet. Enjoy!