From the Cycle of Famous Men and Women. c. 1450. Detached fresco. 247 x 153 cm. Galleria degli Uffizi, Florence, Italy. Artist: Andrea di Bartolo di Bargilla (c. 1423 - 1457)

Francesco Petrarca or Petrarch (1304 – July 19, 1374) was an Italian scholar, poet, and early humanist. Petrarch and Dante are considered the fathers of the Renaissance.


Petrarch was born in Arezzo the son of a notary, and spent his early childhood in the village of Incisa, near Florence. His father, Ser Petracco, had been exiled from Florence in 1302 (along with Dante) by the Black Guelphs. Petrarch spent much of his early life at Avignon and nearby Carpentras, where his family moved to follow Pope Clement V who moved there in 1309 during the papal schism. He studied at Montpelier (1316-20) and Bologna (1320-26), where his father insisted he study the law. However, Petrarch was primarily interested in writing and Latin literature.

When his father died in 1326, Petrarch returned to Avignon, where he worked in numerous different clerical offices. This work gave him much time to devote to his writing. With his first large scale work, Africa; an epic in Latin about the great Roman general Scipio Africanus; Petrarch emerged as a European celebrity. In 1341 he was crowned poet laureate in Rome, the first man since antiquity to be given this honor. He traveled widely in Europe and served as an ambassador. He was a prolific letter writer, and counted Giovanni Boccaccio among his notable friends. During his travels, he collected crumbling Latin manuscripts and was a prime mover in the recovery of knowledge from writers of Rome and Greece. Among other accomplishments, he commissioned the first Latin translation of Homer and personally discovered a collection of Cicero's letters not previously known to have existed. He remarked, "Each famous author of antiquity whom I recover places a new offence and another cause of dishonor to the charge of earlier generations, who, not satisfied with their own disgraceful barrenness, permitted the fruit of other minds, and the writings that their ancestors had produced by toil and application, to perish through insufferable neglect. Although they had nothing of their own to hand down to those who were to come after, they robbed posterity of its ancestral heritage." Disdaining the ignorance of the era in which he lived, Petrarch created the concept of the Dark Ages.

On April 26th, 1336 Petrarch together with his brother and two other companions climbed to the top of Mont Ventoux (1,909 m; 6,263 ft). He wrote an account of the trip, composed considerably later as a letter to his friend Francesco Dionigi. At the time, it was unusual to climb a mountain for no other reason than the experience itself. Therefore, April 26th, 1336 is regarded as the "birthday of alpinism", and Petrarch (Petrarca alpinista) as the "father of alpinism".

The latter part of his life he spent in journeying through northern Italy as an international scholar and poet-diplomat. Petrarch's career in the Church did not allow him to marry, but he did father two children by a woman or women unknown to posterity. A son, Giovanni, was born in Avignon in 1337 and a daughter, Francesca, was born in Vaucluse in 1343. Giovanni died of the plague in 1361. Francesca married Francescuolo da Brossano (who was later named executor of Petrarch's testament). In 1362, shortly after the birth of a daughter, Eletta, they joined Petrarch in Venice, to flee the plague then ravaging parts of Europe. A second grandchild, Francesco, was born in 1366, but died before his second birthday.

Petrarch settled about 1367 in Padua, where he passed his remaining years in religious contemplation. He died in Arquà in the Euganean Hills on July 18, 1374.

Petrarch in Raphael's Parnassus

Laura and poetry

In 1327, the sight of a woman called Laura in the church of Sainte-Claire d'Avignon awoke in him a lasting passion, celebrated in the Rime sparse ("Scattered rhymes"). Later Renaissance poets who copied Petrarch's style named this collection of 366 poems the Canzoniere ("Song Book"). She may have been Laure de Noves, the wife of Hugues de Sade and an ancestor of the Marquis de Sade. While it is possible she was an idealized or pseudonymous character - particularly since the name "Laura" has a linguistic connection to the poetic "laurels" Petrarch coveted - Petrarch himself always denied it. Her realistic presentation in his poems contrasts with the clichés of troubadours and courtly love. Her presence causes him unspeakable joy, but his unrequited love creates unendurable desires. There is little definite information in Petrarch's work concerning Laura, except that she is lovely to look at, fair-haired, with a modest, dignified bearing.

Laura and Petrarch had little or no personal contact. According to his "Secretum", she refused him for the very proper reason that she was already married to another man. He channeled his feelings into love poems that were exclamatory rather than persuasive, and wrote prose that showed his contempt for men who pursue women. Upon her death in 1348, the poet finds that his grief is as difficult to live with as was his former despair. Later in his "Letter to Posterity," Petrarch wrote: "In my younger days I struggled constantly with an overwhelming but pure love affair - my only one, and I would have struggled with it longer had not premature death, bitter but salutary for me, extinguished the cooling flames. I certainly wish I could say that I have always been entirely free from desires of the flesh, but I would be lying if I did."

Petrarch polished and perfected the hitherto unknown sonnet form for his poems to Laura, and the Petrarchan sonnet still bears his name. Romantic composer Franz Liszt set three of Petrarch's Sonnets (47, 104, and 123) to music for voice, Tre sonetti del Petrarca, which he later would transcribed for solo piano for inclusion in the suite Années de Pélerinage.


Petrarch is best known for his Italian poetry: notably the Canzoniere and the Trionfi ("Triumphs"). However, Petrarch was an enthusiastic Latin scholar and did most of his writing in this language. His Latin writings are quite varied and include scholarly works, introspective essays, letters, and more poetry. Among them are Secretum ("My Secret Book"), an intensely personal guilt-ridden dialogue with St. Augustine; De Viris Illustribus ("On Famous Men"), a series of moral biographies; Rerum Memorandarum Libri, an incomplete treatise on the cardinal virtues; De Otio Religiosorum ("On Religious Leisure") and De Vita Solitaria ("On the Solitary Life"), which praise the contemplative life; De Remediis Utriusque Fortunae ("Remedies for Fortune"), a self-help book which remained popular for hundreds of years; Itinerarium ("Petrarch's Guide to the Holy Land"), a distant ancestor of Fodors and Lonely Planet; a number of invectives against opponents such as doctors, scholastics, and the French; the Carmen Bucolicum, a collection of twelve pastoral poems; and the unfinished epic Africa. Petrarch also published many volumes of his letters, including a few written to his long-dead friends from history like Cicero and Virgil. Unfortunately most of his Latin writings are difficult to find today. It is difficult to assign any precise dates to his writings because he tended to revise them throughout his life.


Petrarch's contributions to philosophy should be noted. The contributions he made to the Renaissance were great as he in some sense formed the "backbone" of humanism. He believed in the immense moral and practical value of the study of ancient history and literature - that is, the study of human thought and action. While humanism later became associated with secularism, Petrarch was a devout Christian and did not see a conflict between realizing humanity's potential and having religious faith. Petrarch was a highly introspective man, and many of his own internal conflicts, such as the relative place of the active life and the contemplative life, would be seized upon by Renaissance humanist philosophers and argued continually for the next two hundred years. For example, while Petrarch tended to emphasize the importance of the contemplative life, later politician and thinker Leonardo Bruni argued for the active life, or "civic humanism." The result was that a surprising number of political, military, and religious leaders during the Renaissance were inculcated with the notion that their pursuit of personal glory should be grounded in classical example and philosophical contemplation.


In November of 2003, it was announced that pathological anatomists would be exhuming Petrarch's body from his casket in Arquà Petrarca, in order to verify 19th century reports that he had stood 1.83 meters, which would have made him very tall for his period. The team also hoped to reconstruct his cranium in order to obtain a computerized image of his features. Unfortunately, DNA testing in 2004 revealed that the skull found in the casket was not his, prompting calls for the return of Petrarch's skull.


Bishop, Morris. (1961). Petrarch. In J. H. Plumb (Ed.), Renaissance Profiles, pp. 1-17. New York: Harper & Row. ISBN 0061311626.

External links

Petrarch and Laura ( Wonderful multi-lingual site including many translated works (letters, poems, books) in the public domain and biography, pictures, music.

Petrarch ( from the Catholic Encyclopedia.

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