- (Francesco Petrarca, 1304-1374)Italian poet and hu-manist, commonly ranked as second only to Dante among Italian poets and conventionally designated as the first humanist (more ac-curately, the first humanist to gain a widespread reputation) of the Italian Renaissance. Although Petrarch always regarded himself as a Florentine, he never actually lived in Florence. His father, a profes-sional notary, had been banished on politically motivated charges of corruption. The poet was born in the provincial city of Arezzo and lived in Tuscany until about age seven, when his father relocated the family to Pisa and then in 1312 to the papal court at Avignon, where the father became a curial official. Petrarch grew up in southern France. He received his grammatical education at Carpentras and from an early age developed a passionate love of ancient Latin liter-ature. In 1316 his father sent him to study law, first at the University of Montpellier and in 1320 at Bologna, the most distingished law faculty in Italy. He found the law unappealing and remained far more interested in literature. After his father's death in 1326, Petrarch left Bologna and never entered legal practice. He returned to Avignon. There in 1327 he saw the woman who became the idealized Laura of his famous love poems, the Canzoniere, a collection of vernacular lyrics expanded and polished through the rest of his life. Though never ordained as a priest, he became chaplain to Cardinal Giovanni Colonna, a powerful Roman aristocrat. In 1333 he travelled in north-ern Europe, visiting Paris, Ghent, Liège, Aachen, Cologne, and Lyon.During these travels Petrarch began his lifelong habit of hunting for works of ancient literature previously unknown to him. In Liège, for ex-ample, he found the oration Pro Archaia poeta by his favorite Latin au-thor, Cicero, an eloquent defense of the social value of literature. A friend he met at Avignon introduced him to the writings of the Christian Church Fathers, especially St. Augustine. In 1335 the pope appointed him as canon of the cathedral at Lombez, a sinecure that provided an in-come but imposed no liturgical duties. He was never ordained to the priesthood. About this time, he wrote a long letter in Latin verse to the pope, urging him to bring the papacy back to its rightful location in Rome. At the end of 1336 he made his own first visit to Rome. He was overwhelmed both by the grandeur of the city and by its decay nearly a millennium after the "fall" of the Roman Empire. He regarded Rome as the rightful ruler of the whole world and developed a strong affection for Italy, expressed in one of his most famous poems, "Italia mia," which laments Italy's disunity and weakness.Upon his return to France, Petrarch purchased a rural home at Vau-cluse and made it a retreat for study and meditation. This period at Vaucluse was productive. He began a number of works that he com-pleted only many years later, including the first version of his collec-tive biography De viris illustribus / On Famous Men, his collection of vernacular poems (the Canzoniere), his epic Africa celebrating the deeds of the Roman hero Scipio, and the first of a long series of alle-gorical poems that he called Trionfi / Triumphs. In 1340 he received two invitations to be crowned poet laureate, one from the University of Paris and the other from the Roman Senate. Inevitably, Rome was the location he preferred, and in April 1341 he was crowned in a cer-emony rich in memories of antiquity.Although at that date Petrarch's reputation as a poet was based more on his vernacular lyrics rather than on his uncompleted Latin epic Africa, he had become an international celebrity and had devel-oped a strong sense of his own historical mission that recurs through-out his writings. When he got back to Provence, he attempted to learn Greek, but he never gained a usable knowledge of the language. In the next few years, as his brother became a monk and he himself be-came the father of a daughter born out of wedlock, his writings re-flected the tension between his worldly desires and his spiritual aspi-rations. An important product of this period is his Secretum, a series of imaginary dialogues with St. Augustine.While visiting Verona in 1345, Petrarch discovered Cicero's letters to Atticus. The discovery was a triumph, in that he found a major col-lection of work by his favorite author, but it was also a shock, be-cause these letters made it clear that Cicero was first and foremost an ambitious politician, burning with desire for power, and not primarily the wise and detached philosopher that Petrarch had thought him to be. When he returned to Vaucluse, Petrarch began writing his De vita solitaria, in which he lauds the contemplative life but conceives it in terms of an opportunity for study and reflection rather than as a monastic calling. In 1347 the Roman revolution led by the eccentric prophet Cola di Rienzo, who aimed to recapture control of the city from the feeble administration of the absentee pope, aroused Pe-trarch's dream that Roman power could be restored, but Rienzo's in-ability to distinguish dream from reality ultimately alienated the poet.The year 1348 brought the crisis of the Black Death, and news of the death of his Laura and of several friends during the epidemic moved him to write Triumphus mortis / The Triumph of Death. Pe-trarch also worked on his Epistolae familiares, a project inspired by his discovery of Cicero's letters. This was the first of four series of imaginary letters addressed to famous ancient sages. In 1350 he made the jubilee pilgrimage to Rome and for the first time in his life vis-ited Florence, the city he always claimed as his own. His writings had gained admirers there, and he met a number of them in person, no-tably the other leading Florentine author of his generation, Giovanni Boccaccio, who became the chief promoter of his fame in the city. By 1351-1352 he was back in Vaucluse, working on his evolving col-lective biography of great men, De viris illustribus, which by now he had reconceived as covering only ancient Romans, since he had con-cluded that only Roman history was worth serious study.Between 1353 and 1361, Petrarch lived in Milan as a guest of the ruler. While there, he began writing a treatise on moral philosophy, De remediis utriusque fortunae / Remedies for Good and Bad For-tune. In 1361 he moved to Padua and later to Venice. There he clashed with a number of young aristocrats who passed the word around that Petrarch was a good man but not really learned—by which they really meant that he did not share their enthusiasm for Aristotelian rationalism and natural science. They contemptuously dismissed his literary work and his concern with religion. He drafted a clever rebuttal of this criticism, De sui ipsius et multorum ignoran-tia / On His Own Ignorance and That of Many Others. Here he re-jected the claims of scholastic rationalism (which in Italian universi-ties of the time was non-religious or even anti-religious) to possess absolute truth, arguing instead that the combination of eloquent speech and moral seriousness imparted by humanistic studies was far more useful to human life than the abstruse and anti-Christian phi-losophy that prevailed in the academic world. In his final years, Pe-trarch settled in a beautiful mountainous district at Arquà near Padua. His happiness at Arquà and previously at Vaucluse shows that both temperamentally and intellectually he was more suited to the con-templative than to the active life, though in theory he praised both lifestyles. He died at Arquà and was buried there.Although Petrarch remains famous mainly on account of his ver-nacular poetry, he always regarded his rediscovery of lost classical authors and his Latin treatises on spiritual life, moral excellence, and the need to restore Rome's greatness as far more important. Two ideas dominated his intellectual life: the greatness of Rome and his own special destiny as the person who would restore that greatness.Behind Petrarch's hunger for fame and the exalted view he had of his own place in human history was an idea that he may be said to have invented, an idea unknown to either the ancient or the medieval world. This was the idea of historical discontinuity. Ancient and me-dieval historical thought had assumed an endlessly repeated cyclical history, in which there is never any discontinuity or fundamental change. Petrarch's admiration for ancient Rome and his bitter hostil-ity to his own corrupt and disorderly century opened his mind to an unprecedented conclusion: the ancient world of classical Greece and Rome, however admirable, had ceased to exist almost a thousand years ago. Both the political authority and the advanced civilization of Rome had collapsed. Barbarism, expressed in a catastrophic de-cline of intellectual, linguistic, and literary excellence, had prevailed and had persisted for a thousand years — an age that Petrarch himself in Africa labelled a "Dark" Age. The present weakness and disunity of Italy, the unspiritual religion and Avignonese exile of the church, and the low level of contemporary literature and learning were the consequences of this triumph of barbarism. His contempt for the mil-lennium separating ancient Rome from his own time was so deep that he recast his vast biographical project, De viris illustribus, to elimi-nate sections devoted to the lives of Charlemagne and other promi-nent men of the period that the post-Petrarchan world would come to call the Middle Ages.But though his assessment of his own age was gloomy, Petrarch was not without hope. He believed that Rome could become great and powerful again, and good literature and learning could be re-stored, through careful study of the literary remains of the dead world of ancient Rome. Italy could be reborn; the corrupt church could be purified; human life could be made worth living if only the moral and political wisdom of the Romans could be rediscovered and made to live in the hearts of modern Italians. The force that differentiates Pe-trarch from earlier humanists who also revered classical literature such as Lovati and Mussato was not just his greater literary talent or his deeper knowledge of the ancient world, it was his historical vision of the rebirth—the Renaissance—of the best characteristics of an-cient civilization in his own time and through his own efforts. His sense of destiny as the person who would effect a radical turn in hu-man history and usher in a new age of greatness was unique and new. Petrarch's vision of cultural rebirth made him not just a humanist but the first Renaissance humanist, a man who believed that he was ush-ering in a new age in human history.
Historical Dictionary of Renaissance. Charles G. Nauert. 2004.