Petrarch1304-1374) was an Italian scholar, poet, and humanist, who is credited with having given the Renaissance its name. He traveled widely and wrote many learned works, but his most enduring writings by far are the poems he addressed to Laura, a mysterious beloved whom he may never have met.
Petrarch (Francesco Petrarca in Italian) 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 banished from Florence in 1302 by the Black Guelphs, due to his political connections with Dante. Petrarch spent much of his early life at Avignon, where his family moved to follow Pope Clement V who moved there in 1309 during a papal schism, and nearby Carpentras, both in Vaucluse. He studied at Montpellier (1319 - 23) and moved to Bologna, where he studied law in 1323-25. Though trained in law and religion, Petrarch was primarily interested in writing and Latin literature, sharing this passion with his friend Giovanni Boccaccio. In search for old Latin classics and manuscripts, he traveled through France, Germany, Italy, and Spain. With his first large scale work, Africa -- an epic in Latin -- Petrarch emerged as a European celebrity.
When his father died in 1326, Petrarch returned to Avignon, where he worked in different clerical offices. As a scholar and poet, Petrarch soon grew famous, and in 1341 he was crowned as a poet laureate in Rome. He traveled widely in Europe, served as an ambassador, and was a prolific letter writer. He collected manuscripts on his travels and was a prime mover in the recovery of knowledge from writers of Rome and Greece. 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."
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 Canzoniere; ("Song Book"). She may have been Laure de Noves, the wife of Hugues de Sade (an ancestor of the Marquis de Sade), or perhaps an idealized or pseudonymous character. 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 never met. 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 "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."
Among Petrarch's Latin works are De Viris Illustribus, the dialogue Secretum, a debate with St. Augustine, an Rerum Memorandarum Libri, an incomplete treatise on the cardinal virtues, De Remediis Utriusque Fortunae, his most popular Latin prose work, Itinerarium, a guide book to the Holy Land, and De Sui Ipsius Et Multorum Ignorantia, against Aristotelians. He wrote his scholarly works and epic poetry in Latin, and his sonnets and canzoni in Italian.
The latter part of his life he spent in journeying through northern Italy as an international scholar and renowned traveler. Petrarch never married, but he did father three 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.
In November of 2003, it was announced that pathological anatomists would be exhuming Petrarch's body from his casket in Arqua 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.