Known in English as Petrarch, Francesco Petrarca was born at dawn on July 20, 1304 in the city of Arezzo, in central Italy, just south of Florence. The son of Ser Petracco, a merchant and notary public, Petrarch studied law with his brother in Montpellier, France in 1316, and later in Bologna, Italy. His primary interest, however, was Latin literature and writing. After the death of his father in 1326, Petrarch abandoned law altogether, later asserting, “I couldn’t face making a merchandise of my mind.” Instead, he served in various clerical positions, which granted him adequate time for his writing and literary studies.
In 1327, in Avignon, Petrarch allegedly encountered Laura de Noves, a woman he fixated on for the rest of his life. From 1327 to 1368, Petrarch wrote 366 poems as part of a sequence, centered on the theme of his love for Laura. The sequence—collected in a canzoniere, or song-book, usually called Rime Sparse, or Scattered Rhymes in English—includes 317 sonnets, a form based on rules established by the thirteenth-century Italian poet, Guittone of Arezzo. The earliest major practitioner of the sonnet, Petrarch is credited with the development and popularization of the Italian sonnet, thus called the Petrarchan sonnet.
In 1333, Petrarch connected with fellow Italian poet Giovanni Boccaccio, with whom he engaged in regular correspondence, including an exchange of their writing. After his first visit to Rome in 1337, Petrarch began composing Africa, an epic poem concerning the Second Punic War, which he dedicated to Robert of Naples, king of Sicily, though it was not published until three decades after Petrarch’s death.
Petrarch was renowned as a poet and scholar and, on April 8, 1341 (Easter Sunday), he travelled to Rome to accept the crown as poet laureate. During the ceremony, which had not been performed since ancient times, Petrarch delivered his “Coronation Oration,” considered the first manifesto of the Renaissance, in which he recalled: “there was a time, there was an age, that was happier for poets, an age when they were held in the highest honor, first in Greece and then in Italy, and especially when Caesar Augustus held imperial sway, under whom there flourished excellent poets: Virgil, Varius, Ovid, Horace, and many others.”
A celebrity throughout Europe, Petrarch travelled widely for pleasure, and is sometimes called “the first tourist.” Known for his work reviving interest in classical literature, Petrarch is considered the “father of Humanism,” an attitude associated with the flourishing of the Renaissance.
Petrarch’s considerable influence in England and, therefore, in English, began with Geoffrey Chaucer, who incorporated elements and translations of Petrarch’s work into his own. Petrarch’s influence in English lasted at least through the nineteenth century and can be found in the work of many famous English poets, such as Sir Thomas Wyatt and Percy Bysshe Shelley.
About Petrarch’s legacy, the poet J. D. McClatchy has said, “True love—or rather, the truest—is always obsessive and unrequited. No one has better dramatized how it scorches the heart and fires the imagination than Petrarch did, centuries ago. He dipped his pen in tears and wrote the poems that have shaped our sense of love—its extremes of longing and loss—ever since.”
Petrarch died on July 19, 1374.