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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 13th-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.

He 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 Chaucer, who incorporated elements and translations of Petrarch's work into his own. Petrarch's influence in English lasted at least through the 19th 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.

By This Poet


Sonnet 101 [Ways apt and new to sing of love I'd find]

Ways apt and new to sing of love I'd find,
Forcing from her hard heart full many a sigh,
And re-enkindle in her frozen mind
Desires a thousand, passionate and high;
O'er her fair face would see each swift change pass,
See her fond eyes at length where pity reigns,
As one who sorrows when too late, alas!
For his own error and another's pains;
See the fresh roses edging that fair snow
Move with her breath, that ivory descried,
Which turns to marble him who sees it near;
See all, for which in this brief life below
Myself I weary not but rather pride
That Heaven for later times has kept me here.

Sonnet 102 [If no love is, O God, what fele I so?]

If no love is, O God, what fele I so? 
    And if love is, what thing and which is he? 
    If love be good, from whennes cometh my woo? 
    If it be wikke, a wonder thynketh me, 
    When every torment and adversite 
    That cometh of hym, may to me savory thinke, 
    For ay thurst I, the more that ich it drynke. 
And if that at myn owen lust I brenne, 
    From whennes cometh my waillynge and my pleynte? 
    If harm agree me, whereto pleyne I thenne? 
    I noot, ne whi unwery that I feynte. 
    O quike deth, O swete harm so queynte, 
    How may of the in me swich quantite, 
    But if that I consente that it be? 
And if that I consente, I wrongfully 
    Compleyne, iwis.   Thus possed to and fro, 
    Al sterelees withinne a boot am I 
    Amydde the see, betwixen wyndes two, 
    That in contrarie stonden evere mo. 
    Allas! what is this wondre maladie? 
    For hete of cold, for cold of hete, I dye.

Sonnet 131 [I'd sing of Love in such a novel fashion]

I'd sing of Love in such a novel fashion
that from her cruel side I would draw by force
a thousand sighs a day, kindling again
in her cold mind a thousand high desires;

I'd see her lovely face transform quite often
her eyes grow wet and more compassionate,
like one who feels regret, when it's too late,
for causing someone's suffering by mistake;

And I'd see scarlet roses in the snows,
tossed by the breeze, discover ivory
that turns to marble those who see it near them;

All this I'd do because I do not mind
my discontentment in this one short life,
but glory rather in my later fame.