Francesco Petrarch was an Italian poet (1304-1374). He studied classical antiquity and produced many Latin works. In Italian, he also published the Canzoniere. This had an extremely widespread influence in Europe. He also made great achievements in Latin studies. Together with Dante and Boccaccio, he is known as a pioneer of the Italian Renaissance.

Life of Petrarch

 Petrarch was born in Tuscany to a family of notaries. At an early age, he moved to the vicinity of Avignon, France, where the Papal Curia was located.

 Petrarch studied law at the behest of his father. He studied in Montpellier and Bologna. But when his father died in 1326, Petrarch stopped studying law and returned to Avignon.

 Development as a Poet

 Petrarch preferred the literature of classical antiquity to the study of law. Even while studying law, he loved the writings of ancient Romans such as Cicero and Virgil.

 In addition, he began to read the Italian poetry of the time. In thirteenth-century Italy, poetry was produced not only in Latin, the language of classical antiquity, but also in Italian, the vernacular language. This literary trend began in the first half of the 13th century, and Dante was its leading poet in the second half of the century. Dante is mentioned by Petrarch in a letter to Boccaccio, as discussed below.

 Encounter with Laura

 It was in this context that he returned to Avignon, as mentioned above. The following year, Petrarch had a fateful encounter. In the church of Clara, he fell in love with a woman named Laura. From this encounter, “Canzoniere” was born, filled with his love for her.


 It was not until the Cardinal Colonna family became his patrons that Petrarch began to work seriously as a poet. Under their patronage, Petrarch pursued his classical studies.
 In 1338, Petrarch began work on his “Africa.” This was an epic poem about the Roman general Scipio Africanus. At that time, many epics were written about specific heroes. However, there were still few cases in which a personage from classical antiquity was chosen as the subject matter. In this respect, Petrarch was truly a humanist poet. In the end, however, “Africa” was not completed.
 Nevertheless, Petrarch gained fame. In 1341, Petrarch was crowned poet laureate in Rome. In 1342, he began to work on his “Canzoniere”.

 Boccaccio and Dante

 Petrarch now received invitations from various princes. He then moved to Parma, Milan, Padua, and Venice.
 In 1350, Petrarch met Boccaccio. At the time, Boccaccio was serving the Florentine government on an official mission. As part of his duties, Boccaccio invited Petrarch to his home in Florence. The following year, Florence authority offered Petrarch a professorship at the University of Florence. Petrarch, however, declined it and moved to Milan.
 Nevertheless, the two men gradually developed a close relationship. They continued to correspond by letter. Petrarch, for example, told Boccaccio that he himself used to avoid Dante’s writings. This was because Petrarch feared being unwittingly influenced by Dante. But Petrarch also said that he had passed that point.

 Latin Studies

 By the time of his death, Petrarch had gradually developed an interest in Latin. Petrarch showed great respect for the works and scholarship of classical antiquity. He believed that the study of Latin language was the root of poetry and other arts of classical antiquity and the basis of all knowledge. Therefore, he pursued the study of Latin language.
 This study was coupled with the study of the history of Latin language. Through these studies, Petrarch contributed to the formation of a new Latin language different from the one used in the universities and churches of his time. This is because he came to believe that he should produce works in the great Latin language rather than in the imperfect vernacular language.
In fact, Petrarch produced many works in Latin, including poems such as “Pastoral” and the dialogue “The Secret,” inspired by Augustine. He also translated parts of Boccaccio’s masterpiece in Italian, the Decameron, into Latin.

Completion of the “Canzoniere”

 Nevertheless, as mentioned above, Petrarch also continued to work on the Italian “Canzoniere” until his last days. This was partly because Latin and Italian (Tuscan dialect) were beneficially interdependent. It was completed in 1374, shortly before his death. It reflected the attempts of Italian literature of the time, such as sonnets and canzoni.
 The “Canzoniere” reflects an anguished love for Laura, an attempt to abandon his futile and worldly attachment to her for the salvation of his own soul, and an ambition to be recognized as a poet on par with the ancients, whom Petrarch himself admired and loved. Like Dante’s Beatrice, Petrarch’s Laura eventually dies. Petrarch is left to deal with memory, lamentation, and regret. After struggling with his vain desires over and over again, he return again and again to his inescapable longings and his own shortcomings. The profound influence of “Canzoniere”

 The “Canzoniere” has been described as one of the most influential books of Western poetry. In particular, its influence grew from the 15th century onward. By the 16th century, imitations of the “Canzoniere” could be seen throughout Europe.
In late 15th century Europe, the art of letterpress printing developed, as is known well by Gutenberg’s printing revolution. Due to sales strategies, printers at that time selected only books that sold well for printing. Therefore, classical books of classical antiquity were often selected. For poetry collections, books such as Virgil’ “Aeneis” were selected.
 In the 16th century, Petrarch’s “Canzoniere” was also published as a printed book. Thus, it was elevated to the status of a classic, so to speak. Not only was the “Canzoniere” published in a luxurious small edition, but also in a more compact version. The latter was a more portable one. The book became very popular. As a result, it was easy to study and imitate.
 The poems of the “Canzoniere” provided a model for Petrarchian poetry. The poems in this collection were transcribed, imitated, and given to each other on various occasions by educated people; in 16th century Europe, amateurs wrote and gave a great number of poems as greetings and other occasions. The “Canzoniere” served as a subject or model.
 For example, the ladies of the Italian court made skillful use of Petrarch’s lyric poetry. They used his lyric poetry, adapting it to themes such as moral reflection, conjugal love, and religious devotion. Besides, of course, the poems also influenced other prominent poets such as Ariosto. They strove to surpass Petrarch.
 Renaissance poetry was not only to be read but also recited. They were recited and sung after meals, to pass the time on long journeys, or at social gatherings. As mentioned above, the Canzoniere was perfect for this, since it was now available in a portable edition. As a result, the “Canzoniere” became widely popular among various classes.
 The “Canzoniere” also influenced painting. Petrarch loved golden hair and smooth, white skin. This was widely accepted as the standard of female beauty. It was also reflected in the paintings of Botticelli, for example.

Figures associated with Petrarch

Dante: Together with Petrarch and Boccaccio, Dante is known as a representative of Italian Renaissance literature.

Virgil: Poet of the Golden Age of Ancient Rome. He had a certain influence on Petrarch.

Boccaccio: In his later years, he and Petrarch became close friends. He wrote his masterpiece “The Decameron” in Italian and established his fame. In his later years, he was greatly influenced by Petrarch to take on new challenges.


Recommended or Selected References

『ペトラルカ=ボッカッチョ往復書簡』近藤恒一編訳, 岩波書店, 2006

Christopher S. Celenza, The intellectual world of the Italian Renaissance : language, philosophy, and the search for meaning, Cambridge University Press, 2018

Michael Wyatt(ed.), The Cambridge companion to the Italian Renaissance, Cambridge University Press, 2014