Petrarch, Francis

, one of the most celebrated characters in literary history, was born in Tuscany, in 1304. His father was a notary at Florence, who having taken part with the Ghibellin faction, shared their fate, and was banished, after which he took up 'his residence at Pisa. Here, his infant son discovering marks of genius, his father destined him for a learned profession; and having recommended him to study the law, he passed several years at Montpellier and Bologna, listening to the ablest professors in that science, but much more inclined to peruse the writings of the classical authors. He relates himself, that his father, incensed at what he thought a misapplication of time, seized at once every classical author of which, he was possessed, and threw them into the fire; but the frantic grief which Petrarch expressed at that sight, so mollified the old man, that he hastily rescued Cicero and Virgil from the flames, and gave them back to his son; remarking, that it was only the immoderate attachment to these authors which he blamed, and that the works of | Cicero, if rightly used, were the best preparative to the study of the law. Petrarch acknowledges that the struggle between the strong propensity of his nature, and the will of a respected parent, was the cause of many unhappy hours: but his father’s death, which happened when he was about the age of twenty-two, put an end to the contest; and left him at liberty to pursue his inclinations.

The pope’s court being then at Avignon, Petrarch, who had while at college contracted a strict intimacy with the bishop of Lombes, of the illustrious family of Colonna, and had passed a summer with him at his bishopric in Gascony, was afterwards kindly solicited to reside with him in the house of his brother, the cardinal Colonna, then at Avignon. This invitation he accepted. His shining talents, says his late apologist, joined to the most amiable manners, procured him the favour and esteem of many persons in power and eminent stations: and he found in the house of the cardinal an agreeable home, where he enjoyed the sweets of an affectionate society, with every convenience he could desire for the indulgence of his favourite studies.

It was while at Avignon, that he contracted that passion which has so deeply engaged the attention of his biographers, and has given an air of romance, or of poetic fiction, to a considerable portion of his life. It appears that on the morning of Good Friday in 1327, he saw for the first time the young and beautiful Laura; undoubtedly a most important incident to Petrarch, for although his works give evidence of his abilities as a politician, theologian, and philosopher, yet it is to those beautiful verses alone, in which he has celebrated the accomplishments, and bewailed the fate of Laura, that he has been indebted for his permanent reputation. But his biographers differ widely from each other in their representations of the nature of Petrarch’s love for Laura. His late acute and ingenious apologist, lord Wooclhouselee, deduces from the works of the poet himself, that this passion, so remarkable both for its fervency and duration, was an honourable and virtuous flame, and that Petrarch aspired to the happiness of being united to Laura in marriage. “We have,” says his lordship, “unquestionable grounds for believing, from the evidence of his own writings, that the heart of Laura was not insensible to his passion; and although the term of his probation was tedious and severe, he cherished a hope, approaching to confidence, that he was at last to attain the | of his wishes. Such are the ideas that we are led to entertain from the writings of the poet himself, of the nature and object of his passion; and such has been the uniform and continued belief of the world with regard to it, from his own days to the present.

At length,” continues lord Woodhouselee, “comes into the field, a hardy but most uncourteous knight, who, with a spirit very opposite to that of the heroes of chivalry, blasts at once the fair fame of the virtuous Laura, and the hitherto unsullied honour of her lover; and, proudly throwing down his gauntlet of defiance, maintains that Laura was a married woman, the mother of a numerous family; that Petrarch, with all his professions of a pure and honourable flame, had no other end in his unexampled assiduity of pursuit, than what every libertine proposes to himself in the possession of a mistress; and that the lovely Laura, though never actually unfaithful to her husband’s bed, was sensible to the passion of her Cicisbeo, highly gratified by his pursuit, and while she suffered on his account much restraint and severity from a jealous husband, continued to give him every mark of regard, which, without a direct breach of her matrimonial vow, she could bestow upon him.” Such is the hypothesis of M. de Sade, in his “Memoires pour la Vie de Petrarque,” 3 vols. 4to, which he published at Amsterdam, in 1764 67. He also asserts that Laura was the wife of one of his own predecessors, Hugh de Sade, and the mother of eleven children; that she was the daughter of Audibert de Noyes, was born in 1307 or 1308, at Avignon, and died there in 1348, having been married in 1325.

The arguments of lord Woodhouselee, who has fully examined and refuted this hypothesis, appear to us to amount as nearly to historic demonstration as the case will admit, while the whole train of De Sade’s narrative is inconsistent with the evidence to be derived from Petrarch’s writings. In the conclusion lord Woodhouselee says, “I have now, as I trust, impartially canvassed the whole of these arguments drawn by the author of the c Memoires 1 from the works of Petrarch himself, or what may be termed the intrinsic evidence in support of the material part of his hypothesis, namely, that Laura was a married woman; nor do I think 1 presume too much when I say that I have shewn their absolute insufficiency to prove that proposition.” After farther asserting, that in the whole of | Petrarch’s works, consisting of more than 300 sonnets and other poetical pieces, there is not to be found a single passage which intimates that Laura was a married woman, he produces a variety of direct arguments on the subject, and concludes, that “uhile on the one hand we have shewn that there is not the smallest solidity in all that elaborate argument, which has been brought to prove that Laura was a married woman, we have proved, on the other, from the whole tenour of the writings of Petrarch, the only evidence that applies to the matter, that his affection for Laura was an honourable and virtuous flame.

Notwithstanding this argument, which we think conclusive against the abbe“Sade, all the difficulties which attend this part of Petrarch’s history are by no means removed. Many are still inclined to doubt whether Laura was a real character. Gibbon calls Petrarch’s love” a metaphysical passion for a nymph so shadowy, that her existence has been questioned." Some say that his mistress’s name was Lauretta, and that the poet made it Laura, because, thus altered, it supplied him with numberless allusions to the laurel, and to the story of Apollo and Daphne; but what appears to have perplexed most of his biographers and critics, is their supposition that Laura was a married lady. This obliges them to suppose farther, that Petrarch’s love was disinterested, and correspondent to a certain purity of character which they have been pleased to give him, in contradiction to the fact of his licentious commerce with women, by whom he had at least two children, at the times when he is suffering most for the absence of his Laura.

The duration and intensity of Petrarch’s passion for Laura, whether single or married, afford also other subjects for dispute; and it seems to be agreed upon by those sober critics who wish to strip his history from romance, that although his passion was so sincere as to give him uneasiness for a time, it was not of a permanent and overwhelming nature, and must have been diverted, if not extinguished, by the multiplicity of studies, travels, and > political employments, which form his public life, to which we shall now advert. It is said that one of the methods he took to combat his passion was travelling; and it is certain that his frequent removals form a very great part of the incidents which compose his life. In 1333 he travelled through Paris into Flanders, and thence to Aix-la-Chapelle and Cologne, returning by Lyons to Avignon. After another | ramble into Italy, he resolved to retire from the world. Those who contend that Laura was a single lady, and think that she received him on his return with reserve and coyness, attribute part of his dissatisfaction with the world to this cause; but they add, likewise, that his fortunes novr wore an unpromising aspect: the best years of his life were wearing fast away; and the friendship of the great, though soothing to his self-love, had yet produced no beneficial consequence. Disgusted, therefore, with the splendid delusions of ambition, and feeling no solid enjoyment but in the calm pursuits of literature and philosophy, he resolved at once to bid adieu to the world; and at the early age of thirty-four he retired to the solitude of Vaucluse, about fifteen miles from Avignon, where he purchased a small house and garden, the humble dwelling of a fisherman: a lonely but beautiful recess, which he has celebrated in many parts of his works, and indeed in which he wrote many of those works, particularly his Italian poetry; many of his Latin epistles, in prose and verse; his eclogues; his treatises on a “Solitary Life,” and on “Religious Tranquillity;” and part of his poem on Africa.

The taste for poetry and elegant composition, for which the public mind had been prepared by the writings of Dante, ascended to a pitch of enthusiastic admiration, when these works of Petrarch appeared. Literary fame, in those days, must have depended on the opinion of a very few competent judges; for, as printing was not then known, the circulation of a new work, by manuscript copies, must have been very slow, and extremely limited. While enjoying this reputation, however, he received a letter from the Maecenas of the age, Robert king of Naples. And this honour was followed by one still greater; the revival, in his favour, of the ancient custom of crowning eminent poets at Rome. Petrarch appears to have indulged the hope of attaining this honour, and not on slight grounds; for, in August 1340, he unexpectedly received a letter from the Roman senate, inviting him to come and take the laurel in that city, and on the same day he received a similar invitation from Paris. Having determined to accept the invitation from Rome, he thought it necessary first to repair to the court of king Robert at Naples (in March 1341), and undergo a public examination as to his learning and talents. Having gone through a ceremony, which, as far as voluntary, was ostentatious, he went to Rome | where, on Easter-day, in the midst of the plaudits of the Roman people, the ceremony was performed in the capitol by his friend count d’Anguillara. Twelve patrician youths were arrayed in scarlet; six representatives of the most illustrious families, in green robes, with garlands of flowers, accompanied the procession: in the midst of the princes and nobles, Anguillara assumed his throne, and at the voice of a herald Petrarch arose. After discoursing on a text of Virgil, and thrice repeating his vows for the prosperity of Rome, he knelt before the throne, and received from the senator a laurel crown, with the declaration, “This is the reward of merit.” The people shouted “Long life to the capitol and the poet.A sonnet in praise of Rome was accepted as the effusion of genius and gratitude; and after the whole procession had visited the Vatican, the wreath was suspended before the shrine of St. Peter. In the act of diploma, which was presented to Petrarch, the title and prerogatives of poet-laureat are revived in the capitol, after the lapse of 1300 years; and he received the perpetual privilege of wearing, at his choice, a crown of laurel, ivy, or myrtle, of assuming the poetic habit, and of teaching, disputing, interpreting, and composing, in all places whatsoever, and on all subjects of literature. The grant was ratified by the authority of the senate and people, and the character of citizen was the recompence of his affection for the Roman name.

From Rome Petrarch went to Parma, where he passed some time with his protectors, the lords of Corregio, and employed himself in finishing his “Africa.” It was probably from that family that he obtained the dignity of archdeacon in the church of Parma; and in 1342, when he wai sent to compliment Clement VI. on his accession, in the name of the senate and people of Rome, a priory in the diocese of Pisa was given him by this pope. In the following year he composed his curious “Dialogue with St. Augustine,” in which he confesses the passion for Laura, which still held dominion over his soul. In 1348 he had the misfortune to lose this object of his affections, who died of the universal pestilence which ravaged all Europe. The same pestilence deprived him of his great friend and patron, cardinal Colonna. From Padua, where he appears to have been when these misfortunes befell him, he travelled, for a year or two, to Parma, Carpi, and Mantua; and in 1350 he again visited Padua, where he | obtained a canonry, and wrote a very eloquent letter to the emperor Charles IV. exhorting him to come into Italy for the purpose of remedying the many evils with which that country was oppressed. After various other removals, he went to Milan, where the kindness and pressing solicitation of John Visconti, its archbishop and sovereign, induced him to settle for some time. Here he vvas admitted into the council of state; and in 1354 was sent to Wnice, to make another effort for pacifying the two hostile republics, but his eloquence proved fruitless. In the same year he went to Mantua to meet the emperor, who having at length come to Italy, gave him a most gracious reception; and although no advantages resulted to his country from this interview, the emperor afterwards sent him a diploma, conferring the title of count palatine. In 1360 Petrarch was sent to Paris, to congratulate king John on his liberation from English captivity; and his reception in that capital was answerable to the celebrity of his name.

By pope Innocent VI. Petrarch was treated at first with much neglect, or even contempt; but, in 1361, he had so far overcome his prejudices, as to offer the poet the place of apostolical secretary, which he declined, as he did also a very pressing invitation from John, king of France, to reside at his court. When pope Urban V. had succeeded to the pontifical chair, he gave him a canonry of Carpentras, and was very desirous of a personal interview with him; and, notwithstanding his age and infirmities, Petrarch set out for this purpose in 1370; but being unable to sustain the fatigue, he returned to his villa of Arqua, near Padua. His last journey was to Venice, in 1373, where he harangued the Venetian senate in favour of his patron, Francis de Carrara. On his return to Arqua, he fell into a state of languor, which terminated in a fit of some kind, in the night of July 18, 1374. He was found dead next morning in his library, with his head resting on a book. He survived his Laura many years, if the date of her death, April 6, 1348, be correct.

It seems to be generally agreed, that Petrarch greatly contributed to the restoration of letters in Italy, and through Italy to the other realms of Europe. The Latin tongue, in particular, is chiefly indebted to him for the restoration of its purity; Italian poetry for its perfection; and even philosophy for a considerable share of improvement. The science of ethics he studied with attention, and clothed | many excellent precepts of morality with all the graces of pure and classical language. His treatises, “De Remediis utriusque Fortunae;” “De vera Sapientia;” “De Contemptu Mundi;” “De Republica optime administranda;” “De Avaritia;” On the Remedies of Fortune; True Wisdom; the Contempt of the World; Government; Avarice; and above all the rest, “De sua ipsius et aliorum ignorantia,” On his own Ignorance of himself and others, are exceedingly valuable. In reading the moral writings of Petrarch, we visit, says Brucker, not a barren desert of dry disputation, but a fruitful garden of elegant observations, full of the choicest flowers of literature. But Brucker’s animated praise of Petrarch’s prose works is probably confined to himself. The above-mentioned treatises might have been useful and interesting when written, when the world “was in its elements;” but they would meet with a very cold reception in the present improved state of moral and philosophical discussion. Petrarch’s fame as a writer depends now entirely on his Italian poetry, and on those facts in history which exhibit him as contributing to the revival of literature.

On this subject, a recent ingenious writer observes, that although the monks had for ages been assiduously engaged in the meritorious work of transcription, yet in Petrarch’s time the libraries of Italy had little to show, besides some works of the fathers, of ancient and modern theologians, of ecclesiastical and civil jurisprudence; of medicine, astrology, and philosophy; and even these in no abundance. The names of the classical writers were barely retained: their productions, and the times in which they lived were miserably confounded, and the authenticity of authors not unfrequently disregarded; while transcribers were often grossly ignorant and careless. In this dearth of accurate copies, and even of the valuable works of many ancient authors, Petrarch turned his mind to the most useful inquiries. He saw that his own efforts would be useless, without recalling into general notice the true models of taste: he owned that, on this subject, he was animated by a real passion, the force of which he had no desire to check; and communicating his wishes to hia friends, he entreated them to join their researches to his own, and to ransack the archives of libraries.

These researches were not very successful. Three decades of Livy, thq first, third, and fourth, were, at that | time, all which could be found. The second decade was sought in vain. A valuable work of Varro, and other productions which he had seen in his youth, were irrecoverably lost. With Quintilian he was more fortunate, though the copy which he discovered was mutilated and imperfect. Cicero was his idol, yet his collection of the works of this great orator was very incomplete, although he had the happiness to make some new discoveries, particularly of his 46 Familiar Epistles.“He was once possessed of Cicero’s work,” De Gloria;“but he lent it to a friend, and it was irreparably lost. He often employed himself in making transcripts of ancient authors; by which his eager thirst was allayed, and accurate copies multiplied. But neither Rome, nor the remains of Roman literature, were sufficient totally to absorb the attention of this active man. Greece also engaged his thoughts. The study of the Greek language had at no time been completely neglected; and when an occasion of learning it offered, Petrarch prosecuted it with his usual zeal. But he never” wholly surmounted its difficulties; for, when a present of a Greek Homer was sent him from Constantinople, he lamented his inability to taste its beauties, although his joy on receiving such a present was not less sincere. Such were the pursuits by which he rendered services of the greatest importance to literature, and which made him to be so esteemed and honoured. He was, indeed, considering the times in which he lived, in all respects a very extraordinary man; and it is not without reason, that his countrymen still entertain a profound veneration for his memory. He has also been the object of the admiration and inquiries of scholars in all countries; and his writings have been printed so often, that it becomes impossible, and perhaps would not be very useful, to enumerate half the editions, comments, and criticisms, with which his poems, in particular, have been honoured. He is said to have had twenty-five biographers, exclusive of the sketches of his life given in collections. Of these, the most copious is the work of the abbe“de Sade, and the most necessary to illustrate that important part of Petrarch’s life which relates to his connexion with Laura, is Lord Woodhouselee’s” Historical and Critical Essay of the Life and character of Petrarch," 1810, 8vo. 1


Tiraboschi.Niceron, vol. XXVIII. Ginguen* Hist. Lit. d’Italie. Berrington’s Literary History of the Middle Ages.