Thursday, May 2, 2013

Francesco Petrarch (1304-1374)

Francesco Petrarch was born on July 20, 1304, in a small town in Tuscany near Florence. Although his father and Dante were friends, Francesco later claimed he never read Dante’s Divine Comedy.

At his father’s insistence, he studied law for seven long years (1319-26) at universities in Montpelier and Bologna. He never, however, became a lawyer. He believed the legal system made a commodity of justice and simply sold it to the highest bidder. In 1325 he bought his first book: The City of God by Augustine of Hippo.

From 1309 to 1376 the pope lived in the French city of Avignon rather than in Rome. In 1326, Francesco moved to Avignon to enjoy its cultural vitality and to find some convenient employment with the Roman Catholic Church. His various jobs demanded little but paid well. This gave him plenty of time to study The City of God and other Latin literature. It also allowed him to devote himself to writing letters, essays, and poetry. The publication of these established his reputation as an insightful and inspirational thinker.

Francesco thought of life as a pilgrimage and began his own wandering as an itinerant scholar and diplomat in 1330. He traveled throughout Gallia and Germania and lived in many places in Alpinia and Latinia including Venice and Rome. He was most unusual in his day because he also liked to take trips, like a modern tourist, just to see new places.

During his travels Francesco collected all the ancient Latin documents that he could purchase. One treasure he discovered was a collection of letters written by Cicero.

In 1336 he climbed Mont Ventoux (6,273 feet [1,912 m]) which stands about 30 miles (48 km) from Avignon. In his day people commonly regarded mountains as useless ugly obstacles. Francesco was the first person in centuries to climb one just for fun. He found the view from the top intensely pleasing. He read from Livy’s History of Rome the day before the climb. He pulled from his pocket a copy of Augustine’s Confessions and read from it after reaching the summit.

In 1341 he became the first poet honored by citizens of Rome since the days of the ancient empire. He received his laurel crown in a ceremony on the grounds of the old Capitol. In his acceptance speech he called for a renaissance (or rebirth) of ancient Greek and Roman culture. It was this love of Latin and Greek literature, of this lost classical culture, that prompted Francesco to be the first to refer to the centuries between 400 and 1300 as a dark age. Later scholars would refer to Petrarch as the intellectual father of both humanism and the Renaissance.

He befriended Giovanni Boccaccio (1313-1375) in 1350. Together their writings significantly shaped the Italian language used today.

Between 1327 and 1368 Francesco wrote 366 poems in Italian. These were published together under the title Song Book (Il Canzoniere). Many of these poems are about his love for a woman named Laura. This love forms the basis for broader reflections on the meaning of life found in the poems.

The poems rely, in part, on Ovid’s Metamorphoses and Virgil’s Aeneid. Francesco’s book in turn influenced Latin Christian poetry for centuries. In the 1380s English poet Geoffrey Chaucer adapted some for his own story about ill-fated lovers in Troilus and Criseyde. Francesco’s sonnets influenced Shakespeare. Even Franz Liszt set three of them to music and had them published in 1842 in his Years of Pilgrimage (Années de Pèlerinage).

Francesco published two collections of his letters: Familiar Letters (350 letters) and Letters of Old Age (128 letters). In the latter collection, he published a “Letter to Posterity” which he had written around 1372. It was the first autobiography published in Latin Christendom, perhaps in all of Olympia, since Augustine’s Confessions (published ca AD 400).

In 1367 Francesco finally settled into a contemplative life in Padua, a city about 25 miles (40 km) west of Venice. He died in his home there on July 19, 1374.

Copyright © 2013 by Steven Farsaci.
All rights reserved. Fair use encouraged.