The Italian poet Petrarch was born in the city of Arezzo in Tuscany on July 20, 1304.
His father was a lawyer and civil servant and a member of the minor nobility who had been exiled there from Rome during the convoluted political struggles between backers of the Pope (Petrarch’s father’s faction) and backers of the Holy Roman Emperor.
Petrarch’s father had been a friend and colleague of the great Italian poet Dante, who was exiled from Rome at the same time. A young Petrarch met Dante only once (when Petrarch was eight years old) but he came to be his idol. Like Dante, Petrarch’s greatest poetry was written in the Tuscan dialect.
Petrarch studied law, at his father’s insistence, and joined a religious order (which didn’t stop him from fathering two children). He became a diplomat and travelled widely. But his real passion was for Latin literature.
One of his greatest achievements was scouring out and rescuing old Latin texts from monasteries across Europe, often accompanied by his close friend Giovanni Boccaccio, the author of The Decameron.
Petrarch won great accolades for his own Latin poetry and prose. He himself considered this to be his legacy. In 1341 he was named poet laureate in Rome for his Latin poetry, and is usually depicted with a crown of laurels. Yet, his Latin works are largely unread today.
Petrarch’s great fame and lasting influence rests on the series of sonnets that he wrote in the Tuscan dialect.
These lyric poems in the sonnet form – 366 of them collected together as Il Canzoniere (“Song Book”) – became enormously influential across Europe after Petrarch’s death. During his life he considered them to be inferior to his Latin writings.
Petrarch is often credited with inventing the sonnet form (a 14 line poem in iambic pentameter) but the form existed before him. He did, however, perfect it.
His sonnets were innovative in that they revealed personal thoughts and sentiments rather than useing the stylized language of courtly love. They also established the use of extended metaphors.
He has had many followers who wrote what became known as “Petrarchan Sonnets” over the centuries. He had a particular influence on William Shakespeare, who put his own spin on the form, developing the “Shakespearean Sonnet.”
Petrarch also had an effect on popularizing lyric love poetry. On Good Friday, 1327 Petrarch glimpsed a woman named Laura in church. She became the subject of his most touching poems of unrequited love, although they never met.
It was long believed that Laura was a fiction, an expression of an idealized female. But the correspondence of the facts about Laura in the poems and the biography of the real life Laura de Noyes – also married with eight children and having the same death date – leads most scholars to accept her as the object of Petrarch’s love.
Petrarch wrote in one of his Latin autobiographical essays:
“In my younger days I struggled constantly with an overwhelming but pure love affair—my only one, and I would have struggled with it longer had not premature death, bitter but salutary for me, extinguished the cooling flames. I certainly wish I could say that I have always been entirely free from desires of the flesh, but I would be lying if I did.”
Petrarch died in 1374 at the age of 69.