First Humanist

Petrarch’s passion for classical antiquity fueled his search for Greek and Roman manuscripts. He discovered Cicero’s letters in 1345 and this paved the path towards Renaissance humanism.

Published Categorized as Biography
Petrarch as the first humanist
Petrarch initiated renaissance humanism through his passion for classical antiquity.

Petrarch (1304-1374) – Scholar, Poet

Petrarch (Francesco Petrarca) was a famous Italian poet and classicist. He is best known for his poetry collection Il Canzoniere. The modern Italian language is based on his works. Petrarch is considered the first humanist as he led the way for 14th century Renaissance through the rediscovery of early Greek and Roman manuscripts. His scholarship on classical texts and philosophy, based on works of ancient Romans—Virgil, Cicero, Horace, and others, contributed to the growth of Renaissance humanism.

Petrarch was born in July 1304 Arezzo, Italy. His family was exiled from Florence in 1302. His father, Ser Petracco, was a notary who had literary interests in appreciating the antiquity. Petrarch acquired this love of ancient literature from him. In 1312, the family moved to Avignon, France and settled in the nearby town of Carpentras. His father wanted his son to have a suitable career. Hence, in 1316, he sent him to Montpellier to study law. However, young Petrarch focused on reading classical literature rather than studying legal issues.

His father is believed to have burned his collection of classical books so that he could focus on his studies. Petrarch was anguished, and seeing this, his father saved two volumes from the fire – Cicero and Virgil. Petrarch’s passion for ancient Latin poetry and prose made him a fierce reader. They were the food for his mind. He read and reread Virgil, Horace, Boethius, Cicero countless times and imbibed them in his youth. Later in his life, he would contemplate them and it seems as if he couldn’t distinguish their writing from his thoughts.

Along with his father, he compiled texts of Virgil–Eclogues, Georgics, Aeneid in a book which is now in the Ambrosiana Library in Milan. This book – Ambrosian Virgil was most cherished by Petrarch, and in his later life, he added around 2500 annotations to this manuscript, drawing upon his scholarship and reflections.

In 1318 or 1319, his mother died. He soon composed a Latin elegy in her memory. From 1320 to 1326, Petrarch and his elder brother Gherardo studied civil law at the famous University of Bologna, further vastening their experience. In April 1326, his father died. The death of his father was a difficult period. There seems to be a stepmother involved and Petrarch and his brother get embroiled in courts and lawsuits. At long last, Petrarch seems to give up abandoned his education. As it were to turn out, it was an intelligent decision!

Petrarch meets Laura for first time and falls in love immediately
Petrarch is smitten by Laura on first meeting.

In April 1327, Petrarch met a beautiful woman named Laura, in the Church of Saint Claire in Avignon. He fell in love immediately. Laura turned him down, as she was already married. Petrarch poured his feelings into lyric poems, which are collected as Il Canzoniere (Song Book). He referred to his poems as Scattered Rhymes and nothing more than trifles.

The lyrical poems Canzoniere proved an important work that influenced the European poetic scene. They are famous for their display of real human emotions. The poems are living snapshots of the poet’s state of mind at various stages of his life. They reflect emotional introspection into his feelings for the love of his life. The collection contains 366 poems, written in the Italian vernacular instead of the classical Latin. Petrarch worked on it with great skill over 40 years (1327–1368).

Between 23 and 9 BC, the Roman historian Titus Livy had written the voluminous history of ancient Rome named Ab urbe condita. It comprised of 142 books and mostly circulated in sets of 10 (Decades). However, by Petrarch’s days, most were scattered and only a few survived. In 1328 and 1329, Petrarch collected the surviving texts and copied them into a new collective volume. There were multiple and partial revisions of the various texts, and he had to piece them together judiciously. He restored three sets-Books 1-10, Books 21-30 and Books 31-40.

In 1330, he entered service as a household chaplain for Cardinal Giovanni Colonna. Giovanni Colonna provided him the luxury of study and travel. From then on, he lived on patronage and income from canonries. During his travels to northern Europe in 1333, Petrarch discovered Cicero’s oration Pro Archia in Liège. In this oration, Cicero defends a poet named Archias, who was accused of not being a Roman citizen. Petrarch’s discovery made the work much more widely accessible.

In April 1336, Petrarch, along with his brother Gherardo, climbed the 1900-meter-high Mount Ventoux in Florence. On the summit, he randomly read a page from the book St Augustine’s Confessions. The first words he read are —

“Men go to admire the high mountains and the great flood of the seas and the wide-rolling rivers and the ring of the ocean and the movements of the stars; and they abandon themselves.”

— Augustine

At this important crossroad, Petrarch had no clear idea as to the purpose of his life. He was obsessed with Laura and unable to rein in his desires. At the top of the Mount Ventoux, the thin air and the inspired reading forced him to look inwards and reveal a meaningful purpose to his life — Admire and celebrate the human soul rather than succumb to worldly desires.

The poet visited Rome in 1337, which deepened his admiration for the Roman classical age. He soon moved to Vaucluse, which is twenty miles from Avignon. Here he started writing several works in Latin. About this time the idea for an epic poem – Africa, occurred to him. Africa is based on the Roman general Cornelius Scipio and the Second Punic War (218 – 201 BC). In 1338, he was also working on the De Viris Illustribus (On Illustrious Men).

Petrarch, by 1340, was a well known classical scholar. In September 1340, he received invitations to be crowned poet laureate from the University of Paris and Rome. He accepted the Roman invitation. He dedicated Africa to Robert of Naples, King of Sicily. The King conducted a 3-day oral examination and qualified him. On 8th April 1341, Petrarch was crowned POET LAUREATE and declared Roman citizen in the audience hall of Senatorial Palace, in Rome’s Capitol. Accepting the title, he gave a speech honoring the great classical Romans–Virgil, Cicero, Ovid and, Horace. The coronation instilled in him the required confidence for more work.

In April 1343, Gherardo became a Carthusian monk. His brother’s life choice deeply affected Petrarch. He continued to struggle internally between the quest for glory and the inner spiritual life. He visited his brother in 1347, which inspired him to work on the book The Secret. The Secret is modeled as a dialogue between him, his mentor St. Augustine and an observer, Lady Truth. This book is the byproduct of the emotional crisis he was going through. He was still obsessed with Laura and low on self-esteem. He tried to assess his life choices from different standpoints and thereby justify his conscience.

In spring 1345, Petrarch found the manuscripts of Cicero’s letters to Atticus and to Quintus and Brutus preserved in Verona’s library. This discovery is often associated with the start of the 14th century Renaissance. He transcribed these letters and they would serve as an inspiration for him to create a collection of his letters.

From 1347 to 1351, the Great Plague devastated Europe, killing millions. Petrarch lost several close friends and his beloved Laura to the plague. His letters and poems during this period are full of grief. He worked on a treatise – De remediis utriusque fortunae (Remedies for Fortune Fair and Foul), in which he advocates a stoic approach to life. This book was well-received among his contemporaries.

Admire and celebrate the human soul rather than succumb to worldly desires.

One of his closest friends and admirer was the young Giovanni Boccaccio. Petrarch befriended him in 1350. They corresponded through letters, and Boccaccio paid visit occasionally. Petrarch and Boccaccio contributed to humanism by seeking manuscripts and works of the ancient classical period. Classical thought puts the focus on human experience and reason as the guiding principle to life rather than adherence to religious texts.

He moved to Milan in 1353 under the patronage of the Visconti family. Here he found time and freedom to read and write. He also undertook various diplomatic missions in his career. In December 1354, he paid a visit to Emperor Charles IV in Mantua, who received the poet cordially and complimented him on his De viris illustribus.

Petrarch had a restless soul, which made him change his place of residence from time to time.

In 1362, he moved to Venice to escape the plague. Here, he was offered a house for bequeathing his library of books to the city. Finally, in 1368, he settled in the small town of Arqua in Padua. Petrarch continued to work on the Canzoniere in his later years. He was also compiling his letters into two collections — Epistolae familiares (Familiar Letters) and Seniles (Letters of Old Age). He died on 19 July 1374.

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