Francesco Petrarch, the Italian poet and scholar, pioneered the humanist philosophy that set the stage for the 14th-century renaissance. His writings shaped the modern Italian language and his poems influenced European poetry. Most of his poems reflect his love for a woman, Laura, collected under a single title II Canzoniere (Scattered Rhymes).
After spending his early years in Italy, Petrarch moved to France where he studied law as per his father’s wish. Petrarch always had a passion for literature, particularly ancient Greco-Roman literature. After his father’s death, he switched his focus entirely towards that.
Petrarch’s love for classic writings led him to discover several old scripts. He pursued his literary passions and collected many ancient texts during his trip to Venice. As he learned more about the classical period, his interest in that era increased. His journey across Europe took him through Greece and Spain and helped him to discover the writings of Cicero. During his diplomatic visits to Europe in the 1330s, he found his passion for writing sonnets and poems.
Petrarch started to believe that humanity could once again reach the heights of past accomplishments. The doctrine he adopted is known as humanism which formed a bridge between the middle ages to the 14th-century renaissance.
The moment that changed his life was seeing Laura de Noves in April 1327 in Avignon. It is reported that the moment he laid his eyes on Laura, he became obsessed with her for the rest of his life. After meeting her, Petrarch wrote the sequence of poems collected as Canzoniere, ‘Rime Sparse’ or ‘Scattered Rhymes’ in English.
Scattered Rhymes has 366 poems (sonnets, ballets, songs, madrigals) based on the rules established by the 13th century Italian poet Guittone (who was an early practitioner responsible for the development and popularization of the sonnet). The song collection portrays Petrarch’s love for Laura and his admiration for her. It became incredibly famous in no time. Petrarch had devoted around 20 years of his life to this project.
Scattered rhymes is renowned for its unique penances that depict human emotion in beautiful verses. The poems are a good representation of Petrarch’s emotional state at various stages of his life. They depict a deep connection between virtue and love, driven by sentimentality. Petrarch used different metaphors in his poems to elaborate on his feelings of love and despair. His writings inspired many young and intelligent minds of his time. One of the primary themes of his poems are the uncertainties about the luxuries and love in one’s life.
“Petrarch re-imagined the conventions of love poetry in the most profound way: love for the idealized lady was the path towards learning how to love God properly.”Robert Stanley Martin
In his letters (written in 1374), Petrarch referred to his Scattered Rhymes as more of a “trifle” and hoped that his sonnets remain unknown to the world. However, it is a fact that he cherished and valued them the most. During all his life, he crafted the poems with care and continued to revise and polish them. The original copy of the poems is now preserved in the Vatican Library.
You who hear the sound, in scattered rhymes
of those sighs on which I fed my heart
in my first vagrant youthfulness
when I was partly other than I am,
I hope to find pity, and forgiveness,
for all the modes in which I talk and weep,
between vain hope and vain sadness,
in those who understand love through its trails.
Petrarch also wrote his autobiography as a famous letter to posterity, which later paved the way for other writers to compose and develop life stories. He inspired many poets and writers during his period. Many of their writings also provided moral support to people during the devastating black death.
The impact of the devastating plague was personal as well. Petrarch lost Laura to it. He brooded long and hard over his loss. Some of his best poems were crafted immediately after Laura’s death. Petrarch mourned in verses, going so far as to call Laura’s departure–betrayal!
Along with the Canzoniere, several other of his poems and writing delivered a message of leading a simple life filled with love. Another theme he focused on in his writings is devotion to God. He argued that God had provided man with intellectual and creative potential, and therefore, pleasing god should be the ulterior motive of one’s life. He praises the artistic nature of God in several verses.
What infinite providence and art
he showed in his wonderful mastery,
who created this and the other hemisphere,
and Jupiter far gentler than Mars,
descending to earth to illuminate the page
which had for many years concealed the truth,
taking John from the nets, and Peter,
and making them part of heaven’s kingdom.
Verses of his sonnets became the foundation for other lyrical poets to write for decades to come. Petrarchan sonnets became famous not only in Italy but across Europe. Even Shakespeare was also inspired it and later developed his own style of sonnets known as the Shakespearian sonnet.
The Canzoniere represented emotions in an original and revolutionary way. It inspired many poets to write in a more personal and thoughtful style. For example, in his poems, Petrarch addressed how worldly desires make us lose our right paths.
Greed and sleep and slothful beds
have banished every virtue from the world,
so that, overcome by habit,
our nature has almost lost its way.
And all the benign lights of heaven,
that inform human life, are so spent,
that he who wishes to bring down a stream
from Helicon is pointed out as a wonder.
He continued writing sonnets and poems of love and despair, which were passed hand to hand. During his journeys to other countries, the sense of human vanity and virtue signaling increased, and he went through a period of crisis. This did not stop him from writing as he continued to compose one masterpiece after another
“I write to please myself, and while I write I converse eagerly with our elders, in the only way I can. And I gladly forget those among whom I was forced by evil fate to live; I employ all my power of mind to escape them and seek out the ancients.”Petrarch
The eyes I spoke so warmly,
and the arms, the hands, the ankles, and the face
that left me so divided from myself,
and made me different from other men:
the crisp hair of pure shining gold
and the brightness of the angelic smile,
which used to make a paradise on earth,
is now a little dust that feels no thing.
Petrarch is undoubtedly one of the most influential personalities to emerge in pre-renaissance Italy. Through his sonnets and writings, he inspired the humanist philosophy, which ignited the flame at the start of the 14th-century renaissance. The concept of a revival for Petrarch was different and more influential than the medieval world. His appreciation of classical knowledge and his focus on critical thinking and human rationalism was his main contribution. His writings cleared many conflicted notions for people regarding their connection with the past and the present world. Scattered Rhymes showed his love for Laura and celebrated the qualities of life, hope, despair, God, and the world.
Petrarch’s poems on this page are translated by A.S. Kline and available here.