Francesco Petrarch: Biography, Poems, Sonnets & Works

Instructor: Benjamin Truitt
Francesco Petrarch was the father of Humanism, and a great scholar and poet of the 14th century in Italy. Learn more about him and his contributions to literature in this lesson.

Road to Discovery

Francesco Petrarch
Francesco Petrarch

Imagine yourself out wandering for an evening stroll and coming across an odd stone…one that seems out of place. You pick it up and realize that you are standing in the place where a great civilization once stood. You are filled with wonder as to who these people were and what great things they had achieved.

With the internet, these questions are answered in a matter of seconds based upon thousands of years of research, countless hours of archaeological travels, and a painful method of networking and analysis that started in the 14th century by Francesco Petrarch.

Petrarch: Biography and Works

Francesco Petrarch was born in Italy in 1304 to a prominent family. His father had high hopes he would join the family business and be a lawyer, but the young Petrarch chose to study Cicero and the writings preserved in the libraries of Europe of Ancient Rome instead.

These manuscripts were part of a decent education and an exercise in thought, but for Petrarch, they also spoke of a time forgotten. Unlike other students, he actively sought to piece together the puzzle of what had existed before his time.

How would you go about discovering what had been with no history book, no internet, and no smart phone? For Petrarch, it would be a lifelong endeavor to discover the past glories of the Roman Empire through his studies, travels, and investigations. His works inspired others to take an active role in reconstructing their past and this is why Petrarch is considered a father of the Renaissance, a word meaning 'rebirth' and a time when Europe transitioned out of the dark ages with a renewed interest in Grecian and Roman ideas.

Poetry

Themes of Love

Laura de Noves, possible love of Petrach
Laura De Noves

Petrarch wrote over 360 poems now collected into what is called The Canzonziere ('Songbook'), which are mostly devoted to a woman referred to only as Laura (possibly Laura de Noves, the noble wife of Hugh de Sade). Petrarch's love for Laura was unrequited and his Sonnets devoted to her in the Italian language stand out as his great original work.

These fourteen-line poems of iambic pentameter would inspire other writers to pick up and write such meters in their own native tongues, including William Shakespeare nearly 200 years later!

Themes of Humanism

Unlike many poets who told tales of the feats of the past or myths of great conquests, Petrarch's sonnets focus on the human emotions of the living. His work was unusual in a time where much of Europe was still consumed with the hereafter. In focusing and celebrating the living, Petrarch made his case for humanism, the idea that life is about the living, not the past or the future.

This philosophical position and its embrace led the thinkers and creators following Petrarch to explore and understand the world we live in, thus encouraging traditions of science, the enlightenment in arts and music, and the emergence of a politic that required governments to care for their citizens.

The sentiment of humanism is strongly captured in the sonnet in Laura's Tomb (though the authenticity of it is in dispute.) Particularly in his closing verse:

My pen, my verse, my reason;--useless, dead.

O graceful form!--Fire, which consuming flies

Through all my frame!--For blessings on thy head

Oh, may continual prayers to heaven rise! - Sonnet found in Laura's Tomb

Note his reason exists in her life, and upon her passing, his pen, verse, and reason is 'useless, dead'. Rather than busy serving in her memory, the sonnet notes that what matters was her time on earth, not her legacy or place in the heavens.

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