Petrarch's Contributions to Historiography

Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

Petrarch was not a historian, at least not as we define them today. So, how did he become one of the most influential figures in the discipline? It has to do with poetry, collecting, and the emergence of something called the Italian Renaissance.


The Catholic Church traces its origins to St. Peter, whose name meant ''rock'' in Greek, and to who Christ famously said ''...on this rock I will build my church.'' Well, as it turns out, the entire discipline of history may also be built on a rock, at least partly.

The Italian surname ''Petrarca'' is a Latinized derivation of Peter. Not everyone has heard of Francesco Petrarca, but many people may know him by another name: Petrarch. Petrarch was a 14th-century Italian poet and scholar, and one of the most influential minds of medieval Europe. His writings helped create an entirely new way of thinking, laying the foundations for a number of modern disciplines including history. So where does the story of history as a discipline begin? Upon this rock.

Early Life of Petrarch

Petrarch was born to the name Francesco Petrarca in 1304, in the Tuscan town of Arezzo. His father was a notary, and Petrarch and his brother were both set on the path to careers in law. Petrarch studied law in Montpellier and Bologna, but despite his brilliant mind, he had no passion for it. The law simply didn't interest him, and he saw the legal profession basically as selling out.

Petrarch was passionate about studying ancient literature and writing poetry

Instead, Petrarch's true passions were writing poetry and reading Latin literature. Even while studying law, Petrarch began writing poetry. It's worth noting that this is the same decade in which Dante Alighieri's Divine Comedy was published, which certainly had an impact on Petrarch.

Petrarch's Writing

In 1326, Petrarch moved to Avignon in southern France to begin working as a legal clerk, a profession that gave him the freedom and time to pursue writing. He would spend much of his life traveling between France and Italy, writing in both regions. In this decade he met a woman named Laura and fell in love with her, although she was married and spurned his advances. Petrarch turned to his poetry and ultimately compiled 366 lyric poems, in the vernacular language, into a collection called the Canzoniere. Not only did this work eventually become so influential that it (alongside Dante's work) is credited with standardizing the modern Italian language, but it also cemented the new poetic form of the sonnet.

Petrarch and Laura, a topic that Renaissance artists grew to obsess over

In his lifetime, however, the first work to gain Petrarch celebrity status was an epic poem entitled Africa, which detailed the life of the Roman general Scipio Africanus. Written in Latin, this epic poem made Petrarch so popular that he was named the official poet laureate in Rome, a title that no person had claimed since the fall of the Roman Empire nearly 1,000 years earlier. Petrarch's poetry, both epic and lyric, helped to revive the art form in Italy, a notable moment in the emergence of the Italian Renaissance.

Petrarch and Humanism

So, what does all of this have to do with the discipline of history? As he became famous, Petrarch used his wealth and status to pursue his fascination in antiquity, most notably the ancient Greeks and Romans. He travelled around the Mediterranean collecting ancient manuscripts in Latin, which he studied and analyzed. He even personally rediscovered a collection of lost letters from the great Roman intellectual Cicero. By the end of his life, Petrarch had amassed one of the largest private libraries in the world.

Petrarch's poems about historical figures like Scipio Africanus, his obsession with collecting, and particularly his rediscovery of Cicero's letters, set off a widespread fascination with antiquity among Italy's educated class. What emerged was an intellectual movement known as humanism, a study of classical antiquity motivated by the goal of creating an educated population who were motivated by reason, logic, and civic virtue. Humanists looked to the Roman Republic as the height of human civilization and sought to revive that standard of sophistication by embracing the fields of poetry, art, philosophy, literature, and history (a set collectively called the humanities).

Painting by Renaissance artist Vasari, showing the six Italian poets he credited with founding humanism. Petrarch (standing) and Dante (seated) are in the front.

To unlock this lesson you must be a Member.
Create your account

Register to view this lesson

Are you a student or a teacher?

Unlock Your Education

See for yourself why 30 million people use

Become a member and start learning now.
Become a Member  Back
What teachers are saying about
Try it now
Create an account to start this course today
Used by over 30 million students worldwide
Create an account