Poets of Love: Petrarch
Updated: Jan 5
Petrarch (1304-1374) is often credited with having popularised the sonnet, one of the most famous poetical form ever. Yet Petrarch was more than that. He was a major figure of the Renaissance era and of Humanism as a whole, and, Italian, his impact upon Italian language was massive too.
Here, I will focus only on one of his most celebrated work: The Canzoniere.
'Canzoniere' is Italian for 'songs'. The book is indeed a gathering of ballads, madrigal, sestinas and else which, if they were not actual songs to accompany music, were nevertheless so lyrical they could be read as such.
Famous for being a collection of love poems, the great bulk of it is dedicated to singing the praise of a woman Petrarch was in love with, a woman called Laura. Who was she? Well, quite frankly we don't know! We assumed she was Laura de Noves, a French noblewoman Petrarch claimed to have first seen in a church, and who rejected him because she was married to another man.
So there we are: a poet, writing love songs to a noblewoman. It's all very platonic, courtly, chevaleresque, gallant, and, so far, nothing unusual for the time. We still are in the Medieval era. Poetry then was pretty much the business of so-called troubadours, court jesters whose purpose was to amuse the wealthy; and amusing the wealthy also meant declaiming to rich women how beautiful and awesome they were! You didn't even need to be in love with them. You just had to write about it. All was just entertainment.
With Petrarch, however, there was a twist. Love to him wasn't sweet. It wasn't all flowers and butterflies and gazing at the sky dabbling with a mandoline while listening to singing birds and daydreaming about his soulmate. Love, for him, was torture.
First, Petrarch was indeed deeply religious. A Christian of serious faith, he valued mysticism, and, so, being this attracted to a woman, being thus possessed with passion, love, and lust for a woman (let alone a woman he first had a glimpse at in a church!) more than having a passion for God was, to him, if not sinful at least unworthy of a man looking up to sainthood.
Then, despite such passion also making him happy at times (for as everyone when having a crush he could feel elated too) the woman in question was also married and rejected him. It was an unrequited love, and he fully knew it.
Can you see all the whirlwind of emotions? Being so attracted to her wasn't only clashing with his ideal of a man of faith. It was, also, despite the joy he felt thinking of her, a love he knew would never materialised and so could only left him dejected. The turmoil tore him apart.
The Canzoniere is therefore a bit odd even to the standards of the time. Yes, he idolised a woman he was in love with. But, he also displayed love as an agonising feeling sending him to the bottom lows as much as to the top highs. Laura was as much his blessing as she was his curse.
There's more to it than that. As I stated earlier, Petrarch was a poet of the Renaissance, and one of the key feature of the Renaissance was that writers would start using their own native language for serious works, which were then supposed to be written in Latin. Native languages and dialects were indeed reserved for popular pieces without any pretention. The Canzoniere being a serious work, you would expect it to have been written in Latin. It wasn't. Petrarch wrote it in Italian. As such, he was among the few poets (with Boccaccio, Dante...) to help shape Italian language as we know it, showing it could be as complex, intricate, and creative as the language of the Ancients.
Last but not least, The Canzoniere also marks the birth of a new poetical form: the sonnet. Out of the 366 poems it contains, 317 alone are indeed sonnets; sonnets of a very particular form that will come to bear his name, the Petrarchan sonnets.
The sonnet will completely take Europe by storm, as Renaissance poets will adopt it across the whole continent -Ronsard will popularise it in France; in England, it will be introduced by Sir Thomas Wyatt. Later, Shakespeare would come up with his own form, more suited to English language, and so the sonnet will be modified, evolve, and adapt well into the 20th century... And it all had started with Petrarch!
So there we are: the perfection of the sonnet, beautiful love poems (even if of a masochistic tone) by a Renaissance man, a Humanist to whom his native language, Italian, owes a great deal, The Canzoniere is definitely a collection worth discovering. Have a good read!
My own English edition of Petrarch's 'Canzoniere' is The Complete Canzoniere, Poetry In Translation, 2001.
Last but not least, if you are interested in romance and love poems then why not give a go at my own collection, A Vow - A Collection of Love Poems? It's available on Amazon: