I’d sing of Love in such a novel fashion
that from her cruel side I would draw by force
a thousand sighs a day, kindling again
in her cold mind a thousand desires;
I’d see her lovely face transform quite often
her eyes grow wet and more compassionate,
like one who feels regret, when it is too late,
for causing someone’s suffering by mistake;
Petrarch – excerpt from Sonnet 131
Petrarch (1304 – 1374) composed sonnets that became models for lyrical poetry, imitated throughout Europe, and his verse and prose became a foundation of the modern Italian language. Disdaining the ignorance of preceding centuries, he coined the term “Dark Ages“, and founded Humanism, or the study of classical antiquity. His rediscovery and publication of Cicero’s letters is credited with initiating the 14th century Renaissance, making Petrarch one of history’s most influential scholars.
His father was a lawyer who compelled his son to study law at the universities of Montpelier and Bologna, but Petrarch’s interests lay in writing and Latin literature, and he detested the legal profession. After his parents’ death, he worked in clerical offices, which gave him time to devote to his true passion, writing, and his first major work, an epic about the Roman general Scipio Africanus, won him acclaim.
His poems to Laura, an idealized beloved who was beyond his reach, contributed to a flowering of lyrical poetry. Laura’s death during the Black Death led Petrarch to renounce sensual pleasure, but his love for her continued for the remainder of his life. That chaste love formed the basis of his most celebrated work, the Italian poems Rime, which he divided into rimes during Laura’s life, and rimes after her death. Even before penning Rime, his poetry had earned him considerable praise such that, in 1341, he became only the second poet laureate crowned since antiquity.
Petrarch became known as the “first tourist” for his propensity to travel for pleasure. During those travels, he visited monastic libraries to collect manuscripts from antiquity, and was prominent in the recovery and propagation of knowledge from Greco-Roman writers – his scholarly life mission, which lasted until his death in 1374.