Francesco Petrarch (1304-1374), the Italian humanist scholar who rediscovered the works of the Roman thinker Cicero, is perhaps best known for a collection of 366 poems called Il Canzoniere (“Song Book”). One of the most influential works in Western literature, this set of scattered Italian rhymes – also titled Rerum vulgarium fragmenta (“Fragments of common things”) – varies in style and subject but its central theme remains Petrarch’s love for a woman called Laura de Noves (1310–1348), the wife of a certain Count Hugues de Sade, an ancestor of Marquis de Sade. It is believed that Petrarch had met Laura in 1327 in the Church of Sainte Claire in Avignon, south-eastern France.
The Canzoniere became one of the most influential books of poetry in Western literature, its metaphors and conceits absorbed into the language of love to such a degree that it would be difficult to calculate the limits of Petrarch’s influence…The vernacular idiom he used echoes in our own language, both literary and musical; and his personification of the hapless lover as antihero has become one of our major models. Petrarch was a great lyric poet, but also a gifted psychologist whose researches into the literature of the ages and into his own psyche drew him deep into regions where true guilt and innocence are found. Humble sinner, aesthete, secretly tormented spirit, droll observer and advocate of life, the “I” in these poems possesses a personality as complex as his experience of his times. In a continual state of becoming, deterioration, or delicate balance (depending on the poem’s point of view), he is certain only of once having seen and fallen in love with a woman whose qualities and effects dominate his thoughts from that day forth.
Read an excerpt from Il Canzoniere – it well captures the depth of the emotions:
All day I weep; and then at nighttime when/ all miserable mortals stop to rest/ I find myself in tears, my pains have doubled:/ and so all of my time I spend in weeping.
With their sad moisture I wear out my eyes, with grief my heart, among all living things/ I rank the worst, because those loving arrows/ forever keep me exiled from my peace.
Alas, for from one sun until another,/ from one night to the next, I have already/ run through most of this death which is called life!
More for her fault I grieve than for my ills,/ for living pity, the help I placed my faith in,/ can see me burn in fire and give no aid.
The Italian Renaissance: Culture and Society in Italy (2014) by Peter Burke
Featured: A manuscript page of Il Canzoniere, Wikipedia [Public Domain]