|Francesco Petrarca (1304 – 1374)
On July 20, 1304, Italian scholar and poet Francesco Petrarca (Petrarch) was born. He is considered to be one of the earliest humanists and also the “father of the Renaissance.” Petrarch’s sonnets were admired and imitated throughout Europe during the Renaissance and became a model for lyrical poetry. He is also known for being the first to develop the concept of the “Dark Ages”.
Born in Tuscany, Petrarca was influenced by important thinkers and poets like Dante Alighieri at very young age. At Montpellier, Petrarca studied law even though his major interests were writing and reading Latin literature. He wrote numerous works after his studies were finished and to his first major and successful writing belongs Africa. The nine book epic poem was written in hexameters, a common form in classical Latin literature and poetry. In Africa, Petrarca told the story of the Second Punic War between the Romans and the Carthaginians, which made him famous all across Europe.
Petrarca began traveling through Europe just for ‘fun’, which was the reason why he became also known as the first tourist. For about the same reason, the poet intended to climb the 2000m high Mont Ventoux in 1336. He was warned not to attempt reaching the summit, but it was no help. With him, he took a novel written by Saint Augustine, who was somewhat his mentor at this time. Passed on was a story, that when he reached the top, the book fell open, and ‘delivered’ Petrarca following words: “And men go about to wonder at the heights of the mountains, and the mighty waves of the sea, and the wide sweep of rivers, and the circuit of the ocean, and the revolution of the stars, but themselves they consider not.” These words opened his mind and caused some kind of epiphany to turn to his inner soul instead of the outer world. This moment of rediscovering the inner world during the descent of Mont Ventoux is now seen as the beginning of the Renaissance.
The father of the Renaissance and the father of Humanism, Petrarca was the first to combine classical culture with Christian philosophy. In Secretum meum, he argued that God gave humans a great variety of intellectual and creative potential, which they could use to their own ‘preferences’. With his humanist philosophical ideas, he inspired the Renaissance and believed in the studies of ancient history and literature.
Next to his immense influence on contemporary philosophy, Petrarca is mostly known for his poetry. A major part of his works were written in Latin. To his most important belong De Viris Illustribus, an imaginary dialogue with Augustine of Hippo, De Remediis Utriusque Fortunae, a very popular of self help book and of course his unfinished epic Africa. He also published various letters, written to dead ‘friends’ from history like Cicero, Seneca or Virgil. Many of Petrarca’s works were set to music in the 16th century, which proves the great influence his writings had.
Petrarca passed away on July 19, 1374 in his house in Arquà, which is now a permanent exhibition in honor to the poet. At yovisto, you may enjoy a video lecture by Alan Hudson on Petrarch and the Renaissance.
References and Further Reading:
- Petrarch Website
- Petrarch in the Catholic Encyclopedia
- Petrarch at the Middle Age Website
- The works of Petrach at gutenberg.org