In honor of April breeding lilacs out of the dead ground and reminding us of the Renaissance: Petrarch!
Let us commemorate this day as the day that I thought was the 600th anniversary of Petrarch seeing Laura for the first time in church on Easter Sunday.
In case you are not a great fan of roots renaissance, I’ll remind you that Petrarch was a 14th C Italian poet attributed with lots of things – being a priest who lost it and stopped being a priest, loving St. Augustine to bits, cobbling together the Italian language, and starting up the idea that the centuries between the fall of Rome and when he came trotting along were a dismal, peasant-y wasteland with no nice tallow candles, mathematics or poems comparing women to the geographical features of space.
More famously, he is known as a fervent pleasure traveler, a somewhat tortured philosopher strung between the tender young tree of humanism and the towering spike of the cross, the inventor of the sonnet and the the usherer in of the bright and brimming tide of brilliance about to pour down through Europe in the next few centuries. And of course, there is Laura.
After thinking about it awhile, losing confidence and looking it up, I realized that despite having internalized “April 9th, Easter Sunday, 1413” for many years as the day when Petrarch laid eyes on his non-compliant muse, I was quite wrong. April 9th was not only not the day Petrarch sighted the fair hair of the reverent Laura in a pew, the day of the fatal glimpse was not Easter Sunday and both parties were long dead by 1413.
The true date is April 6th, Good Friday, 1327.
Whilst sitting a few rows behind and across the aisle, Petrarch saw her tilt her chin and brush a wisp of hair from her face (details from my imagination). He was struck, and proceeded to pine for her and write poems about her til her death, 21 years later. She was married, and I think they maybe spoke once – exchanging pleasantries.
There’s a lot to say about Petrarch’s idolization of Laura, her purity and her godliness – what one might even call his intrusions into her imaginary sphere of thought and inner life. He placed a lady upon a celestial pedestal and garnered centuries of sympathy. The trend of self-flagellating outsider love set the stage for dehumanizing romance motifs and courtship rituals that we still recognize. I won’t call Petrarch wholly responsible for the steep learning curve many men have faced while realizing that women are people – but his use of Laura as a measuring device for his own morals and passions set a harmful precedent. His rather bitter relationship with Dante is not to be forgotten, along with the similarities that we can’t help but notice (Petrarch claimed to have not even read the Divine Comedy – scathing!)
Here’s an example from the Rime Sparse, translated by Robert M. Durling and presented in prose instead of attempting to awkwardly translate the form:
A cruel star was the one I was born under (if the heavens have as much power over us as some believe) and a cruel cradle where I lay new born, and cruel ground where I later set my feet,
and a cruel lady who with her eyes, and with the bow whom I pleased only as a target, made the wound about which, Love, I have not been silent to you, for with those same weapons you can heal it.
But you are pleased by my pain; not she, for it is not harsh enough, and the blow is from an arrow, not a spear.
Still it consoles me that it is better to languish for her than enjoy another, and you swear it to me by your golden arrow, and I believe you.
Oh Petrarch – I don’t mean to minimize your work or the conversations you’ve started, and I’ll have more to say later about your poems and what Christina Rossetti has got to say about it.
For now, however, I’m in Worker’s Compensation class and I am tired and I only want to note some more fun facts.
There are other important Petrarch dates in April – such as the 26th of 1336 when he climbed to the top of Mt. Ventoux in southern France, purportedly the first pleasure seeking alpinist in history. According to lore he opened up his St. Augustine Confessions at the top and immediately landed on a page which chided him for taking pleasure in earthly sights and the glorious heights of mountains. When do this, said Augustine, while they “consider themselves not.” I hate to think of St. Augustine, who is decidedly not a bummer, cajoling Petrarch to constantly reprimand himself for being fun. As for the notable moment for history – It wasn’t quite that Petrarch climbed the mountain “because it was there,” but rather: to have a look around.
On April 8th, 1341 he was the first Poet Laureate since classical times. Drat, another anniversary so blithely skated across.
On April 4th, 1370 Petrarch wrote a will in which he awarded Giovanni Boccaccio some money to “buy a warm winter dressing gown.”
Despite the forlorn love situation, he fathered two children (questionably). His son sadly died of the plague. It is not unimportant to consider the presence of the plague in the writers of 14th century Italy (also 16th century England, etc) with some weight. His daughter lived much longer and he lived with her in his older ages.
Petrarch Died one day short of his 70th birthday (in July, not April).
Farewell Petrarch, man of Laura and of laurels.