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The Story of Petrarch and the Glance That Changed the World

If one were to ask “Who is the father of the Renaissance?” the likely responses would be two of the most famous men of the period, Leonardo da Vinci (April 15, 1452 – May 2, 1519) and Michelangelo di Lodovico Buonarroti Simoni (March 6, 1475 – February 18, 1564). Each of these men embodied what it meant to be a Renaissance man. But to describe the defining point in history when man emerged from the ‘Dark Ages’ to the rebirth that was the Renaissance, we must look back almost 700 years to the early 14th century, or as some scholars point out, the date of April 6, 1327. On that day, Francesco Petrarca, commonly known as Petrarch, first set eyes on his unrequited love, Laura. It was a moment that changed the young man’s views of the world and of mankind. What began with a glance became the spark for the development of humanist philosophy and the Italian Renaissance.

Few names in literature have been more widely and permanently distinguished than that of Petrarch. Crowned as the poet laureate of Rome, he was a great writer, scholar, poet and historian. He was also an ambassador and adviser to a prince, a pontiff, a king and an emperor. Petrarch is also described as the world’s first tourist, traveling extensively purely for pleasure and he may well be the first person to climb a mountain, simply to have a look around.

Petrarch was born in Arezzo, in the old Republic of Florence, in 1304. His father, Ser Petracco was a lawyer and a friend of Dante Alighieri; in fact, both were exiled from Florence for political reasons in 1302. Ser was employed as a notary in the Papal Curia and in 1309, moved his family to Carpentras near Avignon, France, the seat of the papacy of Pope Clement V. His father insisted that Petrarch study the law. The son dutifully complied and studied at the University of Montpellier (1316 -1320) and Bologna (1320 – 1323). He considered these to be seven wasted years of his life, since his interests were writing and Latin literature. He carried a deep distrust for the law and those who he saw as engaged in the art of selling justice.

He returned to Avignon following the death of his father in 1326. Soon thereafter, his mother passed away. Without any inheritance to speak of, he took the vows of the clergy. It seemed at the time a decent way to make a living. Although he was never ordained a priest he had a good amount of time to devote to writing. His first large-scale work, Africa, was an epic in Latin about the great Roman general Scipio Africanus. From this, Petrarch emerged as a European celebrity.

For a woman he would never know, for a woman he could never have, Petrarch would change the world forever. If there is a seminal event that one can point to as the genesis of the Renaissance, it would April 6, 1327, the year following the death of his father. Petrarch by that time had given up his short-lived vocation as a clergyman and on that day, the sight of a woman called “Laura” in the church of Sainte-Claire d’Avignon awoke within him a lasting passion. Celebrated in the works called “Rime Sparse,” it was a collection of 366 poems, compiled after his death as “Il Canzoniere” (Song Book). Laura may have been Laura de Noves, the wife of Count Hugues de Sade, an ancestor of the Marquis de Sade. There is little definite information in Petrarch’s work concerning Laura, except that she was lovely to look at, fair-haired, with a modest, dignified bearing. Laura and Petrarch had little or no personal contact, but he channeled his feelings into love poems and prose. Her presence caused him unspeakable joy, but his unrequited love created unendurable desires and inner conflict between that of an ardent lover and a mystic Christian. It was impossible for Petrarch to reconcile the two. His quest for love led to hopelessness and irreconcilable anguish, as he expressed in the series of paradoxes. He wrote in Rima 134, “Pace non trovo, et non ò da far guerra; e temo, et spero; et ardo, et son un ghiaccio.” (I find no peace and yet I make no war. Fear and hope, I burn and I am ice.) These inner conflicts formed the basis for his Humanism philosophy. Had his love not been unrequited, perhaps Petrarch might have simply settled down. But from the moment that he first saw Laura, his writing and outlook on life changed. Ultimately, so did the world around him.

Disdaining what he believed to be the ignorance of the centuries preceding the era in which he lived, Petrarch is credited with creating the concept of the historical “Dark Ages.” A discovery of Cicero’s orations and letters energized his interest in the revival of antiquity and he began to envision Rome as the cultural and spiritual center of a renewed Italy. As Petrarch gained stature from his writings, he was welcomed by secular and religious leaders and was sustained by their patronage. On April 8, 1341, he became the poet laureate and was crowned by Roman Senatori Giordano Orsini and Orso dell’Anguillara on the holy grounds of Rome’s capitol. The works of the Italian scholar were emulated by poets throughout Italy and beyond.

Philosophically, Petrarch’s humanistic views are best expressed in his work “Secretum meum,” where he points out that secular achievements do not preclude a relationship with God. Petrarch argued that God had given humans their vast intellectual and creative potential to be used to their fullest. In taking this ethical stance, he emphasized the value of human beings, both individually and collectively. Expressed as a means of critical thinking and use of empirical evidence, he believed mankind could and would advance rapidly once the dogma and superstition of the ‘Dark Ages’ were cast aside. He was right.

His inspired philosophy led to the intellectual flowering of the Renaissance. He also believed in the immense moral and practical value of the study of ancient history and literature – that is, the study of human thought and action. Petrarch was a devout Catholic and did not see a conflict between realizing humanity’s potential and having religious faith. Additionally, his writing style was the foundation upon which the modern Italian language was formed and his poetic genius is equated with that of Homer, Dante, Shakespeare and Goethe.

More than just a scholar, Petrarch knew how to mix business with pleasure and he traveled extensively just for leisure. After amassing countless safe-passage papers documenting his extensive travels, he said goodbye to his journey days and left Rome behind to take up residence in a medieval hilltop village nestled among the Euganean Hills in Veneto, known today as Arquà Petrarca.

In 1368, Petrarch and his daughter, Francesca (with her family) moved to the small town of Arquà near Padua. He transformed the building, raising part of the first floor and adding on a study where he would spend the final days of his life organizing his sonnets and letters. He died in that house on July 20, 1374, his 70th birthday. The house now hosts a permanent exhibition of Petrarchian works and curiosities; among them, the famous tomb of Petrarch’s beloved cat.

Visitors to Arquà can wander through the various rooms, named Metamorphosis, Venus, Cleopatra and Visions. The rooms contain well-preserved friezes depicting seven scenes from Petrarch’s Song of Visions. In addition, guests can peek inside the glass-enclosed study where Petrarch wrote and meditated. One can also visit the small museum on site to learn about the Father of the Renaissance, the man who changed Western Civilization. And to think, it all began with a glance.