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Francisco Rico

Petrarch: His Life, His Work, His Time (I) URL:

Francesco Petrarch (1304-1374) is remembered today, above all, as the author of the Canzoniere that established the form and content that love should adopt in poetry for centuries. Without a strict narrative order, but conceived as a book in itself, in 366 poems (no more, no less), Il Canzoniere (more learned and strictly titled Rerum vulgarium fragmenta) consists of a spiritual journey beyond any anecdote, the various phases and facets of idolization for a woman whom he designates “Laura”. She could be a great lady, a local or a courtesan, but we do not actually know anything about her counter figure: Petrarch only described an obviously fictitious exterior decoration and the list of the possible inner attitudes of a lover, from ardour to lukewarmness, favourable posthumous reinterpretation and final disillusionment.

Less visible and yet deeper has been the mark left by Petrarch the humanist. To tell the truth, if a line had never been written in Latin or Romance, the classical authors who rescued and disseminated him would be enough to keep honouring him as the founder of humanism and father of the Renaissance. But, on the other hand, these authors, from Cicero to Vitruvio, wouldn’t have been so productive if the mature Petrarch hadn’t shown them to read and make the most out of a long series of works in Latin prose, all driven by the same objective: to show how the belles lettres can and should form the nucleus of a truly human education, explain that the studia humanitatis shouldn’t remain mere rhetoric, but translate ubti “in actum”, ‘into facts’, channel them “ad vitam”, and to confront life.

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