Petrarch fränchĕsˈkō pāträrˈkä [key], 1304–74, Italian poet and humanist, one of the great figures of Italian literature. He spent his youth in Tuscany and Avignon and at Bologna. He returned to Avignon in 1326, may have taken lesser ecclesiastic orders, and entered the service of Cardinal Colonna, traveling widely but finding time to write numerous lyrics, sonnets, and canzoni. At Avignon in 1327 Petrarch first saw Laura, who was to inspire his great vernacular love lyrics. His verse won growing fame, and in 1341 he was crowned laureate at Rome. Petrarch's friendship with the republican Cola di Rienzi inspired the famous ode Italia mia. In 1348 both Laura and Colonna died of the plague, and in the next years Petrarch devoted himself to the cause of Italian unification, pleaded for the return of the papacy to Rome, and served the Visconti of Milan. In his last years Petrarch enjoyed great fame, and even after his death and ceremonial burial at Arquà his influence continued to spread. One of the greatest humanists, he was among the first to realize that Platonic thought and Greek studies provided a new cultural framework, and he helped to spread this Renaissance point of view through his criticism of scholasticism and through his wide correspondence and personal influence. His discovery of Latin manuscripts also furthered the new learning. In his Secretum, a dialogue, Petrarch revealed the conflict he felt between medieval asceticism and individual expression and glory. Yet in his poetry he ignored medieval courtly conventions and defined true emotions. In his portrait of Laura he surpassed the medieval picture of woman as a spiritual symbol and created the image of a real woman. He also perfected the sonnet form and is considered by many to be the first modern poet. He influenced contemporary historiography through his epic Africa, which brought attention to the virtues of the Roman republic. Petrarch had less pride in the “vulgar tongue” than in Latin, which he had mastered as a living language. Consequently he considered his Trionfi [triumphs] and the well-known lyrics of the Canzoniere [song book] less important than his Latin works, which include, besides Africa, Metrical Epistles, On Contempt for the Worldly Life, On Solitude, Eclogues, and the Letters. However, he reached poetic heights in both tongues, and his delicate, melodious, and dignified style became an important model for Italian literature for three centuries. Early translators of Petrarch's sonnets and songs include Chaucer, Spenser, Surrey, and Wyatt.

See his letters tr. by M. Bishop (1966); E. H. Wilkins, Life of Petrarch (1961) and Petrarch and the Renascence (1965). See studies by A. Scaglione (1976), S. Minta (1980), K. Foster (1987), and T. P. Roche, Jr. (1989).

The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2024, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.

See more Encyclopedia articles on: Italian Literature: Biographies