Francesco Petrarch [1304–1374]
Francesco Petrarch composed over 300 poems to a woman with whom he never had a relationship. But his innovation on the Italian sonnet form—usually referred to as the Petrarchan sonnet—immortalized both the poet and this mysterious woman.
Although Italian writers had written sonnets before Petrarch, he improved the 14-line poem’s structure and wrote in the vernacular of the day, more closely reflecting the way people actually spoke. Petrarch’s success established the sonnet as a major poetic form. Petrarch influenced poets throughout Europe, including Elizabethan poets like Spenser and Shakespeare.
From Law Student to Clergyman
Petrarch was born in Arezzo, Italy, where his father practiced law. Petrarch’s father insisted that his sons study law, so the poet and his younger brother complied until their father died in 1326. By then, Petrarch had developed an interest in classical studies and, as he described it, “an unquenchable thirst for literature.” After his father’s death, Petrarch abandoned the study of law and became a Catholic clergyman. Living in Avignon, France, then the seat of the exiled papal court, Petrarch held a variety of church positions that provided him with a modest income as well as free time to devote to literature, classical studies, and extensive traveling.
The Love of His Life
On Good Friday in 1327, when he was 22 years old, Petrarch saw a woman in the Church of Saint Clare in Avignon and immediately fell in love with her. For the rest of his life, he wrote and revised sonnets about his unrequited love for a woman he identified only as Laura. Like Petrarch’s son and many of his friends, Laura died in the plague that devastated much of Europe in the mid14th century. Petrarch recorded the date of her death—April 6, 1348—in a copy of a work by Virgil, a classical Roman poet whom he revered. After Laura’s death, Petrarch continued to write sonnets reminiscing about her, including “Sonnet 292.” The Canzoniere, his masterpiece, is a collection of 366 poems, most of them sonnets that focus on Laura and the themes of unrequited love, desperate love, eternal love, and tragic love.
Poet Laureate of Rome
By the time Petrarch was in his mid-30s, his poetry was widely admired in Italy and France. He received invitations from both the University of Paris and the Senate in Rome to be poet laureate. In 1341, he became Rome’s first poet laureate since ancient times.