On this day in 1327 the Italian scholar, poet, and humanist, Francesco Petrarca, known in English as Petrarch, first laid eyes on Laura, his idealised muse, in the Church of St Clare in Avignon. Laura, whose true identity Petrarch never revealed, was the subject of more than 300 of his sonnets, lyrics, and a poem. His obsession was Laura may have caused him to lose his head, but the resulting works have inspired readers and writers alike for centuries.
Petrarch was born in Arezzo in central Italy on 20 July 1304. His father, Ser Petracco, a friend of Dante’s, came from a long line of notaries public and was one himself. Through a series of circumstances, he had his property seized and thus Petrarch grew up in an educated, yet impoverished household. It appeared he was destined to continue the family’s legal line when Petrarch went on to study law at universities in Montpelier and Bologna. However, fortunately for us, he had other plans.
In 1326, after his parents died, Petrarch along his brother returned to Avignon where they had lived at one point as children. They took clerical positions there, but Petrarch devoted his time to poetry. His poetry shows Petrarch to have been a deeply religious man, and it was on a Good Friday in a church soon after moving to Avignon that he first saw Laura.
Some scholars have identified Laura as Laura de Noves, a married woman and mother, some have suggested other women, whilst another group believe Petrarch imagined her. Nonetheless, she is the subject of an incredible outpouring of poetry. Petrarch captured his infatuation with this lovely fair-haired lady in his celebrated Canzoniere, which straddle Laura’s death in 1348. The first 263 poems, dedicated to her while living, are known as Rime in vita Laura, and the following 103 poems dedicated to her after death are known as Rime in morte Laura.
The poems describe the incredible intensity of the poet’s feelings for his muse, and laid the groundwork for the sonnets of Elizabethan England, including those of Shakespeare. To contemporary ears, Petrarch’s poems can seem full of cliches, but this is due to his great influence on poets writing after him, rather than a lack of originality on his part.
Today, Petrarch is considered no less than the greatest scholar of his age, the father of Humanism, and even the father of the Renaissance. His remains reside in a tomb in Arqua Petrarca–a town near Venice that included his name in the 19th century–where he lived the final years of his life. Oddly, Petrarch’s skull is not included with his skeleton in the tomb, leading to an ongoing investigation. It appears that Petrarch may have lost his head more than once.