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Wed 22 May 2019
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Mike Stuchbery argues that Petrarch’s passion for his muse Laura triggered the Renaissance imagination and paved the way for modernity.

Historians, on the whole, hate the idea of epochs beginning with one person. It’s ahistorical, ignorant of the complexities of an ever-changing past.

Yet, sometimes, just sometimes, we find a figure who appears to open the door to a new phase of human creativity and achievement.

Sometimes, just sometimes, serendipity and genius combine to change the world.

Sometimes, it seems like the events of single days can, too, create significant echoes down the centuries.

Petrarch

When I’m asked to give an example, I like to talk about Francesco Petrarca, known to the world as Petrarch, who lived over the span of most of the 14th Century.

Some credit him with kick-starting the Renaissance. Perhaps that isn’t entirely accurate, but he did play a shining, starring role – and he was prompted by the events of two bright days in April.


Poor Little Rich Boy

Petrarch was born into a moderately wealthy family in the Tuscan town of Arezzo in 1304. The 14th Century were boom times for the kingdoms and duchies that made up the Italian Peninsula.

An intelligent, sensitive young man, the young Petrarch found himself entirely unsuited for the mercantile endeavours that his family, and the majority of his peers, engaged in.

He couldn’t even bring himself to go into law – he could not bare the idea of justice being for sale.

Luckily for Petrarch, his wealth and contacts meant that he was able to work in a number of clerical roles, including those of an ambassador. This gave him time to write and reflect on the world around him.


Lovestruck

The first of the days that would define Petrarch’s life occurred on April 6, 1327, as he attended mass at a church in the French city of Avignon. There, as he mumbled his prayers and listened to the priest, he glimpsed Laura de Noves, the wife of a local noble among the parishioners.

To say that it was love at first sight doesn’t quite do Petrarch’s feelings justice:

Love discovered me all weaponless,
and opened the way to the heart through the eyes,
which are made the passageways and doors of tears

Sadly, Petrarch’s feelings could, and would not, be reciprocated by Laura. The idea of a noble’s wife engaging in trysts with a relatively lowly clerical figure was laughable.

Try as he might, he couldn’t shake the thought of her, and the effect she was having on him.

‘If it is not love, what then is it that I feel? But if it is love, before God, what kind of thing is it? If it is good, whence comes this bitter mortal effect? If it is evil, why is each torment so sweet?’

Petrarch’s burning passion for Laura was to inspire many of the poems that make up the collection known as the Canzionere – works that marked a distinct shift away from much of the poetry that came before it; that were spiritual in nature and focused on divine love.

He couldn’t even bring himself to go into law he could not bear the idea of justice being for sale.

With Petrarch’s passion, the first flames of what became humanism could be said to have been kindled.


The Ascent

Years later, on April 26, 1336, another event would have a significant, even longer lasting effect on Petrarch.

Together with his brother and two servants, the group decided to make their way to the summit of Mount Ventoux in modern Provence – apparently simply because it was there.

If it is evil, why is each torment so sweet?

Petrarch

The journey was a hard one, even in the early spring, lasting several hours. The path was rocky, covered with thorny bushes.

Mount Ventoux

Reaching the top, Petrarch and his peers was treated to an amazing panorama, stretching miles in every direction. It was a clear day and, far off, even the Mediterranean could be seen. As many mountaineers have remarked, reaching the summit had the effect of humbling the group, causing them to reflect on their place in the world.

Years later, Petrarch reflected on his experience in a letter, and how it forced him to consider the folly and fleetingness of his own existence:

‘I rejoiced in my progress, mourned my weaknesses, and commiserated the universal instability of human conduct.

The experience would continue to be especially profound for the thoughtful, sensitive Petrarch. Rejecting the passions of his youth, the poet devoted the remaining decades of his life to writing volumes of poetry that explored the human condition, and the relative fleetingness of existence.

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Sunset

Medicis
Machiavell

Over this time, he amassed a great deal of acclaim, and became a correspondent to many of those who would ‘herald’ the coming Renaissance – not least among them fellow writers Dante and Boccaccio. Through his poems and letters, he inspired many of the minds that would, so suddenly and spectacularly, transform the medieval world, from the Medicis to Machiavelli.

Petrarch died in 1374, working to the very end. As a contemporary wrote: ‘He was found leaning over a book as if sleeping, so that his death was not at first suspected by his household’.

As I noted at the start of this piece, many historians reject the idea of great men ushering in new eras, indeed, of new eras altogether. Yet, we simply cannot discount the effect that conjunction of individual, time and place can have in creating glorious, wonderful things.

Sometimes, just sometimes, serendipity and genius combine to change the world.

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