Petrarca’s cat

Francesco Petrarca lived from 1304 to 1374. His father wanted him to have a career in law, but he chose poetry, and was crowned poet laureate in Rome. His speech, commemorating the Classic poets who inspired him, was seen as the first Renaissance manifesto. Petrarch is often called the first tourist; he travelled for pleasure and was remembered for climbing the Mont Ventoux. He was a devout Catholic, but is called the father of humanism because he thought God wanted humans to use their intellectual and creative potential to the fullest.

During his life, the period he named the Dark Ages gave way to the Renaissance and in his personal life there is evidence of many conflicting wishes and thoughts: at first he was a priest and felt the attractions of a contemplative life but he also wanted a family. He spent a large part of his life travelling for pleasure but he also tried to find a place to settle down. He was a Catholic who voiced criticism of church leadership and a romantic who wanted to dedicate his life’s work to a woman he loved from a distance. All these influences can be found in Petrarca’s poetry, his letters and his often unfinished books. He considered his sonnets a work in progress and kept rewriting them all through his life.

In 1327 he saw a woman called Laura in a church at Avignon and fell in love with her. Since she was already married, Petrarca expressed his love and later his grief over her death in sonnets and in songs (canzoniere).

I find no peace, and yet I make no war:

and fear, and hope: and burn, and I am ice:

and fly above the sky, and fall to earth.

and clutch at nothing, and embrace the world.

Petrarca, Canzoniere, 134

He never married, but he had a son and daughter he later legitimised. At his former house near Padua the mummy of his cat can still be seen, with these epigrams in Latin written by Antonio Quarenghi in 1604.

The Tuscan bard of deathless fame

Nursed in his breast a double flame

Unequally divided;

And when I say I had his heart

While Laura play’d the second part

I must not be derided.

Oeil, by Guylaine Brunet (posted to Flickr) [CC-BY-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)]

Oeil, by Guylaine Brunet (posted to Flickr) [CC-BY-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)%5D

For my fidelity was such,

It merited regard as much

As Laura’s grace and beauty;

She first inspired the poet’s lay,

But since I drove the mice away,

His love repaid my duty.

Manuscrito_de_Petrarca.jpg: Manu Matthaei [Public domain]

Manuscrito_de_Petrarca.jpg: Manu Matthaei [Public domain]

Through all my exemplary life,

So well did I in constant strife

Employ my claws and curses,

That even now, though I am dead,

Those nibbling wretches dare not tread

On one of Petrarch’s verses

Sadly, the website mentions that the embalmed cat was probably put there by a later owner of the house and that Petrarca has never mentioned a cat in his own writings. Scientists recently opened Petrarca’s tomb preparing to make a reconstruction of his face, but they discovered the skull fragments in there did not belong to him. As with many people who lived a long time before us, we’ll never know the whole story. But that is part of the attraction. As is the fact that poems prove more resistant to passing centuries than big, marble tombs. As Petrarca himself predicted.

Advertisements

5 thoughts on “Petrarca’s cat

  1. When you leave poetry like that behind, it hardly matters whether pieces of your skull or a stuffed cat may or may not have been yours: you have left the most essential part of you that is as alive as the day it was uttered from those loving lips. Wonderful post!

  2. I Bastet decree: The cat was Petrarca’s and the scientists can go and have some tea! And scientist’s should know this too…Petrarca was not of nobal birth so he would have been put in a common tomb!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s