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
And when I say I had his heart
While Laura play’d the second part
I must not be derided.
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.
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.