Tuesday 16th July 2013 - by Kyl Chhatwal

On Good Friday in the year 1327, a 22-year-old Tuscan writer named Francesco Petrarca had an encounter at church that would change his life, not to mention the history of world literature. He would later write about it:

“Oh blessed be the day, the month, the year,
the season and the time, the hour, the instant,
the gracious countryside, the place where I was
struck by those two lovely eyes that bound me;”

The “two lovely eyes” were those of a young woman he calls, simply, “Laura.” Her beauty was such that after only seeing her once, and despite her being married to another man, Petrarca would devote the rest of his life to her, and would write his most influential poetry in her honour. Out of his anguished, unrequited love he composed one of the most famous sonnet cycles ever written, which he called Rime sparse (“Scattered rhymes”), but which is now more widely known as Il Canzoniere (“Song Book”).

Il Canzoniere contains 366 poems, mostly of a brand of sonnet that Petrarca perfected and popularized, and that nearly seven centuries later still bears his name: the Petrarchan sonnet. A 14-line poem, with strict rules of rhyme and meter, the sonnet (from the Italian sonetto or “little song”) was invented by the Sicilian poet Giacomo da Lentini. But it became widely read and written all over Europe thanks to Petrarch and his Song Book, particularly in Henry VIII’s England, after new translations of Il Canzoniere poems exploded on the English literary scene.

Eventually, the Petrarchan sonnet was adapted by English poets into the English sonnet, with a different rhyme scheme, and an altered position of the volta, or dramatic turning point of the poem. Still, key aspects of the Petrarchan sonnet endured: for example, the fact that most classic English poetry is written in iambic pentameter (ten-syllable lines of paired unstressed and stressed syllables) can be traced to Petrarch’s influence.

Also, Petrarch’s devotion to Laura, and his use of vaunted, overstated language to describe his beloved, became a much-repeated trope of English verse. So much so that by the time the world’s next greatest sonneteer and poetic genius—William Shakespeare—was writing his cycle of 154 sonnets, he composed one sonnet mocking the Petrarchan cliché of the flawless woman. “My mistress’ eyes are nothing like the sun,” begins Shakespeare’s now-famous burlesque:

“Coral is far more red than her lips' red;
If snow be white, why then her breasts are dun;
If hairs be wires, black wires grow on her head.
I have seen roses damask'd, red and white,
But no such roses see I in her cheeks;
And in some perfumes is there more delight
Than in the breath that from my mistress reeks.
I love to hear her speak, yet well I know
That music hath a far more pleasing sound;
I grant I never saw a goddess go;
My mistress, when she walks, treads on the ground:
And yet, by heaven, I think my love as rare
As any she belied with false compare.”

Even today, the sonnet remains one of the most popular poetic forms in many languages, thanks to both Shakespeare and Petrarch. As for Petrarch’s Laura, it is unknown whether she ever knew of the remarkable passion that a poor Tuscan poet harboured for her, even long after her death. Some scholars doubt whether Laura existed, believing she was a figment of Petrarch’s imagination. If she did exist she was most likely Laura de Noves, wife of Count Hugues de Sade, ancestor of the 18th century French writer, the Marquis de Sade. Laura de Noves was born in 1310, making her only 17 the day Petrarch first saw her in church. She died on Good Friday in 1348, 21 years to the day after her fateful encounter with Petrarch. Following her death Petrarch was thrown into a state of terrible grief and mourning and continued composing the 366 poems of Il Canzoniere until his own death on July 19, 1374, one day short of his 70th birthday. Because of Petrarch’s overwhelming love, and the record he left of that love, even the bare facts of Laura de Noves’ life have been shrouded in legend and mystery for so long it is difficult to know what is fact or fiction. In 1533, for instance, nearly 200 years after Laura’s death, Maurice Sceve, a poet and disciple of Petrarch’s, allegedly dug up Laura’s grave and found a small lead box in the casket. Inside was nothing but a medallion showing a woman ripping at her heart, beneath which lay a sonnet by Petrarca.

The following video celebrate Petrarca - the video is narrated in Italian by Philippe Daverio and travel accross Italy and Europe as the poet did in his life


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