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Petrarch: father of humanism and the Renaissance, popularizer of the sonnet form, and savior of Greek learning for the Western world. He's the first poet laureate since antiquity. And did we mention that he was friends with Dante and Boccaccio? On top of all that, he was the lover of Laura, the most beautiful woman in the universe. Yes, he's the most interesting man in the world—ever.
But he's best known for his book of songs, Il Canzoniere, written for his forbidden lady-love, Laura. Also called Rerum vulgarium fragmenta (Fragments of Common Things) or Rime Sparse (Scattered Rhymes), the work rocked the fourteenth century by using Italian (not Latin), innovating the sonnet form, and for the sheer number of poems (366) written in the lyric tradition of the Provençal troubadours. Only a true rock star could have written a poem-a-day collection that takes Leap Day into account (you know, 365+1 =… carry the one… well, you get the idea).
"Chiare, fresche et dolci acque" is the 126th poem in this collection and is often considered its masterpiece (we've heard people call it "poetic perfection"). Written between 1340 and 1341, it represents the best of the poems concerning his beloved Laura during her lifetime. In it, Petrarch establishes the conventions of broken-hearted love poetry that persist into our time: the sighs, the desire for death, the fantasy that your girl will realize how great you were after your death.
The poem also perfects the virtual stalker's eye that would become so useful to groups like The Police, The Cure, and, yes, Death Cab for Cutie. By reaching into his memory, Petrarch has the leisure to examine each part of Laura's body intimately and to praise it for its perfection and purity—a practice that leads to further torment and fuels the poetic writing process.
Canzone 126's rhapsodies on the beloved's curves, breasts, hair, smile, and clothing would also go on to inspire poets like Shakespeare, Sir Philip Sidney, and the transgressive Lady Mary Wroth. Does it really matter that later literary movements would mock some of the poetic practices established here? Not really. Petrarch’s masterful music continues to rock on triumphantly.
We'd like to refer you back to the first paragraph of "In a Nutshell." This way, we can simply say "Because Petrarch." But since this is Petrarch, there's much more. We want you to think of every love poem you've ever read. Every song about frustrated desire, a lover being out of the singer's league, the need to find release from emotional suffering brought on by bad love. Now think of that ideal of female beauty: the blonde-haired, blue-eyed, porcelain-skinned girl with perfect figure. Got it?
That's Petrarch—all of it.
While Petrarch doesn't create these conventions out of thin air, he does have a role in popularizing and broadcasting them through western civilization. His poetry affected people—the right kinds of people, like other poets—so intimately that they perpetuated his thoughts, ideals, and poetic practices for centuries. It's not for nothing that Petrarch is called the Father of the Renaissance.
While that might be a slight exaggeration, it's not far from the truth. Petrarch really did have a direct role in saving Greek learning from oblivion, revived some of the best practices of classical literature, and unleashed the sonnet on the world. Sure, lots of things conspired to change the world from the "Dark Ages" into a rebirth of culture and sophistication. But who coined the phrase "Dark Ages" in the first place?
Yeah—that would be Petrarch.
So… what have you done lately?
Indiana University has created an accessible collection of digitized manuscripts of Petrarch's Canzoniere. It's a very cool resource for all of you aspiring medievalists and those who just want to see how poetry physically takes shape over time.
For the Love of a Dead Poet
This site is a testament to what the dedication of an independent scholar can do. Peter Sadlon has created a convenient, accessible resource for students new to Petrarch's life and works. You will find biographical info, texts of his poems and prose, mp3 files, and general information about the poet's world.
"Petrarch is Again in Sight"
If reading Canzone126 inspires you to chuck it all and dedicate your life to Petrarch's works, you should start with The Oregon Petrarch Open Book Project. This is digital humanities work at its finest—and a project to aspire to if you think you've got that calling.
Chillin' and Thrillin'
Lars Johan Werle has set 126 to music for choir. Get your ethereal on with this performance.
In a World Where Petrarch Reigns...
Professional narrator and voice-over artist Moro Silo reads Canzone126 in silky, smooth Italian. Really, it's worth a listen—even if you don't understand a word.
A True Stunner
The British Library offers us eye-popping images from MS. King's 321, a copy of Petrarch's Canzoniere, circa 1400. You can click on the image to enlarge it, and if you scroll to the bottom of the original page in this link, you'll find several more images to peruse.
A Really Old Book
Getty Images provides a tantalizing glimpse at an incunabulum (early printed book) from 1473 ofCanzone126. Well, at least the first stanza and one-half of it—gah. But let's be grateful. The earliest printed version of the Canzoniere is from 1470, so this one gets us pretty close.
Losing His Head
It all started with the innocent desire to create an accurate portrait of Petrarch for his 700th birthday. But the opening of Petrarch's tomb to recover his skull revealed that tomb raiders had already been there and left a "substitution." Either that, or Petrarch's skull decided to get in touch with its feminine side.
Shakespeare + Petrarch
This consultant for the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington, D.C. relates a clever exercise she did with a class of high school students who were reading Romeo and Juliet. Spoiler alert: Petrarchan ideals feature prominently.
If you're the type that likes your vacay on the literary side, check out Arquà Petrarca in northern Italy, where Petrarch built a home and spent his final years.
One scholar's pilgrimage to Petrarch's house in Arquà Petrarca inspires complex reflections on literary tourism, Petrarch's presence, and whether or not the poet loved his kitty above all else. Also, Senseshaper's blog entries will school you on how to write a proper scholarly article/paper.
It's Greek to You
If your medieval Italian is a little dusty, Mark Musa's translation of Petrarch's Canzoniere will pull you through. His work is careful and poetic in its own right (he's even metrically correct on most lines).
For the More Traditional
If you prefer long-standing authority in your academic resources, Durling's translation of the Rime Sparse (that's the Canzoniere to us) has stood the test of time.
Kristina Marie Darling creates poetry by "pilfering" from established authors and blowing apart their texts. Her latest book gives the treatment to Petrarch's poetry.