We could call Petrarch a fourteenth-century rock star. (In fact, we did; just check out our overview of "Chiare, fresche, et dolci acque"). But that wouldn't be accurate enough for the context of this poem. He's more like a punk icon. In Canzone 128, "Italia mia," the poet shows his contempt for the Italian nobility and their addiction to warfare—and he's not afraid to call them out.
Petrarch sees that the nobility are bringing Italy to its knees. As Petrarch writes to us from Parma in 1344, he tells us he's taken to lamenting by the sad river, that the hills are inundated with the blood of German mercenaries and Italian princes alike. Peoples' lives are shattered by the very leaders who are supposed have their best interests at heart. As you see, Petrarch might as well be U2 (okay, early U2)—or better yet, The Clash.
We're not stretching the song analogy just to be hip. Canzone (or "Song") 128 comes from a larger collection called the Canzoniere ("Songbook") or the Rime Sparse ("Scattered Rhymes"). The work is deeply lyrical, in both a musical and emotional sense. Petrarch uses a highly disciplined and ancient verse form to create this musicality, and the poems lend themselves to performance.
Although the poems are mostly covers of the same song (about his beloved, Laura), we do get about 17 sonnets and canzoni that include Italy as a theme or subject. In "Italia mia," Petrarch urges the Italian nobility to search deep in their hearts for some of that noble Roman blood that surely still runs through them. In doing so, they are meant to re-discover what it means to be a proper leader and a good Italian.
If you've watched the news in the last four years, you'll probably recall the slogan of the Occupy Movement: "We are the 99%." If so, you'll understand just what Petrarch is on about in Canzone 128. While it's not really about income equality back in the fourteenth century, it has everything to do with the majority of Italy's citizens paying for the choices of the elite classes.
The idea of civic responsibility (or lack thereof) is ancient and universal. It's one of the virtues of the Roman Republic that Petrarch so admires, and it's especially applicable in the decision to bring war to the people. If you're alive and reading this, you should be highly invested in Petrarch's words on this subject. War culture and civic duty are in the air we breathe these days.
It's also reflected in our lyrical culture: think of U2, The Clash, and The Decemberists (check out "Politics and Protest" for more). Poems about war and civic responsibility are also far too numerous to mention by name (but feel free to browse here).
As we struggle to be concerned, active citizens—by considering the needs of the many and speaking up when necessary—it's both sobering and awesome to know that we are part of a long tradition, going all the way back to our man Petrarch.
A Renaissance Man
This site is a testament to what the dedication of an independent scholar can do. Peter Sadlon, a Canadian scholar who wears many hats, has created a convenient 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.
The Catastrophic Fourteenth Century
This website is dedicated to Giovanni Boccaccio's Decameron, but has great, useful information on the fourteenth century, which the great writer shared with his mentor, Petrarch.
"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.
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.
Moro Silo performs Canzone 128 in Italian—highly recommended for those interested in how Petrarch sounds and feels.
Heaven Out of Hell
Composer Philippe Verdelot (ca. 1528) created a beautiful madrigal out of the opening of Petrarch's "Italia mia." Scroll to the bottom of the page to find the mp3.
The Beat Goes On
Contemporary composer Loretta K. Notareschi has composed choral arrangements for stanzas 1, 2, 5, 6, 7, and 8 of "Italia mia."
Petrarch, with Hood
Behold, a painting of the man himself. You gotta love the hood.
The Real Thing
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.
Swords for Hire
Petrarch has a beef with the employment of German mercenaries in Italy, as we see in Canzone 128. But mercenary soldiers were an age-old issue, as we can see in this overview of the elite mercenary units that tore late medieval Italy apart.
Mercenaries... With a Heart
New research has found that those plundering bands of soldiers for hire had opt out clauses for certain issues that touched their hearts.
Petrarch's Old Stomping Grounds
Check out Arquà Petrarca in northern Italy, where Petrarch built a home and spent his final years. It may be hard to get to, but you will get to see his mummified cat when you get there. (Yes, you read that right.)
If Only We Knew What Was Happening...
Feeling woefully undereducated about history in medieval Italy? This page will give you a good grounding—at least enough to survive a 122-line poem.
You're Gonna Need Some Help...
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).
Respect His Authoritah!
If you prefer long-standing authority in your academic resources, Durling's translation of the Rime Sparse (that's the Canzoniere to us) has been the go-to translation since 1976.