Study Guide

Italia Mia Analysis

  • Sound Check

    We know it's terribly impractical, but we can only talk about sound in reference to the original language of the poem (i.e., Italian), since the aural tricks don't really work out in English. While some translations work hard to preserve the sound, a lot gets lost in translation.

    And Petrarch really loves the sound of his poetry. You can tell this because he makes his words work hard to reach your ear by using just about every device in the book. In addition to the end rhymes in each stanza, Petrarch accentuates the meaning of his lines by using things like alliteration and internal rhyme. Take a look at stanza 1, when he asks God to intervene in Italy:

    Vedi, Segnor cortese,
    di che lievi cagion' che crudel guerra;
    e i cor' ch endura et serra
    (10-12)

    You see, gracious Lord,
    what trivial reasons cause so cruel a war.
    Those hearts enclosed and hardened
    (10-12)

    The alliteration of the hard C (the C, if it's not before an I or E, and the Ch are pronounced so in Italian) emphasizes the harshness of the situation: the cruelty of war, the encrusted hearts. Sometimes, the use of verbal repetition exists just to sound cool. Okay, technically, it works to help the rhythm of the work, so that it pleases the ear when performed. Stanza 2 has a nifty bit of assonance going for it:

    O diluvio raccolto
    di che deserti strani
    per inondar i nostri dolci campi.
    Se da le proprie mani
    questo n'avene, or chi fia che ne scampi.
    (28-32)

    Although this deluge of I sounds isn't particularly meaningful, it sure will smack you in the ear when you hear it. The effect is most certainly there to help the cadence of the lines and perhaps even to help memorization of the work.

    Stanza 4 has some truly gnarly examples of alliteration, but we'll start with a more run of the mill one in line 55: "Vostre voglie divise " ("Your disagreeing wills...").

    But wait till you hit line 57: "Qual colpa, qual giudicio, o qual destino" ("What fault, what judgment, or what destiny"). In this case, the alliteration hooks up with anaphora to drive home the speaker's frustration at the ridiculous bloodshed.

    Stanza 6 is, straight-up, an extravaganza of sound sensations, because it's really the emotional epicenter of Canzone 128. Petrarch opens it up with anaphora, which sets the tonal basis for the next few lines:

    "Non è questo 'l terren ch' I' toccai pria?
    non è questo il mio nido
    ove nudrito fui sì dolcemente?
    non è questa patria in ch' io mi fido,
    madre benigna et pia"
    (81-85)

    "Is this not the first soil my body touched?
    Is this not my own nest
    in which I found myself so sweetly nourished?
    Is this not my own country I have trust in,
    kind mother, merciful"
    (81-85)

    Petrarch takes no prisoners when it comes to this kind of alliteration. He wants you to hear it, and he continues to get up in your ears throughout the rest of stanza 6 (check out line 89: "le lagrime del popol doloroso").

    We could go on. But for the sake of your sanity, we'll just point out two convenient instances of internal rhyme. At the very end of stanza 3, Petrarch gives us this:

    Mario aperse sì 'l fianco
    che memoria de l'opra anco non langue,
    quando assetato et stanco
    (45-47)

    True, "fianco" and "stanco" are end rhymes. But sandwiched in between is "opra anco"—which would be pronounced like one word ("opranco")—and that is internal rhyme. Back to stanza 6, we get the partial internal rhymes focusing on "or":

    combatter corto;
    ché l'antico valore
    ne l'italici cor non è ancor morto.
    (94-96)

    We encourage you to check out Moro Silo's recitation of this poem in Italian. Believe us, it doesn't even matter if you don't understand Italian. It's worth it just to hear the collection of sounds that Petrarch uses to drive home his points in this poem.

  • What's Up With the Title?

    When it's not simply referred to by its number, editors grab the first two words as its title. Why? This has partly to do with the reality of manuscript production in the middle ages: you wouldn't take up extra space on a page to place a unique title since it was expensive and time-consuming to procure the materials. (Take a look at the manuscripts in the Petrarchive to see the set-up of the pages—and the lack of titles therein.)

    Using the phrase "Italia mia" in the opening line of his poem is actually historically significant. Back in 1344, Italy was not a unified nation: most Italians identified with their city or commune. Modern scholars are even squeamish when we talk about an "Italy" before the nineteenth century.

    But Petrarch's use of the phrase and the sentiments in the poem itself hint at a nationalistic pride—or at least ethnic pride—despite the fragmented political nature of Italy at this time. By using the phrase and referring to all of them as "Italians," he's trying to manipulate them emotionally. But hey, it's for a good cause. He just wants the leaders of the land to simmer down.

    "Italia mia" is also part of a larger work that has several names. Petrarch himself called it Rerum vulgaria fragmenta, or Fragments of Common Things. That "vulgar" bit in the Latin title isn't Petrarch being down on himself. He's just saying that the work is written in Italian, or the "vulgar tongue."

    The work has also been called the Rime Sparse (Scattered Rhymes), which refers to a phrase in the first poem in the collection. And finally, the title Canzoniere (Book of Songs) has gained popularity in the last few decades. (All options are equally correct, so find the one you like and stick to it.)

  • Setting

    It's believed that "Italia mia" was composed around 1344 or 1345 in Parma, Italy, and we can see from line 6 that the speaker of the poem is sitting, "sad and grieving," near the Po River. Okay—we know that Parma is about 33 kilometers away from the Po River proper (thanks Google Maps). But the Parma River is a tributary, so we'll cut Petrarch some slack on this one.

    Petrarch doesn't just give love to the specific place of his birth, though. He also mentions the Tiber and the Arno, rivers flowing through central Italy. By letting those other rivers into the poem to represent, Petrarch is stepping outside home boundaries to show how widespread the problem of warfare really is.

    Petrarch has a serious thing for his native land. He talks about Italy as if it were his beloved (note that "lovely body" in line 3) or the Garden of Eden. His anger stems from the abuse of this gorgeous place at the hands of the nobility. They mismanage the "beautiful regions," flood the "sweet countryside" with mercenaries, and bathe the "verdant plains" with blood. They're "despoil[ing] the fairest part of all the world" for crying out loud.

    Okay, you get the point: Italy's awesome. That seems like desperately little to say in 122 lines. But keep in mind that Petrarch's perspective in this poem is quite unique back in the day. He's detaching himself from the clannish loyalties that have caused so much trouble in the past so that he can love all of Italy at once. It's a big step for a guy from Tuscany to take. Thanks to his use of setting here, though, he's able to take it.

  • Speaker

    The speaker of this poem is impassioned, impatient, and desperate to get this poem read by any nobleman who will listen. His love for Italy spurs him on and he appears to be fearless in his tone. We're not sure if we would even speak to our superiors in the way that Petrarch's speaker does. Take a listen:

    What fault, what judgment, or what destiny
    makes you harass your wretched
    neighbor, and broken, scattered fortunes
    persecute
    (57-60)

    He's definitely being saucy with the Italian princes, but he clearly feels that he has a right to his indignation. In stanza six (81-86), the speaker cedes the floor to Italians everywhere, giving them a general speech filled with love for the homeland and tinged with anger at the treatment of both land and self by their lords. It's their land, too.

    The speaker rarely backs down from upbraiding the elite's stupidity. There are only two moments when he steps back to remind his audience that he has a duty to speak the truth (15-16) and that he speaks the truth with no malice (63-64). Even in the envoi (stanza 8), the speaker keeps up his low opinion of the nobility, telling his poem to "express your sentiments with courtesy,/ for you must go among a haughty people" (114-115).

    Though he's asking for peace, don't expect this speaker to ask for it meekly.

  • Tough-o-Meter

    Tree Line (5)

    Petrarch relies on some knowledge of the social and political situation in Italy at this time—and maybe some basic understanding of geography. He also makes references to the distant past (Marius drinking more blood than water from the river, the ancient insult to the Bavarians, Julius Caesar's reputation as a punk). All of this means that Canzone 128 can definitely present a challenge on the first read. Once you get a handle on Italians Behaving Badly, though, you'll be sitting pretty. Stick with us and check the "Shout Outs" section to get up to speed.

  • Calling Card

    Focus on Italy—Especially the Watery Bits

    When Petrarch isn't writing love poems to or about his beloved Laura, he's focused on Italy. Sometimes, he mixes it up and writes about the two of them at one time. One thing is for certain: if you spend any time with Petrarch's poetry, you'll notice a constant reference to geographic locations—most of them in Italy and many of them to rivers.

    He does this for a couple of reasons. First, it helps to reinforce his voice and identity in the poem: he's Petrarch, son of a prominent Tuscan family and a man who has suffered exile (which makes him deeply attached to his homeland). Also, he's known for his references to nature, especially to the flora and fauna immediately around him. This makes him a local, free-range poet, right? Just check out the rest of his Canzoniere for other examples.

  • Form and Meter

    Form: Petrarchan Canzone

    You might have guessed by the name of this form that we're witnessing the very beginning of this special type of poetry in "Italia mia" and the other canzoni in this collection. Petrarch is not really inventing anything new when he uses this form. He gets the idea from the Portuguese canso and the Provençal troubadours singing their chansons. Still, Petrarch modifies the forms to suit his needs and winds up creating his own brand of verse.

    Canzone 128 has eight stanzas in total; seven of them have 16 lines each. The final stanza is a totally different animal altogether because it is a congedo (farewell) or envoi. This shorter stanza (10 lines) has an independent rhyme scheme and acts as a direct address to the poem itself ("go, little poem, work your magic"—that's our paraphrase).

    If you want to impress your friends and professors, here are some interesting specs on the stanzas of Petrarch's canzoni. Each stanza is divided into two parts: the fronte (head) and the sirma (tail). Each fronte consists of two sections, or strophes (for example, lines 1-3 and lines 4-6); the sirma is left whole to do its own thing. Petrarch uses a "connector" or chiave (key) to introduce the sirma.

    We know that all sounds crazy, but it's really quite easy and useful once you see it in action. We'll "diagram" stanza 1 so you can see it in action:

    (Fronte, strophe 1)
    O, my own Italy, though words be useless
    to heal the mortal wounds
    I see covering all your lovely body,

    (Fronte, strophe 2)
    I wish at least for my sighs to be one
    with Tiber's hopes and Arno's
    as well as Po's, where I sit sad and grieving.

    (Sirma)
    Ruler of Heaven, I beg now (this line is the chiave)
    that mercy which once brought you down to earth
    turn you again to your dear, holy land
      

    Petrarch is super-regular with his rhyme schemes, which you can really only see, or hear, in the Italian. In Canzone 128, each stanza runs like so: ABCBAC (fronte) CDEDDFGFG (sirma). (Each letter stands for that line's end rhyme.) That ending (FGFG) is unusual for Petrarch, who normally likes to end his canzoni with a rhyming couplet.

    Now, let's talk a bit about the meter to see how Petrarch uses the technical stuff of poetry to make these divisions even more meaningful:

    Meter: Hendecasyllables and Settenari

    Petrarch loved the poets of classical antiquity, so he lifted his metrical patterns from Latin poetry (he couldn't read Greek). There are 29 canzoni in Il Canzoniere, all of which are made up of hendecasyllables (eleven syllables, give or take) and settenari (a seven-syllable line).

    While each canzoni has its own special combo of these long and short lines, "Italia mia" has 8 hendecasyllables per stanza—give or take. The rest of the lines are settenari. To illustrate this (and the rhyme scheme), we've got to show you the verse in Italian. We're going to capitalize the rhyme scheme letters of the longer, hendecasyllabic lines so that you can see them. This is from stanza 1, and it includes the fronte and the first line, or chiave, of the sirma.

    Italia mia, benché 'l parlar sia indarno A
    a le piaghe mortali
    b
    che nel bel corpo tuo sí spesse veggio,
    C
    piacemi almen che ' miei sospir' sian quali
    B
    spera 'l Tevero et l'Arno,
    a
    e 'l Po, dove doglioso et grave or seggio.
    C
    Rettor del cielo, io cheggio
    c

    If you can speak or read Italian, you might notice that not one of those long lines is exactly eleven syllables—and only one of the short lines is exactly seven. Don't worry about it (Petrarch didn't)—there's a little play in those metrical schemes so that lines can vary in their syllable counts.

    The variation in these line lengths helps us hear the musicality of the poem (take a listen to the fantastic Moro Silo reading it in Italian). It's a little shocking for us to think of these poems as songs that might be sung, but hey, they're lyric. It's no accident that we have the same word to describe the poetic form and the words to a popular song.

  • The Body of Italy

    Petrarch imagines Italy as a beloved person who is suffering from wounds in lines 1-3:

    O, my own Italy, though words be useless
    to heal the mortal wounds
    I see covering all your lovely body...

    On the one hand, Petrarch is really making a love connection with the land of his birth. She (Italia) is dear to him—and to all Italians—and to see its beauty destroyed through warfare causes the sorrow that we hear in his tone throughout.

    On the other hand, we can read this "body" as the body politic, representing all Italians who suffer from the widespread violence between noble houses. Either way, there's real blood being shed, and the point of this poem is to spare the country and its people from further disrespect.

  • The Deluge

    Petrarch uses apostrophe in line 28 to address the onslaught of foreign fighters into the Italian countryside:

    O deluge that was gathered
    from what strange wilderness
    to inundate all our sweet countryside!
    (28-30)

    Though he's talking about a figurative deluge (i.e., a whole lot of foreign mercenaries crossing into Italy), there's something more literal at the back of it. It would be impossible not to think of The Deluge, the great flood spoken of in Genesis that spared only Noah, his family and an ark full of animals.

    That flood allegedly happens because people were behaving "iniquitously"—in other words, they had abandoned their morals. We know that Petrarch is calling the Italian nobility out for their poor sense of civic duty, so it's no surprise to us that Petrarch would include this image.

  • The Swords of Strangers

    We get our first clue to the specific problem in Petrarch's poem around line 20, when he throws this line out: "what are the swords of strangers doing here?" Now, Petrarch is not concerned about a display of foreign combat gear in a museum. He's using synecdoche to create a shorthand image for the German mercenaries who have been hired by the Italian nobility to fight with rival houses.

    While the swords only get mentioned in line 20, the fallout from them is spread throughout the poem. In the opening lines, we see Italy's "mortal wounds" and in lines 21-22, Petrarch shows us the "verdant plain" as it is "painted red with that barbaric blood." It's really kind of gross. But Petrarch isn't going to mince words if he has a chance to stop the insanity.

  • The Perilous Pass

    Petrarch hopes that the Italian nobility will soon have a change of heart and stop waging war on each other, but he's got to pull out all the stops to ensure that they'll hear what he says. So he calls on Death and Judgment to help him out a bit.

    In lines 100-102, he pulls a Charles Dickens on them and shows them the bleak future:

    Now you are here, but think of your departure:
    the soul, alone and naked,
    one day will come to face the perilous pass.

    Petrarch has most likely grabbed the image of the "perilous pass" from Dante (Purgatorio) to help him talk about the difficult journey that the soul faces on the way to judgment before the throne of God. In this scenario, the perilous pass is a real place (check out Gustave Dore's imagining) of it) that can't be traveled without moral strength.

    So, what's the point of all this? Petrarch wants to tell the nobles that they are going to have a hard time getting to Paradise after death if they don't straighten up and fly right. If that doesn't help them take their civic responsibilities seriously, we don't know what will.

  • The Song as a Woman in Distress-Personification of Peace

    This is strangest image we've seen in a while, to be honest. Petrarch uses his envoy or congedo (the last, farewell stanza) to turn his poem into a person. But personification of the poem itself is not particularly weird (Chaucer did this all the time, as does Petrarch in "Chiare, fresche, et dolci acque"). What's more odd is that Petrarch actually figures the poem as a damsel in distress.

    On first blush, that sounds bizarre, but let's hear Petrarch out. He tells us in the beginning of stanza 8 that the poem is going to have its work cut out for it, since the princes are stubborn and prideful. The only way to get the point across is to find good people and act helpless:

    But you must try your fortune
    among the valiant few who love the good;
    tell them: "Who will protect me?
    I go my way beseeching: Peace, peace, peace."
    (119-122)

    Petrarch invokes the image of Eirene, the ancient Roman personification of peace. By doing this, he's appealing to the noble Roman that surely must be hidden somewhere in the frozen hearts of these princes. Petrarch is crazy, all right… crazy like a fox.

    • Steaminess Rating

      G

      Nope, there's absolutely no sex in this one. We do have Marius drinking up rivers of blood, however—gross, and not sexy in the slightest.

    • Allusions

      Literary and Philosophical References

      • Mars (13): the Roman god of war
      • Fortune , or Fortuna (17): the Roman goddess of, well, fortune 
      • "the perilous pass" (102): This is the difficult journey of the soul after death toward the judgment of God. Dante Alighieri speaks of this in his work, Purgatorio.
      • Salve Regina (103): Petrarch references passing through "this valley," an image of earthly life probably taken from this prayer.
      • Eirene (119-122): She's the ancient Roman personification of peace. When Petrarch figures his poem as a woman crying out for peace, we're pretty sure he had this in mind.

      Historical References

      • "the swords of strangers" (20): the German mercenaries, hired by the Italian houses of d'Este and Gonzaga to fight petty wars
      • "the unlawful people" (43): Petrarch refers to the Cimbrian War, fought between the Roman Republic and two Germanic tribes that invaded Roman territory. The current mercenaries are imagined to be descendants of these hostile troops.
      • "as the book tells us" (44): probable reference to Plutarch's Life of Marius
      • Gaius Marius (45): He's the Roman consul who married into the family of Julius Caesar and whipped German tribal backside at the Battle of Acquae Sextiae.
      • "when he thirsty and tired/ drank as much blood as water from the river" (47-48): Petrarch is talking about the Battle of Acquae Sextiae in 102 B.C.E. The body of water is the River Arc in Aix-en-Provence.
      • Julius Caesar (49): He's the statesman and general of the Roman Republic who had himself declared dictator for life. He had a reputation as a pretty brutal dude. Imagine that.
      • "Your disagreeing wills/ despoil the fairest part of all the world" (55-56): Petrarch is speaking of the petty wars between Italian nobility that took a heavy toll on their dependent citizens and destroyed the land.
      • "O noble Latin blood" (74): Petrarch feels nostalgic for the good old days of the Roman Republic, where a consul knew his civic responsibility and acted on it. He's hoping that some of that DNA has made it into the leaders of his day, no matter how recessive the gene.

      Geographical References

      • Tiber (5): One of the largest rivers in Italy, the Tiber also flows through Rome.
      • Arno (5): One of the big three rivers in Italy, the Arno flows through Florence—the homeland of our poet.
      • Po (6): This is the big river that bisects northern Italy, flowing eastward into the Adriatic Sea. If Petrarch is really writing this poem from Parma, he could possibly have been gazing at a tributary of the Po, the Parma River.
      • "turn again to your dear, holy land" (9): Petrarch is speaking of Italy here—not Israel—as the country that houses the seat of the Catholic Church (in Rome).