Italia Mia Summary
The speaker in Canzone 128 addresses a very pesky problem: the nobility of his country are fighting "vanity wars" with each other and hiring professional, foreign fighters to do their dirty work. The constant state of warfare and the wild, unpredictable natures of the mercenaries have taken their toll on Italy in a big way.
Petrarch asks the elite class to remember their country, to have pity on their neighbors, and think about the judgment that their souls will have to face in the afterlife. In other words, he wants them to use their brains and change their ways.
He also reminds the nobles that they ought to preserve their beautiful homeland by guarding it from foreign invasion (rather than welcoming it with open arms). Petrarch finally addresses the poem itself, telling it to behave nicely when it goes among the "haughty" princes, since they are rash and rude. Only then might it have a chance to beg for peace.
O, my own Italy, though words be useless
to heal the mortal wounds
I see covering all your lovely body,
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.
- Petrarch opens the poem with an apostrophe (no, not the punctuation mark), addressing an Italy suffering from the "mortal wounds." Hmm, it sounds like bad times for his home country.
- In fact, he personifies Italy in lines 2-3, giving it a body that can be wounded and bleed.
- We can see that Petrarch is uber-attached to his country, because he figures her as his beloved—he sighs for her suffering and wants to unify his desires with that of his land.
- Petrarch uses the names of the three major rivers of Italy (Tiber, Arno, Po) to represent different regions of the country. In this way, he shows that he's interested in a wider Italian identity rather than a cliquish attachment to cities or communes.
- He tells us that he sits near the Po, a river in the north of Italy, as he composes this poem. We don't yet know the exact nature of his sorrow, but he's pretty bummed.
Ruler of Heaven, I beg now
that mercy which once brought you down to earth
turn you again to your dear, holy land.
You see, my gracious Lord,
what trivial reasons cause so cruel a war.
- Petrarch opens line 7 with an invocation to God ("Ruler of Heaven"). Invocations are common in classical literature (all epics, like The Odyssey, had them) and it looks like Petrarch has an interest in bringing up the classical past.
- He's basically asking God to show mercy to Italians here—but not just garden-variety mercy.
- Petrarch needs the heavy-duty pity that he believed God showed by when he sent Jesus to earth.
- In these lines, we get a better sense of what's up: a senseless and bloody war.
Those hearts enclosed and hardened
by fierce and haughty Mars,
open them Father, free and soften them,
and there the truth divine
be heard through me, unworthy as I am.
- Petrarch uses metonymy in line twelve (where "hearts" stand for the will of the warriors) to help him talk about the stubbornness of those inflicting hurt on the body of Italy.
- And who is responsible for this hardening of hearts? Why, it's Mars, of course. To be fair, though, he's the Roman god of war—it's not like he can help it.
- Petrarch continues with his supplication, asking God to do something to change the hostility factor.
- In fact, he has one idea how to do it: he could write a poem that speaks the truth to these mules and see if that works.
- Petrarch falls back on an old trick in line 16—false modesty—to make it seem like he's really doing this as a service to Italy and God. He's unworthy, but it's his duty as a poet to speak the truth.
You, in whose hands Fortune has placed the reins
of these beautiful regions
for which it seems no pity moves your heart,
what are the swords of strangers doing here?
In order that the verdant plain
be painted red with that barbaric blood?
- Stanza 2 pulls no punches: it's going to call out the punks who are causing all the trouble.
- And who are they? Those "in whose hands Fortune has placed the reins," a.k.a. the ruling class
- (Note that Fortune here is the personified Lady Fortuna, the goddess of plenty and, well, fortune. Petrarch's audience would know that, while she's got the goods, she's also fickle. Fortunes change.)
- Petrarch shames the nobility here by reminding them that they've been given control over such a beautiful country merely by an accident of birth (i.e., fortune) and not through merit.
- He also calls them heartless, since they are not humbled by their good luck nor moved to civic responsibility by the beauty of the place.
- The big problem is also outlined here: those who should protect Italy from the hostility of foreigners ("swords of strangers"—a nice synecdoche here) have invited them in. And now they're bleeding all over the nice green grass.
- Petrarch's bold statement of the case is meant as a knuckle-rapping to the nobility and also as a wake-up call.
Flattered by futile error,
little you see, thinking you see so much,
for you seek love and trust in venal hearts—
he with more followers
is more surrounded by his enemies.
- If you have an Italian grandmother, you understand this syntax. She might say something like "You think you know everything, but you know nothing. The nothing you know is a lot."
- Petrarch continues to dig at the Italian nobility by saying that their decision-making logic is flawed.
- Specifically, they think they can buy the loyalty of mercenary soldiers—which they can't—and can control them to their own ends—also not true.
- In the end, says Petrarch, the nobles who hire mercenaries face a paradox: the more power they buy, the more vulnerable they are to treachery from foreign forces. Oy.
O deluge that was gathered
from what strange wilderness
to inundate all our sweet countryside!
If by our very hands
this has been done, then who will rescue us?
- Here we get another apostrophe, this time to the hordes of Germanic mercenaries imported by the Italian nobility.
- But behind that apostrophe is a reference to the great deluge in the Book of Genesis, which supposedly wiped out mankind because they behaved idiotically. It's no mistake that Petrarch brings this up here.
- Notice that Petrarch has no good opinion of people from beyond Italy's borders: the Germans are a "deluge" that will "inundate" or drown the perfect Italian landscape. Xenophobic much, P.?
- Petrarch laments that the Italian nobility doesn't know how to keep the best interests of the country at heart. Now who's supposed to help them?
Nature provided well for our condition
when she raised up the screen
of the Alps between us and the German rage;
but blind desire fighting its own good
then managed to contrive
a way to make this healthy body sick.
- Stanza 3 opens with a personification of Nature (Mother Nature, if you will), who apparently has better maternal instincts toward Italy than its nobles do. She, at least, has put the Alps in a convenient location to protect Italy from foreign invasion.
- You might note that the xenophobia we saw back in stanza 2 has returned: Petrarch does not like or trust the Germans. It looks like we're about to find out why.
- It seems that the Italian elite has managed to take all the great natural advantages of the land and turn them on their heads. They've got to cross those protective Alps to bring violence and warfare to the land.
- That "lovely body" of Petrarch's beloved Italy from stanza 1 makes an appearance again here.
- He wants to emphasize that the fallout of warfare touches every aspect of their lives—the people and the land as well.
Now inside the same cage
the savage beasts there with the gentle flocks
are nested, so the best are made to groan;
- In this startling metaphor, Petrarch reverses the idyllic prophecy from Isaiah (you know, "the calf and lion and sheep in one dwelling place" thing?). Nothing good can come from putting savage beasts in with gentle flocks, yo.
- Just in case you were wondering, the "savage beasts" are the mercenary troops—they might also be the Italian lords who don't seem to care about the Italian people. The Italian people get the unhappy role of "gentle flocks."
- Petrarch is pretty taken up with the idea that "Latin blood" is the best, so when he talks about the best being made to groan here, he's talking about the Italian people. FYI: "Latin" here refers to the people that spoke Latin (i.e., the people of Rome, both empire and republic).
and this comes from the seed
(even worse pain) of the unlawful people
whose sides, as the book tells us,
Marius so split open
that the memory of the deed has yet to fade,
when he thirsty and tired
drank as much blood as water from the river.
- Now we're getting into it. Petrarch tells us here why the whole situation is just so, so bad: the current mercenaries are the descendants of the mortal enemies of Rome.
- Petrarch's quick reference to Marius brings up Rome's bloody involvement in the Cimbrian or Cimbric War, when the Roman consul slaughtered the aggressive Germanic tribes. (Take a look at our "Shout Out" section for more on this battle.)
- Petrarch's point in bringing this up is to show how cosmically stupid the Italian nobles are for paying the Germans to bring weapons into Italy. That's grudge fodder right there.
I will not speak of Caesar who once turned
the plains of green bloodred
with all those veins in which he plunged our steel.
- Petrarch is not being coy by not talking about Caesar in detail here. He's using paralipsis to show us that Caesar had a reputation as a vicious dude. It's like Petrarch just… won't… even.
- He puts this recollection of Julius Caesar in here to remind his audience that Italy has its own savagery in the past—and that sometimes it turns on its own people.
It seems—who knows by what malignant stars—
that now the heavens hate us,
and thanks to you, to whom much was trusted.
Your disagreeing wills
despoil the fairest part of all the world.
- Karma appears to be at work here, though Petrarch seems befuddled by it. Do they deserve the current state of violence because of past actions of the Roman Empire? Do they deserve it because the nobility are so incredibly short-sighted? Petrarch cannot guess.
- But he does know who to point the finger at for his sorrow: at those "to whom much was trusted"—in other words, the ones who Fortune favors (the nobility).
- Not only have they been entrusted with the resources of the land and lots of coin, they've also been entrusted with the lives of their people and the health of the country.
- And as Petrarch has said before (just check out stanza 3), they inherited the best of all countries.
- How good is it? He's comparing it to the Garden of Eden in line 56.
What fault, what judgment, or what destiny
makes you harass your wretched
neighbor, and broken, scattered fortunes
persecute, and seek out
foreign friends, glad to know
that they shed blood and sell their souls for money?
- The structure of this entire section is based on erotema. By asking a well-developed and pointed rhetorical question, Petrarch emphasizes his own indignation and the sheer stupidity of the warring nobles' behavior.
- To drive the point home, our poet catalogues the sins of the nobility. Of note, he can't believe that they would fight with their neighbors and worry everyday people with the inconveniences of war.
- Also, are they seriously happy about buying their friends and then sending them off to die?
- What kind of people are these?
I speak to tell the truth,
not out of hate or scorn for anybody.
- We have to remember that Petrarch is calling out the rich and powerful in this poem. It's a pretty risky thing to do—not very diplomatic. But Petrarch feels that it is his duty to speak out.
- Still, it's probably best not to give a bad impression, like you're working for someone who has a grudge. So this couplet is well-placed backpedalling, right at the end of the harshest stanza of the poem so far.
With all the proof are you not yet aware
of the Bavarian treason
which with hand raised makes death into a game?
The shame seems worse to me than actual loss.
But you let your blood flow
More generously, for other anger whips you.
- Mark Musa talks about this form of treason (67). It has to do with the Germanic mercenaries using a raised finger as a sign of surrender—as in "We were paid to fight you, but we're giving up now."
- So, the shame part that follows has to do with the easy surrender of these paid German forces.
- Since they aren't very professional and there's no principle behind the fighting, they give up.
- Still, there's blood shed on the battlefield and, from Petrarch's description, it seems like Italian blood. Remember those early lines about the "mortal wounds" on Italy's "lovely body"?
- Petrarch calls out the nobility for being motivated by the wrong things. Instead of the natural hostility they should have for the German forces, they encourage strife between the noble houses of Italy. Come on, guys.
From dawn to tierce examine
yourselves, and you will see that one who thinks
himself so cheap cannot hold others dear.
- Now Petrarch gets down to business. He's asking the nobility to do some very hard thinking here.
- At issue: can the mercenaries (who sell their souls for $$) have real loyalty or affection for anyone else? Can they have principles?
- The answer should be a resounding "NO."
- Incidentally, that "dawn to tierce" is a time signature—roughly from six to nine in the morning, when thinking is clearest. (We'd say it's sometime between our third and tenth cup of coffee.)
O noble Latin blood,
release yourself from such a harmful burden,
and do not idolize
a name that is so empty;
if that fury up there, that savage race,
conquer our intellect,
the sin is ours, and not the course of nature.
- After giving them a proper tongue-lashing, Petrarch wants to build the nobility back up again by reminding them of their proud roots. "Latin" here refers to Latin-speaking peoples (i.e., the Roman nobles), not to Latino peoples.
- This stanza acts as the ultimatum of the poem: get rid of the German dudes, stop fighting without a cause ("a name that is so empty"), and don't be so darned weak-minded.
- Those last two lines about intellect and sin are meant to remind the audience of original sin: when Adam let his intelligence be overwhelmed by desire in the Garden of Eden. This is
- Petrarch's ways of saying that the stakes are high.
- If the nobles keep going in this direction, says Petrarch, they can't really blame the consequences on anybody but themselves.
"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,
who serves to shelter both of my dear parents?"
- Stanza 6 features another use of erotema (see 57-62), this time to drive home the point that Italians have the right to complain to the ruling class.
- And why? Because they are Italians. He presses this right by using anaphora, emphasizing ethnic identity and pedigree.
- The structure of this stanza is also interesting because it is spoken—but by whom? It could be Petrarch, but it's more likely a general outburst from the average Italian, since they are the ones suffering.
- There's also the question of who is being addressed. The nobility? His readers? Posterity?
- Check to all of the above.
- Some of these rhetorical lines are kind of heavy and not-so-rhetorical. Check out line 84.
- Well, is this his country?
- The answer is in line 86: since it's the homeland of the parents, the speaker clearly gets to claim citizenship-kinship with the land.
In God's name may your mind
for once be moved by this, and look with pity
upon the tears of all your grieving people
who, after God, look only
to you for hope. If only your would show
some sign of piety,
then virtue against rage
will take up arms, and battle will be short,
for all that ancient valor
in the Italian heart is not yet dead.
- Petrarch is really working himself up here, using deesis—his "For God's sake!" moment.
- He implies that the nobles have heard these arguments before, but haven't really been paying attention.
- And then, another risky move: Petrarch calls them impious—as in, they have no regard for God or man. That's cold.
- Once again, he's recommending a kind of mental battle (remember back in lines 71-73?) to the nobility. Let's call it Virtue vs. Desire ("rage" has the implication of anger, but it also has the meaning of lust or excess).
- Virtue can win out if they remember where they came from. Petrarch is referring back to the noble figures of the Roman Republic, when virtues like civic responsibility and self-denial were all the fashion.
My lords, take note of how time flies
on earth as well as how our life
is fleeing, and how Death is at our backs.
Now you are here, but think of your departure:
the soul, alone and naked,
one day will come to face the perilous pass.
- If he can't convince them with logic, Petrarch hopes to sober up his audience with visions of a personified Death nipping at their heels.
- And Death will be the least of their problems. He's reminding the Italian nobility that they will have to make it through the "perilous pass"—an image of the tricky terrain of the afterlife popularized by Dante in his epic poem Purgatorio.
- The idea behind all of these threats is really a simple one: if the nobility screws up morally in this life, divine judgment will be wicked for them.
As you pass through this valley,
Now put aside your hatred and disdain,
those winds that blow against a peaceful life;
and all the time you spend
in giving others pain, to some more worthy act
of hand or intellect,
to some beautiful praise,
to worthy dedication be converted:
thus here on earth is joy,
and open is the pathway to the heavens.
- In line 103, Petrarch is talking about earthly life (not the afterlife, as in lines 97-102) when he speaks of "pass[ing] through this valley." He's pretty likely referencing the line of a prayer (Salve Regina), which talks about earth as "this valley of tears."
- This would put the next few lines into perspective. Petrarch advises the nobles to quit the destructive behavior and get on with projects that make the world a better place—you know, like maybe building chicken coops, or doing needlepoint.
- Whatever positive things they choose to do will make everything fall into place: Italy gets to be the Garden of Eden, as it should be, and the nobles get to go to heaven after death for being good leaders.
Stanza 8 (Congedo or Envoi)
My song, I bid that you
express your sentiments with courtesy,
for you must go among a haughty people
whose wills are still so full
of that ancient, most vicious of all habits,
always truth's enemy.
- Petrarch ends his canzoni with a congedo ("farewell") or envoi, in which he addresses his little song and gives it final instructions.
- In this case, he's telling his song to behave itself in a "courtly" or sophisticated way when it reaches the intended audience, so that they will get the full meaning of his message.
- He takes one last stab at the nobility by mentioning "ancient" and vicious habits—he means in-fighting among princely families—that keep them from seeing how their actions affect the country.
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."
- This is an interesting route for Petrarch to take. Basically, he's telling his poem to act like a damsel in distress for those who would be likely to listen (i.e., the good guys). Apparently, everybody knows that knights in shining armor love to protect a lady.
- That's especially the case when said lady has a message of peace. This is Petrarch's last bit of cleverness in the poem. By emphasizing that his message is one of peace, he situates the tongue-lashing delivered in the poem as necessary to a better world. Way to save your neck, P.