"Who was this man?" asks Georgetown University dean Christopher Celenza at the opening of his new biography of the 14th-century poet Francesco Petrarca, a new entry in Reaktion Books' Renaissance Lives series. Celenza suggests a three-pronged approach, looking at the Tuscan poet, the classicist who paved the way for the full flowering of the Italian Renaissance, and the Latinist whose extensive scholarly and poetic writing in Latin, in his own life the backbone of his intellectual activity, have now fallen into complete obscurity, read by no one except scholars.
It’s only by bringing those three aspects together, Celenza argues, that we can achieve a clear view of the Petrarch (the poet’s anglicized name) who stands at the doorway of all modern literature.
He was born in the city of Arezzo in 1304 to parents whose genteel poverty he would later describe with gentle pointedness in letters to friends. He grew up in Avignon and studied law at the University of Montpellier and at Bologna, but from an early age, he belonged to literature.
In a pattern that had largely formed in the Middle Ages, Petrarch became a kind of default man of letters, filling a series of clerical sinecures to put food and wine on his table and finance his travels, all the while composing increasingly ambitious literary works and conducting an ever-widening correspondence with the day’s men of letters.
Petrarch’s literary circle expanded to include most of these figures (including a younger and somewhat awestruck Boccaccio), and by the 1340s his fame had spread throughout Europe. He was crowned Rome’s poet laureate in 1341, became an outspoken advocate of Cola di Rienzo’s efforts to upend authoritarian rule in Rome, and in 1348 lost his beloved Laura to the Black Death. For such a scholarly figure, it was a life charged with almost non-stop activity.
Like many of the scholar-writers who laid the groundwork for the Renaissance, Petrarch actively walked the ground of his own fame. Celenza's subtitle, Everywhere a Wanderer, is suggested by the itinerary of places where Petrarch visited or lived. Verona, Parma, Padua, Florence, Rome – he travelled eagerly, including an ascent of Mont Ventoux which he later described in evocative detail in a letter that has survived and made him the informal patron saint of mountaineering, since he had no reason to climb the mountain other than wanting the thrill of the experience. And far more important than the visits he paid to mountains and waterfalls were the visits he made to monastery libraries and other archives, eagerly hunting for obscure and neglected manuscripts.
“Petrarch’s legacy,” Celenza writes, “like that of almost all Renaissance intellectuals, rests not with his political views but with his work both creative and scholarly, work that set the tone for the five generations to follow.”
Among many other discoveries, he found the collection of Cicero's Letters to Atticus and was amazed by the humanising effect the letters had on the formerly forbidding image of the famous Roman orator. The dynamic tone of that discovery stands as a good illustration not only of Petrarch's life-long bookish enthusiasm but also of the seismic changes he created in the world of western letters.
A large part of that change was embodied in his own writings, the most famous of which today are his passionate sonnet-sequence the Il Canzoniere, which transformed the poetry of love and longing for the modern world.
Celenza's account, easily the best and most accessible life of Petrarch to appear in English in a century and a fitting shelf-mate to Ugo Dotti's hefty Vita di Petrarca from a decade ago, ranges easily over the whole of the poet's life and times, following him in the "wanderings" Celenza describes as characterising Petrarch's somewhat peripatetic career in the service of the wealthy Visconti family and others.
The book’s main strength is its literary sensitivity; Celenza finds echoes of Petrarch’s life in a far wider array of his writings than marquee sonnets – his various treatises, essays, and Latin verse all receive refreshingly intelligent integration into the broader narrative.
The key is the extensive correspondence, which Celenza mines to thrilling effect. Petrarch was a compulsive letter-writer and very often, especially to friends, a deeply confessional one – but his confessions can never be taken at face value; he’s always shaping stories, even his own. His autobiographical digressions are frank but often feel conspicuously sculpted; his descriptions of his own thoughts are always vivid but often self-consciously melodramatic; his addresses to friends and colleagues can shift from obsequious flattery to passive-aggressive carping in the space of two lines.
Celenza is keenly aware of this narrator’s urge and the complex, sometimes contradictory nature it could camouflage.
"Private yet public, friendly yet irascible, looking ever backwards yet dreaming of the future, Petrarch's personal complexity, so openly revealed, makes him a figure of endless fascination and one that speaks to our age more than ever," he writes; "Children, plague, death: if one side of Petrarch's life and thought was public, engaged with political leaders and craving recognition in public... another was radically private, driving his focus and intellectual energies in upon himself and on his own delicate psyche."
Petrarch died in Padua in 1374. His literary reputation rested on the three pillars around which Celenza organizes his book: Petrarch the vernacular poet, Petrarch the classicist, and Petrarch the Latinist, crafting an exquisite body of work to form a bridge from the ancient world to the burgeoning literary life of his day.
Celenza traces the long afterlives of these three aspects, from their immediate effects on writers like Boccaccio to far-distant echoes touching the English Romantic poets, but the book’s most memorable Petrarch is also its best achievement: the man himself, querulous, self-doubting, eager for fame but distrustful of it.
That Petrarch very much does speak to our own age, and these pages by Celenza, he finally gets a life of his own.