Petrarch and the Petrarchan Tradition in
Renaissance Literature and Thought
Francesco Petrarca, ca.1450
by Andrea di Bartolo di Bargilla
Petrarch and Laura, 1842
by Nicaise de Keyser (Flemish)
Statue (19th century) of Petrarch,
outside Uffizi Gallery, Florence
Humanist Thought in the Early Renaissance
A Context for Petrarch: Norton C, 2465-72
What are some of the important features of the Renaissance?
What broad changes in religion did the Renaissance witness?
What are some important inventions of the Renaissance?
What are some features that characterize the individual in
Renaissance thought?
What is “humanism”?
What is “Renaissance melancholy”?
What is lyric poetry?
What “is” the Renaissance?
“Renaissance” is French for re-birth
The “Renaissance” a term typically used to refer to a period in
Early Modern Europe spanning approximately 1350 to 1650
Shift in the vocabulary: “early modern” (1350-1800CE) to
emphasize continuity of ideas
Different countries experienced their Renaissance at different
times. Generally, the trend was northward. Italy’s Renaissance
(14th century) occurred well before England’s Renaissance
(16th century).
The Renaissance is better understood through its features.
Important features of the Renaissance?
The Renaissance is conventionally understood as a flowering of the
that emerged from “the questing, self-conscious individual” (Damrosch
who actively explored—and thus created—the self and the world in
which the self exists (Pasinetti and James 2468).
Hence—the Reniassance encounter with the self
A “shift toward internal, mental, and psychological portraiture” (2465)
“characters...enjoy greater autonomy and more fully realized
personalities” (2465)
“Deliberating with others and themselves about what to do seems at
least as putting their plans into action” (2465)
What are some important features of the
“Renaissance authors, like the characters they invent, inhabited a world of
such widespread revolutionary change that they could not passively receive
the traditional wisdom of previous ages” (Pasinetti and James 2465).
In addition to—and influencing the nature of—the flowering of the
arts, great changes were occurring during the Renaissance in the areas
Technology and Science
World Exploration and Discovery
Bureaucratic and Institutional Power
Economic and Social Power
These changes were highly interrelated.
Revolutionary Changes
in Technology & Science
The map of the world was being redrawn; by 1632, explorers had traveled to the
western coast of South America
The world’s “center” was no longer a function of religious power and primacy, but
subordinated to “mathematical precision” (Damrosch 151).
New inventions—like Galileo’s telescope, Gutenberg’s printing press, and
important means of navigation—made the “previously unthinkable” eminently
The quadrant enabled ships to travel from Europe to India and the New World
(Damrosch 157). But gunpowder was also a new technology frequently put to use
in less unifying ways (Damrosch 156).
Influx of ancient knowledge from the Middle East reinvigorated engineering,
architecture, science, and so on.
Many of the greatest buildings in Europe were erected during this period, often to
celebrate earthly powers and “the dignity of man.”
Revolutionary Religious
& Social Changes
This is a period of religious divisiveness. Violent protests about religion
occurred, sparking Martin Luther’s Reformation (of the Catholic Church
and its means of maintaining absolute power over the people).
Many religious sects left to find colonies and schools in other parts of the
world; “These new wanderings were concerted efforts to win souls for
Christ and to acquire gold, bread baskets, and new subjects for Europe’s
sovereign states” (Damrosch 151). This also created uncertainty and
debate, which we'll read about.
Such divisiveness was a part of the age's “preoccupation with this life
rather than with the life beyond” (2468).
“For Renaissance intellectuals and for the literary characters they created,
there was almost literally no firm ground to stand on as they moved
through life in an increasingly complex and uncertain world” (2466).
Religious & Social Changes
Such “preoccupation with this life rather than with the life beyond”
(2468) meant that in general, “the presence of
conspicuously less dominating” (2469) in the literature of the period.
See: “the dignity of man” and humanity's “privileged position in
creation” (2471)
More accurately, artists and intellectuals were struggling with “the
conflict between the values of worldly goods and...the religious
conviction in the transitory nature of earthly possessions” (2469).
The value of acquisition, its effects on self, neighbor, society here
and elsewhere.
This divisive and uncertain “religious temper of the age is expressed
in its art,” where the earthly and the spiritual are often intermixed
Petrarch's poems, for instance, reflects a complex treatment of
earthly and spiritual desire.
“The Printing Press as an Agent of
Change” (E. Eisenstein)
The printing press was “an instrument for intellectual
deliberation and the dissemination of ideas” (Pasinetti and
James 2466).
In fact, the invention of the printing press facilitated the
religious divisiveness of the Early Modern period.
Spurring the Reformation and much cultural and religious
divisiveness, the printing press also allowed people to
participate in a “republic of letters” (Pasinetti and James 2467).
With the expanded availability of the press came education and
increasing levels of literacy. Men and women could publish
their works, something unthinkable before the advent of print.
For many more people, writing became “simply one aspect
of…daily activities” (Damrosch 159).
Public circulation of literature fueled the emerging sense of self
we call “Renaissance individualism”.
So... How can we understand
this historical & cultural context?
What are some of the important
features of the Early Modern period?
Worldly Goods
of the state
of Power
Humanism: Spiritual
of Human Work
Increasing Individualism
Religious Divisiveness
Spiritual Goods
The Ambassadors,
by Hans Holbein
In what ways does
this painting
encapsulate the
The Renaissance Individual
Deliberate encounter with the self—and with the other as other self, both
like and unlike me.
The Renaissance individual characterized by “a singularly high capacity for
feeling the delight of earthly achievement” (2471), and literature of the
period delves in to the sensuous pleasures—and the questions—of
individual, earthly experience.
This is in contrast with the ideal individual of the Medieval period who sees
life on earth as mere preparation for the eternal life after death (2468)
Attention to the here-and-now reflected in the “Renaissance code of
behavior” (2468); our manners and the specific form of our actions
carry meaning
Balance of power began to move towards the cities: urbanization,
commerce, conversation and exchange of ideas
“Renaissance” connotes “a general notion of artistic creativity, of
extraordinary zest for life and knowledge, of sensory delight in opulence and
magnificence, of spectacular individual achievement” (2466).
“The Renaissance assumption is that there are things highly worth doing,
within a strictly temporal pattern [namely, the proper exercise of political
power, the act of scientific discovery, the creation of works of art]. By doing
them, humanity proves its privileged position in creation...” (Pasinetti and
James 2471).
The phrase “the dignity of man” refers to “this positive, strongly affirmed
awareness of the intellectual and physical 'virtues' of the human being, and of
the individual's place in creation” (2471).
Specifically, spectacular individual human achievement, most frequently
visible in human productions—the arts and sciences, the “classics” that
were “reborn” after the so-called Dark Ages
“The people who, starting at about the middle of the fourteenth century, gave
new impulse to this emulation of the classics are often referred to as
“The related to what we call the humanities, and the humanities at
that time [referred to the study of] Latin and Greek” texts (2467).
Renaissance Melancholy
“The Renaissance coincided with, and perhaps to some extent occasioned, a
loss of firm belief in the final unity and the final intelligibility of the universe”
With the profound belief in the capacity and ability of the individual, and the
delight in earthly accomplishment, there comes the question of “its ultimate
worth” (Pasinetti and James 2471)
If the here-and-now is held up as the proper province of human study and
action, then how do we judge the value and purpose of “all this activity”?
“Once the notion of this grand unity of design has lost its authority, certainty
about the final value of human actions is no longer to be found. For some
minds...the sense of void becomes so strong as to paralyze...aspiration to
power, thirst for knowledge, or delight in beauty”--this paradox results in an
attitude often referred to as “Renaissance melancholy” (2471)
Also results in a “modern sense of alienation” (2476), as experienced by
Petrarch—he is an alienated, isolated voice speaking into a void, trying to
capture some concrete idea but always failing—beautifully.
The Anatomy of Melancholy (1621),
by Robert Burton
The Anatomy is a vast tome that, under
the metaphor of the self as world,
discusses the whole of human thought
and emotion. Burton's interests range
from medicine, love, and philosophy to
monsters, geography, and exploration.
He uses all the scientific and
philosophical topics of the Renaissance
to help him understand himself.
He rewrote and revised throughout his
life. Its first edition was around 900
pages, and its digressive, sprawling
style—reminiscent of Montaigne's—
suggests that the book, its writer, and its
readers were conversing with each
A grand example of Renaissance
humanism—its highs, and its lows.
Francesco Petrarca (Petrach)
Contemporary of Dante and Boccacio (late Medieval period)
But considered the first modern poet and the “Father of
Most famous for his lyric poetry in the vernacular (Italian, rather
than Latin, important because more people could read and
understand—not just the educated, scholastic elite)
Set the standard for Renaissance lyric poetry, which is primarily
characterized by a desire to interrogate and understand the self,
the human—this same desire also visible in his letters and essays
“Petrarch bequeathed to later humanists the hope that scholarpoets might one day be recognized as shaping forces of the
nation-state” (Pasinetti and James 2476).
Lyric Poetry
The word “lyric” comes from the word “lyre,” a musical instrument
lyric poetry is known for its musicality and particularly its poetic
exploration of interiority.
Unlike narrative or epic poetry, lyric poetry does not tell a story in
the conventional sense—though there is content to the poems.
Lyric poetry tends to be more impressionistic than plot-based,
focusing on states of being rather than outcomes.
Sometimes, but not always, the spiritual and the earthly (the
numinal and the physical) are mingled in lyric poetry.
A technique central to humanist thought and methodology, this
mingling of the numinal and the physical it is not only present in
Western poetry, but in Eastern lyric poetry as well (the bakhti or
devotional poems of Tukaram and Kabir, for instance).
Lyric Poetry
Important forms of lyric poetry are sonnets (which themselves come in
different forms), odes, and elegies. The sonnet tradition is perhaps most
central to the development of lyric poetry in the Renaissance.
Francis Petrarch, an Italian poet often called the “Father of Humanism”
(fl.1300s), popularized the sonnet form with his Rime Sparse (or “scattered
rhymes”; also called Fragments in the Vernacular), a sequence of lyric
poems mingling spiritual love with earthly love in which the poetic
speaker praises his beloved, Laura. Petrarch's sonnets tried to represent
human love in human terms—using spiritual themes, but in the service of
explaining or examining something earthly.
He is often celebrated for his use of lyric realism—“realistic” only insofar
as it contrasts with the highly conventional and often clichéd language
frequently used by courtly poets and troubadours, which depended on
traditional and formulaic expressions (and variations from them) in order
to convey meaning. By Shakespeare's time, though, even Petrarch would
seem clichéd. Petrarch was highly influential, and his innovations became
hallmarks of Renaissance humanism.
Lyric Poetry
Less absolute in its conventions, Renaissance lyric poetry depends
for its meaning on evocative and unexpected associations between
images, words, and ideas. Such poetry cultivates an intimate
relationship between the poem, the poet, and the reader.
Often uses the first person (me, the self)
Petrarchan motifs and themes:
Love that burns, love that destroys;
The uncertain self, the self at odds with himself;
Beloved is idealized, more than human, angelic;
Earthly love is spiritualized, spiritual love is embodied.
“The Ascent of Mount Ventoux”
Genre: slightly fictionalized letter
What, most broadly, happens in this letter? What story does it tell?
A motif is a repeated image that seems to have an important resonance in the
text. What important motifs can you find in this letter?
Why do you think Petrarch take the winding path?
Petrarch calls this choice a “mistake” (2481) that he made “three times.” In
what ways might the choice not be a mistake, but a good thing?
What important features of Renaissance thought are evident in this letter?
Keeping those important features of Renaissance thought in mind, return to
the motifs you discovered. What might these motifs be metaphors for?
Why do you think the letter is a good genre or form for this writing? You
might start by considering what a letter is.
Petrarch, Rime 78
Quando giunse a Simon l'alto concetto
ch'a mio nome gli pose in man lo stile,
s'avesse dato a l'opera gentile
colla figura voce ed intellecto,
di sospir' molti mi sgombrava il petto,
che ciò ch'altri à piú caro, a me fan
però che 'n vista ella si mostra humile
promettendomi pace ne l'aspetto.
Ma poi ch'i' vengo a ragionar co llei,
benignamente assai par che m'ascolte,
se risponder savesse a' detti miei.
Pigmalïon, quanto lodar ti dêi
de l'imagine tua, se mille volte
n'avesti quel ch'i' sol una vorrei.
Petrarch, Rime 78
Simone Martini (fl. 1315-1344)
The Annunciation and Two Saints
(detail, “Mary”) 1333
Tempera on wood
Galleria degli Uffizi, Florence
While Martini's portrait of Laura has
been lost, the painter's stylistic
signature is consistent. This image of
the Virgin Mary suggests how Martini
might have painted the Laura of
Petrarch's rimes.
Petrarch, Rime 78
Jean-Léon Gérôme (1824-1904)
Pymalion and Galatea, c. 1890
Oil on Canvas
Metropolitan Museum of Art
In Rime 78, Petrarch invokes the
classical image of Pygmalion from Ovid's
Metamorphoses: “Pygmalion, how glad
you should be of your statue” (9). The
poetic speaker goes on to clarify why
Pygmalion should be “glad” of his
creation, arguing that the mythological
artist “received a thousand times” the
embraces and other human interaction
that the speaker “yearn[s] to have just
once!” (10).
Who was Pygmalion, and what can we
learn about the poet's treatment of Laura
from the classical allusion?

Petrarch and the Petrarchan Tradition in Renaissance