Medieval Love Poetry reached its peak with Francesco Petrarch's Rime sparse

In the evolution of medieval love poetry, we saw how romantic love themes developed from reworkings of epic narratives like Tristian and Iseult under the commission of Queen Eleanor's court, (the cradle of courtly love) when writers such as Thomas produced the celebrated Romans de Tristian, and Chretien de Troyes fathered the modern romance novel genre with Lancelot of the Cart and many others.

All these examples of how seminal the influence of courtly love poetry was on medieval love poetry were mainly fictional. With the advent of Dante however, life literally imitated art and a matter of mere fiction was translated to real life experience when Dante experienced it as a profoundly theological vision on the basis of personal experiencing. This is exemplified in three of his works, namely:

1290-4 La Vita Nuova

1304-8 De vulgari eloquentia

1315-20 La Divina Commedia

Dante's vision was followed in a more intellectual and more intensely individualistic, though also theological way in Francesco Petrarch's Italian medieval love poetry:

Rime sparse (the Canzoniere)1374

Finally, literary fiction and autobiographical love were recombined in a new and modern way by Giovanni Boccaccio (1313-1375), in:

1336 Filocolo (prose romance of Floris and Blancheflour)

1339 Teseida (epic of Theseus, Palamon, Arcite)

1340 Filostrato (Troilo and Criseida, derived from the Roman de Troie)

These works all exemplified the major output of the medieval love poetry period and our sole focus will be on Francesco Petrarch's Rime sparse:

Francesco Petrarch (1304-1374), the great Italian scholar poet and humanist was born in Arezzo, the son of a notary. He spent much of his early years at Avignon. He studied at Montpelier (1316-20) and Bologna (1320-26), where his father insisted he study the law. However, Petrarch was primarily interested in writing and Latin literature, which pursuits he shared with his friend Giovanni Boccaccio that other great Italian man of letters who gave us Decameron (a work much celebrated in medieval love poetry).

When his father died in 1326, Petrarch returned to Avignon, where he worked in numerous different clerical offices. This work gave him much time to devote to his writing. With his first large scale work Africa, an epic in Latin about the great Roman general Scipio Africanus, Petrarch emerged as an European celebrity.

In 1341 he was crowned poet laureate in Rome, the first man since antiquity to be given this honor. His critical spirit made him to be widely acclaimed as a founder of Renaissance humanism and his role in medieval love poetry is just as notable.

Just like that other master of medieval love poetry Dante, Petrarch's output in our chosen field was as a result of his love poetry addressed to Laura, an idealised beloved whom he met in 1327, (in circumstances remarkably similar to Dante and Beatrice) and who died in 1348.

This encounter in the church of Sainte-Claire d'Avignon awoke in him a lasting passion, which he later celebrated in the medieval love poetry of his Rime sparse ("Scattered rhymes"). Later Renaissance poets who copied Petrarch's style named this collection of 366 medieval love poetry, the Canzoniere ("Song Book").

She may well have been Laure de Noves, the wife of Hugues de Sade and an ancestor of the Marquis de Sade. Some modern scholars have actually doubted the existence of Laura, preferring to pass her off as a fictional character, but in the light of all the available evidence, this verdict appears somewhat harsh.

Laura became the Queen of Petrarch's medieval love poetry:... "To be able to say how much you love is to love but little" he wrote in "To Laura in Death"

Again Petrarch's love muse, Laura, mirrors Dante's Beatrice in a remarkable manner. His Canzoniere, (songbook) chronicling that first encounter with her at 23, resulted in the anguish of unrequited passion though her presence also caused him unspeakable joy. But at the same time it created unendurable desires.

There is no definite information concerning Laura, except that she is lovely to look at, with golden hair, and her bearing is modest and dignified.

Upon her death, exactly 21 years to the very hour that Petrarch first saw her, the poet found that his grief was as difficult to live with as was his former despair. Much later, in his "Letter to Posterity" he wrote, "In my younger days I struggled constantly with an overwhelming but pure love affair- my only one, and I would have struggled with it longer had not premature death, bitter but salutary for me, extinguished the cooling flames. I certainly wish I could say that I have always been entirely free from desires of the flesh, but I would be lying if I did"

Laura and Petrarch had little or no personal contact. According to his "Secretum", she refused him for the very proper reason that she was already married to another man. He channeled his feelings into medieval love poetry that were more exclamatory than persuasive.

Petrarch polished and perfected the hitherto unknown sonnet form for his poems to Laura, and the Petrarchan sonnet still bears his name. The eighteenth century romantic classic composer Franz Liszt set three of Petrarch's Sonnets (47, 104, and 123) to music for voice, Tre sonetti del Petrarca, which he later would transcribe for solo piano for inclusion in the suite Années de Pélerinage.

As I already mentiones earlier, this striking similarity between Dante and Petrarch, fuelled the stance of critics over the ages that Laura was a figment of the poet's imagination. Yet he did write detailed information about her on the page of his Virgil manuscript where he only recorded the deaths of his closest and dearest: 'Laura... first appeared to my eyes in my youth, in the year of our Lord 1327, on the sixth day of April, in the church of St Clare in Avignon, at matins; and in the same city, also on the sixth of April, at the same first hour, but in the year 1348, the light of her life was withdrawn from the light of day...'.

Petrarch's Rime sparse contain 267 medieval love poetry composed before Laura died and 100 written after her death, culminating in the last great hymn to the Virgin. In both Dante and Petrarch's medieval love poetry, the same fundamental idea is found: the male obsession with the image of the Lady is potentially fatal. The only hope is either a rejection or a metamorphosis, a transformation linked in both cases to the death of the Lady.

With this suitably informative background, let us now take a closer look at Petrarch's famous sonnets to Laura as contained in the Rime sparse, which was later collated in the Canzoniere. I have a fine selection from these that serve to illustrate the best of Petrarch's medieval love poetry.

Petrarch 2

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