On this day in 1374, or perhaps the day before, Petrarch died; and tomorrow is his birthday. He was a friend and contemporary of Boccaccio, and a generation younger than Dante -- both Dante's and Petrarch's father were expelled from Florence in the same year -- but Petrarch's most formative relationship was the one he never had with "Laura." Though some scholars hold that she was only an idealization, others think that she was not only real but an ancestor of the Marquis de Sade. Petrarch seems to have noted the date of his first glance -- April 6th, 1327; while at church, in Avignon, France -- on the flyleaf of his copy of Virgil. The 366 love poems written over the next decade, in the vernacular rather than classical Latin, would bring fame to the poet, a new lyrical form to literature, and precedent to a lot of later plainting.
Petrarch dated his renunciation of sensual pleasures to about 1348, the year Laura died in the Plague. He devoted himself to spiritual matters, the search for and study of classic texts, and to being a roving poet-diplomat. Much of the later writing was as letters, not in the personal sense but as exercises in the genre. Thus we have letters sent backwards to Cicero and a "Letter to Posterity" sent forward to us. Here we learn that he was "comely enough" in youth, annoyed by having to wear glasses in age, and thankful for the mid-life turnaround:
I struggled in my younger days with a keen but constant and pure attachment, and would have struggled with it longer had not the sinking flame been extinguished by death -- premature and bitter, but salutary. I should be glad to be able to say that I had always been entirely free from irregular desires, but I should lie if I did so. . . . As I approached the age of forty, while my powers were unimpaired and my passions were still strong, I not only abruptly threw off my bad habits, but even the very recollection of them, as if I had never looked upon a woman. This I mention as among the greatest of my blessings, and I render thanks to God, who freed me, while still sound and vigorous, from a disgusting slavery which had always been hateful to me. But let us turn to other matters.
Petrarch's death at age seventy seems to have rounded off the life, and the image we have of him as father of Renaissance Humanism: he was found in the morning in his study, slumped over a manuscript of Virgil. But who knows what he was thinking; this is Sonnet 90 ("She used to let her golden hair fly free"), translated by Morris Bishop:
She used to let her golden hair fly free
for the wind to toy and tangle and molest.
Her eyes were brighter than the radiant west.
(Seldom they shine so now.) I used to see
pity look out of those deep eyes on me.
("It was false pity," you would now protest.)
I had love's tinder heaped within my breast;
What wonder that the flame burned furiously?
She did not walk in any mortal way,
but with angelic progress. When she spoke,
unearthly voices sang in unison.
She seemed divine among the dreary folk
of earth. You say she is not so today?
Well, though the bow's unbent, the wound bleeds on.