taken the train from Rome to the northern-Italian town of
Padova just to spend the afternoon with a special gentleman
of a rather poetic temperament and rare, old world charm.
And by old world I mean really old: the world of medieval
courtly manners! Actually it would be appropriate to call
him a modern Renaissance man.
has been urging me to come and see him in his hometown ever
since we met over the pages of his sonnets, dedicated, unfortunately,
not to me but to another woman---the beautiful and mysterious
Laura. But I am not jealous, after all, to a poet's sensibility
a woman is more than an individual; she is an ideal, a spiritual
excuse, a voice calling within where poetry resides. I have
come to hear him speak about all this, in his own words, and
his own handwriting.
I find myself standing before a glass-protected case in which
lie open some of the manuscripts and illustrated pages from
gilt-edged books, specially one called 'Canzoniere' that has
awaited my eyes since the 14th century when it was penned--by
my friend. As I murmur aloud the quaint Italian 'Voi ch'ascoltate
in rime sparse/ il suono di quei sospiri…' I feel the
sospiro or sigh of ages pass from a long ago poet to me:
who hear the sound, in scattered rhymes,
of those sighs on which I fed my heart,
in my first vagrant youthfulness…'
my poet-friend speak to me across the centuries and sense
his presence. "Signore Petrarcha?" I ask as I turn
around. 'Lady,' he bows. 'You came, grazie!' He leans against
a portrait of himself. "And by the way, I may be Petrarch
to everybody, but call me Francesco." No wonder you were
considered the first modern man, I say to myself as I take
his proffered arm and stroll around the rooms of the Civic
Museum of Padova where exhibits from his life are spread around
as a retrospective celebrating his 700th anniversary, called:
'Petrarch: His Life and Times.'
know, Francesco, you don't look so old." I glance at
him. "Just because I am more than 600 years older than
you doesn't mean I'd show up looking like an old fogey for
a lady." I smile and tell him that for his birthday I
have brought him nothing but my admiration. He shakes his
head modestly, "Lady, I merely followed the metier I
loved, to the best of my ability. My father wanted me to study
law, a subject I detested as being a dishonest one. I gave
in to my passion for poetry and Latin literature. Still, in
the end what remains is only a fraction of that creative power
that was lent to me."
go of his arm. "A fraction? You call this staggering
opus of the most important man of letters of 14th century
Italy as a fraction, Petrach? Look at all this…."
I wave my hand over his collection of poems and letters, biographies
of famous Romans and translations of Virgil and Cicero; the
illustrations of his verse sequence 'Triumphs' that launched
the secular humanist miniature tradition; and last, but most
importantly, the famous Petrarchan sonnets about unrequited
love which influenced Elizabethan literature. He smilingly
leads me to an illustrated page on the wall and quotes himself:
is the fruit of my vanities, and remorse, and the clearest
knowledge that worldly pleasure is but a brief dream.’
down for a while. "Francesco, though you were born way
back in 1304 you are considered the first 'modern man' and
your famous declaration: "I am a citizen of no country;
everywhere I am a stranger," linked your sense of alienation
to a similar kind of dislocation felt by the modern generation.
Even in your own world and age, you lived and thought beyond
your contemporaries. It must have made for a lonely intellectual
life, right?" "You cannot imagine, Lady! Literacy
and the custom of reading and writing were not so prevalent
in my time. I loved it but I had few people to share my ideas
and thoughts with." "Isn't that why you wrote letters
to personages in the past, like Cicero?" "Yes. I
have been an avid letter writer, using that and other means
to find new ways of exploring myself. Had I lived in your
time, I would have been a columnist!" We laugh, but it
is true; whenever Petrarch had something to think about, he
did it aloud in a letter or essay. These works, his 'Familiares'
(collection of letters) and 'Secretum' (secret inner struggle
in dialogue form) were written in Latin, as were his 'Triomfes',
but not his famous sonnets for which he chose 'vulgar' Italian.
were a great Latinist and spent much of your life transcribing
and elucidating Roman Classical literature, but what turned
you into one of the first Italians to espouse the cause of
vernacular poetry in contrast to your contemporaries?"
He whispers flirtatiously: "Tell me, Lady, would you
have come to see me had I written my sonnets in cold Latin
instead of passionate Italian?" I slap his wrist playfully,
"Frankly, no. We, the posterity, remember you best for
your Italian sonnets written for the love of your life Laura."
I persist: "Who was she, Francesco? Was she real? Did
you ever talk to her, tell her about your feelings? Wasn't
she already married?" "Slowly, my Lady." Petrarch
grins. "I met Laura de Noves--much married but a revelation
for me, on a beautiful April morning in 1327 at Easter Mass
in the church of Sainte Claire in Avignon. You know my family
shifted there to follow the exiled pope." "Yes,
but tell me about HER!" "What is there to tell that
I have not already said in hundreds of my sonnets?" It's
true. These lyrics to Laura came to form a rare and modern
document of self-enquiry, introspection and emotional analysis,
almost like a psychological autobiography in verse, new in
European poetic tradition. He also created the sentimental
conventions or 'conceits' that entered English sonnet writings
and were mocked by Shakespeare.
at my watch. "I have a train to catch, Francesco. But
so much was left unsaid." His eyes twinkle. "Isn't
that the definition of poetry, and the right place for it
to start and for us to part? This is what Laura taught me
without words. Love is what cannot be said but felt, what
cannot be attained but striven for, what cannot be described
but experienced and suffered. And the highest purpose of Life
and Art is to wrest those feelings, that pain, into something
of beauty and nobility."
my hand and raises them to his lips. "Next time, come
to my country home in Arqua Petrarcha, just outside Padova.
I will show you the vineyards, the orchards, my vast library
and the desk where I died happily working." "And
we will further discuss your muse Laura and compare her to
Dante's Beatrice." "As you please, my lady. Just
remember, poetry is not about worshipping a woman, but about
rendering all experiences of the heart and soul into a harmonious
form." "You mean love as an exercise in language?"
"I loved language; I loved writing. If I lived today,
I would write the poems all over again, to another Laura."
I am conscious of my hand in his. "What about Laura de
Noves?" "Every woman is Laura to the inspired heart,
Lady. To a poet's sensibility a woman is more than an individual;
she is an ideal, a spiritual excuse, a voice calling within
where poetry resides." I snatch my hand away, "Hey,
wait a minute, I said that. That was my thought. What are
you doing inside my mind?" Petrarch's eyes twinkle; the
museum guard gives me a look and I quickly move towards the
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