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     Volume 4 Issue 3 | July 9, 2004 |


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A Roman Column

The Sonneteer of Padova

Neeman Sobhan

I have 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.

He 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.

Soon, 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:

'O You who hear the sound, in scattered rhymes,
of those sighs on which I fed my heart,
in my first vagrant youthfulness…'

I hear 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.'

"You 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."

I let 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:

'And shame is the fruit of my vanities, and remorse, and the clearest knowledge that worldly pleasure is but a brief dream.’

We sit 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.

"You 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."

He sighs. 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.

I look 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."

He takes 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 exit.



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