Italian poet Petrarch (Francesco Petrarca, 1304-1374) was one of the earliest humanists and a major figure in the development of the Italian Renaissance. Called “the Father of Humanism,” Petrarch, along with Boccaccio and Dante, was largely responsible for the creation of the modern Italian language.
Born in Tuscany, Petrarch grew up in the French Papal city of Avignon, and later studied law in Montpellier and Bologna. As an adult, Petrarch returned to Avignon, where his clerical career allowed significant time for him to devote to his writing. His first major work, the epic Latin poem Africa, saw Petrarch crowned the first poet laureate in Rome since the fall of the Empire.
Much of his adulthood was spent traveling, both an ambassador and for pleasure. For this reason, Petrarch is often called the first “tourist,” undertaking journeys and mountain climbing for the simple pleasure of doing so. While most of Petrarch’s writing was in Latin, he is remembered for his poetry that he wrote in Italian.
In 1327, Petrarch left the priesthood, and wrote several famous poems to a woman known only as “Laura.” His book Secretum meum was famous for the founding of humanism, stating that great achievements by man did not preclude a relationship with God, but that men were supposed to use their gifts to their fullest extent.
Petrarch and the Fourteenth Century
The fourteen century was an age of continuous catastrophes. Europe at mid-century appeared to have reached its nadir. Two of its most powerful polities--England and France--were locked in a dynastic struggle, one that would last over a hundred years (1336-1453) and ultimately be called the Hundred Years War. The continent’s major unifying element, the Church, was riven by schism. The lawful popes were ensconced in Avignon, a papal fief in southern France, ostensibly independent of the France but, in actuality, often little better than vassals of the French king during that period (1309-1377). Petrarch dubbed it the Babylonian Captivity. They waged a bitter campaign against their schismatic opponents, with mutual declarations of excommunication (extending to their respective laymen supporters), with enlistment of national governments to their respective causes (an excuse for warfare), and with a concomitant diminution in its institutions, most notably the great universities. This series of dual--and even triple--concurrent papacies would continue until a final resolution at the Council of Constance in 1418.