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Petrarch was Humanist before it was Mainstream

The OG

By Miss RuizPublished 2 years ago 13 min read

Franceso Petrarca's favorite sonnet topics maybe are himself or his love for Laura, which translates into bringing the topic back to himself. His letters, however, mimic Cicero's humanism and rival Erasmus's humanism. Despite the narrative set out by his poems, he inspired humanist works by other authors, including Laura Cereta (King, 2). Petrarch's seemingly self-centered love fits the definition of Renaissance Humanism as "focusing on being human" (Cartwright) instead of focusing on religion.

Early in Petrarch's writing career, he was famous as a poet and primarily focused on that. His early work features a woman named Laura, who he madly in love with and devotes most if not all of his Canzoniere. He ties her closely to religious experiences, allegedly meeting her on Good Friday. He writes, "It was the day on which the sun's rays lost/ all color at their maker's suffering" (Petrarch and Hainsworth, lines 1-2, 3), setting the scene where he meets Laura on a religious holiday. Petrarch's infatuation with Laura, which he expresses in his three hundred poems about her, is riddled with religious and mythic references, attempting to put his love in a way that people could relate to. As a cleric and an academic, these are the closest examples he can relate her to in order for the audience to understand the sheer awe he puts her in. Petrarch's sonnets of Laura reflect himself and all the emotions he is grappling with.

Petrarch's infatuation with Laura had been called into question many a time, and academics were unsure of whether or not she had ever existed despite Petrarch defending that she was, in fact, a real woman. Whether or not she was a real woman, he demonstrates the human need for love through his sonnets about her. He explains his loss of control as he pines for her in sonnet 6,

My crazed desire has gone so far astray/ pursuing one who turns in the flight from me,/ who, lightly stepping past the snares of love,/ flies off before my lumbering pursuit (Petrarch and Hainsworth, 6)

Human emotion is powerful, and poets, including Petrarch, can struggle to convey the happiness, ecstasy, and pain that can come with the feeling. He can only attempt to give insight to his readers about what is passing through his mind and convince the reader that what he is feeling is valid.

His initial part of his career being religious shows his audience, as his career moves on, the changes he makes from cleric to Humanist. Though, Petrarch's focus on himself and Laura, and therefore himself as his love for Laura, is humanist as he explores his love and humanity through his poetry. Margaret King contends

Whenever Petrarch wrote, he wrote about himself; like Montaigne, he was the subject of all of his books. His self-absorption powered his imaginative work, both its Latin-humanistic and Italian-poetic halves ... Petrarchan introspection looms large in the Secretum, in which the author pursues his quest for love and fame in a dialogue with an unyielding St. Augustine (King, 1).

While Humanist philosophy has a positive connotation of inspecting human practices and notions as an understanding of human beings, Petrarch's selfish and conceited works are still humanist. He is dealing with immense introspection into his feelings and morals as a human being himself.

Petrarch was a Humanist before the term humanist was invented almost two hundred years after his active period. Instead, he studied what he called "studia humanoria, the study of language, poetry, history, rhetoric, and moral philosophy, ideally in Greek and Latin" (Hainsworth, xii). His focus on studying what was then considered the classics puts religion to the side and focuses on the human condition and the philosophy of what it is to be a human being outside of religious parameters

Petrarch was a known cleric but did not take this role seriously. Hainsworth explains, "Petrarch was now a cleric, having taken minor orders in 1328-1329, purely for convenience reasons, it would seem" (ix). His beliefs were critical of the government and the church later in his life, and his studia humanoria no longer had a place in the process of bettering oneself in Christian practices. Later on in his life, he returned to Christian Practices as his society began to go through a spiritual and political crisis in the 1350s (Hainsworth, xv). He may have gone almost full circle, from a non-religious cleric to a religious philosopher, but he has gained life experience and reflects the wisdom he has achieved.

Petrarch's works with the most Humanist tendencies are his letters because of his exposure to Cicero, the Roman philosopher's letters. Cicero was a Humanist before Humanism was a developed movement in the late Middle Ages. According to Rereading the Renaissance, "In 1345, in the Chapter Library in Verona Petrarch found and read a group of Cicero's personal letters, writing in which an undisputed master of verbal artifice speaks colloquially, intimately, revealing more about himself than he does in any of his other works" (Quillen, 116). Like all who took inspiration from his own works, Petrarch studied the masters before him and adapted to what he believed was a suitable style and philosophy for himself.

His study of Cicero and Virgil came from his pursuit of the previously mentioned studia humanoria moved Petrarch past being a cleric or a poet. Petrarch's identity moves to Humanist, while he did it before it was mainstream. Quillen writes, "Moreover, the narrative continues, Cicero's correspondence provided Petrarch with examples of the personal letter, a genre rare in a society whose heavy reliance on an official correspondence had refined epistolography into a technically precise craft" (117). Petrarch is best known for his poetry, but his poetry is not the work that exemplifies the humanist philosophy. His letters, especially those from the Familiares set, demonstrate his growth as a human being.

Petrarch claimed many facts about his life to be accurate, and scholars would later argue whether he was fabricating the details or if it was an allegory he was attempting to defend. For example, he says he climbed Mount Ventoux "simply out of a desire to a desire to see a summit that is so famous" (Petrarch, Hainsworth, 220). His actual climbing is not up for debate, but the spontaneity is. Petrarch was a deeply contemplative man, but the dates of his excursion may have been fabricated to enhance his casual and breezy reputation.

Quillen asserts, "scholars have long recognized that, despite their author's claims, Petrarch's collected letters did not circulate as they had originally been written" (Quillen, 120). The chronological status of the letters has come into question, considering that the letters have been known by scholars to be edited by the author himself before his death. In addition to his letters not being circulated in chronological order, "Petrarch split existing letters and even composed new ones to fill in the gaps in his 'real' correspondence" (Quillen, 120-121). The author has been putting up a false persona of himself and a false version of his journey through religious and philosophical enlightenment within the humanist structure.

His last letter in the Familiares, titled To Dionigi da Borgo San Sepolcro, reflects himself and his place within his community, friend group, and religion. He writes the conversations he has with himself and with God. Petrarch writes that as he struggles to ascend the mountain that he told himself

The life we call happy is located on high, and narrow is the way, as they say, that leads to it. Many high peaks obstruct our progress, and we must step gloriously upward, climbing from one virtue to another. At the top is the final terminus, the conclusion to which our pilgrimage is directed (Petrarch, Hainsworth 222).

Petrarch reflects on humanity's constant struggle with ascending to spiritual freedom and spiritual enlightenment. While the climb of Mount Ventoux happened in history, as far as scholars know, the ascent is also a metaphor for the journey of life and man's journey. According to the author, the events on the mountain may be entirely fictional as there is no second-hand account besides that Petrarch's. Now, his mental change from his tone through his poetry is evident in his letters. Still, considering that his letters are not chronological, as Petrarch wanted us to know, his philosophical incline was smooth and climactic.

Petrarch's letters were rearranged, telling a tale of a spiritual development worthy of being put into literary work because it was. Petrarch puts forth this faux literary journey to project a perfect version of himself, almost as if he is constructing a fictional character. He is putting his work down, telling his audience that "this is how a spiritual journey should be made." In this way, scholars have uncovered a vulnerability that Petrarch did not intend to reveal. His journey and persona were not adequate to be scrutinized and contemplated by the masses, so he made sure, or at least attempted, to control whom his audience saw when they read his works.

He "…suggests that he is, at long last, releasing his copy of these poems primarily because the unauthorized versions then circulating were incorrect and ought to be emended according to his exemplar" (Quillen, 116). The narrative he has allowed people to read and see is the basis for the attention he requires from his followers. He had a criterion for who could study with him in literary circles because he had his bar for who people should be.

Petrarch had followers from his studia humanoria and literary community that he could study and discuss what would become known as humanism in the 1500s. His community excludes "men who sell the words of others in order to gain favor of the powerful" (Quillen, 117). His control over who was allowed into the semi-humanist circles shows the privilege that he has gained through his fame and his unwillingness to share his space.

Petrarch's standards for literary works within his community are high, emulating the ancients as the standard to go off of. Quillen explains, "His letter collection allows him to demonstrate these practices in a way that foregrounds the activity of the humanist author, for, as the humanist tradition initiated by Petrarch argues, it is only through such acts of appropriation that classical literature can be made to speak to current conditions, modern experience (Quillen, 119). Petrarch does not just copy the ancients but emulates their rhetoric, vocabulary, and overall structure as something to study because of their importance to the history and human philosophy.

While Petrarch alienates and disregards certain people from joining his literary circles, he recognizes that all human beings share common traits, as he writes in the third letter of his Familiares collection. Quillen translates this Petrarch's question as "who after all… Has ever lived who did not in living grow old" (Petrarch, Quillen 120)? Petrarch's experiences in life may have been wildly different from somebody else within his literary circle, but every human who lives and dies and experience is generally the same life. As a humanist, he recognized that despite everybody's differences, everybody is the same, and he could not argue that as a human being.

Petrarch drew his inspiration from Augustine Cicero and Virgil, which raises the question of whether his beliefs were his own or the beliefs of the ancients that he was using to formulate his literary style. Augustine may have made Petrarch imitate intelligence and convey his intelligence as he wrote his letters but a variety of topics but what Patrick could do was quote and unite his inspirations into a solid force of the argument that is his humanist views before they were recognized as Humanist.

Petrarch's study of the ancients was not only for his writing but because he believed that the ancients had an eloquence and precision to how modern writers should write. Petrarch was studying these ancients because he was looking to unlock the ideals essential to the culture developing at the beginning of the Renaissance, "the ideal of eloquence occupied a central position in Petrarch's culture. The content of the ideal varied from time to time, but for the most part that what Petrarch meant by eloquent speech was not harmony and beauty of language, but persuasive power" (Seigel, 34). Petrarch's ideal of writing is less of the content after work and more of how it conveys the actual art. He could write or tell you something, but the work is useless unless it was convincing or conveyed in the way he intended.

Petrarch had the audacity, as per his personality, to criticize Aristotle's writings based on the rhetoric and being able to move or convince the readers to do something. Petrarch pioneered his type of literary work, warring with those who believed the main focus of writing should be the wisdom and not how the wisdom is conveyed. Petrarch and his stubbornness as an intellectual had it in his head that his duty was to defend the "… general issue between Petrarch and his opponents were not simply which discipline should be studied, but rather which one should be allowed to define a shape the exalted ideal of philosophy" (Seigel, 40). Patrick assigned himself the duty of preserving ancient philosophy and who should be able to change that based on what he believed and what the philosophers before him believed.

His return to moral philosophy was documented in the last letter of the Familiares as he debates with himself about who he is to believe in the things he does while providing an allegory of humanity's journey for knowledge and enlightenment, comparing it to scaling a mountain. The emotional strain is compared to physical strain with he conveys the introspection he brought upon himself on the mountain. His religion never left him through his journey, as Christianity and Catholocism were so intertwined with society.

Petrarch warred with physicians, literary figures, himself, and friends, all in the noble quest to prove that he was right in studying the philosophy of the human mind. At the end of his literary career, he believes himself to be more of a moral and Christian philosopher than the academic he used to be. Academics and scholars can study his ascent from poet to Humanist to Christian Humanist or Christian moralist through the letters and poetry he circulated of his free will. However, he only let people see what he wanted them to see, and academics have been debunking, studying, and analyzing his works for centuries as he was still influential to many academics and writers after his time. His ideas and work may be outdated, but they give us evidence of where literary history comes from and how we got to modern philosophies.

Works Cited

SEIGEL, JERROLD E. “INTRODUCTION.” Rhetoric and Philosophy in Renaissance

Humanism, Princeton University Press, 1968, pp. xi–xviii. JSTOR, Accessed 20 May 2022.


Rhetoric and Philosophy in Renaissance Humanism, Princeton University Press, 1968, pp. 31–62. JSTOR, Accessed 23 May 2022.

Margaret L. King; Petrarch, the Self-Conscious Self, and the First Women Humanists. Journal of

Medieval and Early Modern Studies 1 September 2005; 35 (3): 537–558. doi:

Cartwright, Mark. "Renaissance Humanism." World History Encyclopedia, World History Encyclopedia, 20 May 2022,

Petrarca, Francesco, and Peter Hainsworth. The Essential Petrarch. Hackett, 2010.

Quillen, Carol. Rereading the Renaissance : Petrarch, Augustine, and the Language of Humanism. The University of Michigan Press, 1998, Hathi Trust,, Accessed 2022.


About the Creator

Miss Ruiz

Hello! I recently graduated with a B.A. in English with Cum Laude latin honors. I have one semester left of student teaching to become a credentialed secondary English teacher.

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