How did Petrarch influence the Renaissance?

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A contemporary drawing of Petrarch

The Italian Renaissance produced many outstanding artists, writers, and thinkers and one of the greatest figures of this era was Francesco Petrarch (1304-1374). He was a great poet, philosopher, and writer. The Italian was to have a profound impact on the poetry of the Renaissance not only in Italy but throughout Europe. He was also one of the pioneers in the ‘humanist’ movement which radically transformed the worldview of Europeans and their culture and society. Moreover, the Italian can be said to have invented the concept of the Renaissance, which he defined as a return to classical values after the ‘Dark Ages’ of the Medieval World.

Europe in the 14th century

The 14th century was in many ways a time of disaster and, darkness. It was marked by terrible wars, famines and of course the Black Death, the most lethal pandemic, known in European history. However, despite these disasters, there were dramatic changes in European societies. There was an increase in long-distance trade and urbanization, and feudal society began to break down in many areas. The Catholic Church was dominant, and it influenced every aspect of life in Europe. However, it was corrupt and worldly and was riven by disputes. These problems lead many people to adopt a more secular worldview and to reconsider key beliefs such as the imperfectability of humanity.

The most advanced region of Europe at this time was Italy. It was a patchwork of city-states which had become centers of trade and industry. The peninsula was also the heir of the Roman Empire, and the wealthy urban elite increasingly became interested in the classical world. These led to dramatic cultural changes and new ways of looking at the world and novel forms of artistic expression, that soon spread beyond Italy by the 15th century.

The life and works of Petrarch

The real-life Laura was Laura De Noves

Francesco Petrarch (in Italian Petrarca) was born in Arezzo in Northern Italy. His father was a lawyer and a member of the minor nobility. He spent some of his early childhood in a village near Florence and his family later moved to Avignon in Southern France. His father followed the court of the Pope who moved to Avignon to escape the disorders and instability in Rome.

Petrarch’s father obliged him to study law, but he later abandoned it, his first love was literature, and during his school years he developed a life-long love of Latin and the ancient world. The young Francesco entered the church and took minor orders. This meant that while he was a cleric, he was able to live and work in society. The young Italian was in financially straitened circumstances after the death of his father, and he began to serve the powerful Cardinal Colonna.

Petrarch was a diplomat, and he had a very cosmopolitan outlook, which was very rare in the 14th century. One day while attending mass in 1327 he saw a lady, at mass, called Laura whom he fell in love with at first sight, and she became his muse and inspired most of his greatest poetry. During his travels on diplomatic missions, he would write poetry in praise of Laura. There are those who have argued that Laura was fictional a poetic device, but most believe she was a real historical figure. She was probably the wife of a local count and died in 1348. Petrarch became famous throughout Europe after the circulation of his Epic in Latin, Africa, based on the life of a Roman general.

In 1341, he was invited to Rome and was crowned as Poet Laureate, only the second poet to be honored in this way, since the fall of the Empire. [1] He also became friendly with many of the greatest writers of his time, such as Giovanni Boccaccio (1313-1375), the author of the Decameron. The Italian was a great letter-writer and was in correspondence with the leading thinkers of his time. Sometime in 1346, it seems that Petrarch had a spiritual crisis and he became more religious. But he did not abandon his love of the classics and the classical world.[2]

His fame continued to grow, and he was sent on the more diplomatic mission by the Church. The Italian was an early supporter of Cola Rienzi who failed in a bid to resurrect the Roman Republic and restore popular government in Rome. This made him very unpopular with some of the leading Church figures of the day and possibly harmed his diplomatic career. After 1350 he traveled less and began to dedicate himself more to poetry, and he revised many of his earlier lyrics, especially those in Italian, and he collected these in his famous Il Canzoniere (Song Book).

Despite taking orders, as a cleric, Petrarch, fathered two children outside of marriage and he legitimized both of them, a son and a daughter. He had a deep interest in education and became involved in some polemics against those who championed the traditional approach to education, which was largely influenced by the teachings of the Church.[3]In the 1360s he settled in Florence and later Padua but had to move regularly because of outbreaks of the Black Death. In 1367 he returned to Padua and remained there until his death in 1374.

His impact on the literature of the Renaissance

While Petrarch wrote in both Latin and Italian it is arguably his works and especially his poetry in his native tongue that was most influential. Vernacular poetry had begun to flourish in the 13th and 14th century, and the works of Dante and the Sicilian School are still considered to be masterpieces of European literature.[4] Dante, one of the world’s greatest poets, was a friend of Petrarch’s father. The writer had a major impact on the development of poetry in the Renaissance. Petrarch is often credited as the inventor of the sonnet, one of the most popular poetic forms in the western tradition. This is a fourteen-line poem in the metre known as iambic pentameter. However, he really only perfected the form and he introduced innovations that allowed poets to use language in a very expressive way.

Petrarch also developed new literary devices such as the extended metaphor. He was not the first to write about love in a very romantic way and about an idealized beloved. However, his poems dedicated to his love of Laura were very influential popularized the writing of love poetry in Italy and beyond. His use of sonnets to express his inner life and emotions was revolutionary and original. This did much to encourage poets to write in a more personal and introspective style.[5]

Petrarch's verse became the model for lyrical poets for many centuries. His sonnets, known as the Petrarchan Sonnet, were very popular in Elizabethan England. Shakespeare was clearly influenced by the Italian and he developed his own style of sonnet, known as the Shakespearian sonnet, based on Petrarch’s verse. The Italian wrote his poetry in the Tuscan dialect, as had Dante ,and this led it to become the standard form of literary expression in the Italian Peninsula, which had many regional dialects. The Italian was not only a great poet he also was a great prose writer. He wrote the first autobiography since the classical era and this was a landmark in the development of the genre and encouraged more writers to compose their memoirs and life-story. His dialogues, letters, and other works, in Latin inspired many imitators in the Renaissance.

The First Humanist

Mont Ventoux’ which inspired Petrarch to write one of the most important documents of the Renaissance

Humanism was a cultural movement that valued human qualities, such as reason and argued that this world had worth and meaning, which was contrary to Christian teachings. It taught that human agency could improve society and give dignity and freedom to individual life.[6] Petrarch is often regarded as the Father of Humanism because he helped to popularize the study of the classical world and literature. He rediscovered many manuscripts in monasteries and had Greek works translated to Latin, so that they could be more readily read and studied.

Petrarch believed that the study of the classics could enhance a person, intellectually and morally and this became axiomatic among humanists. He encouraged his readers to take an interest in nature and helped to formulate a new aesthetic, which did not regard the world as a ‘vale of tears’ but as something that was beautiful and could help a person to develop spiritually.[7] His famous ‘Letter on the ‘Ascent of Mont Ventoux’ is regarded as a landmark, which argued that delight in nature could be morally and spiritually uplifting.[8]

Petrarch initiated the move to the re-discovery of the world after the Middle Ages and its focus on the life to come, which was a characteristic of the humanists. This ultimately led to the rational examination of the world, and this had dramatic consequences in the fields as diverse as science, politics, and philosophy. Moreover, the poet in his writings was very much interested in the interior life of a person and suggested that everyone had a rich inner life, a key tenet of humanism. He held that the individual was important, and this was radical for the time. [9] However, Petrarch was conflicted, he was a very religious man, and yet he admired the pagan classical world. He was ultimately able to resolve this by arguing that the classical and pagan world could help a person to become more moral and to achieve salvation. This did much to ensure that humanism and its love of the classical past was acceptable in an Italy and Europe that was still staunchly Christian.[10]

Inventing the Renaissance

Petrarch from a 15th century Italian painting

In some ways, the poet was not only one of the most important figures in the Renaissance; in a sense he invented it. The Renaissance is widely seen as a period of ‘re-birth’ when Europe rediscovered classical values and in the process used the ancient past, for models which ultimately led to the development of more modern ways of thought.[11] Petrarch was the first to recognize that the study of the past by the humanists was a new period in history and one that would revive the glory of Rome and Greece. He portrayed it as distinct from previous centuries which he described as ignorant and a ‘Dark Age.’

This was not strictly true because learning in Europe had been growing since the 12th century. Indeed, many have argued that the Renaissance in Italy and elsewhere were a direct result of trends in the Middle Ages. Petrarch’s conception of the Renaissance as something distinct from the Medieval world has been profoundly influential, and it remains so to this day<ref> Burckhardt, Jacob. The Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy.


Petrarch was undoubtedly one of the most significant influences on the Renaissance not only in Italy but throughout Europe. His poetry was to inspire other poets in the period and later, to examine their interior life and emotions and to celebrate the natural world and to see love as something spiritual. His literary forms such as the sonnet and autobiography persuaded many writers to adopt a more personal style. Petrarch was also if not the ‘Father of Humanism’ certainly one of its leading lights. For example, his works and scholarship did much to encourage an appreciation of Graeco-Roman civilization and this was radical as it helped to counter the stifling influence of the Church and Papacy. His writings and philosophy promoted a more secular and rational worldview and promoted a greater awareness of the importance of the individual. This had important repercussion and encouraged a belief that this world was important and not just salvation. This encouraged a rediscovery of not only the ancient world but a growing investigation of the world and society that led to a more modern outlook and one that was not wholly influenced by Christianity.

Further Reading

Petrarch. F. My Secret Book, (Secretum), translated by Nicholas Mann. Harvard University Press.

Petrarch, F. Canzoniere, translated by Anthony Mortimer (London: Penguin, 2002).

Minta, Stephen. Petrarch and Petrarchism: the English and French Traditions (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1980).

Giustiniani, Vito "Homo, Humanus, and the Meanings of Humanism". Journal of the History of Ideas 46 (1985), pp 167 – 95


  1. Larner, John. Italy in the Age of Dante and Petrarch, 1216-1380. Vol. 2 (London, Longman Publishing Group, 1980), p 118
  2. Larner, Vol I, p 201
  3. Mazzotta, Giuseppe. The worlds of Petrarch. No. 14 (North Carolina, Duke University Press, 1993), p. 119.
  4. Burckhardt, Jacob. The Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy, (London, Penguin Books, 1990), p 117
  5. Kirkham, Victoria and Armando Maggi. Petrarch: A Critical Guide to the Complete Works. (Chicago, University of Chicago Press, 2009), p. 119
  6. Nauert, Charles G. Humanism and the Culture of Renaissance Europe: Second Edition. (Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 2006), p 115
  7. Naubert, p. 18.
  8. Petrarch Epistolae familiares (IV, 1)
  9. Bishop, Morris Petrarch, and His World. (Bloomington, Indiana. Indiana University Press 1963), p 118
  10. Bishop. p. 201
  11. Bishop, p. 213


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