Italian poet and humanist, b. at Arezzo, 20 July, 1304; d. at Arquá, 19 July, 1374.
His father, Petracco or Petraccolo (a name which the son adopted as his cognomen, changing it to Petrarca) came of a family belonging originally to the region of the Valdarno, but already settled for some time at Florence. There Ser Petracco acted as clerk of one of the courts of justice, but with other White Guelphs he was banished in 1302, and went to Arezzo. Francesco's earliest years were spent chiefly at Incisa in the ancestral district of the Valdarno. In 1310 his father transferred their abode to Pisa, whence the family went to Avignon in France, which had been for about six years the papal residence. Between 1315 and 1319 the lad was trained at Carpentras under the tutelage of the Italian Convenevole da Prato.
His father intended him for the legal profession, and sent him for the necessary studies to Montpellier (1319-23) and to Bologna (1323-5). Francesco disliked the career chosen for him, and devoted himself as much as possible to belles-lettres, thereby so incensing his father that, upon one occasion, the latter burned a number of his favourite ancient authors. When Ser Petracco died in 1323, Francesco returned to Avignon and took minor orders, which permitted him to enjoy church benefices and only bound him to the daily reading of his Office. He entered rather freely into the gay and fashionable life at Avignon, and there on Good Friday (1327) he saw for the first time Laura, the lady who was to be the inspiration of his most famous work. In spite of what he himself says as to his first encounter with Laura, many persons have doubted her real existence. The majority of critics, however, believe that she was truly a lady in the flesh, and some identify her with a certain Laura, the wife of Hugues de Sade (d. 1348). There would seem to be little chance for romance in such an attachment, yet the weight of authority is in favour of regarding it as a genuine one productive of true and poignant emotion in Petrarch, however Platonic it may have remained.
About 1330 the poet began a period of restless wandering, and in 1333 he made a journey through northern France and through Germany, recording his observations and experiences in his letters. Back at Avignon for a while, and now invested with a canonical benefice, he set forth for Italy, in 1336, in the company of some members of the Colonna family, with which he had been closely allied for some time past, and in January, 1337, he entered Rome for the first time. By the end of the year he appears to have settled in Vaucluse, and there he found the peace and the inspiration that produced so many of his best lyrics. Accepting an invitation to go to Rome on Easter Sunday, 1341, he was publicly crowned as poet and historian in the Capitol.
For a number of years he wandered about from one Italian city to another, seeking the codices that preserved the priceless literary works of antiquity (he certainly discovered works of Cicero and parts of the "Institutiones" of Quintilian), and occasionally occupying clerical posts. He formed a friendship with Cola di Rienzi, and in 1347 saluted him in verse as the restorer of the order of the ancient Roman Republic. A friendship of greater importance was that which he now contracted with Boccaccio, who, like himself, desired to promote humanistic studies and researches. Refusing an offer to assume the rectorship of the Florentine Studio (or University) just established, he resumed his peregrinations, spending a good part of the time at Venice, and accompanied there for a while by Boccaccio and by Leo Pilatus, from whom both he and Boccaccio had hoped to gain some direct knowledge of Greek and its literature. The transfer of the pontifical Court back to Rome in 1367 filled him with unbounded joy.
As a scholar, Petrarch possessed encyclopedic knowledge, and much of this he has set down in his Latin works, which constitute the larger part of his production in both prose and verse. They include the "Africa" in hexameters, dealing with the Second Punic war and especially with the adventures of Scipio Africanus, in pseudo-epic fashion and in a way which hardly elicits our admiration, although the author deemed it his greatest work; the "Carmen bucolicum" made up of twelve eclogues; the "Epistolæ metricæ" in three books of hexameters, interesting for the autobiographical matter which they contain; several moral treatises, such as the "De contemptu mundi", which consists of three dialogues between the author and St. Augustine, both of them in the presence of Truth; the "De vita solitaria"; the "De ocio religiosorum", praising monastic life, etc.; some "Psalmi poenitentiales" and some prayers; a number of historical and geographical works, among which figure the "Rerum memorandarum libri quattuor" and the "De viris illustribus", treating of illustrious men from Romulus down to Titus; some invectives (especially the "Invectiva in Gallum", assailing the French); a few orations; and finally his very many letters, which cover the whole course of his life from 1325 to the end, and one of the most interesting of which is the "Epistola ad posteros", written after 1370, and furnishing an autobiography of considerable importance. A Latin comedy, "Philologia", has not yet been discovered.
In spite of the magnitude of Petrarch's composition in Latin and the stress which he put upon it himself, his abiding fame is based upon his Italian verse, and this forms two notable compilations, the "Trionfi" and the "Canzoniere". The "Trionfi", written in terza rima, and making large use of the vision already put to so good stead by Dante, is allegorical and moral in its nature. In the "Trionfi" we have a triumphal procession in which there take part six leading allegorical figures: Love, Chastity, Death, Fame, Time, and Divinity. Chastity triumphs over its predecessor, and finally Divinity triumphs over them all and remains supreme, as the symbol of peace, eternal life, and the everlasting union of the poet with his beloved Laura. The "Canzoniere", the poet's masterpiece, and one of the imperishable monuments of the world's literature, was first put into shape by the author and made known by him under the title of "Rerum vulgarium fragmenta". It consists of sonnets (and these are the more numerous) of canzoni, of sestine, of ballate, and of madrigals. The love motive prevails in the majority of these, but political and patriotic feeling regulates some of the most famous of them, and still others are infused with moral and other sentiments.
Some lyrics bearing apparent relations to the "Canzoniere", but excluded by the poet from its final make-up, have been published under the title of "Extravaganti". In the strictly amorous part of the "Canzoniere", Petrarch sings of his lady living and dead, and, reviving in his psychological manner the methods of the earlier dolce stil nuovo School, particularly reflects the spirit of Cino da Pistoia. But all is not imitation on the part of his Muse; his inner man is expressed in even greater degree than the literary formalism which he owed to his predecessors of the thirteenth and the early fourteenth century. Still it must be admitted that the very refinement of his verse-form and the constant repetition of emotions, that vary but slightly one from the other, tend inevitably to pall upon us. The "Canzoniere" and the "Trionfi" begot for Petrarch legions of followers in Italy, and Petrarchism, as the imitation of his manner was termed, continued down into the Renaissance, growing less according as the numberless disciples took to imitating one another rather than the master directly, until Bembo started a propaganda in favour of copying only the original model.