Our birthday card for Petrarch: “his deepest torments are shockingly foreign”

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Where would we be without both of them?

sainte-claire-avignon

Met and buried here.

Happy birthday, Francesco Petrarca (a.k.a. Petrarch), born this day in 1304. What better way to celebrate the Tuscan poet’s birthday today than with this Venetian painting, circa 1510, which portrays him with the lady who rejected him in life, Laura de Noves? She rebuffed him for good reason; she was married with children at the time of their first meeting.  As Samuel Maio writes in his foreword to A.M. Justers translations, published by Birch Brook Press (2001), it was “a longing intensified by the cultural, religious, and moral fates that have deemed her unreachable. Perhaps this is the reason for our age’s attraction to Petrarch, that his deepest torments are shockingly foreign and mysteriously antiquated compared to our culture’s insistence on immediate (if not satisfactory) gratification of our every whim and concupiscent impulse.”

But I have become intrigued with both figures for other reasons, for I am in love with Avignon.

That small Provençal city is where the poet first encountered Laura.  She was born in Avignon during the Babylonian Captivity, when the city was the hub of Western Christendom.  Petrarch summed their relationship this way:

Laura, illustrated by her virtues and well-celebrated in my verse, appeared to me for the first time during my youth in 1327, on April 6, in the Church of Saint Claire in Avignon, in the first hour of the day; and in the same city, in the same month, on the same sixth day at the same first hour in the year of 1348, withdrew from life, while I was at Verona, unconscious of my loss…. Her chaste and lovely body was interred on the evening of the same day in the church of the Minorites: her soul, as I believe, returned to heaven, whence it came.

Plaque_dépossée_sur_la_façade_du_Couvent_Sainte-Claire_Avignon_by_JM_RosierOr, as he expressed it in his Canzioniere, in Juster’s translations:

Love, just when hope,
the yield from all my faith, had bloomed,
I lost the one whose mercy I assumed.

She died at the age of 38 in the year 1348, on April 6th, another Good Friday, and 21 years to the hour that Petrarch first saw her.  One biographer wrote that we know little about her except that she possessed great beauty. I rather doubt we know even that. I’ve known too many men to see extraordinary charm in ordinary faces, and enough of a Jungian to know that we project much of ourselves into the beloved. I suspect he saw in her, as his father’s chum Dante saw in another woman: grace and dignity and proportion and (let’s hope) a profound spiritual dimension that made her worthy of attention, though not inclined to be silly if she was ever aware of the rapture she had inspired. 

Recalling, perhaps, the Paschal associations with their meeting and her death, Petrarch wrote:

justerHe did not grace Rome when he came to Earth,
but chose Judea, for above all traits
it pleased Him to exalt humanity.

And so to show that He appreciates
both nature and my Lady’s place of birth,
a village sun becomes his legacy.

So let us celebrate both today, in the remaining hours of the day.  Were it not for her, we would not have Petrarch’s Canzoniere – and without the Canzoniere, I doubt we would be remembering this day with quite so much veneration.


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