Italian Poet Petrarca's Most Famous Poetry Is to the Woman He Loved

In Petrarca's work, love tears the soul asunder

Man writing on parchment with a quill pen by candlelight, sepia photograph.
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Back in the 1300s, before card stores and chocolate manufacturers conspired to commercialize the spirit of passion and romance, Francesco Petrarca literally wrote the book on the inspiration of love. His collection of Italian verses, known as the "Canzoniere" (or "Rime in vita e morte di Madonna Laura") translated into English as "Petrarch's Sonnets," was inspired by his unrequited passion for Laura, thought to be Frenchwoman Laura de Noves (though some argue that she was merely a poetic muse who never really existed), a young woman he first saw in a church and who was married to another man.

Suffering Love

Here is Petrarca's Sonnet III, written after Laura's death.

Era il giorno ch'al sol si scoloraro
per la pietà del suo factore i rai,
quando ì fui preso, et non me ne guardai,
chè i bè vostr'occhi, donna, mi legaro.

Tempo non mi parea da far riparo
contra colpi d'Amor: però m'andai
secur, senza sospetto; onde i miei guai
nel commune dolor s'incominciaro.

Trovommi Amor del tutto disarmato
et aperta la via per gli occhi al core,
che di lagrime son fatti uscio et varco:

Però al mio parer non li fu honore
ferir me de saetta in quello stato,
a voi armata non mostrar pur l'arco.

It was the day the sun's ray had turned pale
with pity for the suffering of his Maker
when I was caught, and I put up no fight,
my lady, for your lovely eyes had bound me.

It seemed no time to be on guard against
Love's blows; therefore, I went my way
secure and fearless — so, all my misfortunes
began in midst of universal woe.

Love found me all disarmed and found the way
was clear to reach my heart down through the eyes
which have become the halls and doors of tears.

It seems to me it did him little honor
to wound me with his arrow in my state
and to you, armed, not show his bow at all.

Love: Not Without Conflict

Conflicted by his earthly love for Laura and his aspiration for spiritual innocence, Petrarca wrote 366 sonnets dedicated to her (some while she lived, some after her death, from the plague), exalting her spiritual beauty and purity and yet her very real nature as a source of temptation.

Considered among the first modern poets, and deeply transported by amorous spiritual poetry, Petrarca perfected the sonnet during the course of his life, pushing new boundaries by depicting a woman as a real earthly being, not merely an angelic muse. The sonnet, a lyric poem of 14 lines with a formal rhyme scheme, is considered emblematic of early Italian poetry (Petrarca wrote most everything else in Latin). Here is his Sonnet XIII, known for its particular musicality. 

Quando fra l'altre donne ad ora ad ora
Amor vien nel bel viso di costei,
quanto ciascuna è men bella di lei
tanto cresce 'l desio che m'innamora.

I' benedico il loco e 'l tempo et l'ora
che sí alto miraron gli occhi mei,
et dico: Anima, assai ringratiar dêi
che fosti a tanto honor degnata allora.

Da lei ti vèn l'amoroso pensero,
che mentre 'l segui al sommo ben t'invia,
pocho prezando quel ch'ogni huom desia;

da lei vien l'animosa leggiadria
ch'al ciel ti scorge per destro sentero,
sí ch'i' vo già de la speranza altero.

When Love within her lovely face appears
now and again among the other ladies,
as much as each is less lovely than she
the more my wish I love within me grows.

I bless the place, the time and hour of the day
that my eyes aimed their sights at such a height,
and say: "My soul, you must be very grateful
that you were found worthy of such great honor.

From her to you comes loving thought that leads,
as long as you pursue, to highest good,
esteeming little what all men desire;

there comes from her all joyous honesty
that leads you by the straight path up to Heaven —
already I fly high upon my hope."