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Love and Other Matters

Deirdre Serjeantson

The Cambridge Companion to Petrarch, Albert Russell Ascoli and Unn Falkeid eds, Cambridge University Press, 294 pp, £18.99, ISBN: 978-0521185042

Romeo, that ill-starred scion of the Montagues, is best known as a lover; but he was also keen to impress himself upon us as a man at the cutting edge of sixteenth-century fashion, particularly in literary matters. The first time we encounter Romeo – at this point, still enamoured of the mysterious Rosaline – he walks in on the aftermath of a street fight between his family and the Capulets. Like any self-respecting adolescent in love, he swiftly manages to work the conversation around from a lament for this senseless violence, to the more pressing issue of his own heart. A modern audience is always amused by his self-regarding and speedy segue from political concerns to the pangs of romantic love:

O me, what fray was here?
Yet tell me not for I have heard it all:
Here’s much to do with hate, but more with love.
Why then, O brawling love! O loving hate!
O anything, of nothing first create!
O heavy lightness, serious vanity,
Misshapen chaos of well-seeming forms,
Feather of lead, bright smoke, cold fire, sick health,
Still-waking sleep, that is not what it is!
This love feel I, that feel no love in this.
Dost thou not laugh?

If most of these lines were not so often cut in contemporary performances (he does go on) the audience would also be struck by the long series of increasingly desperate oxymorons which pattern Romeo’s speech: leaden feathers, bright smoke, sick health. For Shakespeare’s original audience, these impossible contradictions were part of the joke. Romeo’s language announces him as one of the great stock characters of the Elizabethan stage: from his vocabulary to his attitudes of love and despair, he is the quintessential Petrarchan lover.

As a disciple of Francesco Petrarca (anglicised as Francis Petrarch) of Florence, Romeo is not alone. The academic young men of Love’s Labour’s Lost, the narrators of romantic sonnet sequences from Astrophil and Stella to Zepheria, even the seductive Satan disguised as a snake to tempt Eve in Paradise Lost all speak the language of love as codified by Petrarch in his great fourteenth century verse sequence, the Canzoniere. These poems were characterised for the renaissance reader by Petrarch’s habit of coupling opposites: Romeo’s oxymorons derive from Petrarch’s frequently invoked images of a beloved enemy, peaceful wars, and icy fires. In Petrarch’s hands, these contradictions probed profound truths about human emotion: it is, after all, perfectly possible in the throes of love to burn with desire in the same moment as you freeze with fear. In the hands of Petrarch’s army of imitators, the same literary trick could explore further avenues of psychological experience, or could merely be a badge of allegiance: Romeo’s sorry litany is the Renaissance fanboy’s equivalent of a T-shirt bearing the name of a favourite band. Later in the play, he will learn the truth of the clichés he has been brandishing: in his encounters with Juliet, all of Petrarch’s metaphors will come to be embodied in him as he discovers what it is really to love an enemy and to die on a kiss. Shakespeare might have started off by mocking Petrarch’s youthful followers, but Romeo and Juliet as a whole is a tribute to the Italian poet’s insights into the processes, the joys, and the agonies of love.

The joke about Romeo’s literary style only worked because everyone in the original audience knew their Petrarch. They may not necessarily have read the Italian poems for themselves, or even the growing number of English translations and imitations, but the Canzoniere had given rise to a pervasive cultural phenomenon. Just as today you do not have to have read a word by JK Rowling to recognise the name of Harry Potter, or even to identify a Gryffindor scarf on the street, so the tropes of Petrarchan love were accessible everywhere in the sixteenth century: in city processions and royal triumphs, in tapestries and portraits, and even on the plate from which you ate your dinner. This represented a significant change in Petrarch’s image. He had been warmly received from the start – within only a few years of his death, Chaucer was translating one of his sonnets and putting it into the mouth of another doomed lover, the Trojan Troilus in Troilus and Criseyde. However, it was not until the sixteenth century, and the widespread availability of his works in print, that his popularity really took off. For Chaucer and his contemporaries, Petrarch was primarily a respected writer on moral philosophy – the Canzoniere was not widely read in late medieval England. By the 1530s, it had become the most popular text. Queen Katherine Parr’s elaborately bound copy can still be seen in the British Library; Henry VIII had another version, printed in Milan in 1512; courtiers like Thomas Wyatt and Henry Howard were producing translations for the court. The fashion continued, and throughout the early-modern period, Petrarch’s sonnets permeated boundaries of nation and language. The Irish Dánta Grá tradition is marked by petrarchism, and the Westmeath man Richard Nugent published a series of Petrarchan sonnets – Cynthia – in 1604. There are Petrarchan poems in French and Spanish and Polish and Neo-Latin. Petrarch’s name became a byword for a particular way of writing about romance. He was, however, more than a love poet. He was an ethicist and an archaeologist. He was praised for his innovations in vernacular verse, but he considered his more important works to be those in Latin, the language of his epic poem Africa and his major prose pieces. His religious authority was so great that he appears in the marginalia of the Protestant Geneva Bible along with the Doctors of the Church. Generations of scholars have credited him with the invention of the Renaissance. It is little wonder that the susceptible Romeo was an admirer.

For all his stature, however, Petrarch is no longer instantly and widely recognisable. Romeo’s speech cannot now be relied upon to elicit a laugh. When modern readers reach for a great Florentine poet, their hands tend to light on a volume of Dante. Dante had been enormously popular in the late middle ages, and if his overtly Catholic subject matter made him less visible during the English Renaissance, his great revival in the nineteenth century assures his fame in modern times. There is even a computer game based on the Inferno. Petrarch is less accessible: a considerable number of his works, including his Penitential Psalms and many of his letters, have never been translated into English. He survives most prominently as an adjective attached to sonnets by the great writers of the sixteenth century, but the term “Petrarchan” only acknowledges the tradition which built up around the love poetry and ignores the bulk of Petrarch’s achievement. And yet, he is ubiquitous in early-modern literature – a knowledge of Petrarch has the power of bringing a host of more familiar works suddenly into focus. From throwaway jokes about young lovers to political iconography in paintings of Elizabeth I, his writing is one of the keys to reading the Renaissance.

All of this is not to say that Petrarch is neglected. The tradition of scholarship around his works, which began even before his death, continues today. The seven-hundredth anniversary of his death in 2004 saw a number of important international conferences, and their proceedings join other recent books in re-evaluating and celebrating his legacy. These publications, however, constitute a professional literature: the British Academy’s excellent collection of essays, Petrarch in Britain, sells for around €95, which is quite an obstacle in the way of the general reader, no matter how interested he or she might be. This is where the new Cambridge Companion to Petrarch, edited by AR Ascoli and Unn Falkeid, and retailing at closer to €20, comes in.

The Companions are now a well-established series from Cambridge University Press. Their five hundred titles cover a dizzying range of major authors and literary topics, from August Strindberg (ed M Robinson) to Modern Irish Culture (eds J Cleary and C Connolly); they also extend into other fields in the humanities and social sciences, so that you can find a Cambridge Companion to Hip-Hop jostling with handbooks on Calvin and Wittgenstein. The format, a wide-ranging series of short essays (around the ten-page mark) by well-known authorities, is clearly a winner, as testified not only by the continuing expansion of the list, but also the appearance of imitators like the Blackwell Companions. A few caveats are in order, however. For instance, the publicity material suggests that these books are for everyone, but this is not quite the case: despite the charming photograph of a PhD student telling us that she is eagerly quoting Cambridge Companions in her thesis, in almost every case these are introductory works. They contain useful summaries of existing arguments in their fields, but no original research: for this, the reader must look to the helpful bibliographies and, more to the point, the books and articles which the Cambridge Companions authors have all published elsewhere (thus, incidentally, qualifying themselves for inclusion in this series). Undergraduates in need of a quick hit of information before a lecture, or other readers looking for an overview of an unfamiliar topic, will be grateful for these succinct and reliable maps to new intellectual territory. PhD candidates should already pass for natives of these parts.

That said, the Cambridge Companion to Petrarch is perhaps an exception to this rule. It covers so much ground that even a seasoned graduate student might profitably sneak a peek. This is because Petrarch is so particularly wide-ranging that the most ambitious course of study would struggle to comprehend him. His Italian works sit neatly in any department of modern languages, and his influence on literature in English features on every conceivable Renaissance poetry module. However, his extensive Latin writings come a little late in the chronology for most classics courses, and although he would certainly be mentioned on any degree that touches on early-modern thought – political history, philosophy, theology – name-checking might well be the limit of any undergraduate survey. Perhaps this volume’s most valuable achievement is that it will join the dots between these brief nods to Petrarch’s contribution to what we now consider to be disparate fields, and will allow the full picture of the man and his work to be seen.

The editors must have had this comprehensiveness in mind when commissioning their essays, because they have produced a collection which reflects accurately the full scope and weighting of Petrarch’s work. There is, as might be expected, a section on the vernacular texts, which contains four essays on the love poetry and the Trionfi, a set of longer poems with thematic links to the sonnets. However, there is an equally substantial section on the Latin works, including an article on Petrarch’s contemplative religious prose and another on his letters, which he saw as central to his output: he was to tweak and polish them all his life. Moreover, chapters from elsewhere in the volume also serve to elucidate his Latin writings. In a section called “Petrarch’s Interlocutors”, David Marsh discusses his Invectives, those attacks on ideological opponents or rivals in the papal court through which Petrarch protected his own image but also advertised his vision for society; and in the same section Gur Zak examines his relationship with classical sources, including the characteristic Petrarchan device of writing to dead people. In this case, Zak’s focus is on the letters to Petrarch’s much-loved Cicero and Seneca, although elsewhere in his oeuvre, he also talks at length to St Augustine, and of course, to his beloved Laura: her death in the plague of 1348 was not allowed to interrupt their conversation, and indeed it is conspicuous that she has much more to say after her demise than before.

The best essays in this volume wear their authors’ immense erudition lightly, and a great deal of often quite complex information is imparted painlessly within the small space allowed. Peter Hainsworth’s piece, which considers the structure of the Canzoniere by sifting through manuscript evidence and critical theories, is the perfect type of the Cambridge Companions essay: elegant, succinct, and authoritative. Olivia Holmes’s lively article discusses Petrarch’s debt to late mediaeval vernacular verse with the aid of her model close readings of a selection of well-chosen texts. Others have more difficult remits. Faced with packing all of Renaissance humanism into one article, Timothy Kircher’s essay manages to cover a great deal of ground and is characteristically learned; however, given that the likeliest reader is new to the field, the editors might have allowed him just enough extra space to provide a definition. Humanism is a term whose meaning happens to have changed a great deal in the centuries since Petrarch, and the modern student who thinks it designates a stance relating to atheism will have some trouble mapping this on to the devout and godly Petrarch, whose humanism defined itself instead through his interest in the revival of classical texts. Fortunately, The Cambridge Companion to Renaissance Humanism is on hand to sort out any difficulties which might arise.

The student reader is better served in other aspects of the volume, including a useful timeline of events in Petrarch’s life, a list of his works and of modern editions (hard to amass for such a prolific author), and a guide to further reading, including a section on criticism in Italian and other languages. This bibliography gives due weight to an earlier generation of scholars like Ernest Hatch Wilkins and Aldo Bernardo, and provides a useful sampling of current scholarship, but there are some curious lacunae. Jackson Campbell Boswell and Gordon Braden’s monumental anthology of printed references and allusions, Petrarch’s English Laurels, 1475-1700 (2012) does not appear, perhaps because it is relatively recent and an editorial note suggests the present volume was five years in the making. This would not explain, however, why Leonard Forster’s The Icy Fire (1969) is absent. This is perhaps the most influential account of Petrarchism in European poetry, and my best guess for its omission is that it discusses Petrarch’s afterlife rather than his own work. The reception of Petrarch in the centuries after his death is avowedly one of the interests of the volume, and there are four essays devoted to the topic. These are, in themselves, excellent. In particular, Ann Rosalind Jones’s account of women’s Petrarchan writing in early-modern Italy combines a deft sketch of the major figures and themes with such intriguing vignettes (the musician Gaspara Stampa first meeting her lover at a performance and going on to address over three hundred poems to him; Vittoria Colonna using Petrarch’s laments for Laura to shape her mourning for her own husband) that the reader longs to discover more. However, the space granted to discussions of reception feels cramped.  The eminent Petrarchan William Kennedy squeezes French, Spanish, and English traditions into his essay, and despite his undoubted expertise, the editorial decision to conflate these large literatures in one article is perhaps the great conceptual error of the volume. The student studying the Canzoniere in Italian or contemplating the importance of his vision of religious life already knows a great deal about Petrarch, and will find more here that is illuminating. On the other hand, the reader who was moved by “My mistress’ eyes are nothing like the sun” (there are many such readers) and who finds a footnote referring to the otherwise unfamiliar Petrarch, will be disappointed: half a paragraph about Shakespeare on p 216 does not suffice to bridge the gap between the early-modern Petrarchism, and Petrarch’s own work. Since so many readers approach Petrarch from this direction, it seems a pity not to make better accommodation for them.

One of the anniversary volumes which appeared after 2004 was Petrarch: A Critical Guide to the Complete Works, edited by Victoria Kirkham and Armando Maggi, and printed by the University of Chicago Press. This very welcome work has quickly become a staple of student reading lists, and by my count, five of the contributors to the present volume also provided articles for the earlier collection. The editors of the Cambridge Companion must have thought hard about what how they might distinguish their offering. Their solution is an ambitious one. This whole volume is framed as a reappraisal of claims that have been made for Petrarch as the father of the Renaissance and the inventor of modernity. Generations of scholars have used his works as milestones which mark off neatly the invention of interiority, the founding of the Latin humanist movement, even the start of mountain-climbing as a leisure activity – but these are big claims to make for any one man. Instead, the editors argue for the fascination of Petrarch’s strategies of self-presentation in respect of his contemporaries but also of posterity, and the volume is rounded off with an extensive essay on Petrarch’s confrontation with modernity. I suspect that Cambridge Companions are more often dipped into an essay at a time than read straight through; however, the reader prepared to tackle this one sequentially will find rich rewards to be gathered.


Deirdre Serjeantson lectures in early-modern literature at the University of Essex. She has published extensively on the Renaissance tradition of petrarchism.



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