The collections

Petrarch, a humanist (1304-1374) - Biography

Petrarch was a poet and Italian humanist, author of an important scholarly work in Latin and a poetic work in the vulgar language which marked the Renaissance. We often tend to link humanism and Renaissance, the latter being associated in France at the beginning of the 16th century, with François I; however, humanism was born in the Middle Ages, at least if we define it according to its classical boundaries (late 15th century), and in Italy. Above all, the first humanists were indeed men of the Middle Ages, by their training and their references.

A dense life

Francesco Petrarca, known as “Petrarca” was born in Arezzo (Tuscany) in 1304 from a notary father and a family of exiles, hunted down by the black Guelphs because of their proximity to the white Guelphs (including the famous Dante) . Pétrarch follows his family in exile in Avignon in 1312, then studies in Montpellier and returns to Italy to finish them in Bologna, in 1320. On the death of his father, in 1326, he leaves Bologna and returns to Avignon, where he receives minor orders around 1330, which ensures a profit. His return to Avignon was decisive because he met Laure de Noves there in Sainte Claire d'Avignon. He ignites for her with a great passion, even after the death of the young woman (1348, probably from the Plague). It inspires part of his work, especially poetic.

Petrarch, however, took advantage of his university studies and decisive encounters (such as the Colonna family) to start a collection of classic books, which he read and reread, annotate and even correct. Among these works, Roman history of Livy, of which he had a rare edition in 1329. The following years Petrarch spent them between journeys, periods of meditation, writing and research (and love). He was in Flanders and France from 1333 (with his famous ascent of Mont Ventoux, probably around 1336), returning to Italy in 1337 (Rome moved him greatly).

His reputation began to grow, and he was crowned King of Poets at the Capitol on April 8, 1341, supported by the King of Naples, Robert d´Anjou. He became close to other great scholars of his time, such as Boccaccio. Subsequently, Petrarch exercised political functions, in particular diplomatic, and continued his work and his research work. The Black Death took many of his friends, and he settled in Milan between 1353 and 1361, becoming close to Giovanni Visconti, then Venice donated a house to him where he lived until 1371; he actively participates in the political and artistic life of the city. He ended his life in Padua, where he passed away on July 19, 1374.

Petrarch, scholar, poet and humanist

The work of Petrarch is first marked by his rediscovery and promotion of ancient letters, which will profoundly influence humanists and artists of the modern era. Besides Livy, he unearths letters from Cicero, and praises (and studies) Seneca or Virgil. He himself writes in Latin, like his Letters or theAfrica (on Scipio the African). On the other hand, he fails to learn Greek.

Petrarch is also a poet, inspired by the mad love he has for Laure (rhymes). He would have even ordered a portrait and medals of the young woman from the famous painter Simone Martini. He also writes poems in vernacular, of which the Book of Songs (Canzionere) and Triumphs.

The influence of the Ancients (which he translates) is also seen in his position as a moralist, with a Stoic tendency. We can cite his From remediis Utriusque Fortunae, where in the form of a dialogue between Reason on one side and Joy, Pain, Hope or Anguish on the other, he gives a veritable manual of remedies against unhappiness ... and against happiness!

Finally, passionate about the concern for "me", he writes biographies of the Ancients whom he admires, but does not forget himself with his autobiography, Secretum, where he imagines a Cicero representing his conscience.

Seed of Petrarch

Petrarch can be qualified as a medieval man, by his references to Saint Augustine or Saint Bernard, his admiration for Dante, the form of many of his works, his meditations on Fortune, ... But he is also a "modern" man, in the sense that he announces (and above all very strongly inspires) what we will call the humanist Renaissance, thanks to his passionate rediscovery of classical authors, and his rejection of certain medieval features (such as Gothic) that he ends by assimilating to a Dark Ages.

Considered the first and greatest of modern lyric poets, Petrarch has had a lasting influence on all of Europe, from the poets of the Pleiad to Spenser and Shakespeare. It also played a leading role in the rise of the Italian vernacular to the rank of literary language.


The bibliography on the humanist is plethoric. To situate Petrarch in his time (useful for CAPES), we recommend the short work of Peter Burke, European Renaissance (Points Seuil Histoire, 2002). For fun and relaxation, a must read Against good and bad fortune, prefaced by Anne Duprat (Rivages pocket, 2001).

- Pétraque, biography of Hugo Doti. Fayard, 1991.

- Humanism and the Renaissance: Anthology by Caroline Trotot. Flammarion, 2009.

Video: Introduction to Humanism by Doug Thomas (January 2022).