April 6, 1627: Petrarch first sees Laura. Francesco Petrarca whose name has been anglicized as Petrarch, was an Italian scholar and poet in Renaissance Italy. He found the lost letters of Cicero and by doing so was credited for initiating the 14th century Renaissance. He is also called the “Father of Humanism”. He was born in the Tuscan city of Arezzo in 1340. His father was a friend of Dante’s. He studied law at the University of Montpellier and Bologna since his father insisted both of his sons follow in his footsteps. Petrarch did as told, but his main interest was in Latin literature and he always considered his years studying law to have been wasted. He viewed the legal system as a way of selling justice. After his parents’ deaths, he began writing with his first book, Africa, an epic in Latin with Scipio Africanus, the Roman general, as the protagonist. He became famous.
Petrarch traveled throughout Europe and has been referred to as “the first tourist” since his travels were for pleasure. He even scaled a mountain, simply for pleasure when he, his brother, and two servants went up Mont Ventoux (6,273 feet) and he then wrote about it. As he moved through the continent, he gathered together crumbling Latin manuscripts. While he was interested in Greek manuscripts as well, he did not read the language and so was unable to work with them. In 1345 he discovered a cache of previously lost Cicero letters and published them as a collection. He decried the ignorance of the past and is credited with calling medieval times the Dark Ages.
On this day, he was in the church of Sainte-Claire d’Avignon and while there he saw a young woman. Laura. There is no definite personage we can today identify as the Laura in question. She may have been Laura de Noves, wife of a count and ancestor of the Marquis de Sade. She was described as lovely to look at. She was fair haired and had a modest and dignified carriage. Petrarch had little or no personal contact with the young woman as she refused him due to her already married status. Rather than possess this woman in the flesh, he began writing poetry. His love poems were filled with his despair over this unattainable woman of his dreams. His prose revealed his contempt toward men who would pursue another man’s wife. Her death in 1348 left him suffering from grief almost as deep as his previous despair.
In Secretum meum, his work on the philosophy of humanism (although not termed that at the time), he examines the idea that secular achievement did not negate an authentic relationship with God. He argued for each person’s right to express the entirety of the gifts they received from a benevolent God. Each person should use to their full extent, all their intellectual and creative potential. With this idea, the Renaissance could flourish. He also used this as an excuse to extensively study ancient history and literature – the history of human thought and action. Although he was a devout Catholic, he saw no conflict between religion and being able to reach self-enlightenment and full potential.
Five great enemies to peace inhabit with us: avarice, ambition, envy, anger and pride. If those enemies were to be banished, we should infallibly enjoy perpetual peace.
Books have led some to learning and others to madness.
I rejoiced in my progress, mourned my weaknesses, and commiserated the universal instability of human conduct.
Sameness is the mother of disgust, variety the cure. – all from Petrarch
Also on this day: Twinkies – In 1930, James Dewer invents the ubiquitous treat.
Varney Air Lines – In 1926, air mail delivery began.
Money, Money, Money – In 1808, John Astor incorporated the American Fur Company.
Olympiad – In 1896, the first modern Olympic Games opened.
North Pole Perhaps – In 1909, Peary and Henson may have reached the North Pole.