A new way of looking at things
“One’s destination is never a place, but a new way of looking at things.” –  Henry Miller

Curt Veeneman, Ph.D.


Petrarch Part 1

12 April 2013

se bona, ond’è l’effetto aspro mortale?

— Petrarch, from Sonnet 132

If love be good, from whennes comth my wo?

—translation of the above line by Geoffrey Chaucer (1340? – 1400)


Petrarch, in an anonymous portrait, is shown wearing the laurel wreath, fashioned from Laurus nobilis, or bay laurel.

 (photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons) {{PD}}


Petrarch had everything going for him:  a cushy job, ample travel opportunities, Provençal cuisine whenever he wanted it, more sun in a week in southern France than most places get in a year, and a cool hat that provided excellent seasoning for soups.  (see above photo)

But there was one — tiny — problem that consumed all of his attention and energies for more than twenty years:  unrequited love.  Petrarch had the misfortune of randomly encountering a woman who, for whatever reason, was simply not interested in sorting out his tragic OCD issues.  So he ended up writing hundreds of sonnets about her as a kind of catharsis, which even after she died didn’t really seem to help.

At one point it looked as if he was getting close to the right idea when he wrote, “To be able to say how much you love is to love but little” (canzone, poem #37), but he kept scratching away on all of those sonnets anyway.  Ultimately there was no relief — for, as Charlie Brown once observed while eating lunch, “Nothing takes the taste out of peanut butter quite like unrequited love.”

Boccaccio, Dante, Petrarch, and other writers were depicted by Giorgio Vasari (1511–1574).

 (photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons) {{PD}}

Francesco Petrarca (known in English as Petrarch) was born on 20 July 1304 in Arezzo, about 80 kilometers (c. 50 miles) southeast of Florence. Arezzo has produced its share of luminaries, for also born in this city or province were the music theorist Guido d'Arezzo (991/992 – after 1033) (where else with a name like that?), the painter Piero della Francesca (1415–1492), the artist, architect, engineer, and poet Michelangelo (1475–1564), the painter, architect, and
biographer Giorgio Vasari (1511–1574), who would later depict Petrarch standing alongside Dante and Boccaccio (above), the composer Antonio Cesti (1623–1669), and the actor and director Roberto Benigni (born 1952).  In Benigni’s film La vita è bella (Life Is Beautiful, 1997), the main characters lived in Arezzo.  And although avant-garde composer Luc Ferrari (1929 –2005) was born in Paris, he later chose to live in Arezzo.


The Casa del Petrarca was built in the sixteenth century on the remains of a medieval building thought to be Petrarch's birthplace. It houses the Petrarch Academy of Letters, Arts, and Sciences.


There must be something in Arezzo’s water to have produced all of these great minds, because even more than two thousand years ago, when the city was still called by its Latin name Arretium, Gaius Maecenas (70 BC–8 BC) was born there.  This poet and patron of the arts who supported young poets such as Virgil, was a friend of Caesar Augustus.


The Chiesa di Santa Maria della Pieve on the Piazza Grande in Arezzo, Italy, dates back to as early as 1008.  The bell tower was finished in 1330, when Petrarch was 26 years old.



When Petrarch was eight years old, his family moved to Avignon in Provence.  This was at a time when a French cardinal was made pope and he picked up and relocated the papal court to Avignon.  (This choice of residency continued until they ultimately ended up with two popes at the same time — one in Rome and the other in Avignon — who adamantly kept excommunicating one another.  Eventually, though, they worked out the logistics.)


The Palais des Papes, in Avignon, France, was built between 1335 and 1364, during the Avignon Papacy.


At the age of 12, when Petrarch took up legal studies at the University of Montpellier, there was already a hint of Petrarch’s literary passion.  When his father, a lawyer himself, was visiting him on one occasion and spotted some Latin literature lying around, he decided to be of assistance and offered to burn these distractions.  (Perhaps he surmised that mixing jurisprudence and verse might result in some unwanted poetic justice.)  Petrarch convinced his father to let him keep at least his copies of Virgil and Cicero

Maybe his father’s friendship with Dante had inspired Petrarch’s affinity for literature, in which Petrarch claimed to find more integrity than in law. He later wrote, “My reason was that, although the dignity of the law, which is doubtless very great, and especially the numerous references it contains to Roman antiquity, did not fail to delight me, I felt it to be habitually degraded by those who practice it.” Or, as Jean Giraudoux (1882–1944) noted, "Aucun poète n'a jamais interprété la nature aussi librement qu'un avocat interprète la réalité. [No poet ever interpreted nature as freely as a lawyer interprets the truth.]” At least, these two poets agree on one thing.

When Petrarch was 16, he and his brother returned to the Italian peninsula to study law at the University of Bologna.  Then his mother died, and soon thereafter, his father.  Now aged 22 and with no pressure to stay in law school, he gave up his law studies and moved back to Avignon for, in no particular order:  the social scene, to join the Franciscan Friars, and to pursue his interest in literature.


The Palazzo d'Accursio (or Palazzo Comunale) in Bologna, Italy, is located on the Piazza Maggiore and, except for the clock tower, appears much as it would have during Petrarch’s time.


Petrarch rapidly earned an exemplary reputation in Avignon and began to travel widely on diplomatic missions, undertaking negotiations with seats of power ranging from the emperor, the king of France, and princes, to popes and cardinals.

It may seem curious to find a poet and a diplomat in the same person, but it is remarkable how many poet-diplomats have crossed borders throughout history.  Some ambassadors who wrote poetry include Giovanni Boccaccio (1313–1375; he was also a friend and student of Petrarch), Ludovico Ariosto (1474 –1533; diplomat under Alfonso I d'Este, Duke of Ferrara), Giovanni Battista Guarini (1538–1612; in the service of Alfonso II d'Este, Duke of Ferrara), Fulvio Testi (1593-1646; in the service of the d'Este dukes in Modena), and — outside Italy — the English Geoffrey Chaucer (c. 1343–1400), who translated Petrarch's poetry into English, the Tyrolean Oswald von Wolkenstein (1376/1377–1445; he was also a composer and one of the last knights of medieval Europe), the Dutch Constantijn Huygens (1596–1687; secretary to two Princes of Orange and the father of the scientist Christiaan Huygens), the English Matthew Prior (1664–1721), the German Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749–1832; he was also an artist and scientist), the American James Russell Lowell (1819-1891), the French Paul Claudel (1868–1955; he was the younger brother of the sculptor Camille Claudel; in addition, the composer Darius Milhaud was briefly Claudel’s secretary, and while they were in Brazil, they collaborated on the ballet, L'Homme et son désir), the Chilean Pablo Neruda (1904 –1973), the Mexican Octavio Paz (1914-1998), and the Canadian Robert Ford (1915–1998).  Two of the twentieth-century diplomats mentioned, Neruda and Paz, were awarded Nobel Prizes for their writing.

One wonders if the same or complementary skills that are used in diplomacy are called upon in composing poetry:  a gift of language and specifically concision, certainly, but also a cultural aptitude and sensitivity, a capacity both for observation and to convey one's insights, a faculty for establishing hierarchies in organization, and an ability to inspire others’ discernment seem endemic to both occupations. 

Interestingly, the Ars Nova composer Philippe de Vitry (1291-1361), a diplomat of the French court and who stayed in Avignon, was a friend of Petrarch.

But Petrarch also traveled for intellectual curiosity, visiting other scholars and searching for manuscripts, desiring to preserve the works of classical authors.  Various expeditions brought him to Paris, Ghent, Liège (where he discovered Cicero's Pro Archia), Aix-la-Chapelle, Cologne, Rome, and Naples.  He was the greatest scholar of his

Philippe de Vitry (1291-1361): a page from his tract Ars Nova Musicae (c. 1320)

 (photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons) {{PD}}

time, especially of Classical Latin.

Speaking of travel for travel’s sake, in 1336, ten years after he had left Bologna, Petrarch climbed to the top of Mont Ventoux (in the département of Vaucluse) purely for pleasure, which act many since have taken to signal the beginning of the Renaissance.  In The Civilization of the Renaissance, Jakob Burckhardt called Petrarch "a truly modern man."

Petrarch recorded in a letter, “Today I made the ascent of the highest mountain in this region, which is not improperly called Ventosum.  My only motive was the wish to see what so great an elevation had to offer.  I have had the expedition in mind for many years; for, as you know, I have lived in this region from infancy, having been cast here by that fate which determines the affairs of men.  Consequently the mountain, which is visible from a great distance, was ever before my eyes, and I conceived the plan of some time doing what I have at last accomplished today.”

Mont Ventoux, at 1,912 meters (6,273 feet) in altitude and whose name may very well mean windy [venteux], is known for its high winds and is one of the most difficult climbs in the Tour de France in recent years.

But it was at the top of the mountain that he opened his copy of St. Augustine's Confessions to read, “And men go about to wonder at the heights of the mountains, and the mighty waves of the sea, and the wide sweep of rivers, and the circuit of the ocean, and the revolution of the stars, but themselves they consider not.”

From that point Petrarch determined to search for, as he wrote in the same letter, that which could “be found only within.”  After that, the mountain “seemed scarcely a cubit high compared with the range of human contemplation.”


“Sur le pont d’Avignon l'on y danse” — these words of a well-known French song, dating back to the 15th century, mention the medieval bridge at Avignon, near which Petrarch spent much of his life.


In 1437 Petrarch settled outside of Avignon in Vaucluse (“closed valley”) for a life of solitude.  “I study in the fields as in my library,” he declared in a letter.  It was here that he wrote many of his major Latin works:  De viris illustribus (On Famous Men); Africanus, an epic of the Second Punic War in which Hannibal invaded Italy; Secretum (My Secret Book), an imaginary dialogue with Augustine of Hippo; Rerum memorandarum libri, a treatise on the cardinal virtues; De vita solitaria (On Solitude), Bucolicum Carmen, pastoral poems; and De otio religioso (On Religious Leisure).

On 8 April 1341, Petrarch was crowned in Rome with a laurel wreath, becoming the first poet laureate since antiquity.




an anonymous portrait of Laura 

(photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons) {{PD}}

There is one detail in Petrarch’s biography that is hard to ignore, however.  The event took place on Good Friday, 6 April 1327.  Petrarch was in the church of Sainte-Claire d'Avignon and he happened to be looking sideways instead of up.  His eyes landed on Laura (at least that was his name for the young woman) and for the rest of his life his inner being was uncompromisingly whirled in a sort of hyperesthetic food processor.
No one is quite sure who Laura was.  Whatever her identity, some think that she was married.  Others think that she was unattached, but that she simply didn’t appreciate Petrarch’s occhi da pesce lesso (a self-explanatory expression that Italian girls frequently use, meaning literally, “boiled fish eyes”).  Others say that, well, since Petrarch was tonsured and wearing clerical dress, Laura deemed him not available for marriage.  Yet others, including some of Petrarch’s contemporaries, have even questioned her existence.

For example, Petrarch’s friend, the Bishop of Lombes, wrote to him in 1335, stating, “Your Laura is but a phantom, created by your imagination, as a subject whereon to exercise your muse and procure you a name.  Your verses, your love, your sighs, only deal in fiction, and if they contain anything real, it is your passion, not for Laura, who exists only in your imagination, but for the laurel with which poets are crowned.  This is the object of your ambition, as all your works prove.”

On the other hand, it was claimed that at a celebration in honor of Emperor Charles IV at Avignon, the emperor asked to be introduced to Laura, as it was her grace and beauty that had inspired Petrarch’s poems.

Sadly, but in an architectonic symmetry matched only by Petrarch’s sonnets, 21 years to the day after he had first seen her, Laura is believed to have died of the Black Death plague on Good Friday 6 April 1348.

Undeterred, Petrarch continued to pen verses that were inspired by Laura well into old age, even after she had died, and the Canzoniere ("Songbook") is the result.


Next:  Petrarch’s Canzoniere


Altichiero da Verona (c. 1330 – c. 1395): Portrait of Francesco Petrarca, drawing from the Table of Contents to Petrarch's De Viris Illustribus, 1379

 (photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons) {{PD}}






The photographs used in this blog, unless otherwise noted, are by Curt Veeneman.

Related Posts (Italy)

Who started Travel Con Brio®?

Composer, scholar (in music theory, ethnomusicology, and music history), performer, educator, conference organizer, and entrepreneur, Curt Veeneman received his Ph.D. from the University of California, Berkeley.

His additional interests, subsumed in wonder at the beauty of God’s entire creation, include art (he was an art major before the balance tipped ever-so-slightly toward music), literature, architecture, photography, mathematics, history, languages, cultural studies, world-cuisines, and, of course, travel.
photograph by Colleen Veeneman

In founding Travel Con Brio®, Curt was eager to synthesize all of these interests to create imaginative, stirring, and enlightening experiences to be enjoyed by both young and mature travelers alike.  The tours that he organizes reflect his extensive travel experience and familiarity with the art, music and culture of numerous countries, with each tour being richly enhanced by local experts.

Curt and his wife Colleen live near San Francisco.  They have three children.

What is this blog about?

Culled from a number of trips abroad, this blog compiles various experiences in an attempt to reveal the cultural nuances of places visited on Travel Con Brio® tours.  Sometimes humorous, sometimes serious, Curt’s observations are intended to describe and appreciate the personalities, character, idiosyncrasies, conventions, mood, and ambiance of places visited.  Contemplations of topics ranging from language and customs to climate and bureaucracies are freely offered alongside art and music reviews.  Any cultural issue, if illuminating, can become the focus.

These musings on the personal impact of various cultures are offered so that you, as a traveler, may compare and contrast your own impressions with them.  Do you share a similar interest?  Do you agree with a specific conclusion?  Or is there a fine distinction to be made regarding a particular point?  You are invited to leave your comments; please, however, be respectful of other readers.

And last, a caveat:  flukes, asymmetries, and twists of fate may suggest more about Curt than about any foreign culture under discussion.

What are some of Curt Veeneman’s musical activities?

As a composer, Curt has spoken and/or his works have been performed throughout the United States, in Canada, Germany, France, Italy, Poland, the Netherlands, Switzerland and Bulgaria.  He is the winner of several awards, including the ASCAP-Hubbell Award for composition.

Curt Veeneman's compositions include Les Cloches, inspired by the life of Joan of Arc (premièred by the Berkeley Symphony Orchestra), The Wiry Concord for 5-string banjo, dulcimer, cimbalom, harp, harpsichord, piano, viola and percussion (available on Capstone Records), Mountain Thyme, based on Bulgarian folk music (recorded by the Sofia Symphony Orchestra), Alcuin's Riddle, for orchestra and 15 soloists who cross the “audience-river,” Hommage for voice, flute, 'cello, piano, and percussion, Windmills, computer music featuring sampled wind turbines on California's Altamont Pass, and Pneuma for solo flute, (also available on Capstone Records).

Of this last work, the following comments have been made:  “J’ai beaucoup apprécié le lyrisme et la rigueur de Pneuma pour flûte de Curt Veeneman”  (I greatly appreciate the lyricism and the precision of Curt Veeneman’s Pneuma for flute) —Gérard Condé, Le Monde, Paris, 29 August 1996; “a well written piece”  — Robert Dick, flutist, author of The Other Flute; “it is quite exciting!” — Molly Alicia Barth of eighth blackbird; and “strong and imaginative” — Jules Langert, San Francisco Classical Voice, 13 March 2006.

As a new music promoter, he directed the new music ensemble Sonor Borealis at University of Alberta, Canada, and founded and directed the concert series, PACIFIC MARKET: Fresh Music From Around The World, at the University of the Pacific.  As a performer, Curt Veeneman is recorded on Music and Arts.

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