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Curt Veeneman, Ph.D.

Italy

Petrarch Part 2

19 April 2013

Petrarch is one of 28 Tuscan artists, poets, politicians, and scientists represented by statues in the Loggiato degli Uffizi in Florence, Italy. Designed in the sixteenth century by Giorgio Vasari, the Galleria degli Uffizi did not feature these sculptures in its court until the nineteenth century.

 

Il Canzoniere

In Part 1 of this blog entry, we considered some details in the life of Italian scholar and poet Francesco Petrarca (Petrarch), whose works had an immense impact throughout the Renaissance and beyond.  While much of Petrarch’s work was written in Latin — the scholarly language of the time — some of his writings employ the Tuscan dialect.  These writings in large part, along with those of two other fourteenth-century Tuscans, Boccaccio (1313-1375) and Dante (1265-1321), became the basis for the modern Italian language.

One such Italian work, featuring poetry for which Petrarch is probably best known, is Il Canzoniere (‘The Songbook’).  Originally titled Rerum vulgarium fragmenta (‘Fragments of common things’, signifying that the work was composed in the vernacular, that is, in Italian rather than Latin), this collection contains 366 poems written over a period of forty years.  Most of these poems — 317 — are sonnets; in addition, there are 29 canzoni, nine sestine, seven ballate, and four madrigali, all fixed poetic forms dating from the Middle Ages.

The subject matter of the Canzoniere should come as no surprise, as Petrarch had difficulty thinking about anything else most of the time: Laura.  In this collection Petrarch also discusses religion and politics (ignoring the common injunction at the dinner table), but it is the theme of ‘Petrarchan love’ — that of desiring someone who is unattainable, which paradoxically entails both longing and pain — that permeates the poetry.

Although Petrarch conceived of the Canzoniere as a unified work, it has since been divided into two sections:  Rime In vita di Madonna Laura (poems written when Lady Laura was alive:  1-266) and Rime In morte di Madonna Laura (poems written after the death of Lady Laura:  267-366). 
For inspiration, Petrarch drew on sources ranging from Ovid and Virgil to the Sicilian courtly poetry of Giacomo da Lentini (fl. 13th century), who, in turn, borrowed from the Provençal poetry of the troubadours dealing with chivalrous love. Da Lentini, incidentally, also invented the sonnet form. Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1772-
Anonymous: Bernart de Ventadorn, medieval French troubadour of the thirteenth century, as featured in a manuscript of troubadour music
 (photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons) {{PD}}
1834) considered Petrarch the “final blossom and perfection of the troubadours.” 

 

 The Petrarchan Sonnet

Here, as just one example of the many outgrowths of Petrarch’s anguish over unrequited love, is poem #133 from the Canzoniere:

 

Amor m'à posto come segno a strale,
come al sol neve, come cera al foco,
et come nebbia al vento; et son già roco,
donna, mercé chiamando, et voi non cale.
Da gli occhi vostri uscío 'l colpo mortale,
contra cui non mi val tempo né loco;
da voi sola procede, et parvi un gioco,
il sole e 'l foco e 'l vento ond'io son tale.
I pensier' son saette, e 'l viso un sole,
e 'l desir foco; e 'nseme con quest'arme
mi punge Amor, m'abbaglia et mi distrugge;
et l'angelico canto et le parole,
col dolce spirto ond'io non posso aitarme,
son l'aura inanzi a cui mia vita fugge.
Love placed me as a target for his arrow,
like snow in sunlight, or wax in the fire,
like a cloud in the wind: and I am hoarse already,
Lady, calling for your mercy: and you indifferent.
The mortal blow issued from your eyes,
against which no time or place helps me:
from you alone proceed, and it seems to you
a game, the sun and wind and fire that make me so.
Your thoughts are arrows, and your face the sun,
and desire is fire: with which joint weapons
Love pierces me, dazzles me and melts me:
and your angelic singing and your speech,
with your sweet spirit from which I've no defence,
are the breeze (l'aura) before which my life flies.
— Translated by: A. S. Kline (Copyright © 2002)

 

Note how Petrarch resorts to hyperbolic metaphor when he refers to love — to Laura, in fact — as an arrow, sunlight, fire, wind, and then more arrows, sun, and fire:  he obviously thinks she’s hot stuff.  This kind of amplification is an example of what has come to be called ‘Petrarchan conceit’, a kind of overstatement under amorous duress.  Along the same lines, the poet, by comparison, is a target, melting snow or wax, an evaporating cloud, and basically hoarse, which can affect a poet’s employability if he wants to do readings at bookstores.

Later he gets more specific and admits that it is really her angelic singing, speech, and sweet spirit that are “the breeze” (l’aura in Italian, just like her name) that blows him away.

It was Petrarch who perfected the sonnet form, influencing generations after him.  The word sonnet derives from the Italian sonetto, which means ‘little song’.  As both Petrarch and Dante had observed, many of the terms for poems at that time have a musical connotation, such as ballata, canzone, melodia, tono, and sonetto.  This is due to the fact that early Sicilian troubadours (i trovatori — itinerant composer/performers, often of the nobility), being influenced by Arab poets, performed their poetry with musical accompaniment.

 

Anonymous (German): Troubadours, fourteenth century, Archiv für Kunst und Geschichte, Berlin

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

 

While Petrarch admired the troubadours, he did not have a very high opinion of jongleurs (more-or-less unschooled entertainers), as he wrote in a 1364 letter to Boccaccio, “These people have not much intelligence, but a good memory and plenty of effrontery and impudence.  Having nothing of their own, they plunder other people, and visit the courts of princes to declaim with much emphasis verses in the vulgar tongue which they have learnt by heart.”

Over time, the word sonetto came to signify lyric poetry that was sung with musical accompaniment.  One can think of the sonnet as a strophe extracted from the larger, multi-stanza canzone (an Italian or Provençal song).

The form of the Petrarchan sonnet can be seen in the example above (poem #133).  The octave (known in Italian as the fronte, or basi — the ‘bases’ of the sonnet), which is made up of two quatrains of four lines each, defines a problem, question, or conflict.  This is followed by the sestet (called the sirma or volta — ‘turn’), which is made up of two tercets of three lines each, and which, figuratively ‘turning’, comments on the problem or offers a solution.

It is interesting that the volta or turn begins at the ninth line of a Petrarchan sonnet, indicating as it does either a change in tone or mood, or a resolution.  Considering that the Golden Section (or .618) of the sonnet occurs at the approximate midpoint of the ninth line, a dynamic symmetry results in the form.

In the Petrarchan sonnet each quatrain and tercet has its own unique function, not unlike that in a Greek choral ode:  strophe, antistrophe, epode, antepode.  In fact, this same kind of broad, tension-release organization can be found in genres as diverse as the classic joke (with its set-up, premise, and punch line, or what in Italian is called a battuta — a ‘beating’ — from which I suppose the release is especially appreciated by the audience — see La bella lingua), in limericks (having basically the same structure as the classic joke), in traditional twelve bar blues poetry (in which the third line often makes commentary on or offers a solution to the first two lines of a verse), and even in the purely musical classical sonata form, with its Exposition, Development, and Recapitulation.

 

 

Agnolo Bronzino (1503-1572): Ritratto di Laura Battiferri, moglie dello scultore Bartolomeo Ammannati [Portrait of Laura Battiferri, wife of the sculptor Bartolomeo Ammannati], detail, 1550-1555, oil on panel; the woman is portrayed holding the Canzoniere of Petrarch, alluding to her own name (Laura)

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

 

The rhyme scheme demarcates the rhetorical function of each section of the sonnet.  The octave most often manifests the rima chiusa (enclosed rhyme):

 

ABBA ABBA

 

More rarely there can be found a rima alternata (alternate rhyme) scheme:

 

ABAB ABAB   or   ABAB BABA

 

The tercets may be either incatenate (interlocked) as in the case of the above sonnet (#133):

 

CDE CDE

 

or rima alternata (alternate rhyme):

 

CDC DCD   or   CDE DCE

 

Yet more variations are found, but with decreasing frequency.  Whatever particular rhyme scheme is used, in each case the most considerable change in the rhyme, at the sestet, signals the volta, or turn.

For comparison, the Shakespearean, or English, sonnet is also made up of fourteen lines, but these are grouped according to three quatrains and a concluding couplet:  ABAB CDCD EFEF GG.  The result is a total of seven unique rhymes in the Shakespearean sonnet, as opposed to the economy of as few as four distinct rhymes in the more sonically-integrated Petrarchan sonnet.

The reason for this is that English has more vowel sounds than Italian, resulting in a smaller pool of rhymes from which to draw for each word.  In addition, the English language cannot compete with Italian when it comes to disyllabic rhymes, as almost every Italian word (mama mia!) terminates in a vowel.

Another difference between the Shakespearean and Petrarchan sonnets is that, while the former is written in iambic pentameter (with five pairs of unstressed and stressed syllables in each line — a natural fit for the English language), the latter is written in endecasillabo (hendecasyllable), that is, verses
consisting of eleven syllables, a meter commonly used in Ancient Greek and Latin verse.

Why this difference? Again, because most Italian words terminate in a vowel, with this vowel being rarely accented, it is the penultimate syllable that usually receives the accent.  What happens in a Petrarchan sonnet is that there will always be stress on the tenth syllable, signaling the conclusion of each line of verse.  In actual fact, there may be more than eleven syllables in a line — the above sonnet (#133) averages twelve or thirteen syllables per line — but because a vowel at the end of one word is elided by one that begins the following word, it will still be read as a five feet line.

Anonymous: manuscript of Petrarch’s poetry, fifteenth/sixteenth century, Museo Petrarchesco Piccolomineo, Trieste

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

Petrarch defined the Italian sonnet form for generations of succeeding poets.  After Dante (c. 1265–1321; who composed about 40 sonnets) and Petrarch, the Petrarchan sonnet tradition was carried on by, among others, Matteo Maria Boiardo (1440/1–1494; he penned the epic poem Orlando Innamorato), Lorenzo de’ Medici (1449-1492; ruler of the Florentine Republic), Ludovico Ariosto (1474–1533; about 36 sonnets), Vittoria Colonna (1490-1547; the Marchioness of Pescara), Angelo di Costanzo (1507-1591; who fell in love with Vittoria Colonna), Michelangelo (1475–1564; 80 sonnets, some of which were addressed to Vittoria Colonna), Giovanni della Casa (1503-1556; who is famous for two sonnets in particular), Torquato Tasso (1544–1595; 223 sonnets), Fulvio Testi (1593–1646; who had written at least 15 sonnets by the time he was 18), John Milton (1608–1674; who, intriguingly, wrote sonnets in the Italian language), Francesco Redi (1626–1697; author of Bacco in Toscana), and Carlo Alessandro Guidi (1650–1712).

 

 

Next:  The aftermath of a 40-year crush: Petrarch's sonnets and Renaissance music

 

 

  

 

 


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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