Francesco Petrarch on Beauty

Francesco Petrarch, a Fourteenth Century Italian scholar and poet, is recognized as one of the earliest Renaissance humanists.  He traveled across Europe largely for pleasure.  During his journeys as a “tourist”, Petrarch collected manuscripts written in both Latin and Greek.  He helped preserve and/or recover knowledge from Roman and Greek writers that might have vanished otherwise had he not added these crumbling manuscripts to his personal library.  Petrarch claimed to climb Mont Ventoux simply to enjoy the view from the top.  Some contemporary Renaissance scholars liken Petrarch’s descent down Mont Ventoux, which the Italian scholar and poet recorded in his travel journals, as a “rediscovery of the inner world of the soul” or a “return to the valley of the soul”. He wrote:  “There is no lighter burden, nor more agreeable, than a pen”

With these words, Petrarch ushers in the belief that “man is the measure of all things”.  What are your initial thoughts on Petrarch’s place in the early “rebirth” of humanism and the shadow that he would cast over the first manifestations of the Florentine Renaissance fixed into visible form?

Francesco Petrarch

Published by: roberttracyphd

Academic professor at the University of Nevada Las Vegas. I teach theory courses in Art and Architecture History. In addition, I also curate exhibitions on campus as well as in other venues nationally and internationally.


23 thoughts on “Francesco Petrarch on Beauty”

  1. I’ve not read any works of Petrarch to give a personal answer to this blog’s question (though I hope to in the future), but according to the course textbook and Wikipedia Petrarch was a central figure in the humanistic movement, and his ideas were clearly influential in the Italian Renaissance. An important proof of his commitment to humanism is his willingness to write (in at least some of his writings, as far as I’m aware) in the vernacular Italian rather than Latin, making his work more accessible to the average citizen of the day. Dante made the same wise choice when he wrote The Divine Comedy.

    A quick review of paintings in the Gardner text before, and after, the life of Petrarch reveals a marked difference in almost every aspect of the art form. The human figure before Petrarch, as in Late Antiquity or the Byzantine Age, is uniformly fully frontal, stiff and cardboard-like. Individual faces are nearly identical, and rather wooden. If emotion exists in the face, it’s often rather feeble, and will vary little from face to face. The folds in clothing and drapery lack depth, shadowing, and the usual nuance to render them fully realistic. Often there aren’t enough feet and legs for the bodies. Pre-Petrarch artworks lack sufficient background detail to firmly implant the figures; instead they seem unsteady, or to hover unrealistically. Landscapes are sparse or non-existent. Three examples are Samuel Anoints David from Dura-Europos, and the Justinian and Theodora mosaics at San Vitale Cathedral in Ravenna, Italy.

    In contrast, artwork after Petrarch is supremely rich in detail in every respect, often overwhelmingly so. They’re like highly imaginative color photographs. Figures of the Italian Renaissance are presented naturally, in every conceivable position: backside and three quarter views, from below or above; foreshortening and perspective considerations abound. The human figure returns to Greco-Roman suppleness and grace of a thousand years earlier. Faces reveal the complete range of every emotion; each face is unique, often a portrait of a specific historical personage or sponsoring patron. Fabric seems almost alive and moving. The background is minutely and astonishingly detailed. The figure, instead of seeming unsteady, is now firmly and logically planted in a full landscape. The total number of feet is exactly twice the number of bodies (well, generally, excepting for hidden lower extremities). Any cathedral ceiling painting of the 15th, 16th, or 17th century Italy will serve capably as an example of the advances of Petrarch’s humanism and the Renaissance.

  2. Reading for the sake of pleasure is a lost art form in our mainstream high definition American society. Travel for the sake of pleasure has been turned into a circus march from its simple edifying beginnings.

    Francesco Petrarch turned his love for knowledge, travel, and art into a vaccination able to cure the world for generations to come of artistic ignorance.

    What has happened to our collective culture? Has capitalism and exploitation taken over our desire and need for beauty?

    Today, most people would rather surf the web, than search their soul.

    Return to us, that which has been abandoned and replaced. Return to us, the desire for truth and the quest for beauty.

    May we never forget that truth is fathomless and beauty is eternally evident.

  3. I was not familiar with Francesco Petrarch before I took this class, but I find his work, ideas and general view of the world very inspiring. Petrarch had a desire to learn and discover the world around him purely to fulfill curiosity and pleasure during a time when this may have not been so common. His journey of self discovery through travel, art and ancient knowledge led to not only an inner realization, but towards a greater revelation for mankind. His thirst for knowledge and aesthetics inspired scholars for centuries after his existence.
    Even today, Petrarch’s ideas and desire to discover the world only for pleasure do not seem to exist everywhere. In agreeance with Caleb, who responded above me, the need for beauty seems to be surpassed by other things in our fast paced, material driven society. Petrarch is a true guiding light for myself, and his ideals and messages were some of the most influential of his time and of present day. He was truly ahead of his time.

  4. Francesco Petrarch obviously was one of a kind in the early Renaissance and even in today’s world. His thoughts and ideas were incredible and in the early Renaissance time era they were out of the norm. I believe, to be capable of exposing one’s thoughts, especially ones that are so radically diferent at the time, is amazing within itself. But the humanistic views of Petrarch were even more astonishing. No one had ever given thought to these kind of views and for that reason it is clear to see how much of an impact it would have. He traveled and explored the unknown to cure his own curiosity, collected manuscripts, and engulfed himself in humanism. He developed the thought and idea, “man is the measure of all things”.
    The normal and ordinary always go without much notice, but different and unusual are the elements that change, inspire, and are most incredibly influential.

  5. After researching a little more into the life of Petrarch, I can see why he is often referred to as the “Father of Humanism.” It seems as if the quest to expand his horizons and the journey back to himself, the reflection of how those new experiences directly affected him, is the humanistic aspect on which he focused. He was adamant about making connections and developing new ways of seeing the world. Petrarch’s influence and contribution to the birth of the Renaissance is remarkable. Humanism begins with the focus on oneself, and from there, it can spread and flourish. Petrarch was one of the earliest humanists who helped it flourish by doing what he did.

  6. I guess I am like most in this class when I say that I had no idea who Petrarch was. Petrarch understood the value of ideas and knowledge. He knew the importance of keeping those ideas and written works safe. Petrarch believed that we could realize our potential and still keep a religious faith, that god had given us the intellectual ability to do so.
    Most art prior to the renaissance had some religious theme, but Petrarch believed in the importance of human life, and that it should be highly valued. He was ahead of his time, and I’m sure he was criticized for it, like most new ideas and concepts people are usually uneasy or afraid. Petrarch wasn’t afraid of his thoughts, he was always searching, learning, living.
    In a poem describing his experience with Laura de Noves,
    “In my younger days I struggled constantly with an overwhelming but pure love affair – my only one, and I would have struggled with it longer had not premature death, bitter but salutary for me, extinguished the cooling flames. I certainly wish I could say that I have always been entirely free from desires of the flesh, but I would be lying if I did.”

  7. Likewise with many other students in the class, I too have never heard of Petrarch before the first week of this course. He quickly gained my interest with his independence from the traditions of society. His journey up Mont Ventoux is just one example when he rebelled against the norms of society and what they thought of him. Not only did they do it simply for the pleasure in the view from the top, but more importantly he did it for himself and not for what others would think.
    I particularly like his beautiful metaphor of his decent from the mountain as a “return to the valley of the soul,” meaning to find himself from within. His very different thoughts and beliefs of his time is inspiring considering many people today would never take a break from the fast-paced American life-style to climb a mountain simply to see what the view is at the top.

  8. Petrarch certainly cast a long shadow when it came to the new era of humanism and emphasis on beauty that the renaissance would bring. Petrarch’s long life would mark the real end of the dark ages and a new beginning for Italian, and later European, culture. My initial thoughts on the subject of Petrarch consisted of “who’s Petrarch?”, though now I can see why he is considered such an important figure, as his relatively long life would see the evolution of European culture from the dark ages to the renaissance. It took a man like Petrarch to define humanism so later artists and scholars could represent it in physical form.

  9. The time and elements associated with Petrach’s accomplishments highly fascinate me. Education at the time of his upbringing was a controlled resource that was reserved for the affluent. Not too different than quality education today. Petrarch was given the tools a mind needs in order to flourish by an established family. But he did not just than simply acquire knowledge through this privilege. This man was inspired by something larger than himself. I appreciate Petrarch as someone who was motivated by broad ideas. He saw the heart of the matter. He saw the value of the enlightened mind. As Tom points out, there was a ‘willingness’ to take advantage of his learned ability. He more than looked into the minds of the past; he helped to preserve them. He saw the value in lessons already learned. He was a fearless risk-taker who cleverly used his resources to help pave the way into a ‘brighter’ future. I feel that he was simply being obedient to his calling as a revolutionary.

  10. Petrarch’s influence over the evolution of thought as the Renaissance began was mostly due to his insatiable urge to write. Later in his life he wrote a trilogy of dialogues called Secretum, which seemed to be a self-examination of his relationship with god and his work as a poet. According to Wikipedia, in Secretum he states that “secular achievements didn’t necessarily preclude an authentic relationship with God. Petrarch argued instead that God had given humans their vast intellectual and creative potential to be used to their fullest.” Petrarch’s success in changing the public’s opinion of self expression, education, and the celebration of human achievement seems to be due to his argument that such activities were desired by God and important in forming a close relationship with God.

  11. Francesco Petrarch resembles not only the “father of humanism” but an admirable human being as well. Petrarch expressed his passion towards life by taking pleasure in indulging himself with knowledge and absorbing his surroundings throughout his travels. I believe it is important to follow Petrarch’s footsteps by making time to enjoy life, to discover and feed your soul instead of taking it for granted. According to Petrarch, “There is no lighter burden, nor more agreeable, than a pen.” I feel that Petrarch was able to cleanse his soul through his journal entries and poetry. Personally, I can identify with him because I express myself through art and words as well.
    Fortunately, by preserving manuscripts and works of previous Roman and Greek writers, it is evident that Petrarch studied and combined historical literature, philosophies and culture which led to help nourish the Renaissance. Without Petrarch’s wisdom and accomplishments, we would be greatly unaware of the ethics he had contributed to humanism and the renaissance.

  12. It takes an open mind and courage to be able to do what Petrarch did. Change is something that many can find difficult and frightening, but Petrarch went against the flow and followed what he believed and wanted to do. He saw the value of beauty and all that humanity had to offer. Being able to take that first step to break through the currents, Petrarch inspired many others and created this amazing revolution. And it is with these qualities that he was able to create such an impression that has continued to last to our time today and continue to influence the great minds of today.
    Petrarch had made a huge impact in that time and also added to our current knowledge of the past immensely through what he has collected, written and so on.

    Yes, it is true that life has changed greatly from what it was before in those times, but I would like to believe that Petrarch’s ideals still exist inside most people. But we are not given the time and financial capabilities to pursue these journeys as Petrarch did.

  13. I would like to first comment on what Tom mentioned about Petrarch’s use of the Italian language instead of writing in Latin, much like Dante. Chaucer was also known to write in the language of people, in his case English, instead of French which was used in the courts. This practice is often referred to as writing in vulgar, or in the language of the people or common society. This is an interesting idea since vulgar can also mean crude, or lacking in distinction, no aesthetic value. Vulgar is obviously not a term that can pertain to humanism. Humanism tried to emphasize the beauty of the human being and what the human being can create. It did not seek to glorify the celestial despite the creation of work during the Renaissance that depicted religious themes. As Petrarch said, “man is the measure of all things,” and that includes even the vulgar masses, the common people which create a culture. By writing in the language of the people he made himself, and his ideas, more accessible to the greater masses. He also lived up to his idea that the human soul is something deserving of treatment and nurture so that it may grow into something beautiful that can add to civilization.

  14. Before this class I have never heard of Petrarch, but from what I have learned in this class (and if Wikipedia can at all be trusted) I feel he is someone who deserves respect.
    I respect honesty in general, but his work in particular. Even now, in the advanced 21st century, deviating from social norms is grounds for ridicule. How often do we blend in to fit in? He risked not being seen as ordinary. Imagine one man exceeding communal expectations; voicing views different than most of those around him, all this so he could attempt to sate his curiosity.
    His position in the history book is well deserved. Even today he shows us that you can’t be ordinary if you want to be extraordinary.

  15. Petrarch was truly an interesting and important figure in history. He rejected the idea that being human is inherently shameful, and instead that it is something to take pride in, and that appreciating beauty, both natural and created, allows one to delve into the depths of one’s soul and reach a sort of spiritual harmony. By traveling throughout Europe, taking in art and knowledge wherever he went, for its own pleasure, he went against the conventions of the time and helped usher in the new age of the Renaissance. In today’s world, I think we often forget about simply enjoying the beauty that is around us, so concentrated on our busy, on the go life style as we are. It would probably do a lot of people some good to take a lesson from Petrarch, and contemplate the beauty that lies around us, instead of simply look at it and move on.

  16. I have read some things about Petrarch from his letter to posterity and how his description of things is so humanist. The fact that he traveled across europe for pleasure gives to me a different reaction to the kind of person he was. Way more in tuned with his surroundings. The way he describes the climb to Mount Ventoux is something humanist that I have never read before. The letter to posterity expresses that in very clarified detail. Petrarch is something of a unique man and even an expressive, descriptive person.

  17. Like many of the other students in class, I was not familiar with Petrarch’s work until just recently. After learning about his diplomatic achievements and his dedication to learn and understand the different cultures and beliefs while traveling through Europe, I can definitely see why he was and still is a great influence to many different artists around the world. His passion and interest in Roman poetry and literature as well as his fascination for writing his thoughts and feelings gave him the inspiration to create one of the most magnificent poetry collections in Italian and Latin. Petrarch was considered a remarkable influence of European poetry during the Middle Ages, and his work symbolizes the evolution from a medieval tradition to a modern literature.

  18. I truly admire the how Petrarch climbed Mont Ventoux simply to enjoy the view from the top. He realized what many have not over the centuries, that life is about the little things and that we are surrounded everyday by beauty in many forms. It amazes me how criticized he was by his peers and that no others agreed with his way of thinking. Petrarch would be the start of a revolution of sorts in a new way of looking at the world. Unlike the rest of society who believed that the universe was controlled by an outside influence, Petrarch realized that man should be the one who is valued and that can control the future. He took a chance in going against the norm and took a well deserved place as a leader instead of a follower. He is definitely the foundation of humanism and should be greatly admired.

  19. I have heard of Petrach before this class but I’ve never really sat down and read his works. But i think he really do something powerful at the time. Most people would have consider him to be a loony for writing about humanity as a way measuring beauty of the world. So I think he set the stage for further thinking and understanding. if it wasn’t for him we might still be creating art that shows god is the only entity that can create beauty not man’s ability to create beauty.

  20. Petrarch thought beyond his years and beyond the norm he saw liht in things that were cast into the dark and shed intrest onto things that other wise would be use for fire . He simply regarded man as the most important thing to the world i think this is to be admired we now days do not hold man to the highest we are now so focused on the digital technological world with our computers and iphones . But to much regard the technology did not come form nowhere it cam form man . if only we recognized that as petrach did . he thought of the mind and its power to reflect on journeys and the feeling of such things as the view from the top and the descend down to the valley of souls . Man is the start the middle and the end . in response to the above comment : God was man or of human essence so funny we never think of god as man : one of us . he creates we create

  21. Francesco Petrarch’s work is amazing… He appeared to be different from those that sorrounded him. Petrarch wrote to his on thoughts and feelings without caring for anyone else’s opinion. He actually took the time to contemplate any type of beauty. I did not know anything about Petrarch before, but after reading about his history and accomplishments, it made me realize those who are different from the rest such as Petrarch have definitely such an ability that others lack.

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