#16petrarch

There is St. Francis of Assisi the self-mutilating fanatic, and St Francis of Assisi the gentle hermit surrounded by tame wild animals. And there is another Francis, or another Francesco: Petrarch, the fourteenth century Italian poet. Petrarch had a wonderful life— no self-abuse for him (and no pets either). He spent his long life traveling around southern Europe, visiting friends, taking walks, writing poetry, and staying in one or another of his many homes (like Senator McCain, he couldn’t put an exact number to them. How many houses do I have? Well, let’s see… there’s the villa in Avignon, the place in Tuscany, the apartment in Rome of course, and the house in Pisa. Pisa? Or was it Padua? Or Paris? I’m not quite sure really…)

And I’m not quite sure how he got wealthy writing philosophical treatises on medicine, letters to Cicero in Latin, pieces of epic poetry, and lots of lyric poems. Unlike St Francis, Francesco Petrarch lived comfortably, socialized widely, enjoyed the pleasures of the body. But there is a similarity between the two: in the 366 poems of the Canzoniere, his book of lyrics, Petrarch claims that he is wounded. That’s all he claims, really. “I pensier son saette”, he says: My thoughts are like arrows— arrows through his own head. Again and again he says he is damaged, in pain, unable to do what he should do, possessed by desire and longing, forced to flee. Unlike St Francis, he didn’t literalize these feelings of damage by self-mutilating, but his perceived wounds defined and drove his work for more than fifty years.

One of Francesco Petrarch’s most memorable images is of a hunter whose own hounds turn on him and hunt him down, finally tearing him apart. He claimed to be thinking about the Greek myth of Actaeon, but the image seems a lot like St Francis too, the patron saint of animals who is destroyed by his own torments.

Petrarch wrote about torment, but when his writing day was over he shut his notebook and put it away. Then he roused himself to greet his visiting friends, offering wine, opening the door with a smile.

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