How Did Petrarch Spread Humanism and Transformed an Era?


Usually dubbed the Father of Humanism, Petrarch, shaped the modern Western world by emphasizing the value of individualism, critical thinking, and the revival of classical literature.

Francesco Petrarch was a scholar and poet extraordinaire of early Renaissance Italy. A true master of words, his verses resonated with passion, beauty, and depth, touching the very core of human emotions. He lived a life of endless excursions marked by a sense of alienation and angst. He was born in Arezzo, Tuscany, and his family moved to Avignon when he was young. Despite his father’s wishes, Petrarch pursued his passion for poetry and Latin literature, and his continuous peregrinations were driven by his insatiable curiosity and his search for patronage.

Petrarch was one of the first Italians to master vernacular poetry, which made him a literary figure of immense celebrity and importance, especially for his Italian verses. His influence was not only a matter of form but also of content. Petrarch’s love of nature and his spontaneous and precocious poetic expressions established the natural world as one of the worthiest themes of poetry. His vernacular poetry was most influential in England, where it became widely known through translations and adaptations.

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How Did Petrarch Spread Humanism?

Petrarch spread Humanism- Petrarch's Virgil
Petrarch’s Virgil (c. 1336) Illuminated manuscript by Simone Martini

Petrarch spread humanism by advocating for a revival of classical education and literature, particularly the works of Cicero and Virgil. He believed that the study of these texts would lead to a better understanding of human nature and promote moral and ethical behavior. Petrarch’s ideas gained popularity in the 14th century and influenced other humanist thinkers, such as Erasmus and Thomas More. He also promoted the use of vernacular language in literature, which helped to spread his ideas beyond the educated elite. Additionally, Petrarch’s letters and essays, which were widely circulated, helped to spread the humanist philosophy and ideals throughout Europe.

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Petrarch’s Contributions to the Renaissance Humanism

Laura de Noves, Petrarch spread humanism
Laura de Noves

Petrarch is famous for his love poetry inspired by a woman named Laura, but he also wrote extensively in Latin on various topics such as philosophy, theology, history, and literature. His writings contributed to the renewed interest in the classical world and inspired a new wave of humanistic thinking that laid the groundwork for the cultural and intellectual achievements of the Renaissance.

Petrarch’s rediscovery of Cicero’s letters is often cited as the spark that ignited the flames of the 14th-century Italian Renaissance, and his works inspired Renaissance humanism. Pietro Bembo used Petrarch’s works, along with those of other literary giants such as Giovanni Boccaccio and Dante Alighieri, to create the modern Italian language.

Besides reshaping the literary landscape of his time, Petrarch also made a significant impact on the poetic world. His sonnets were revered and emulated throughout Europe during the Renaissance and served as a shining example of lyrical poetry. Petrarch was also the first to articulate the idea of the “Dark Ages,” shining a light on a long-neglected period of human history. The Accademia della Crusca singled him out as a model of Italian style.

Petrarch’s Italian works, the Rerum vulgarium fragmenta and I trionfi, continue to captivate readers with their lyrical beauty and Dantean inspiration. Still, his Latin writings reveal the depth and breadth of his intellectual pursuits, ranging from scholarly works and introspective essays to letters and poetry.

In Secretum, Petrarch engages in an intensely personal, imaginary dialogue with a figure inspired by Augustine of Hippo, while De Viris Illustribus offers moral biographies of famous men. Other Latin works include Rerum Memorandarum Libri, an incomplete treatise on the cardinal virtues, De Otio Religiosorum and De vita solitaria, which extol the contemplative life, and De Remediis Utriusque Fortunae, a self-help book that remained popular for centuries. Petrarch even wrote a guide to the Holy Land and invectives against opponents such as doctors, scholastics, and the French. He modeled his literary style on that of Cicero, Virgil, and Seneca and translated seven Psalms, a collection known as the Penitential Psalms.

Petrarch’s collection of letters, Rerum familiarum liber and Seniles, is a testament to his extensive network of relationships with contemporaries such as Philippe de Cabassoles, bishop of Cavaillon, and Cola di Rienzo, tribune of Rome.

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How did Petrarch Spread  Humanism and Ethics of Care of the Self?

Petrarch spread humanism, Portrait by Altichiero
Francesco Petrarca, a portrait by Altichiero

Petrarch’s letter to his friend Giovanni Colonna paint a vivid picture of their tour through the ancient ruins of Rome. But beyond the visual splendor of the remnants of a once-great empire, Petrarch muses on the passing of time and how it affects not only the world around us but also ourselves.

He reflects on how everything changes, including his own talents, experiences, and even his mood since the time they visited the baths of Diocletian. The memories of that moment of perfect solitude have been lost to the ages, just like the ruins of Rome that surround them. Petrarch realizes that he, too, is constantly changing and leaving behind only fragments of his former self, unable to fully recall the past.

Yet, it is not just time that causes fragmentation and loss in Petrarch’s mind. Society’s din of business matters has also impeded his spirit from retrieving that state of mind he found in solitude. He longs to belong to himself, free from the pressures and demands of the world around him.

This desire for solitude is not a flight from reality but a means to connect with his true self. Petrarch believes that his writing is the key to returning to the safety of solitude, where he can express himself freely and without constraint. In doing so, he hopes to fulfill his promise to Colonna by writing a book on the liberal arts that can help cure the malaise of society in Rome.

Petrarch’s writings not only reflect his own personal struggles but also the broader transformations that were taking place during the later Middle Ages. The rise of urbanization and the money economy brought about new opportunities for advancement and personal agency. However, with these new possibilities came a sense of dislocation, fragmentation, and loss. As the old agricultural notions of time were replaced by a linear conception of time, people’s perceptions of themselves as individuals also began to change.

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Petrarch was at the forefront of this transformation, recognizing the importance of the first-person perspective and subjective experience. Yet, he also felt the existential crisis that came with these changes. His writings attempted to overcome this sense of dismemberment and fragmentation by developing a philosophy of the self that emphasized constant cultivation and care. For Petrarch, writing was not just a tool for communication but a spiritual technique intertwined with reading that could help transform the self.

This perspective aligns closely with Pierre Hadot’s definition of ancient philosophy as an “art of living” that engages the whole of existence. Petrarch’s ethics of care of the self were deeply intertwined with his ethics of writing, as he believed that the true goal of philosophy was to affect and transform the self.


Zak, Gur. (2010). Petrarch’s Humanism and the Care of the Self.


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